Forestry figures don’t add up!!!

I have always had trouble with arithmetic. In public school, unable to memorize my addition tables, I completed my sums by pencilling peck marks in the margins and then counting them. This marginalia my teachers took as symptoms of idleness and dismissed me as an aimless kid who couldn’t add.

Later with the introduction of new heuristic teaching methods involving sets my approach might have been seen as innovative. But this was not a defense available to me at the time.

Lately I have been having trouble with arithmetic again. I cannot get the reforestation statistics for British Columbia to add up. These are pretty basic sums: hectares logged; area reforested; trees planted etc.

Starting at the turn of the century the annual area harvested is around 221,000 hectares. By 2005 we have; whoops, no figures for that year. OK, and we only have provisional numbers for 2004, but they come to 174,000 ha. So the cut is going down?

During the same period stumpage revenues hung around a billion dollars annually. But the harvest volume goes up by almost 20 per cent. So the cut is going up? And those stumpage revenues; how many of those dollars reflect the ongoing clearance sale on salvage wood? Hard to pick out a trend there. But it looks like these three key indicators are all going in different directions.

Confounded somewhat, I then compared seedling requests to seedlings reported planted over the same general period. There appears to be an accumulated 60 million seedlings missing according to my counting. We apparently have sown that many more trees than have been reported planted. This should make anyone nervous about looking under stumps in this province. Where are those would-be saplings?

These days I am beginning to think the problem is not my counting. Recently I wrote a senior ministry of forests and range executive asking how many hectares we have salvaged for mountain pine beetle, how much of it has been planted and what the response has been. I received a reply so acronym-rich and jargon-dense it proved indecipherable. Maybe I lack some literacy skills, but when plain language doesn’t suffice to answer a set of straightforward questions you have to wonder.

Another ministry manager summed things up more forthrightly. “We no longer have the mandate to collect those figures,” he said ruefully. And that brings us back to those missing hectares-logged figures for recent years I mentioned earlier. A statistical steward I know says we haven’t been this behind in the reporting of those kinds of numbers since the Second World War. And that was because ministry foresters had enlisted and were serving overseas. What’s happening today?

Just what might be happening is interesting. I can’t help but notice the whacky figures in the ministry of forest’s reports start showing up around the time we shift to the “results-based” model. When I try to connect the dots around this coincidence I get the same problem I had counting the ones in my margins in public school: confusion, uncertainty and not a reliable answer.

If industry needs only live up to their own independent minimum stewardship requirements, which doesn’t seem to include prompt reporting of achievements, who has a handle on the big picture? Silviculture planning is acutely sensitive to area disturbed. We need to know how much, where it is, where it is contiguous and we need to know those numbers promptly and accurately. We need to know it on a scale comparable to the exceptional assault on forest health in this province. If we aren’t tracking the basic bellwethers our information is unreliable for both indicating what we have done and what we need to do. If our statistical landscape is full of gaps, particularly regarding the area we have disturbed, how do we guide forestry? What does it suggest about possible gaps in our strategies and possibly on the landscape? If we are to practise world class forestry we need numbers we can count on.

John Betts
Executive Director
Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association
(250) 229-4380