Bruce Fraser Sees the Future

The Chair of the Forest Practices Board spoke to the WSCA Conference delivering an at times dismaying account of the possible future of forestry—and just about everything else—mapping the uncertainties we need to deal with in heading there. At his most distressing and delightful when describing a possible environmental administration gone to the extreme Fraser sounded more like Jonathan Swift than the head of a government watchdog agency.

Good at the Small.pdf

Good at the Small

Address to the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association
Kamloops, February 7, 2008
Dr. Bruce Fraser, Chair, Forest Practices Board

(To read Dr. Fraser’s entire speech please use the PDF link at the top of this page.)


One day in 1973 I was working away in my office as Principal of Selkirk College. Needing something from my secretary (they still existed then) I wandered into the outer office. Out there everyone was absorbed in their administrative duties, heads down, lights blazing, typewriters clacking (they too still existed then). Picking up the papers I needed, I accidentally raised my eyes over the humming desks to the adjacent hallway and across it to the library windows. They were dark. Was no-one in the library on this normal college day? Then it dawned on me that the college was struck by CUPE and only the administrative staff was on campus. There were no students or instructors to be seen, but we administrators were carrying on anyway. Our ultimate reason for existence was absent, but that didn’t stop us from our obviously important work!

So here we are in 2008, heads down, regulating the minutiae of forest industry practices, assessing the adequacy of cut block management in relation to the law while forestry itself is rapidly retreating from the scene, mills closing, competitors advancing, beetles munching, “carbon” replacing “fibre” in our technical jargon and climatic volatility accelerating before our rarely upturned eyes. We have become good managers of the inconsequential while ignoring the results that matter the most.

The vast majority of industrial cut blocks are managed according to the law and the vast majority of infractions are the trivial noise of industrial scale operations. The Board regularly finds forestry operations at the cut block level that are in compliance with the forestry regulations. They are properly bounded, they are treated according to realistic site plans, they are replanted on time in compliance with stocking standards and they incorporate leave components for wildlife habitat and riparian protection. The roads and crossings needed to gain access to the timber are properly constructed, maintained and where appropriate de-activated. Landslides, while still occurring, are much reduced over the past and fire protection is well organized. Forest soils are conserved. Professionals, recently highlighted in our regulatory regime, are seriously engaged in stewardship issues. Major forest licensees, managing most of BC’s cut, are certified and regularly audited. So, what are we missing?

The circumstances that we are not grasping so effectively are growing in number and consequence. We have begun to sell forest land to pay the mounting costs of our current commodity forest model and are exporting raw logs to be milled in other countries. We are high grading the cedar component of north coast forests and we are logging the mid-term timber supply in beetle affected areas of the interior. At the landscape scale we are extensively fragmenting the forest environment – evident in any satellite photograph or inventory of resource roads. We are listing an increasing number of species with threatened status, we are powerless in the face of climate volatility and its consequences and we are not yet managing forests for the expected disruption to the continuity of our water supply, though we see it coming. Increments of industrial resource extraction for timber, minerals and energy are overlapping on the same landscape, leading to cumulative impacts that are neither adequately recorded nor systematically managed. We are urbanizing so rapidly that we are losing touch with the environment on which our natural resource prosperity is based. We want to use it for recreational real estate rather than for primary production. We are not mindful enough of our natural resource exports – the goods that earn the lion’s share of real input dollars to our economy and could be supporting the value-added manufacturing of the future.

Our economic model of producing bulk commodity fibre for construction and pulp, feeding an increasingly competitive world-scale market, is increasingly under stress. It is threatened by industrial competitors, by low returns on capital employed, by better growing conditions, by the retreat of the American dollar, by absentee ownership, by low wage manufacturers, by protectionist efforts in customer countries, by the growing cost of industrial scale energy and ultimately by the necessity of achieving a vastly limited carbon footprint. Our industrial machinery is dependent on fossil fuels that are themselves one of the proximate causes of the climatic disturbances that can degrade our commercial forest. The fuel supplies themselves are threatened by environmental cost of extraction, the potential of peaking supply and international conflicts. We have begun to sell off forest land to what we are glibly calling a “higher and better use” that eliminates its value as a source of fibre and limits its contribution to carbon capture. We are shedding mills, workers and resource towns like dandruff as we automate, concentrate and invest earnings elsewhere. We are discovering in the courtroom that we don’t even actually own the land on which our industrial economy is based. We don’t really know if we are at the end of our tether and susceptible to collapse or in the throes of a particularly vicious swing in a recurring cycle from which we will emerge, smaller but trimmed for vigorous survival. We don’t know who might be left standing, a few consolidated giants or a rabble of niche-specific pygmies. (The lumbering but infertile dinosaurs or the fleet-footed and randy mammals)

I know that in British Columbia we have begun to address some of these larger issues. Legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets, biofuel promotion, alternative energy schemes, coastal recovery plans, resiliency of forest regeneration, cumulative impact assessment pilots, resource road regulation, integration of industrial effort, species recovery plans, pest and pathogen studies, beetle action coalitions, product research and innovation, community economic diversification, market research and niche specialization, protected areas, community forests, forest and range opportunity agreements, ratified treaties, green buildings and smart cars. And, Hey! I am riding a bicycle to work! But, are these efforts targeted at the order of magnitude of the problems and commensurate with the speed at which they are proliferating and interacting? Are they adding up to effectiveness? Is there a strategy that we can adopt that continues to manage the minutiae of cutting trees but also prepares us to manage the sustaining forest?

Four comprehensive strategies come immediately to mind, compression of the industrial footprint, integration of economic activity at the landscape unit level, interdisciplinary collaboration, and rapid adaptive management.

(To read Dr. Fraser’s entire speech please use the PDF link at the top of this page.)