The case for enhanced forestry has gone, perhaps, disastrously understated as part of the FRBC Core Review. The WSCA was one of the few who championed spacing, pruning and fertilizing young forests.

Maintaining enhanced forestry as part of sustainable forest management in B.C.

Presentation to the FRBC core review process.

By the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association 1 October 2001

“Truth resides in a panoramic rather than a local view of events.” —Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire

As a forestry funding agency with approximately $436-million in its coffers at the beginning of this fiscal year the fate of Forest Renewal BC (FRBC) is critical to the practice of silviculture in British Columbia. This Crown corporation has emerged as the prime funder for a range of forestry activities and research at a time when public spending on silvicultural programs has been in general decline for the last decade. Established in 1994 FRBC has continued this trend. For example, thinning, pruning and fertilizing plantations should be one of the corporation’s core activities. However, under its watch these treatments have become funded at barely half what they were at the beginning of Forest Renewal BC’s mandate. They now languish at levels typical of the early days of silviculture, two decades ago, when forestry programs were in their juvenile stages and planners were just recognizing that the forest management historical trends of the day were creating huge “silvicultural slums.” Ironically, it was this kind of negligence that FRBC was originally intended to prevent.

As a bellwether of silvicultural funding in the last few years the once robust West Coast enhanced forestry contracting community, which kept an estimated 1000 high calibre spacers in the woods most of the year, is now reduced to a few hundred discouraged cutters. Due to lack of work most of these workers can barely afford to remain attached to the industry and like their contractor employers, who once numbered around 60 established West Coast firms, they are drifting away from the sector. With them go millions of dollars of public investments in workforce skill, expertise, and entrepreneurial energy; to say nothing of the effect their absence will have on the state of the forest.

Public funding schemes for silviculture under the province’s Crown tenure system have had one thing in common over the years. None of them are enduring. The moribund Forest Renewal BC appears to be living up to this expectation. In this context it is perhaps remarkable that public funding for silviculture happens at all. Our continuing capacity to cobble together short term models and agreements shows a certain doggedness we might be proud of if it didn’t wastefully involve constantly marshalling our resources to help history repeat itself. At least it reveals an underlying commitment by a majority of foresters that the work is worth doing. The question is, how can we live up to the ideal of sustainable forest management when we cannot sustain the funding to put that principle into practice?

However, the problem is not just restricted to the above fundamental contradiction. Of the sustainable forestry we do practice the current modus operandi doesn’t foster much long term thinking by planners. Instead they resort to opportunistic silvicultural strategies subject primarily to funding availability and, in some cases, stooping to satisfy self-serving political pressures. This approach can be unreliable in terms of well thought out stewardship. At the same time the intermittency of public funding leads to cycles of negligence which in the long run cost the resource, the economy and the future. We seem to be on the verge of one these negligent cycles now.

As its core review might reveal Forest Renewal BC may be culpable of many things. But it is clearly not the architect of the general policy failure that publically funded silviculture seems to chronically amount to. It is a symptom of a more fundamental problem; the absence of a mature long term forest stewardship ethic and practice in this province. This is a complex and convoluted issue built on a number of paradoxes and contradictions; the kind of matters that will likely fall under a broader review of forest tenure, ownership, regulation, stumpage etc. Any review and remedy (if one is sought) for Forest Renewal BC will have to embrace these broader issues if we are to break out of the policy cycle which currently frustrates the practice of true sustainable forestry in British Columbia.

In the meantime, pending these larger considerations, it is vital to examine the thinking around and implementation of the silvicultural activities currently funded by Forest Renewal BC. A number of misconceptions have crept into the general understanding around these activities aided and abetted by the kind of management regime we have created to implement them. By creating a fuller understanding of the efficacy of these silvicultural treatments and changing some fundamental concepts at the field level we can begin to influence the thinking higher up and lay the groundwork for the paradigm shift required to frame a truly enduring practical model. With that in place we will be able to guide and fund the province’s silvicultural efforts from one end of the rotation to the other with the conviction and foresight it requires.

This conceptual problem is evident immediately in how we categorize the activities we use to manipulate future stands of wood. Thinning, fertilizing and pruning stands are generally described as enhanced silviculture. In the proper lexicon, enhanced silviculture along with its aliases incremental, and intensive silviculture all mean growth promoting. However in the parlance of recent forest practice their use has degenerated to meaning extra, additional, and even non-essential.

Other related jargon only amplifies the problem. Planting and brushing trees is called “basic silviculture” suggesting that anything after the free to grow window is, well, not basic. And if it is not basic, then by inference, it is more than likely of some dubious efficacy; particularly in these times when applying something loosely known as “economic rigor” is in vogue.

Considering how a forest grows over time, drawing an arbitrary management line when the trees have out-competed the brush, like we do under the current management regime, doesn’t make particular sense. We do it as a regulatory convenience to define the place where obligations and responsibilities for forest tending on Crown land shift from the private sector to the public. Unfortunately much of our strategic thinking has been built around this regulatory artifact. In reality there is no good reason strategically, silviculturally or economically to categorically separate basic from enhanced silviculture. In fact the terms are misnomers. We should speak simply of silviculture. Period. Site preparation, planting, brushing, thinning, pruning, and fertilizing are all just silvicultural steps along the way to the final forest product. None are more basic, or more intensive, or less incremental or less essential than the others. Each has a place in the scheme of things depending on what the management objectives are: whether they be increased volume, premium wood, piece size, bio-diversity, habitat, community fire protection, or whatever else it takes to produce wood and productively manage the forest for the future.

If foresters understand this concept they have little chance or incentive under the current Crown tenure model to implement it. Even the most secure long term tenures are not immune to regulatory changes, land claims issues, or switches in public sentiment that can erase their rights, entitlements and silvicultural investments. Furthermore under current regulations most forest company tenure holders and resource renters are only obligated to ensure that stands are planted and grown to a free to grow status after harvesting. There is no obligation to silviculturally invest, and most critically, silviculturally think any further. It is the absence of strategic thought beyond free to grow that is the most damaging. Even when public money is available, as a substitute for private investment, companies are often not able or willing to commit to long term stewardship and the critical strategic thinking it requires. One major West Coast licensee subcontracts its FRBC-funded thinning, pruning, and fertilizing program to an implementation contractor because it does not consider these practices part of its core activities. This kind of thinking, or lack of it, may prove fatal in the market place of the future and it certainly offends the principle that forest companies in B.C. are in the business of truly growing trees.

The only thing that can account for this abandonment of long term stewardship is that public policy in this arena amounts to a policy no-mans land; a huge crack in the paradox of public lands managed by private enterprise through which a number of silvicultural activities keep falling. Foresters at their level are guided by a regulatory framework that discourages thinking and planning beyond their minimum obligations: free to grow. This frustrates the maturation of silvicultural practices into a fully evolved long term stewardship ethic. By not practicing silviculture with conviction we don’t accumulate the experience to spur the innovation to alter the thinking to create the cultural momentum needed to change the framework—which of course is the main impediment to the development of the stewardship ethic needed to change it. The evolution of sustainable forest management in B.C. has hung up on this paradox for years.

Unless we are prepared to accept mass cupidity on the part of foresters across the province the above contradiction must be the explanation for our current silvicultural lacking. How else could we accept the dismissing or ignorance of the full practice of long term forest stewardship in this province?

What follows now is a hardly exhaustive list of silvicultural activities and their potential benefits that are under threat of becoming further funding-impaired due to the policy failures outlined so far. None of the activities briefly listed represent startling new revelations. They are typical of the usual understated kind of information that can be gleaned by any participant at a silvicultural field trip. It quickly becomes evident that there is a tremendous amount of reliable information in circulation indicating a huge latent benefit to the forest estate waiting to be realized by such elemental silvicultural activities such as thinning, pruning and fertilizing trees.

Consider the price of Douglas Fir 2x4s Std#2&Btr, the pork bellies of the softwood commodity market. In May of this year they were worth US$415. In October, 2000 they sold for US$285. Based on these figures these products carry little immunity to the volatility of the international commodity markets. Producers suffer accordingly. However, compare the value of Douglas Fir 2×4 clears. They sold over the last year between US$1700 and US$1900 more or less constantly. Not only is this premium wood worth on average five times its poor relations but it holds its value through market cycles. At the moment premium wood is estimated to be 15 per cent of our annual harvest and it is forecasted to decline.

In the natural cycle clear wood is created by old growth. Left on their own our forests will produce another crop of this highly profitable and desirable wood in about five or six centuries. Or we could intervene and prune and thin stands and create value in a much shorter period. In Germany foresters prune all their Douglas-fir stands and 60% of their spruce. In B.C. over the last decade we have managed to prune at a rate of just over 2% of the hectares harvested annually (excluding the backlog). This figure shrinks even more in terms of future premium wood availability when you consider only a fifth of the volume of a pruned stand yields clears. Nevertheless, is it rocket science to do a calculation predicting the benefits of tripling and quadrupling the value of a log through pruning? There are likely tens of thousands of hectares of plantations where pruning on its own or in concert with other treatments could yield obvious value. Yet we practice this kind of silviculture at a less than negligible rate.

Thinning trees early in the rotation is another way of manipulating stands to produce an end result. It is a way of distributing or packaging the wood grown on a plantation. Log piece size has an impact on harvesting,transporting and milling costs. A forester could settle for whatever the forest produced. But why would they if analysis shows they could impact significantly their costs by manipulating the size of logs they will harvest in the future? In this context it is not really a question of whether to thin but to decide what density to thin to.

The same considerations for thinning apply to lumber recovery factors as well. Managing early stand density will affect piece size and determine recovery rates from sawlogs. As well, thinning, in some instances, increases premium wood. Research shows that multiple thinnings encourages the creation of more dense wood in Larch plantations increasing the woods strength and enhancing its value.

From a timber supply perspective at the stand level pruning generally increases value, fertilizing increases volume, and thinning redistributes volume on a block. Mill recovery data combined with stand simulation projections show combinations of these treatments can produce investment rates of return as high as 6% to 9% depending on the species and site characteristics. These kinds of rates of return are likely the same figures used by our competitors in Scandinavia and South America who routinely treat stands far more intensely than we do. Most notably their activities are guided by the hand of the marketplace not the prodding of government.

There is good reason to practice thinning, pruning, and fertilizing in a larger context than the just the individual stand. Forest estate issues around timber supply and timber flow can be enhanced through manipulating plantations. Silvicultural treatments such as thinning and fertilizing (and commercially thinning) plantations can increase mid and long term supplies of wood significantly. These treatments can bring wood on stream sooner mitigating anticipated timber shortfalls creating increased value at the forest level.

From the panoramic perspective of the forest estate there are other values beyond timber supply that can be addressed through silviculturally treating stands. Habitat supply and community wildfire protection are two areas that will likely assume increasing significance as we manage forests for their range of values beyond timber. The national 1998 Canada Forest Accord has as its objective “to maintain and enhance the long-term health of our forest ecosystems, for the benefit of all living things both nationally and globally, while providing environmental, economic, social, and cultural opportunities for the benefit of present and future generations.” It is hard not to see a growing role for full silvicultural stewardship in achieving this noble and necessary goal.

At the moment in B.C. we thin, prune, and fertilize less than 20% of the area harvested annually. The $40-million spent on these silvicultural treatments amounts to 0.25% of the forest product value shipped each year in the province. The forest sector and government are in the habit of claiming we practice sustainable forest management in B.C. These bleak facts would seem to speak otherwise. Worse, some of our harvest forescasts are predicated on certain levels of treatment; levels we may be falling short on in some regions. Failure to practice the necessary silviculture may direclty erode our harvest in both the long and short term.

Lately a number of generalizations have entered into the discussion around the merits of some silvicultural treatments. The most absurd and widely circulated suggests thinning and pruning trees are not worth the investment. Such a bald assertion should be suspect just because of its arrogant scope. However, because of the provenance of such pronouncements—a few dismal scientists and some apostate foresters have made these utterances—they have gained currency. A reasonable analysis of these opinions shows they are not without some merit. But it seems their inflated proponents have failed to realize their revelations should be used as criteria not dogma for determining whether a treatment should occur.

A more reasonable assertion regarding silvicultural activities is that their value can be only calculated once we have determined what the long-term forest estate goal is. In this context treatments done on the right sites, for the right reasons, at the right time are bound to have value. To aid us in this strategic approach government has developed in the last few years an enhanced forestry strategy for the province. Under a scant funding regime this program has managed to go ahead and is emerging as a strategic tool for developing silvicultural programs across BC. It is particularly effective in timber supply issues. However, there is nothing to prevent the processes in place to expand to include water and wildlife supply as well. We are better positioned strategically then we have ever been to practice full forest stewardship in this province. As well there are numerous models in practice in other jurisdictions as well as home-grown proposals to help us deal with the mechanics of funding and directing silvicultural programs in an enduring way.

What remains is for government to clearly state an overarching goal for the forest resource. A few years ago government conjured a figure of 12% of the land base to be set aside for conservation. Huge resources were marshalled to achieve that end. However, the government of the day failed to conjure a complimentary goal for the allowable annual cut. Perhaps now is the time to do something like that. Prescribe a harvest level that comprises a rich and varied wood portfolio enhancing the wooded legacy we have inherited while satisfying the other water and wildlife values that make up our forest ecosystem. Then marshall our resources and watch the silvicultural priorities and practices fall into place.

Silviculture, unlike forest resource conflict, seldom makes the political weather in this province. However the two are linked. Because few foresters have ever been accused of eloquence the urban elite that runs this province has been largely influenced by the persuasive tactics of the environmental movement. The public may even be ahead of the foresters on the management of their forests. The emerging forest ethic in this country is that the forests are a precious public heritage; a birthright comprising numerous values beyond timber that we must not squander and that we owe to future generations. Any notion that the resource renters in this province are doing only the minimum or less than what is required to ensure the fate of this legacy is tantamount to grounds for further removal of the forest from the harvesting community. Without knowing it the public is probably the strongest advocate for silviculture as part of a long term forest stewardship ethic. The less than overwhelming support from industry for enhanced silviculture during the course of the FRBC core review indicates that we may have more than a potential embarrassment should the public wake up and decide the public good is not being looked after.

What then for Forest Renewal BC and the carving up of what might be another political carcasse on the forest policy landscape? This is not the time for meek compromise. With apologies to the Old Testament enough babies have been cut in half already through impaired funding. FRBC-funded silvicultural activities have been dismembered to the point where their effect is negligible and a pent up silvicultural reckoning is already in the works. Now is the time for government to recognize that with their forest revenues collapsing, markets in a deep funk, and uncertainty the order of the day we stand at a watershed. Bold resolve is the only remedy for the pessimism that infects the forest industry in this province. Put simply, now is not the time to continue the collapse in funding for public silviculture in B.C. We should do the opposite and use some of the funds in FRBC to increase levels as an interim bridge until a more enduring funding model is developed. It is absolutely essential for government to show leadership now and set the tone for the emergence of a stewardship ethic that shows both government and industry are capable of rising to the expectations of sustainable forest management.

Even though we may seem overwhelmed by local events we must not loose sight of the larger picture. Only by keeping the panoramic perspective in mind can we escape being condemned to repeating our same mistakes. Polybius’s ancient advice is timely today.