The Changing Face of Forestry

Have we reached the turning point, or just discovered another twist in the bottom line?

by Maggie Paquet

On June 10, 1998, one of Canada's largest logging companies announced it will embark on a forest stewardship strategy focusing on old-growth and habitat conservation. Company president Tom Stephens said, "For MacMillan Bloedel (MB), today marks the beginning of the end of clearcutting and a recognition of non-timber values in our old-growth forests." Error! Filename not specified.

Stephens said the move "reflects what our customers are telling us about the need for certified products, [and] changing social values, and new knowledge about forest ecology." Adding that the big change is that MB's harvesting strategy will now be market-driven, rather than volume driven, Stephens unveiled two major components to the new strategy:

1. Variable retention harvesting, which retains various-sized stands, clusters, and clumps of trees in ways that protect biodiversity;

2. Establishment of three stewardship zones for the company's 1.1 million ha of public and private lands, each with different management goals: an old growth zone, about 10 percent of MB's land base, where the primary objective will be conservation of old-growth forests and in which 70 percent will never be logged and openings will be smaller than one ha; a habitat zone, about 25 percent of their land base, where the objective will be wildlife conservation and in which about 40 percent of the original forest will be retained; and a timber zone, about 65 percent of the company's forests, in which variable retention will be employed and about 28 percent of the original forest will be retained.

The company says it will put in place three additional steps to support their new forest management strategy: (a) form an independent advisory panel to provide external guidelines for the conservation of old-growth forests, (b) ask a broad range of stakeholders to review the strategy and identify ways in which it might be improved, and (c) sponsor a series of workshops to facilitate looking for new ways to create economic incentives for innovative, cooperative, and diversified management of timber and non-timber values in coastal old-growth.

"From a financial perspective, our research tells us we can generate an acceptable rate of return for our investors by implementing this plan and that it could provide us access to market opportunities for certified products," Stephens said.

"We intend to implement this plan safely and economically, but we don't have all the answers or skills just yet." He said the company will phase this system into practice over the next "few years."

Not to be left out, Western Forest Products, another company that clearcuts in coastal forests, said it was pursuing certification under a system developed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and planned to have FSC certification by July 1999. (It should know, however, that the Council does not certify companies that are clearcutting.) "Are they going to continue to clearcut all the way up to the boundary of the Koeye over the next five years? The Ahnhuati? Let's remember that a hell of a lot of old-growth can be liquidated in five years." – Chris Genovali, Western Canada Wilderness Committee

Does Stephens' announcement herald an end to the "war in the woods" that has been waged in BC for the past few decades? Will we see instead a war among forest companies to determine which looks the greenest, at least on paper? Or is MacBlo honestly attempting to come to grips with the public's growing awareness of the need to protect forest ecosystems in order to sustain communities and the economy?

When Stephens, back in April, first indicated this new direction for the company, industry, labour, and government reacted with disbelief. The former head of the Canadian Forest Service, Les Reed, remarked that what Stephens was describing was known as high-grading, that the proposals made little sense environmentally or financially, and would result in "silviculture slums" because of poor regeneration.

Many industry experts and labour representatives said the move would endanger lives and increase logging costs. Provincial Forests minister David Zirnhelt said he too had concerns for economics and safety considerations and, after the announcement in June, was reported as saying "MacBlo's proposal will not be allowed to proceed unless BC's Chief Forester is satisfied it meets existing forestry standards."

The mainstream media focussed on economics, saying MacBlo was "bowing to international pressure from environmental groups," and politics, remarking that government and the union will need to be convinced that MacBlo's plans will not cause a loss of jobs, something the NDP government is particularly concerned about.

Since it is the Chief Forester of the province who has final say on forestry practices and on the volume of timber cut, this is no idle concern.

The Association of BC Professional Foresters (ABCPF) was a bit more circumspect in its response: "MB's decision is part of a broader trend within the profession to adjust forest practices to reflect shifting societal values. What MB is proposing is not new. Reliance on traditional clearcutting has never been absolute, and foresters across BC are increasingly using a variety of alternative silviculture systems on a site specific basis," said Jane Perry, ABCPF president.

Certainly Stephens' announcement was greeted with both scepticism and enthusiasm.

Some said it was a stunning victory, and was due to the boycotts and campaigns that targeted US and European markets. But sceptics pointed out that MacBlo said only that it would implement 70 percent retention on 10 percent of its holdings, and has made no commitment to protect any intact areas, including key fish and wildlife habitats.

Greenpeace applauded MacBlo's announcement, saying the logging giant showed leadership and vision, that its "dramatic forest program will change the face of the forest industry in Canada." Karen Mahon, in a Greenpeace press release, said, "While the rest of the BC logging industry and government are still arguing the world is flat, MacBlo is charting a course for the future. There is still a lot of work to do, but today marks the dawn of a new era."

Tzeporah Berman, also of Greenpeace, although supportive, added the caution that MacBlo has not said outright it will permanently protect old growth areas, because the company doesn't have the power to do that. The government could take back the so-called undercut.

While Greenpeace endorses what MacBlo says it wants to do, they still have outstanding concerns, including how clearcutting will be phased out, and the potential for high-grading, fragmentation, and blowdown. It says it will work with the company through the implementation phase to ensure that the variable retention system maintains the integrity of existing forests. Of particular concern to Greenpeace and many other conservationists is the fact that MacBlo has not committed to leaving the remaining pristine rainforest valleys intact.

MB Forester Bill Beese says that, although there are pockets of resistance within the company, most employees are eager to address MB's "credibility and trust gap" by working together to become "the most respected forest company in North America within five years." According to Beese, the decision to end clearcutting is "not just a marketplace thing," because of biodiversity issues, although access to markets and timber is one of the three factors driving the economic side of MB's equations.

Beese says CEO Tom Stephens told some of his senior management, "You have legal license to clearcut, but there's such a thing as social license." The MB forester says that stability, with a somewhat lower cut but an assured access to timber, will reassure shareholders. Finally, the company thinks they can cover the extra costs of variable retention logging by shifting the mix of trees they send to market according to market conditions.

In fact, Chris Genovali, a Victoria-based representative of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC), says the five-year phase-in period is too long, that if MacBlo follows its current plans in the Upper Walbran, there won't be an old-growth ecosystem there to not clearcut.

He asks, "Are they going to continue to clearcut all the way up to the boundary of the Koeye over the next five years? The Ahnhuati? Let's remember that a hell of a lot of old-growth can be liquidated in five years. On Vancouver Island, we do not have the luxury of waiting … with only about a dozen intact primary and secondary watersheds over 5,000 ha remaining, out of about 170, we are at the crossroads now. Unless there is a corresponding reduction in the Annual Allowable Cut (AAC), the debate over forest practices is a meaningless exercise."

Friends of Clayoquot Sound (FOCS), based in Tofino, couldn't agree more. The group's initial response was, "An end to clearcutting? It's deja vu all over again, and we have the photos to prove it!"

Armed with the results of a recent evaluation [see related article in this issue] of three years' worth of logging under the Scientific Panel for Sustainable Forest Practices in Clayoquot Sound recommendations, which were also touted as "an end to clearcutting," spokesperson Valerie Langer said, "We are wary of celebrating the end of clearcutting too early.

"What we can celebrate is the effectiveness of the market campaigns in influencing the corporate agenda. Whether MacBlo's announcement will get them closer to the coveted FSC certification is unclear, given that FSC is shifting towards a 'no old-growth' policy, reflecting the fact that only 20 percent of the world's ancient forests remain."

Dave Neads, a spokesperson for the BC Environmental Network's Forest Caucus (a coalition of 60 conservation groups across BC), said, "This announcement is a welcome event. We support Macmillan Bloedel's recognition that it is what you leave in the forest, not what you take, that is the most important consideration. This approach, called 'variable retention forestry' by the Clayoquot Sound Scientific Panel, will be the forest management standard that guides British Columbia into the 21st century."

Jim Cooperman, also of the Forest Caucus, said, "If MacBlo is serious about changing its practices, then it should pull its plans to clearcut the highly contentious areas on Vancouver Island and the mid-coast. Promises for the future will not help wildlife and salmon threatened by existing plans to clearcut pristine old-growth forests."

Another member, Colleen McCrory, said, "We have had too many promises on paper by government and industry. The truth will only be known when we see real changes on the ground. If MacBlo is serious about changing its practices, then we should see a major reduction in their AAC."

The Forest Caucus urged the BC government to support the new ecosystem-based approach. Neads said, "If forest companies expect to compete internationally in the future, they will have to alter their management regimes to maintain old-growth forests and safeguard environmental values, such as salmon habitat, water quality, and biodiversity. The challenge now is to the rest of the industry and government to catch up and adopt the new vision. Government in particular faces a significant challenge to ensure that the new policies…are not blocked by outdated rules or procedures."

Under the Forest Act and the Forest Practices Code, BC's forests are to be managed for sustained timber supply. What MacBlo's plans acknowledge is that forests should be managed for ecosystem integrity, not simply "fibre flow."

BC's current AAC system embodies volume-based logging. MacBlo's announcement appears to promulgate a major paradigm shift to forest practices based on ecosystem principles. Whenever the status quo is challenged there is bound to be resistance, and that is what we've seen so far from government, labour, and the rest of the forest industry.

Many agreed that the real triumph is in the changing dialogue of industrial logging companies, and the beginning of their acceptance that the public is concerned about practices that continue to degrade the environment. It's a turning point we should all celebrate.


[From WS August/September 1998]

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