Salvaging the integrity of our land and communities

It was recently pointed out to me that my days as a student have subtly morphed into that of “working class hero”. Life choices combined with a need for money have pushed me towards tree planting.

My relationship to this identity has changed with time, specifically regarding ethics – a progression from the romantic ideal of saving the earth to the disheartened, crusted over, bitter reality that tree planting is an industry directly tied to the market economy that commodifies our planet.

But as I realize that “change” doesn’t require an overthrow of existing organizational structure. As I learn about the conventional structures that govern BC’s forest industry, that is, the heart of BC’s economy, I am better able to  identify its tipping points.

Boom and bust cycles govern resource development in BC. Our provincial government has, and continues to, respond to crisis affecting the long-term viability of our public forest, the industry and the communities that depend on them, through encouragement of short-term boom.

The mountain pine beetle serves as a perfect example.  Massive salvage logging is currently the name of the game in the central and southern interior of BC. A game that the government continues to promote through temporary increases of the logging rate (Annual Allowable Cut (AAC))within affected areas. The cumulative estimate of timber lost due to the pine beetle will include about 80% of our harvestable land by 2014.

There is no question that the health of our forests has been jeopardized by the mountain pine beetle- salvaged cut or not. But forests are resilient things that change over time. Despite the industry driven hysteria, aggressive logging of beetle-killed forest creates more problems than it solves.

Global warming has already pulled out its magnifying glass and is heating up the earth. Hotter and drier summers in addition to the seas of crisp, dry, red-dead pine is a forest fire “on mass” waiting to happen. But this threat can be managed without the massive cutting currently happening.

Putting aside the doomsday prophecies, perhaps it is best to question what happens to our number one resource industry in BC after all of our harvestable timber is gone? What then will happen to the integrity of communities and their jobs dependent upon this resource?

Well, don’t worry. Those doing the hard groundwork in defining public policy have created a plan to guide our forests and communities into the future. The revised Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan for 2006-2011is backed by close to $500 million in strategic investments aimed at diversifying local economies of affected communities, including the restoration of future timber supplies and of affected ecosystems.Recreation, tourism, and development of other resource-based sectors,such as mining, energy and agriculture, are the main proposals leading to diversified economies listed in the action plan.

But, my experiences as a tree planter have made me skeptical and weary of the tourism and recreational opportunities that present themselves when there are no forests left in our natural landscape. And what then?Is the only suggested alternative reached by default? Further developing other resource-based industries as a means to support afflicted communities, simply encourages the same developmental framework of boom and bust cycles, and is characterized by the environmental degradation that got us here in the first place.

Perhaps I’m taking all of this a little too seriously. As a tree planter, I should have accepted by now the longtime standing agendas of government and industry. After all, part of the action plan includes the Forests for Tomorrow Program, and the allocation of $161 million dollars over the next four years, aimed at aggressive reforestation strategies.

Hold on a second while I run around these words and jump for joy. Job security and stability for me! Woopee! Being a transient, contract worker means that you don’t have to invest in communities anyways. Just move in for the 2 months of work, get your pay check, and be on your way. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? Well, turning a blind eye isn’t as easy as it sounds when there is no visually aesthetic buffer between you and the practical realities of industry and the deteriorating integrity of natural cycles of the earth’s ecosystems.

This past summer, I spent most of my working days in the Thompson-Okanagan region. I planted for two months to the west ofVernon and Lumby followed by a few weeks around Penticton and some days to the east of Kelowna. I finished off my season in August as an herbicide applicator (a.k.a. sprayer) just north of Kamloops in a town called Clearwater.

The most redeeming aspects of working outside are the views that extend over vast landscapes. These images continually remind me that BC is beautiful and spectacular in its range of diverse geography. However,this definition of beautiful that I refer to, has been desensitized to incorporate the reality of numerous and frequent clear-cuts in plain view, the red blankets of tree carcasses left by the pervading pine beetle epidemic, and by the remains of burned out forests (from the2003 Interface Firestorms).

The most dramatic change that I have seen over the last five years, out in the field, is an encroaching sea of red that has consumed whole landscapes. A vivid image lingers in my memory from a cut block just outside of Fauckland, about 20 minutes north-west of Vernon. My foreman, having just talked with the forester, came over to where I was planting. A silent grandiose sweeping gesture of his hand encompassed all we could see–a magnificent landscape of rolling hills with no defined end in sight. He noted in disbelief that all of it would begone roughly in the next two years, salvaged cut due to the pine beetle.

In response to the beetle problem, government and industry are pushing to salvage what they can of the remaining economic value before the dying timber rots away. News releases put forward by the Ministry ofForests make it clear that the provincial Mountain Pine Beetle ActionPlan is offering new major forest licenses in effort to recover maximum economic value from beetle-attacked forests in the Quesnel and PrinceGeorge timber supply areas. These include a temporary increase in theAAC for many of the forest licenses within the central and southern interior.

A swath of recent announcements were confirmed in September of 2006 alone, some of which include:

  • A 50% increase for the 100 Mile House timber supply area’s previous year’s AAC;
  • A $4 million, five year forestry agreement reached between the province and the Nak’azdi First Nation’s value-added lumber mill nearFort St. James, which includes access to 585,000 cubic meters of Crownwood in the Prince George and Mackenzie timber supply areas; and
  • The provincial government and Ainsworth Lumber Co. have just signed a beetle-wood license that will allow them to salvage up to 10.5million cubic meters for strand board production (West Fraser MillsLtd. also decided earlier this year to invest $105 million in a major expansion of their mill in Quesnel).

Salvaging the opportunity to make money now is the current developmental agenda of industry and government as they build on the back of the pine beetle epidemic. This has pushed logging levels in areas such as Quesnel, up 70% from regular practices. It has been warned that these levels will fall by more than 50% over the next 10 years. BC’s Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan is one step in approaching the effects of this epidemic, but the screaming discrepancy that has existed previously between policy ideals and their practical applications, leads me to question the integrity of the plan and who’s agenda will drive its implementation.

I’m worried, you should be too.

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