Silviculture Sector Slumps

Interior Truck and Logger Magazine, Spring 2010

Nobody should be surprised that the province’s silviculture sector is headed for the leanest times seen since the recession of the ’80s.

Like the rest of the forest industry restoring and tending forests has not escaped the latest downturn. The main bellwether is the number of seedlings sown and planted annually. Four years ago the silviculture industry planted close to 260 million seedlings; the peak for this decade when annual sowing and planting averaged around 250 million seedlings. By next year 2011 the WSCA has forecasted the number of trees planted will be as low as 130 million. In less than half a decade nurseries and planting contractors have seen the seedling demand collapse by half. Other silviculture forest activities such as spacing, brushing, fertilizing and surveying have all been in a general decline since 2000. We are in the worst slump in forest management since the industry’s creation in the early ’70s.

The steep drop in tree planting coincides with the declining harvest across the province. At the same time, however, the province has suffered a beetle plague leaving at least 15 million hectares attacked since the turn of the century. The effects of this assault on our forests are just beginning to be felt. Water flow, wildfire, other pests and blights, timber values and habitat destruction will all play out in the next while, further diminishing the value and services we expect from our forests. In this context we should actually be seeing an increase in forest restoration rather than a decrease.

Five years ago the BC Government created the Forests For Tomorrow program to invest public dollars in restoring forests lost to insects, blights and fire. The program will plant approximately 15 million seedling this year. In the grand scheme of things the program will only restore 400,000 hectares of forests over the next 20 years. To his credit Forest Minister Pat Bell has made the Forest For Tomorrow program a funding priority, even with the latest round of cuts. But seen from the bigger picture of a beetle attack the size of England, treating less than three per cent of it seems like a modest response.

The main problem, like everywhere, is finding funding. Forest management, because it is primarily a Crown resource is therefore totally dependent on public policy. Public policy directs the behaviour of the license holders who rent the resource. And it determines the dollars the government itself spends on the public’s resource. Both these imperatives have major weaknesses which are now showing up under the stress of current events.

Under the present regime licensees have little incentive to invest more than just the required effort to reach free growing plantations. At that point their obligations end. As a result the silviculture sector sees fewer trees planted per hectare, more area left to natural regeneration and smaller seedlings grown in nurseries.

The second imperative leaves forestry funding in competition with all the other pressing priorities government faces. Lately the government has declared, rather short-sightedly, that the province’s resource sectors are not priorities compared to health care, education and the other popular concerns as it sees them. Predictably we can’t expect to see government actually increase its investments in forest management. Just what will fall out of the recent budget is still uncertain at this writing. But the trend is likely to be negative.

Nevertheless, nature, as the scientist said, will not be fooled. This last year we spent $400 million of the province’s treasure on fighting wildfire. That was just the direct cost. The lost timber, water and ecological values have yet to be included in that tally. By comparison we exported more tons of smoke last year to the United States than we did lumber. Across the 15 million hectares of beetle attack tons of wood is air-drying and decaying. This process, as it gains force over the next years, is likely to create the same conditions that produced the famous Yellowstone Park fires a few decades backs. Those remarkable fires burnt through old beetle kill. We can expect this to occur here; soon and with increasing frequency.

At the moment the province does not seem to have a clear strategy to address the forest health crisis in the province. Some studies indicate a portion of the stands, a majority in fact, are beginning to regenerate naturally. But those studies don’t take into account second order effects of the beetle attack such as fire and other pests. And the areas that are not growing have yet to attract funding or any plans for restoration.

As for the effects all these trends will have on the future for the silviculture industry the short term outlook looks bleak. We may soon see the permanent loss of nursery seedling businesses. This is a critical consequence, considering government’s stated commitment to become a province recognized for its ability to grow trees. With our own growing infrastructure in peril it’s not clear how we will achieve that; unless we plan to import them from elsewhere. As for the silviculture contractors their workforce is their main asset. Right now the industry is losing general workers because of the lack of work. This is tolerable until the sector begins to lay off its critical management echelons. When experienced and skilled supervisors leave so will the capacity of the industry.

But the greatest loss has to be the future. We are the prime architects of the present conditions in the forest. The beetle plague could only have got started because of the policies and practices of the last fifty years. Now that those methods have been seen to be wanting we seem to be retreating from our commitment to forestry in B.C. That is hardly provident or responsible.