Canada’s vanishing forests

Jane O’Hara January 14 1985

Canada’s vanishing forests

Jane O’Hara January 14 1985

Canada’s vanishing forests


Jane O’Hara

For more than 40 years Bus Griffiths logged the coastal forests of British Columbia and considered himself “one of the best in the woods.” In the 1930s he cut down centuries-old Douglas fir with a crosscut saw. Those trees were almost as tall as the 300-foot Peace Tower on Parliament Hill and big enough to build several two-bedroom houses. Now 72, Griffiths lives at Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island, in the heartland of an area that once had the most majestic forests in the world. But now, declared Griffiths: “At the rate they are logging, there won’t be much left. Some of those forestry outfits made a lot of money out of logging. They should have put some back into reforestation.”

The forest near Griffiths’s home is relatively new, reseeded after extensive logging during the first half of the cen-

tury. But the trees that now line the bay are weaklings compared to their predecessors—like the towering stands of dying Douglas fir trees preserved in nearby Cathedral Grove. Added Griffiths: “When I first started in the woods, most of the timber was like those trees in Cathedral Grove. Now, you see trucks going by loaded with trees that you could almost pack out on your back.” Griffiths’s concern is not simply the reflection of an oldtimer’s nostalgia. In fact, there is an overwhelming supply of evidence—including government, academic and industry studies—to support his personal account of the destruction of Canadian forests. Canada’s most lucrative natural resource is rapidly disappearing and it cannot be readily replaced.

The thickly forested expanses of Northern Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia make it clear that Canada is not short of trees. But those

forests mask a serious, coast-to-coast shortage of mature, marketable timber. And the possible liquidation of the dwindling stands of mature timber could virtually destroy Canada’s $23billion forest industry and create a wave of economic and social damage across the country. Said Gerald Merrithew, the federal minister of state for forestry: “If the forestry industry fails, there is hardly a community in Canada that will not be affected.”

Raw material: Canada now produces about 14 per cent of the world’s timber and other forest products, the world’s third-largest share, and it is the leading exporter of those products. Every year the newsprint for The New York Times alone devours four million softwood trees. In a good year experts estimate that almost 250 million Canadian trees are cut to supply the raw material for everything from houses to hair brushes. Although two-thirds of the harvest is

used for pulp and paper production in Quebec and Ontario, those 250 million trees could build approximately six million average-sized houses.

The forest is Canada’s most valuable natural resource, a mainstay of the economy and the major contributor to Canada’s $15-billion balance of trade surplus. It is also the largest employer of Canadians. Roughly 300,000 people work as loggers, sawmill workers and in pulp and paper operations. Another 700,000 jobs are indirectly dependent on the forestry industry (in British Columbia the figures soar to one in four). And when the forest industry is in difficulty, the national economy is in trouble as well.

Decline: Forestry is as important to the Canadian economy as oil is to Saudi Arabia’s, but its size and wealth-creating power are largely invisible to most Canadians, who live and work in cities. In 1983 forestry accounted for an $11.7billion foreign trade surplus, twice as large as the revenue produced by agriculture and exceeding the combined revenue from mining, coal, petroleum and natural gas operations. But the numbers hide a decline that most authorities concede is almost inevitable. Last year, the Science Council of Canada declared: “We have allowed the forests to degen-

erate to a dangerous point. We have been felling, selling and shipping timber for so long that today a $23-billion industry is facing economic stagnation.” Experts say that the shortage of commercial timber is a direct result of waste, mismanagement and a shortsighted attitude within the industry itself. In British Columbia, which accounts for 60 per cent of Canada’s lumber production, recent reports predicting timber shortages of as much as 30 per cent by as early as 1995 have sent shockwaves through the forestry industry.

Les Reed, former assistant deputy minister in charge of the Canadian Forestry Service, predicts that across Canada, timber supply will decrease by 20 per cent over the next 15 years. Said Reed, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia’s School of Forestry: “Chances are that more than half the people now employed in mill towns will have to move to find other work.”

Added Grant Ainscough, chief forester and vice-

president of Vancouver-based MacMillan Bloede Ltd: “That is realistic. Right now we have shortages of timber which is economic enough for us to log.”

Many of the people who work directly in the forestry industry are also concerned about the business’s future. Robert Otto, 32, has worked with a Weldwood of Canada Ltd. logging crew around Squamish, B.C., for 15 years. He says that he is concerned that factors completely beyond his control will drive him out of the forests. Like many who work in the field, Otto says that he is outraged by the waste of trees that logging companies cut down and leave to rot. Indeed, according to some estimates, almost three billion trees nationwide are chopped down every year while only 250 million are marketed. Said Otto: “Across the Squamish River there are several million board-feet of fir, hemlock and cedar lying on the ground that are going to rot, left there because it would cost too much to transport it to market.” Added Griffiths: “A lot of those trees that they are leaving in the forest are marketable. Someone should get a horse and yard it out, even if they only sell it for firewood.”

Poor management is not the only reason for the problems in the forests. In the past several years, fires destroyed about six times more forest area than loggers harvested. As well, infestations of pests such as the spruce budworm, which defoliated nearly 185 million acres in the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario during the 1970s—an area almost as large as Ontario—have cost millions in annual timber losses. And in the past five years acid rain has also become a concern to foresters. Although Canadian experts remain divided on the effects of acid rain on forests, West German researchers have concluded that almost 34 per cent of that country’s forest has been injured by the pollution.

Dying: Foresters in the southern, eastern and midwestern United States also express concern that acid rain has begun taking it toll on that nation’s $49billion forest products industry. In the eastern United States spruce and fir stands are now littered with dead or dying trees and in the south the vitally important loblolly pine species has declined dramatically. Said a recent report from Standard and Poor’s, a New York-based bond rating firm: “If acid rain kills an appreciable number of trees on the millions of acres owned by forest companies, stock prices will die faster than the trees.”

In Canada, the forests

face a welter of problems that no single solution can correct. But experts in the field are virtually unanimous in isolating a single underlying cause of the damage. It is improper silviculture— the replanting, weeding, thinning and fertilizing of logged land to ensure future growth. Indeed, in 1979 all levels of government spent only $156 million on silviculture while collecting about $3 billion in taxes and revenues from the industry. By contrast, the 1981 National Forestry Conference in Banff, Alta., recommended that in order to ensure a steady supply of timber, spending on silviculture should increase to $600 million annually.

Lunatics: Indeed, the federal government has demonstrated a stronger commitment to silviculture in foreign countries than it has in Canada. According to the Science Council of Canada, between 1979 and 1984 the federal government spent only $80 million on domestic reforestation and $430 million for reforestation aid to the Third World. Said Jack Walters, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia: “They are lunatics.”

Like many professional foresters, Walters contends that inadequate silviculture is the prime cause of the industry’s decline. “This generation is witnessing the death of the Canadian forests,” he told Maclean’s. “We have gutted the forests across thé nation, while governments have only paid lip service to the need for forest management.” Added George Marek, who has worked as a forester in France, West Germany and Czechoslovakia and recently retired from a similar job with the Ontario ministry of natural resources: “Our forest companies have to start acting like civilized people instead of pigs. In Europe they would never get away with the things they do here. People in Europe worship the land.”

Currently, there are 50 to 60 million acres of logged and unreforested land in Canada. And that figure is growing. Indeed, each year Canadian forests are reduced by almost 2.5 million acres—an area approximately the size of Prince Edward Island. In one sense, the sheer size of Canadian forests is responsible for the overcutting. For decades the lush stands of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock and pine that carpeted river valleys and mountainsides seemed to be a perpetual, inexhaustible resource that nature would always replenish. But foresters have since discovered that sloppy and wasteful logging practices have inhibited regeneration. And even when there is a natural regrowth, there is no guarantee that that the new trees will be of the same valuable species that have served as the backbone of the Canadian

In Canada, most silviculture programs concentrate only on replanting. But unless the seedlings are also spaced, thinned and regularly fertilized, almost 40 per cent of them will die. Indeed, Canada’s forest floors are littered with the residue of ill-conceived silvicultural efforts. Said Walters: “I know areas that have been replanted six times and have produced zilch.”

Inevitably, forests left to regenerate decline in value. In Ontario, white pine harvested for lumber was once the most highly prized species. By the turn of the century, loggers had taken most of the mature pine and they turned to black spruce, which is used to make pulp. Today, black spruce is becoming rare, and loggers are turning to even less valuable species, such as poplar and balsam fir. Said Reed: “These are not commercial species. Nature does not always put back what was there before.”

Foresters: The full scope of Canada’s reforestation failure is best revealed in a comparison with its main international competitors in the forest industry. Clearly, replenishing forests in Canada is a primitive art compared with countries such as Sweden, the United States and Norway. Canada employs one forester for every 1.1 million acres of land, compared with Northern Europe, where the ratio is one for every 34,000 acres. And the governments of Sweden, the United States, Finland and most South American countries now assume complete responsibility for the size, number and type of trees that grow on replanted lands. One result is that Canada’s share of world pulp production has declined from its historic high of 70 per cent to 30 per cent today.

Fifty years ago, when Sweden experienced a severe timber shortage, it began a strict “sustained yield” reforestation

program designed to ensure a constant supply of salable timber. Since then, the country has skyrocketed into a powerful position in the world forest industry. Indeed, although the Swedes have only one-quarter the forest base of Canada, they produce two-thirds as much timber as Canada does.

Regulations: In Finland, strict government regulations and harsh penalties have kept the country’s largely privately owned industry in the forefront of reforestation. When a stand is harvested in Finland, its owners deposit an amount equal to 15 per cent of the timber’s value into a special governmentcontrolled bank account. And when the landowner proves that the area has been

replanted he is repaid two-thirds the original sum. The rest is reimbursed when government foresters declare the replanting a success, ensuring that the companies fulfil the vital function of tending replanted lands. Those advanced techniques have enabled Scandinavia to grow three to four times more wood per acre than Canada manages.

In Chile, one of the largest South American exporters of logs and lumber, government encouragement of plantation tree-farming and efficient forest management have enabled local industries to produce pulp fibre at half the Canadian cost. Currently, experts estimate that Chile will increase its annual allowable cut from 10 million cubic metres a year to 40 million by the year 2000. And throughout Europe, South America and New Zealand large stands of what were once solely Canadian species are growing uniformly in plantations, ready for relatively cheap mechanical harvesting. The Swedes are now planting more lodgepole pine than Canadian foresters. That foresight is one of the key reasons that Canada has lost its dominant position in world markets. Said Ainscough: “I have seen huge stands of 80-year-old Douglas fir growing in Belgium.”

Ownership: Structurally, the vital difference that distinguishes the Canadian industry from its international competitors is the fact that almost 93 per cent of Canadian timber lands are either provincially or federally owned, with large forestry companies paying rents and royalties in return for the right to cut trees. In contrast, the success of forest management in foreign countries is due largely to the private ownership of timber lands. In Canada,

privately owned timber lots account for only seven per cent of the country’s total forest reserve, but in eastern Canada and Ontario they supply almost 20 per cent of the annual timber harvest.

Because the approximately 50 major forestry companies obtain their wood from Crown land, they claim that money for reforestation should be taken from public funds. They argue that the government, like the owner of an apartment building, should pay all the capital costs of maintaining its property, especially because their leases do not guarantee rights to future harvests.

Reforestation: In 1982 the Liberal government tacitly accepted that argument. Ottawa announced a federal forest renewal program that would commit $130 million a year to reforestation in all 10 provinces, if the provinces provided matching funds. The government reached agreements with Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. But negotiations broke down or were suspended with the three forestry giants: British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

In British Columbia the federal-provincial deadlock led to the cancellation of planned 1984 reforestation expenditure of $37 million. Instead, the provincial government allotted only $10 million for forest renewal. For its part, the

Quebec government refused to negotiate with Ottawa, leaving widespread dissatisfaction within the local industry. Said André Duchesne, president and general director of the Quebec Forest Industry Association: “The government has given us the mandate to manage a pile of wood, not a forest.”

Still, the prime reponsibility for forest management lies with the provincial governments, which own most of the harvestable timber lands. But in the past three years, facing a severe downturn in the economy, most provinces have cut back their forestry programs. In 1982 the B.C. government used its $83-million fund for silviculture to offset the provincial budget deficit and since then eight other special forestry funds in that province have been diverted in similar ways. But to be successful silviculture must be carried out with uninterrupted financing over a number of years. Said Walters: “Politicians have short-term interests, but the forests have long-term needs.”

In British Columbia, the province’s 10 major forest companies have concentrated forest man-

agement on private holdings, but they make up only three per cent of the province’s 130 million acres of forest land. Since 1962 the companies have also replanted provincially owned forest land for which they hold tree farm licences, with the government refunding part of the cost. But the reforestation has lagged far behind the province’s intensive logging and, as a result, almost 1.6 million acres of prime forest in British Columbia is officially described as “not sufficiently restocked.”

Subsidies: Ontario suffers from the same problem. There, forest industries employ directly and indirectly almost

320,000 people, and 42 communities depend almost exclusively on the $7-billion provincial industry. In 1979 the Ontario government established forest management agreements, subsidizing companies that reforest areas they have logged over. The object of the program, said Conservative Premier William Davis, is to “replace two trees for every one harvested.” But the reality of Ontario reforestation has fallen far behind the political rhetoric. In


1983-84, loggers harvested 387,000 acres in Ontario, but replanted and reseeded only 227,000 acres. And there are increasing concerns that even the replanted forests will fail to turn out the same species and volume of timber that originally grew. According to Marek, almost 70 per cent of the province’s $163-million forest management budget is used to pay for logging roads used by the large forest companies.

In Nova Scotia, where forestry—not fishing—is the primary industry, the government sponsors reforestation programs in only a fraction of the province’s logging operations. Unlike the forests in other provinces, 75 per cent of the Nova Scotia forest is owned by roughly 30,000 private concerns. The government recently introduced a forest renewal program that would provide grants and assistance to landlords who wanted to initiate proper forestry techniques, but the program is voluntary and it has so far been embraced by only 3,500 owners. Now, although the provincial government is reluctant to impose compulsory forest management laws, critics contend that without them the industry could soon collapse completely. In the 1970s close to 50 per cent of the province’s forest was lost to the spruce budworm, which attacked overmature trees—balsam fir in particular. Said James O’Neil, legal counsel to the Nova Scotia Land Owners’ and Forest Fibre Producers’ Association: “This is one of the major resource disaster areas of North America.”

Benefits: Industry, government and environmentalists all agree that reforestation is necessary. Proponents of silviculture argue that increased planting, an arduous, highly labor-intensive occupation, will produce the added benefit of putting large numbers of unemployed people to work. And most analysts agree that the economic benefits of investment in forest management are substantial, depite the long lead time. The problem is finding the money.

On Vancouver Island, the mayors and municipal representatives last November began lobbying governments for $22.3 million to invest in a forest management program to employ 1,116 people. According to North Cowichan Mayor Graham Bruce, spending the money now on silviculture over 137,000 acres would increase the value of the timber by $665 million in 45 years. The projected payoff is impressive, but in a province strapped by economic austerity, the funds are hard to find. Said Bruce: “If we did it 45 years ago, we would have money in our pockets now.” It is the tragic story of all of Canada’s forests.

With Diane Luckow in Vancouver, Dale Eisler in Regina, Garry Moir in Winnipeg, Paul Berton in Toronto, Bruce Wallace in Montreal and George Butters in Cape Breton.