The Wood Quality Problem No One is Talking About

The quality of BC's native wood species continues to plummet as its price keeps climbing

op-ed by David Shipway

Cutting wood with a portable sawmill

Cutting wood with a portable sawmill | Photo: Jakethrelkeld via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I started out in my working life in the late ’60s, surveying cutblocks and new roads with MacMillan Bloedel on many of the lands of northern Vancouver Island — up in the headwaters of the Oyster, the Quinsam, the Campbell, the Eve, and the Salmon. I witnessed the last of the valley bottom old growth being logged, magnificent cedar groves that would now be considered a national treasure, and saw the montane plateaus of Mountain Hemlock, Yellow Cedar and Western Yew before anyone had touched them.

It’s an easy concession now for industry to set aside some token old growth remnants, but the greater crime of liquidation is now happening in immature forests.

Since then, I’ve watched pretty much everything on the Private Managed Forest Land of Vancouver Island get mowed down, even where regeneration is poor, and especially in second growth stands that were nowhere near reaching maturity. And now, in an act of insanity, even the third growth “pecker poles” are being harvested. It’s no secret to anyone paying attention that our over-cut forests are in ecological decline. It’s an easy concession now for industry to set aside some token old growth remnants, since these areas are just the hard to reach “guts and feathers” of the great forests that once existed all over this part of the coast. But the greater crime of liquidation is now happening in immature forests. We have gone from that heroic age of the Tall Timber Jamboree to an age of weaselly politicians promoting chopstick factories, in less than one human lifetime.

I’ve spent the last four decades woodworking and homebuilding here on Cortes Island, and have watched the quality of native wood species plummet as its price keeps climbing. I’ve watched the sapwood in anything made just rot away, since its sugar content quickly attracts fungi and insects. I’ve noticed powder worms find their way into the widely-spaced grain of second-growth fir and cedar heartwood, whereas the tighter grain of resinous old growth was impervious.

What shocks me most about the decline of professional forestry on the coast is this complete ignorance about wood quality. Foresters seem to be operating on the obsolete myth that an 80-year-old Douglas fir or red cedar is a “mature” tree, when it is really just an adolescent. At the “culmination age” of mean annual increment, these trees may be growing volume at their fastest rate, but that also means that the sapwood layer is at its maximum volume in the tree. In other words, trees harvested at this age may be up to 50% sapwood that has no endurance, no longevity in wood products. Even the heartwood is unstable and full of knots. What an incredible waste and sad lack of patience!

In an age of accelerating climate change, the best terrestrial carbon sinks that we must take care of are our native forests. Here on the coast, where the risk of fire is less than in the interior, the capacity to store a huge amount of carbon at landscape levels is more achievable, and must be seen as the highest priority and professional responsibility among coastal foresters.

I’m not saying we need to stop harvesting trees, but that we must let them grow a lot older before doing so. We need to adopt a holistic forest management regime that aims for three crucial goals at once – high carbon capture in a biodiverse ecosystem with many old growth attributes, high carbon storage in mature durable wood products and high quality artifacts, and the economic perpetuation of good honest forestry and our inherited multitude of traditional woodworking crafts.

What professional foresters must not continue to do is steal the young forests and future forest livelihoods from all our grandchildren, just to keep adults in luxury, while simultaneously spouting the deceptive language of sustainability. The current rapid liquidation of the immature second and third growth forests on the BC coast is just that, a transgenerational crime of grand theft that I hope will not go unpunished.

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