An Industry in Peril

A startling forecast of what will happen if Canada goes on living on her lumber capital

E. NEWTON-WHITE October 1 1929

An Industry in Peril

A startling forecast of what will happen if Canada goes on living on her lumber capital

E. NEWTON-WHITE October 1 1929

An Industry in Peril

A startling forecast of what will happen if Canada goes on living on her lumber capital



SUPPOSING one of these days, your favorite newspaper were to come out with the foregoing legend on the front page, what would be your reaction? Would you be surprised? Unbelieving? Aroused? Unmoved? Interested likely, and very probably incredulous. Those would not be the tidings we are accustomed to receive from our industrial activity. Resources “scarcely scratched;” “new developments;” “encouraging reports;” “efficient management;” “unlimited possibilities;” these are the phrases we expect—and get.

One statement of our hypothetical bulletin will indicate the worth of all the rest. Is it gross exaggeration to bulletin the possibility of the Empire and Canada being dependent upon Russia as their sole source of supply of boards and beams, poles and piling? A pleasant prospect, if true, judging by the regard we now have for the United Soviet States of Russia and its ways! Then how about this?

The world’s demand for timber in every form is predominantly in softwood; that is to say, the pines, spruces and firs in their many varieties. In fact, eighty per cent of all timber used in the world is softwood. There are many reasons for this preference, and they are such that no appreciable substitution by the so-called hardwoods can take place.

Apart from Canada and the United States, seventyfive per cent of the world’s softwood supply lies in Europe and Asia. Most of Asia’s supply is in Siberia. It seems that with the exception of Russia, and notwithstanding the efficient forestry systems which certain European nations have evolved, every country in Europe is living considerably on its capital in forest resources; cutting them faster than they grow. It would also seem that in every other part of the world, not excepting the British Dominions, the condition is worse still, for the cut is entirely from forest capital; forest fires and other forms of destruction much more than discounting all natural growth.

Universal depletion and destruction of forests have reached a stage which leaves but two great unbioken forest regions in the whole world. One fills up the northern part of the South American continent. The other stretches across the boundary between Europe and Asia. But the Brazilian forests, were they exploitable, could contribute only to the twenty per cent of the world’s timber use, being composed of hardwoods. There remains, therefore, but one intact great timber block to supply the world’s insatiable need for coniferous wood products; a rate of consumption which doubles itself every fifty years.

The need of wood in its manifold uses is vital. Depletion of the world’s forests by use proceeds with increasing rapidity and the check on forest waste and destruction is still negligible, and will remain so for years to come. Wood is as indispensable to national well-being as wheat and steel, oil and coal and rubber. As in these, serious international competition for forest resources could well occur.

In the British Empire there is but one great forest region of coniferous forest. Canada is the Empire’s granary, and could and should be its lumber yard. Just what may be the stocks in that yard in a few years, when the urgent demand comes?

In 1922, Canadians prepared a statement of their forest resources for the Second British Empire Forestryconference held in Canada. At that time the total stand of our timber was estimated to be 246,792 million cubic feet. Apparently the results of surveys and estimations since that time have done nothing to discredit these figures, for they were again used in the statement to the Third Empire Conference held in 1928 in Australia and New Zealand; being brought up to date by an estimate of forest depletion during the five-year period 1922-26.

Now mark this. Forest depletion in the five years was reckoned at about 22,000 million cubic feet, of which 13,500 million cubic feet was cut for use, and 8,500 million cubic feet destroyed by fire and insects. For the cause of forest conservation it is a pity that the expert authorities did not follow up this trail to where it led, and broadcast the results. With due sense of unworthiness, but no apology, let us essay it.

Dividing the 1922 figure of 246,792 million cubic feet by the average annual depletion, nearly 4,500 million cubic feet, we have a little over fifty years supply, giving no credit to any gain by growth in the meantime. But the estimated total was an arbitrary figure, including all forests merchantable and unmerchantable, accessible and inaccessible. Some may never become available, some never merchantable. Some may never be profitable to operate,. except in the event of the severest shortage. So that in the 1928 statement it had to be admitted that no more than 115,000 million cubic feet could be considered available. Divide this figure by annual depletion and we have something more like twenty-five years supply! But there is more to the situation than this.

Annual growth, a reduction of the fire lóss, changing conditions allowing poor or hitherto valueless or inaccessible timbei* to become merchantable, could add several years to this estimated life of timber supplies. On the other hand, the extreme probability of the 1922 estimate of quantity being an exaggerated one, greater fire and insect losses than are known or reported, an almost inevitable great increase in future cutting, the reasonable possibility that intense periods of fire and insect destruction much greater than those of the fiveyear period figured on, may raise the average rate of depletion in this respect—any or all of these could appreciably reduce that life.

Such calculations must be unsatisfactory because of the many modifying factors and the lack of accurate information in many important respects. Our delayed forest inventory, now to be made, will clear up many a doubtful point. But in the meantime, whether the subject is approached with the bias of optimism or pessimism, whether out of the facts and probabilities a ten-year or a thirty-five-year supply can be deduced, one stark fact is inescapable—the time is perilously short in the life of our forests.

Where Will Future Supply Be?

JETTING it go at twenty-five years then, and reasonably supposing that the Empire’s rate of wood consumption will increase with the rest of the world’s— indeed, seeing that her Dominions are nearly all new, rapidly developing countries, it should increase very much faster—where will England, which imports more softwoods than any other country, and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, look for lumber in twentyfive years? Not to Canada certainly. We shall be in the market ourselves by that time. Nor to the United States, for they have only forty years supply left themselves.

No less an authority than the Forestry Committee of the Imperial Conference said that a world shortage of softwoods will exist in thirty years time. Where then?

Where indeed !

Coming closer home, Canada is a big country, capable of great development, and has a population of less than ten millions. She is hardly going to stay so sparsely populated.

Canada and the United States have the reputation of using twice as much wood in all forms per person as does Europe, and, be it said, they need it. Cheap and plentiful supplies of wood have contributed very largely to the wonderful development of both countries, and to the high standard of living that exists. Canada will ; not need less timber in twenty-five years than she is now using, but very much more, and forests or no forests of her own, she must get it. From where? Not Brazil, for her hardwoods are probably on a par with steel and concrete so far as substitution for softwood goes. From where, then?

Perhaps no one can predict the methods of conducting business twenty-five years from now, more especially the methods of Muscovy, but whether Canadian wholesalers would go across the Pacific to buy, or whether the Soviet Government would come here and peddle its own stocks, several things are certain. We would pay the freight charges, with parts of two continents to cross, and the largest ocean. Add the cost of driving the Yenesei or the Obi Rivers, several other incidentals, and the enhanced value which the owners might reasonably be expected to place on stumpage of such a unique character—the last of its species on the market, competed for by a timber-hungry world!

A proud and pleasant prospect truly, well appreciated by Canadians who have a country which once carried enough timber for their own perpetual use; enough, too, to hold a big share of Empire and World markets for all time! Wild and impossible, is it? If you prefer to think so. To me it is only the logical conclusion to be drawn from the figures of recognized authorities, followed out further than they have either cared or dared to emphasize.

“All very well,” you may say, “but those estimates of timber exhaustion in Canada were based on the past rate of fire destruction, and take no account of all the planting that is going on. All the provinces are starting to grow trees by the million. Why, in 1923, the reports say, nearly five million acres were burned over in Canada, and in 1927 they had got it down to less than half a million acres. At that rate of going they will soon have it down to nothing.”

Saying this you have stated a conception of the Canadian forest situation that is being fostered by far too many politicians, private interests, and executives of protective and forestry departments—Dominion and Provincial.

Do not forget that since 1923 the seasons between snowfall have been getting wetter and wetter each year. This year may be the wettest yet. On the other hand it may be a little drier. It may even be good and dry. What happened last year in the local droughts that occurred between Northwestern Ontario and the Coast? Did the local fire situation show an improvement over similar dry spells six or seven years ago? It didn’t. In the highly inflammable nature, in dry periods, of the Canadian forests, the index of relative safety lies absolutely in the number of fires starting, and reduction so far is negligible. After a long period of drought, if fires are allowed to start, no powers of detection and suppression, however efficient, will avail. A spark in a powder magazine is no less dangerous because the magazine is located next to the fire station!*

*This article was written several months ago. As the reader now knows, the drought of this summer resulted in bad forest fires in several sections of the Dominion—The Editor.

There is no assurance that the next succession of dry seasons of the weather cycle will not bring Canadian forest-fire loss up to the old average. It may even be higher. Summer use of the woods has increased enormously. Transportation—the car and the outboard motor, highways and railways—takes larger numbers of the public more and farther into the woods. Tourists, prospectors, laborers on development work of all kinds, are circulating in the forests, away where protection is least intense, or non-existent, or where the hazards of slash, brûle and insect are highest. And where the number of woods travellers increases, so does the fire risk. Besides this, the amount of slash and debris which has been collecting at the scenes of woods operations during the last comparatively fire-free years must be enormous. Canada has not yet realized what is involved in true fire prevention.

What of Reforestation?

"Y\ 7"HAT of reforestation? All Canada will be planting * » trees at the rate of 25,000 acres per year, they reckon, in five years time—1934. Unless damp seasons prevent the law of averages from operating, there will be, by that time, at least another eleven million acres burned over, not all seedlings by any means, and wet seasons or no, another nine to twelve million acres will have been cut over, even supposing the cut in the next five years to be no greater than that of the five years 1923-27. Those 25,000 acres to be planted in 1934, supposing the area to be spruce for pulpwood, will, after being a public charge for say fifty years, or about the year A.D. 1984, at the generous average of thirty cords per acre, keep about three goodsized paper mills running for one year! Or if the area be dedicated to general timber production, by 1994 or 2,000 it might produce about twenty-five million cubic feet of timber, or about one-sixtieth of our present cut for home use alone! Nor would the result be the high grades of lumber or timbers that only time can produce. Sixty or seventy years is a short time in the life of a timber tree.

There will very evidently be a big gap between the time when our original forests give out, and the time when any appreciable yield can be got from forests we have not yet begun to plant.

“But,” you may object, “there will always be the natural growth coming along.” There will, certainly, but how much will it help out unless some drastic changes in operation are effected—at once, not in the indefinite future? In the mature timberlands, annual growth is nil so far as production is concerned, for it is offset by natural decay. On cut-over land, by our present method of cutting, there may quite possibly be a prolific growth annually—of trash! As well might a farmer count on a field of grain to reproduce itself the next season, without soil preparation, from the grain spilt during harvesting. He would get a growth all right, even some grain. But he might subsequently become liab'e under a weed control act.

By our present methods of destructive exploitation the best natural reproduction seems to come, paradoxically perhaps, on burned-over lands. Lightly burned once, mind you, not the way we usually do our burning— severely over and over the same ground until it can burn no more. But there is little enough of the lightly-burned-once land. Our cutover and burned-over areas have grown inferior tree species, or exist in conditions generally unfavorable to timber growth—too dense or too sparse; or alas, on millions of acres of rock-ridges and hilltops, nothing much but blueberry plants and wintergreen.

Annual growth in the Canadian forests, in the present situation, is a broken reed to lean upon. Take an axe and saw to an acre plot of wellfilled, vigorously growing woodland; cut from half a cord to a cord of timber therefrom, and you have taken its natural annual increase. If you have cut with due regard to the principles of forestry, you can do the same next year and every year thereafter. But picture an average acre of wild woodland such as exists in our young forests. Notice one tree of six to twelve inches diameter, felled by the axe, or blown down, or killed by insects or by fire. The loss of that tree has likely wiped out the added growth of a year on the whole acre. A small enough margin.

The annual fire loss more than accounts for accretion by growth as it is, and now it is appearing that another big drain is going on, in itself taking toll of more than all the forests grow. Whether or not the cause is the damp weather, the unhealthy conditions in our cut-over lands, the presence of millions of acres of slash and dead and dying trees, or just one of the mysteries of Nature, we are now in the middle of a great outbreak of forest pests. Beetles, worms, caterpillars, loopers and fungi. Truly the annual growth would have to be some growth to be of any effect in saving the situation for the future.

Here is another factor which past forest history and present practice indicate. Unless we mend our forest ways by almost revolutionary methods, forest exploitation will be carried on to the extent of practically complete denudation of all the regions in which it occurs. Timbering operations on any territory, local area, or region are Contingent on accessibility by some means of transportation. This condition may be established by definite purpose when timber values or the accident of local demand warrant, or transportation facilities provided for other purposes may open up timber resources otherwise non-exploitable. The condition once established is likely to be permanent. Once operations begin they continue until all the tributary area is stripped clean.

The process takes different forms. An area is culled through for a particular species. Perhaps one sort of timber or form of product will occasion three or four successive combings at intervals of years. The condition of accessibility may open up, from time to time, other possibilities of exploitation, involving a closer utilization—the use of smaller trees and less valuable species. If sufficient time passes, young timber, passed over in earlier days, grows to just within economical cutting, and is promptly removed. The finish may come in different ways. A widespread forest fire, or a coarse form of utilization such as fuel, chemical wood, even pulpwood, removes the last vestige of commercial growth. The end is an idle deserted region, if it has no agricultural possibilities, where valuable or useful forest growth is out of the question for decades or centuries, even if given the subsequent care and protection necessary.

Unless the radical changes before mentioned take place, when the inevitable exhaustion of timber supply comes it will not mean a mere reduction of operations but a dead stop. For the process which occurs on the small scale in instances many of us have witnessed, and with results so plainly visible in many of the older parts, will be repeated over all the accessible areas until they are no longer available. The forest industry, as a great national asset second only to agriculture and greater than mining, will suddenly pass out. It will be succeeded by a desultory occupation of local interest only, figuring insignificantly in the economy of the nation. It will remain in that condition until restored, after many years, to a fraction of its old-time scale by the meagre efforts of artificial planting coming to fruition, and the slow convalescence of the sick wild forests.

In the question of duration of supply, it is quite reasonable to suppose that the present remaining timber has been overestimated, especially in the remoter regions not yet subjected to surveys. With scarcely an instance to the contrary, predictions and estimates of standing timber in little known territories have erred on the side of over-optimism. Piecing together the results of actual surveys, notes of land surveyors, stray statements of travellers, and reading between the lines of accounts of the northern forests quite unconnected with this subject, it is plain that fires have been steadily burning the heart out of that great forest region which stretches clear across Canada, south of the Barren Lands and north of the railways, from Labrador to Alaska. Yet this is the region on which has been largely based the myth of our inexhaustible forest resources.

At best a subarctic forest is of slow growth, small diameter and stunted nature, its small variety of species showing few of the qualities demanded by wood-using industries except in pulp and paper. It apparently has great areas of scrub, fire barrens, grass lands and young growth which, by reason of climatic and drainage conditions, may be anything from fifty to two hundred years from maturity even as pulpwood. The merchantable timber is in pockets, large pockets some of them perhaps, but still— pockets. Nor will these have high acreage yields.

There is in this connection a situation which carries great significance in considering the probable life of that important branch of the forest products industry—pulp and paper—but which is apparently never taken into consideration. The manufacture of pulp demands an enormous gross bulk of raw material, which must be obtained and delivered to the point of manufacture cheaply. Why is wood, and particularly spruce, so valuable for pulp? It is not essential. Good paper was made before the wood process was ever discovered. Bamboo, sugar cane, saw grass, peat, esparto grass, papyrus, straw and jute, will all make paper, and enormous quantities of all these can be or are raised. Some already are the waste products of other industries. Some can be grown by no more complicated methods than the annual rotation of the farmer. And in none is present the long time element involved in forest growth. A spruce log is particularly valuable for pulp only because it represents a compact parcel of raw material. A cord of spruce contains in concentrated form an amount of good fibre which in some of the substitutes mentioned would amount to a great unwieldy bulk, uneconomical in all operations. Pulpwood is easily cut and handled, and enormous quantities growing in heavy stands are still available. At present it can be transported long distances by rail and water, and still be ahead of possible competitive material. But there is a limit.

The Wood Substitute

THE continued use of wood for pulp depends upon wood remaining a cheap material. It is one thing to set down on paper our estimated remaining pulpwood supply, and to arrive at the probable life of the pulpwood industry by dividing that figure by annual destruction and consumption; it is quite another to say that the pulp and paper manufacturers will not voluntarily have abandoned the forests in the meantime for a cheaper source of raw material. Disregarding the present condition of the industry—a temporary but malign state caused by overproduction, the growing scarcity of stumpage, and costs of output increased by the necessity of operating in far distant forests of extremely low and scattered yield—complications of climatic topographical conditions may easily make the wood substitute attractive long before the wood supply is exhausted. Neither may artificially planted spruce be able to compete eventually with substitutes for wood pulping, once the latter are established. In the light of what is happening, can wood possibly remain a cheap material?

In any case, the possibility of reestablishing or perpetuating the pulpwood industry by artificial reforestation is impracticable. If the total annual cut of pulpwood in Canada, rapidly increasing, is set at a present six million cords, and an average yield—but impossible on enormous areas—of planted spruce at fifty years stated as thirty cords per acre; imagine the planting of two hundred thousand acres annually and forever, in order to maintain the present rate of cutting only—by us, who are not yet planting ten thousand acres of straight forest land yearly. Think of what would be involved. The selection of at least 200,000 acres of suitable land each year; good spruce land, remember, not rock or sand or muskeg, or agricultural land. The planting of about three hundred million trees. The carrying charges on that area for fifty years, the earliest possible maturity. The selection of fifty such areas—ten million acres and never mind how many trees. Fifty years of continuous expenditure in planting and protection before any revenue is forthcoming. Then consider the possibility that the pulp industry has departed meanwhile to the tropics to be near a cheaper and more constant raw material; for it could not wait while the forests were growing, nor will wood produced under such conditions be cheap. Think of this when next you hear of a planting project or “programme” to “perpetuate the pulpwood supply.” Artificial planting of forests has its place undoubtedly in forest economy, but the advocacy of tree planting as a panacea for the malady of universal forest destruction is but a gesture.

There is no necessity to enlarge on the importance of the forest industries to Canada; it is continually being dinned into our ears by one means or another. Especially are we told of the great paper industry and what it is doing for us; the direct and indirect revenues it brings to our Governments; the wages it distributes to Canadians; the population it supports; the marvels of the great plants and scientifically planned towns, with all the most modern improvements, created almost overnight in the wilds; the tremendous figures of investment and production; and, even yet, the certainty of expansion. Little enough is heard of the other side of the situation. It is not dinned into us that we can no more keep taking and taking from our forest resources and still have them, than we can keep writing cheques on our bank accounts without making deposits. Nor that certain disaster, and loss of all the benefits that the industry is at present conferring, is inevitable—under the most favorable eventuality—in but a few years; that is, unless a great change is effected.

The “Romance of Pulpwood,” it is called. But what pleasure lies in viewing romance when a certain tragic ending is foreseen? There is mighty little romance in a cut-out, burnt-out region, scarred here and there by the scrapped remains of forest industrial plants. The pulping industry in Canada has not yet reached a stage noticeably showing these results; but saw-milling has, and there is nothing to choose yet between the practices of the two. Our system of forest exploitation as practised'—disguise it by adjectives as romantic, inspiring, tremendous, enriching, as we may—is swift ruthless destruction.

The very importance of the forest industries, their contribution to the national revenues, to maintenance of population, to the high standard of living we claim as our right, only emphasize the magnitude of the national disaster for which we are heading. On a very small scale we have right now in Canada instances of what happens to local populations when the local industry receives a check. A paper mill closes down temporarily, because of overproduction, and its employees disperse for the time being, among more fortunate towns or have work found for them by a paternal Government. A sawmill burns down, and is never rebuilt because its limits are too nearly cut out; the dependent community abandons its homes forever, and is, more or less, absorbed by the newer scenes of lumbering activity.

What about the time, surely coming unless there is a change of policy, when the condition becomes universal? When the men, women and children affected by the closing down of an operation can no longer be absorbed by corresponding expansion in other parts? When the story of the industry becomes a steady succession of plants closing down permanently, just as the great sawmills have been, one after another, closing down in the Southern Pine regions of the United States, as they did in Michigan and in Central Ontario? Right now, in England, in the coal regions, we have example of the pitiful results of part of a great industry coming to a full and permanent stop. Men who know but one occupation —possibly fitted for no other—turned workless into a wo ld which has no jobs for them. Destitution and a hopeless future for themselves, their womenfolk and their little children.

Unthinkable for Canada—yes! Probably treasonable even to hint it. That sort of thing isn’t said. “Prophesy unto us smooth things” is the popular demand in Canada today, as in Canaan of old.

But if those scare headlines really did appear one day in your paper, might they not be justified and perilously near the truth? And in justification of these forebodings, which is better—pessimism based on the truth, or optimism generated by falsities? The situation can be improved, but not by our present methods or our present attitude.

The remedy is simply enough stated, but requires in application the greatest effort yet put forth in a national problem by Canadians, whose genius has so far only tackled development, never conservation. It involves complete cessation of exploitation of immature forest, and in the mature stands a restriction of cut to an amount well within the growth capacity of accessible forests, leaving a generous margin. It means restriction of the public liberties, on occasion, in regard to woods use and travel, to an extent not realized in Canada, to ensure absolute fire prevention. It means scientific control of cutting methods to obtain natural regeneration of valuable timber species. It means, to effect these things, dearer lumber and paper to the consumer. And who isn’t a consumer? It means jail terms to every fire-bug, and a change of occupation for some administratives. It means discredit to some false prophets. It means SOME JOB!

The alternative? Famine prices for timber; a lower standard of living; an irreparable breach in our walls.

As the big woods operations of New England, the Southern States and Wisconsin cut out their limits, they moved west—always westward. As the Eastern Canadians cut out their supplies they move north—or west. Not very far north is a decided barrier to the lumberman’s progress—the Arctic Barrens. The Pacific slopes are no more inexhaustible than any other region, and the full concentration of increased and final demand will fall there.

When the nomad forest-products industry reaches and cuts out the last stand of all, where then will it strike for with its brains and brawn, capital and equipment, women and children, in a big migration? Where would it find scope, and be welcomed? West again?

What about Siberia?