Silviculture: BC’s Invisible Industry Needs Attention

We have been planting and tending forests in B.C. with considerable conviction and commitment for at least four decades. Yet, all this work remains one of the least acknowledged accomplishments of the forest sector.

We have been planting and tending forests in this province with considerable conviction and commitment for at least four decades. More than five billion seedlings have been planted and thousands of hectares of plantations have been spaced, pruned and thinned.Yet, all this work remains one of the least acknowledged accomplishments of B.C.’s forest sector.

There are some practical reasons why the silviculture industry goes unnoticed. Seedlings aren’t that big to begin with so the general public can be excused for not recognizing that a logged site has been planted. And often only an experienced eye can tell if a plantation has been pruned or spaced. A brushed site, in many cases, needs to be walked on to tell it has been treated.

Then there is the problem of remoteness. Most silviculture sites are well off the beaten path, usually at the back end of some drainage where very few members of the tax-paying public ever make it. And judging from experience these visitors are usually lost and more interested in finding their way to pavement than noting the forestry work.

The itinerant nature of silviculture work is no help either. Crews of treeplanters and stand tenders take on the seasonal work on a campaign basis often working from one side of the province to the other in a season. The longest a large project may last in one area is a few weeks. Hardly long enough for anyone in the area to notice. Add to that the absence of any permanent manufacturing plants, heavy equipment, and large camps and you have an industry that can move about the province almost invisibly.

Still, all these don’t add up to any convincing reason why this remarkable activity remains so generally unrecognized throughout the province. For instance planting five billion trees is no minor feat. In terms of simple human-generated mechanical advantage measured by tonnage borne by the spine it is the back-bending equivalent of picking up every stone block in the Great Pyramid of Giza and putting it back down again six times. This effort places our silvicultural accomplishments in the same league as building national railways and hydro dams.

In the thick of the planting season trees are going in the ground at the rate of more than 100 seedlings per second. And those trees are not pounded out at one central reforestation factory but are planted at hundreds of remote sites across the province. That accomplishment takes thousands of planters who need to be trained, fed, supervised and mobilized all within a very short window of opportunity. Meeting the collective logistics of this province-wide operation conducted each silvicultural work season is comparable to some military adventures or a major disaster relief operation.

In a rare study of the economic impacts of the B.C. silvicultural industry Coopers and Lybrand estimated six years ago that the business of planting and tending B.C.’s forests generated $533-million in economic activity. Half of this was direct wages and supplies and the rest indirect or induced. Because of cutbacks to public investments in silviculture this estimate may be a little high today but it is still a reasonable estimate.

More than 12,000 seasonal silvicultural workers are employed annually in B.C. with an estimated 75 per cent of them B.C. residents. Interestingly the study showed that the majority of workers were 25 years or over with 64 per cent stating they considered silviculture a career and their main source of income. This statistic runs counter to the general impression that the ranks of silviculture workers are filled largely with young itinerants or college students who’s attachment to the industry is for the short term.

Still, the silvicultural industry is a major youth employer with thousands of young Canadians going through a rite of passage of sorts as silvicultural workers. The impact of their often short but direct association with the forest industry as treeplanters or brushers and spacers should not be underestimated. Many of these young workers are college students and they will likely go on to become the urban elite that runs this country. If they are badly or carelessly treated by silvicultural contractors or see what they take to be bad logging practices they will generalize those impressions to the whole forest industry and assume that forest sector is negligent, or dishonest. Allowing these negative impressions to flourish could jeopardize the industry’s future access to the public resource.

According to WCB statistics there are more than 700 silvicultural contractors engaged in planting, brushing, and spacing trees in British Columbia. About 460 of these are brushing and spacing contractors compared to about 250 planting contractors. The planting component is at least twice the size of the brushing and spacing side suggesting that the firms primarily doing the chainsaw work are generally small with payrolls well under $100,000 annually. Within the planting contractor component about twenty per cent of the companies account for roughly 60 per cent of the planting work. What the WCB figures don’t show is the extent to which silvicultural firms are fully integrated extending their services across the whole spectrum of silvicultural activities.

Not getting the recognition silviculture deserves has some serious implications for the future particularly if it is the policy makers and politicians who ignore the industry. One of the most disappointing trends in the last decade has been the continual decline in public investments in forestry, especially in enhanced forestry activities such as spacing or pruning. Spending has declined so low in these areas that analysts suggest we may not be able to maintain the allowable annual cut in some timber supply areas due to reductions in silvicultural activities. Ironically the decline started in 1994 when Forest Renewal BC was created to increase public funding of forestry. Today government funding for forestry comes out the annual Forest Investment Vote which must compete politically with every other spending priority in a province short of a cash.

And this is not the only problem. The newly amended B.C. Forest Practices Code, the interim rules that will likely shape the future Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA) regulations, is a little weak on forestry. The old NSR backlog is now relegated to the discretionary (and underfunded) Forest Investment Account. At the same time provisions that effectively compelled the Crown to remedy areas damaged by wildfire, pest and disease have been deleted. In fact the term backlog is no longer defined in the amended Code.

The backlog now exists in a kind of regulatory no-man’s-land. This coming at a time when remnants of the old not sufficiently restocked lands are still around, an estimated 2.4 million hectares of impeded stands may be accumulating, more than three million hectares of forest are under threat from pest and disease and foresters are predicting an overdue season of unnaturally intense and extensive wildfires. All these emerging challenges will require some form of silvicultural intervention sooner or later.

Speaking at the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association earlier this year Forest Minister Mike de Jong recognized some of the government’s current shortcomings in forest stewardship. But he said that before we could address these problems his government would have to remedy the general economic ills of the whole forest sector. This makes some sense. Nevertheless, if we continue to ignore fully stewarding the forest resource today we are only creating new problems down the road.