An Interview with Herb Hammond on Changes in BC Forest Policy

by Van Andruss, Web Exclusive

“We do good economics because in those situations jobs are the profits, not dollars. The people you employ to care for the land make up the profits, and if at the end of the day you have an even balanced sheet, that’s what economics are all about.”

Over the years it has been my privilege to know Herb Hammond. Herb has devoted his career to promoting ecosystem-based forestry. In 1992, he and Susan Hammond created the Silva Forest Foundation. Since then the Foundation has worked to create ecosystem-based conservation plans and ecosystem maps with many communities throughout Canada. Herb’s book, Seeing the Forest Among the Trees, remains an indispensible guide to the management of forestlands for health and biodiversity. His most recent book is Maintaining Whole Systems on Earth’s Crown: Ecosystem-based Conservation Planning for the Boreal Forest.

Herb spent a couple nights at our house while doing an ecosystem assessment of the Buck Creek Watershed in the Yalakom Valley. I took this opportunity to interview him on policy changes in B.C. forestry. What follows is a shortened version of that interview between Van and Herb.

Van:  In the past decade or so, what policy changes have you seen in B.C. forestry?

Herb:  Well, this government in the last decade has de facto privatized public land. They have removed all vestiges of public consultation or the providing of public information. They’ve done this through three routes. First of all, they down-sized the Ministry of Forests by nearly a third. Then they did away with the Ministry of Forests altogether and set up this ombuds-Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, eliminating the Ministry’s responsibilities for planning and for approval of industry’s plans. Now they simply process permits for industry. That was a huge loss because we no longer have anyone with a social conscience looking after forest lands; we have timber companies looking after forest lands.

The second thing to happen was the replacing of the Forest Practices Code, which required a lot of good minimum standards – which did not go far enough to protect ecosystems by any means, but which took a step in the right direction. You had to meet the code’s requirements. They replaced that act with a piece of legislation called “results-based,” and results-based forestry means that someone defines what results are necessary to carry out forestry practices and those are minimums to which industry must adhere.

Now the concept of results-based anything isn’t bad if you define your results from the right values and with enough detail, enough specificity to actually attain decent results. But in the Forest and Range Practices Act, the “results” are very very general and the specifics are left up to industrial foresters, which is where the third change comes in.

We now live in an era called “Professional Reliance.” That is, we rely on professionals, particularly professional foresters, to take those broad general “results” and apply them to the land. However, this means that the people planning what happens on Crown Land are in the employ of industrial timber companies, while the Forest Service no longer has any planning staff or planning function, and again, the rules are completely general. Plus, the concept of Public Consultation is gone because the only plans that are made public and reviewed by the Forest Service are what are called “Forest Stewardship Plans,” a nice euphemism for logging, since all they’re referring to is a check list of how you’re going to meet those results specified in the Forest and Range Practices Act. There are no maps that show where people will log and build roads.

We who are old enough can remember when there was a public Annual Development Plan that showed the next five years of road construction and logging. All that is gone. You found out, for example, that here in Buck Creek there had been a cutting permit issued. You’d never have known it had you not seen the ribbons laying out a cut block, and still, your avenues of address are minimal due to the changes I have mentioned.

Another part of the Forest and Range Practices Act states clearly that the standards developed under this Results-Based, Professional-Reliance approach will not damage the economic competitiveness of the Province, so even that avenue is covered.

Van:  So there’s no specificity to  results-based planning . . . you say there’s a checklist?

Herb:  In the Forest and Range Practices Act, there’s what are called “defaults” for soil disturbance, water disturbance and water protection. Those are the minimum base lines that you have to meet, but by and large, except for things like a list of endangered species and soil disturbance maximums, there’s very little specificity. Of course, when you write a Forest Stewardship Plan you can make the defaults stronger, and in our work we do just that.

Van:  I seem to remember a previous government policy ensuring that steps in the direction of conservation would remain minimal.

Herb: That’s right, you couldn’t reduce the Annual Allowable Cut by more than four percent. And that was for the sake of biological diversity, but you’re not even protecting biological diversity by that strategy, you’re  not even protecting economics. You’re protecting corporate profits and this has nothing to do with economics in general.

Van:  So this is more of the same.

Herb:  Well, it’s not only more of the same, it’s much broader. Before, in the Ministry of Forests, you had foresters who worked for a government agency and were charged with at least some social responsibility to consult the public, or protect water and biological diversity, but now those people are all gone. Not only have these minimal requirements gone, but the people who manage the minimal requirements work for the timber companies, and if you appeal to the government, they have limited authority to do anything, so the timber companies are in the driver’s seat. Our quote unquote liberal government tried right before the last election to make this privatization even stronger. They were going to convert the Ministry’s volume-based licenses into private tree farm licenses, which is akin to changing public land into fee simple land, and there was justifiably a public outcry.

Van:  How could they justify that?

Herb:  Their simple justification is that it provides certainty for timber companies, so you go immediately to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” economic approach that says if industry is happy, then the rest of us will be happy. This concept has been an abysmal failure. Economic history has proven quite the opposite. It’s weakened the middle class, jobs have declined, people in university are indebted for their education and have to do things they don’t like to do. Trickle down economics has been the direct and explicit government policy to maximize the wealth of the few at the expense of ecosystems and rural people – and urban people, for that matter.

Van:  Would any logging company consider hiring you as their forester?

Herb:  There are small ecosystem-based community forests and I work for them. We do good economics because in those situations jobs are the profits, not dollars. The people you employ to care for the land make up the profits, and if at the end of the day you have an even balanced sheet, that’s what economics are all about. And interestingly, even neo-classical economists agree that the only economics that proved to be sustainable over long periods of time have been community-based, focusing on people’s needs, not consumption. That’s what economics primarily is, people connecting with people to provide goods and services, but we now confuse economics with corporate financial appraisals, profit and loss, stocks, etc. There’s no science to that, it’s completely value-based. Instead of a community economy where people are seen as benefits, in a corporate financial appraisal, people and jobs are seen as costs.

Van:  What, then, is the future of forestry in this province? Is there any way government could change forest policy?

Herb:  In my own lifetime, I’ve seen a steady slide towards more and more conservative governments, more and more private ownership and control due to the sale of public assents. I’ve seen the numbers go from ninety-eight ranger stations in B.C., all connected to community and actively planning forestry on forest lands, to, under the NDP, something like forty-six Forest Districts. So suddenly the communities were no longer part of the planning process and the landscapes were too large for anyone to reasonably plan and manage. Then, under the Liberals, the numbers were reduced to something around thirty. Lillooet, where you live, is a great example. First there was a Ranger Station, then there was a Forest District Office, and now they’re both gone.

Van:  I’m not sure I know the difference between a Ranger Station and a Forest District Office.   

Herb:  Ranger Stations had a staff of foresters and planners and a much smaller area, and, as mentioned, they were set up to be community-based, so they knew you, they knew where the watersheds were, they were in touch with things. They were small enough that they could easily move around in them efficiently. As Forest District Offices they became more centralized and had to deal with far larger areas.

When such changes occur, they’re hard for government to undo. They’ve sold the capital assents, they’ve sold the land and the buildings. I could take you on a tour from Rock Creek to Fort St. John and show you all the old Ranger Stations that are now private dwellings or private businesses. The other thing is they’ve got rid of people and they got rid of positions. The real estate involved has become much more expensive, so you wonder, how many governments are likely to buy back the capital assents, and how many are likely to increase staff?

Van:  I seem to notice more non-Canadian corporations in forestry than ever.

Herb: In the late nineties and early twenty-first century, what appeared to be Canadian companies were oftentimes controlled by outside interests through interlocking directorship. You’d have American directors on an American company’s board as well as a Canadian company’s board, and they wielded a lot of power that way. What’s happened now is that with the opening up of B.C. for business – which is essentially what these policy changes are about that we’ve been discussing – a lot of outside capital has been attracted. After all, the control offered by the tenure system appeals to outside entrepreneurs. China needs lumber, the U.S needs lumber, and now with a permissible regulatory regime, with Christie Clark’s little patter about this being a good place to invest, well, it is. Unfortunately.

Van:  When you look at the big picture, do you get discouraged?

Herb:  Yes, I have two grandsons. When I look at them I fear for their future. But there’s a couple things that give me hope. As Ivan Illych said, “We’ll never change the political system until we change the education system.” I’m happy, for instance, that my eldest daughter is a Montessori teacher, because that education system has the potential to change politics. The other thing that gives me hope is communities. I don’t think the changes we’re talking about are going to come from centralized institutions. I think they are going to come from local communities who know how to grow food and take care of themselves. There is hope in community activism. Environmental activism has become another corporate approach to the world; but local communities do it for the love of place, not for money.

Van:  With so many factors against us, I always wonder if really there’s time to turn things around.

Herb: I remember once talking about this sense of urgency with an elder in Labrador, and he said, “If there’s enough time, there’s enough time,” and you know, I’ve always remembered that, because if you get yourself too stressed out – which you can do, for sure, and I’ve done that at times – you can’t be as effective. Sharing knowledge, helping empower communities, those are things that seem important to me, and I keep learning from them.

For a deeper look at Herb Hammond’s ecosystem-based conservation planning, see the Silva Foundation website.

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