The combination of a gutted Forest Service, vast areas of not sufficiently restocked forestlands, a quirky loophole in the Kyoto Protocol and a provincial government ideologically driven to sell off public assets has created the perfect opportunity for forest industrialists to burn down the last barriers to privatization of BC’s Crown forests.
The following article was first published in FOCUS Magazine in July 2010 and was one of the first descriptions of the logging industry's move to convert forests directly into pellets for burning for heat. We include it here for historical context.
ON AUGUST 20, 1910, a strong wind blew down off the Cascades and whipped hundreds of forest blazes into an inferno that extinguished towns and three million hectares of forests from Washington to Montana.
The fires came at a critical time in United States history, when the timber barons, including Weyerhaeuser, were swaying public opinion towards privatizing the country’s public forests. The timber barons had attacked Teddy Roosevelt’s new forest service and its backbone—the forest rangers. The mandate Roosevelt gave the US Forest Service, that “the forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the short-sighted greed of a few,” was undermined by claims that Roosevelt’s “green rangers” (led by chief forester Gifford Pinchot) were “google-eyed, bandy-legged dudes, sad-eyed, absent-minded professors and bugologists.”
But when the big fires came, Teddy’s forest rangers fought against all odds, saved thousands of lives, and turned the tide of public sentiment against privatization. That led to the strengthening of the US Forest Service and its duty of stewardship.
It was called the year of the Big Burn, and out of its ashes came the creation of the British Columbia Forest Service, with a similar mission and structure.
A century later, history seems to be in a kind of rhythmic regression in BC. The Forest Service has suffered through a decade of cuts, rendering it unable to do its job. And now the pressure for privatization is coming—from some of the same companies that Roosevelt beat back 100 years ago, like Weyerhaeuser—to meet 21st century demands for cheap, so-called “green” biofuel. And this time round, the champions for keeping our forests public—the latest generation of “green rangers”—are a cohort of influential and well-respected professional foresters from the Forest Service (hardly “absent-minded professors”) led by Anthony Britneff, who recently retired after 39 years as a senior professional in the forest inventory, silviculture and forest health programs of the service. These green rangers are blowing the whistle on an overly industry-friendly government and are poised to put out what threatens to become BC’s own Big Burn.
In June, after the latest in a long series of drastic cuts to the Forest Service, Britneff wrote in an op ed in Victoria’s Times Colonist: “This government might think that by rendering the Forest Service dysfunctional and by not investing in the renewal of forestlands, it will eventually rationalize the privatization of provincial forests at fire-sale prices. Enclose the commons? Wake up BC!”
Besides the emasculating cutbacks, there’s another threat that our green rangers are battling: “tenure reform” that puts “investor security” before the public interest. Some argue it amounts to de facto privatization of public lands. And not just any public lands, but the most abundant valley bottoms that will meet the needs of a growing international demand for biofuel.
All this is playing out against a backdrop of unprecedented forest-health impacts due to climate change and a growing international call to conserve standing forests as carbon sinks for both mitigation of, and adaptation to, global warming.
Massive cuts to the Forest Service
How deeply is the provincial government cutting the Forest Service? From the 42 district offices that used to exist before the Liberals took office in 2001, only 22 remain. According to the BC Government Employees Union, 1004 employees have been cut since 2002—well over half of these among the district staff that were providing on-the-ground stewardship, forest management, recreation, monitoring, enforcement and compliance services. The ministry has been unable to provide the total number of staff remaining. Insiders speculate that staffing levels are now at record lows, possibly below half the staffing level in 1981 at the bottom of the last major recession in BC.
Each district office, with only a handful of field staff, is now responsible for over two million hectares—1000 times more forest per forester than in Sweden. As Roosevelt observed, without a corps of rangers, the land goes unprotected and the laws that set the land aside become meaningless.
Since 2002, in addition to staff cuts, most forest management programs have had budgets slashed by over 50 percent. The Forest Stewardship Division has been gutted and, in a sign of the times, its remnants have been absorbed by the new Competitiveness and Innovation Division, which is being led by an assistant deputy minister with no previous experience in forestry matters—a political appointment made directly by the Premier’s office.
Harry Drage, a green ranger with 32 years in the forest service in the Southern Interior as district manager, provincial recreation officer and certification inspector, observes, “If you take it one step further and look at the staffing in both the ministries that are charged with stewardship—forest and environment—it is down by well over a half of what it was. This creates a lack of public oversight and so the checks and balances are not there anymore. We aren’t protecting the public interest. Is the public comfortable with that?”
This question was put to the Minister of Forests and Range, Pat Bell, an ex-salvage logger from Prince George. He makes no apologies for the cuts or change in institutional culture. With a 35 percent reduction in harvest levels and dropping government revenues from forestry, he feels a nine percent reduction in staff (referring to only the June round of cuts) is not unreasonable. “The public expects us to manage our fiscal resources, and that is what we are doing.” He points to the Forests for Tomorrow program at $40 million dollars for 2010-2011 as making a significant contribution “by any measure” to reforestation.
Anthony Britneff argues that government cannot justify these cuts by the need for fiscal restraint alone because the bulk of the budget cuts were made in 2002, before the recession. He thinks the Forests for Tomorrow program is a tiny drop in a dangerously empty bucket. The amount of public spending on reforestation dropped by 93 percent in 2002 and has only recovered to about 40 percent of what was being budgeted in the ’90s. Meanwhile the amount of land that needs reforestation has increased more than 50-fold.
Minister Bell finds these kind of comments “disappointing,” and he maintains that core services to the ministry have been protected and that it’s easy for critics to manipulate numbers.
Fact-checking the numbers is challenging. The political decision to strip out a requirement for resource analysis reporting from the Ministry of Forests and Range Act has left the public with limited and confusing facts. After 2002, the ministry’s annual reports shrink to half their previous length, and reporting on forest management activities takes a downward dive. John Betts, head of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association, observes that the last time there was such a slim annual report was when the forest rangers were fighting on the Western Front during World War II.
Anthony Britneff argues that it is precisely such lack of reporting that prevents even a coherent discussion about the numbers because they aren’t available. “How can you reliably determine timber supply for annual allowable A clearcut on Vancouver Island awaiting replantingcuts if you don’t have a good inventory of what is there and what isn’t?” he asks. He points out that no one knows anymore how much land is not stocked or requires replanting. Britneff estimates that nine million hectares, an area three times the size of Vancouver Island, is not stocked adequately with trees—lands that are outside of licensee responsibilities and therefore the responsibility of the province.
The critics are not confined to internal Forest Service “bugologists.” In Williams Lake, forest contractor Jane Perry, past president of the Association of BC Forest Professionals, describes the impact of the recent cutbacks on beetle-affected areas as a huge loss to the much-needed research and expertise required to deal with the immense problem. “Morale in Williams Lake,” she sighs, “couldn’t be lower.”
John Betts confirms Perry’s portrayal of what’s happening. “People come up to me and say, ‘Boy, you guys must be really busy with all the burned lands and mountain pine beetle.’ Well, actually, we aren’t. We have lost 30 percent of our work and guys are losing their jobs. The lumber market has collapsed so there is no work with the companies. But the point is we should be busier than ever from government because we have a major restoration project that is being neglected.”
Change of mission
Our publicly-owned forests are a provincial icon and the envy of the world. Since the passing of the Forest Act in 1912, a public role in managing our forests has been enshrined in legislation to defend against what was then characterized as “destructive lumbering.” Some might argue that record is blemished, but British Columbians still enjoy a public asset that is unequalled in the world. Native forests with a tremendous diversity of ecosystems, large, still-intact watersheds, and a public freedom to enjoy them are a part of every British Columbian’s identity. This is very different than the experience of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where native forests have long been converted to plantations of commercial exotic species with a corresponding loss of biodiversity and a limiting of public access.
Since 1978, the Forest Service’s mission statement has stressed integrated management of the many values we ascribe to our forests, with a commitment “to manage, conserve and protect the province’s forest, range and outdoor recreation resources to ensure their sustainable use for the economic, cultural, physical and spiritual well-being of British Columbians, who hold those same resources in trust for future generations. In respecting and caring for public forest and range lands, the ministry is guided by the ethics of stewardship and public service.”
Apparently, that’s now all history.
A recent internal Ministry of Forests and Range document titled “Response to the Changing Business Environment” lays out the new mission for the ministry as “To provide a superior service to resource stakeholders by supporting competitive business conditions” and gives priority to “Enhancing industry competitiveness” and “Identifying clear outcomes for investors.” An earlier internal memo dated June 9, 2009 from Jim Gowriluk, regional executive director, to his district managers, titled “Re: Advocating for the Forest Industry in the Coast Forest Region,” clearly articulates the new single-function mandate of the Forest Service of “fulfilling our role as advocates for the forest industry.”
Protecting the public interest has disappeared.
In Smithers, another retired green ranger, forest ecologist Jim Pojar, an internationally-regarded specialist on BC’s ecosystems with 25 years in the Forest Service under his belt, refuses to become a “stooge of industry.” He believes the Liberal government wants to deregulate and effectively privatize our public forests, presenting “hard times” with forest die-off and declining revenue from forestry as a convenient rationale to impose their ideology. “Their vision seems to be to maximize the net present value of forest resources, liquidate as much wood as quickly as possible, manage only for fibre or biomass, sell off forest land to industry and let them deal with the hassle—and maybe make some extra money in real estate. If that is your vision, you don’t need a Forest Service and you don’t need a regulatory and management regime.”
Del Meidinger was the chief provincial forest ecologist for 30 years. His work with forest classification systems led the world as a management tool and won him the Premier’s Legacy Award. Meidinger points to the axing of the field ecologists who implement this tool. “Why are they de-emphasizing forest stewardship? The forests support so many ecosystem services. Really what is at stake is the protection of the public interest in our forests.”
Alan Vyse, adjunct professor of forestry with an Emeritus position in the Forest Service, speaking from his office at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, affirms the concerns of the green rangers: “The facts stand for themselves. There are lots of concerns out there about the change in culture surrounding our public forests and I share them. What we need now with all the challenges of increased pests, fire and other climate change issues is an informed and proactive Forest Service to identify and solve the problems.”
The problems are as big as all outdoors. While the political winds were changing at the turn of the millennium, the climatic winds were blowing in profound effects on our forests. Interior forests have experienced huge hits from record wildfires, mountain pine beetle, other large-scale insect infestations like western spruce budworm, and diseases like Dothistroma. The mountain pine beetle alone damaged 15 million hectares, 30 to 60 percent of which staff estimate is not satisfactorily restocked (referred to as NSR lands). Fires burned over a million hectares. A third of a million hectares have been left unstocked from small-scale salvage logging carried out without any obligation to reforest.
As Vyse asks, “How do you meet these challenges when you reduce your staff and researchers? In the various cuts, including the latest one, they have eliminated 1500 years of accumulated expertise in technical issues. How can you be proactive…?”
Jim Pojar, in his recent peer-reviewed scientific report, New Climate for Conservation, highlights the challenges facing our forests: “Climate change is already significantly impacting healthy ecosystems in British Columbia and will likely cause more dire consequences for fragmented or degraded ecosystems.” He notes that future projections for forest health and supply of timber require analysis by people who are arms-length to industry.
This is not the direction the BC government seems headed.
Biofuels and tenure reform
BC’s forest industry is in the process of diversifying from producing softwood pulp and paper and dimensional lumber for the United States housing market to a new range of products—most notably feedstock for the bioenergy sector. The main requirement of the bioenergy industry is secure, long-term tenures on productive lands close to markets, ostensibly to provide assurance to investors that there will be a long-term return on capital.
To provide that security, BC’s Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell has called for a new form of tenure called “commercial forest reserves.” Bell maintains there are no plans to privatize Crown forests, but it’s no secret that A hybrid poplar plantation in Oregon that supplies feedstock for production of cellulosic ethanol.the commercial forest reserve concept involves setting aside certain areas, likely the most productive ones, for a single use: intensive silviculture aimed at producing biofuels. Britneff and other green rangers argue that the granting of long term leases that preclude any other uses amounts to at least de facto privatization. The public would lose control of those lands.
What would Bell’s commercial forest reserves look like? “That is difficult to answer at the moment,” Bell says. “We are in discussion with various stakeholders, industry, ENGOs and First Nations. We envision them as smaller geographical areas where you don’t have complications of species at risk, traditional-use areas, and other values.” That the most productive forestlands are valley bottoms where, in fact, all those “complications” are present is not addressed, nor is the process by which these areas are to be selected.
Industry is definitely pushing for tenure reform. Last October, headlines in the Vancouver Sun—“Get government out of forests”—accompanied the release of the Woodbridge Report that was presented in a BC Business Council of BC 2020 Summit co-chaired by David Emerson and past finance minister for the Liberal government, Carole Taylor. Written by Peter Woodbridge, the central recommendation is to reform tenure and put investment interests as the top priority.
The recommendations of the Woodbridge Report echo exactly those of the Working Roundtable on Forestry, set up by Bell, which published its report the year before. These recommendations are a reflection of the membership of the Roundtable, which, as one of their press releases states, is “not intended to represent forest sector interest groups [or the public] because it would be impossible to have a Working Roundtable of a reasonable size and at the same time represent all forest sector interests.” Of the 15 members, 12 were industry representatives, two were First Nations and there was a lone academic, Derek Thompson.
Thompson, also a long-time civil servant and a former deputy minister of Water, Land and Air Protection, was candid: “Tenure reform dominated the discussions, but we couldn’t even get consensus with just industry folk at the table.” He also notes, “There was a great deal of trepidation from government about taking the discourse into the public realm because of the potential for uncontrollable controversy.”
Fear of “uncontrollable controversy” seems to be at the heart of why the provincial Liberals have steered away from open talk about privatization. For very good reasons, British Columbians aren’t comfortable with changes to Crown lands without a full public debate.
Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, John Rustad, is parliamentary secretary to the provincial Committee on Silviculture. He runs a consulting firm for the forest industry and, like Bell, was also born and raised in Prince George. Rustad acknowledges that “Engaging in all those topics with a broad sector of society would elicit a broad response and is a good idea.” But his more immediate concerns are creating opportunities for the industry’s recovery, and he believes the province needs to move in a new direction: “What I have been asked to do is figure out how to maximize and support the fibre needs of industry today and tomorrow, including for bioenergy and biofuels. I need to find the next regime for silviculture to look at the province differently.”
And what would that recovery look like on the ground? Rustad sketches out a model that would utilize one-third of the province’s land base as intensive commercial forests. “We are not trying to do something on every square inch of the land base. Even if we have intensive silviculture values, that doesn’t restrict other values. Having said that, you would have it on a subset of the land base and it would happen over a 10- or 20-year period and the rest of the land base would be managed as it is today.”
He identifies new intensive silviculture technologies as playing a central role because they increase fibre yield by 20 percent on productive sites, and points to pilot projects, such as the hybrid poplar plantations in the Fraser Valley area by Kruger (Scott Paper), on private lands as the future direction of the forest industry.
There are other examples of this shift in focus among forestry companies. Woodbridge highlights the recent Weyerhauser-Chevron venture company called Catchlight Energy. Catchlight is “combining Weyerhaeuser’s expertise in innovative land stewardship, resource management and capacity to deliver sustainable cellulose-based feedstocks at scale with Chevron’s technology capabilities in molecular conversion, product engineering, advanced fuel manufacturing and fuels distribution.”
Clark Binkley, the ex-Dean of the Faculty of Forests at UBC who proselytized privatization of Crown forests before returning to the USA and setting up his own investment company, is touting GreenWood Resources, a Portland-based company that develops intensively-managed hybrid poplar plantations for biofuels.
Industry forest geneticist Dr Jean Brouard labels the land management strategy that partitions the land base into thirds, “Triad.” “Investors are most interested in concentrating on the most productive growing sites, typically about a third of any land base, that are close to mills with high existing roading density and low emissions on haulage. On these productive growing sites—with more intensive site preparation and genetics—you can meet the 20 percent increase in yield. On the average growing sites, you might have a business-as-usual or with more focus on ecosystems-based management, and then the least productive third is left for conservation. Triad is currently being used on a pilot basis in Quebec by the government as forestry was almost at a standstill.”
Does this kind of land management strategy take into account climate change, forest health, biodiversity and other public interests? Brouard doesn’t seem to think that’s possible: “Essentially these go on in the less-intensively managed areas. But you can only grow trees like poplars profitably in moist bottom valley lands and that might coincide with species at risk or fish habitat values. There are also big concerns with pathogens [diseases like Septoria musiva] in hybrid poplar plantations that could jump to native cottonwoods and create a problem for our native forests. Conservation needs to be in all ecosystems and at all scales and that might not coincide with industry’s needs for the most productive lands.”
Woodbridge admits, “Plantations are a dirty word for some Canadians.” But he argues there is no alternative; BC has to follow the more competitive suppliers of fibre and biofuel feedstock—the intensive plantations in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. “To remain competitive, BC has to lower wood costs and this is not done through selling indigenous timber cheaper. Because our labour and transport costs are going up, we have to farm fibre and feedstock for biofuels more intensively. We need to find a secure tenure system to do this.”
The delusion of biofuels
To fully understand where the pressure for tenure reform is coming from, you have to follow the money. Bell and Rustad are clearly putting their money on biofuels, which are being promoted as one of the next great alternative energy sources, a cure for what ails the planet’s warming atmosphere.
You might wonder how burning forests—a fuel high in carbon—can possibly be good for the atmosphere. And that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. In fact, promoting the use of biofuels as part of the solution to global warming seems a bit delusional.
The biofuel idea goes back to a strange loophole in the Kyoto Protocol rules that enables a tree to be cut down, turned into wood pellets, shipped overseas and then burned as fuel without having to account for any of the carbon that is released through all these activities.
If that loophole is plugged, BC would be forced to account for emissions from logging and burning, which, according to the 2007 BC Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, creates the single largest source of emissions in the province, larger even than the energy sector. If the loophole disappears, the dream of rescuing BC’s forest industry by developing the biofuels sector would go up in a puff of wood smoke.
But right now, that loophole remains and is proving to be a powerful impetus for revamping the forest industry.
Ontario is already taking the lead on exploiting this loophole with its proposals to revitalize ailing pulp mills and send wood pellets to its coal-fired power plants, which have been legislated to stop using coal by 2014. It’s one way to keep traditional forestry jobs in economically-depressed forestry-dependent towns. But it’s risky, and it’s exacerbating climate change.
Growing biofuels in an intensive way would degrade the health of the air, water and soil quality. Biodiversity would be severely compromised. Recreation and public access would be denied. The use of forests as needed carbon sinks and repositories of cultural values would go out the window. These rich, valley-bottom lands are what everyone wants—from wildlife to the international real estate companies, as witnessed in the sell-off in the last decade of Crown parcels along eastern Vancouver Island.
Conversion of these lands to intensive plantations would increase our emissions and decrease our ability to adapt to climate change. And, ironically, it would be done under the guise of mitigating climate change.
If the province does go forward with tenure reform to support the biofuel industry and the Kyoto loophole is closed, what then? That would depend on exactly what the new form of tenure was. Bell has likened it to being something like the Agricultural Land Reserve. But the ALR has proven itself susceptible to the predations of the real estate industry and one can easily imagine the Kyoto loophole closing and real estate developments moving into the failed plantations.
Public interest and consultation
With potentially a third of the province being considered for a form of tenure that might well be seen as de facto privatization, “uncontrollable controversy” seems inevitable—but only if the public becomes fully informed. So far, though, the government has managed to keep a pretty tight lid on its plans.
Minister Bell says his focus is the decline of revenue in forest communities like Prince George, and the need for the ministry to take a “new direction.” “We are changing the way we are doing business. It is in the public’s interest to have a strong forest industry, and I’ve been very clear in the direction we need to go: better utilization of the resource, including bioenergy; intensive silviculture; growing the Chinese market; and promoting wood first.” In response to suggestions by his critics that the public expects government to manage not just fiscal resources but the physical values of a forest as well, Bell simply says: “With workforce adjustments, it is always difficult.”
Bell’s counterpart sitting on the other side of the legislature disagrees with him on how to regain economic health in forest communities and what kind of Forest Service is needed to get there. Norm Macdonald, NDP MLA for Columbia River/Revelstoke and Opposition Forest Critic says, “This is the most valuable asset that the people of BC have—just the timber value of the forest alone is a third of a trillion dollars—and, if we don’t maintain that investment with regard to reforestation and research, matters will become progressively worse. [Our Forest Service] has been gutted to the point that the work that is needed to be done isn’t getting done.”
Macdonald sees the change in direction as the thin end of the wedge toward privatization of public forests. “This is cronyism at its worst. The memorandum sent out to all the forest managers to only focus on industry interests has had no public discussion. Has the public interest been considered? Is access going to be denied? To have that agenda without public discussion is deeply disturbing. After nine years on this file, you would think there would be a public plan. At best it is incompetence; at worst there is something more nefarious, like a privatization agenda for our public lands.”
It seems obvious that the public does need to be consulted about the shift in direction and about what could be lost by converting natural forests to intensive plantations and potentially to real estate.
Forest geneticist Brouard says the real lesson from Quebec is that for the Triad process to succeed, it must take place with public consultation. Short-circuiting public consultation leads to more wars in the woods or to industry negotiating their own agreements with ENGOS and First Nations “leaving government [and therefore the public] to play catchup.” The public, like industry, won’t invest in something it has no say over. Brouard also notes another “must have” before the Triad system can work: “The first thing you need, of course, is good inventory of all your lands.” Precisely what we don’t have because of all the cutbacks.
Even investors are nervous about the lack of consultation and oversight. Peter Woodbridge notes, “I am recommending that government also beef up the Forest Service oversight. Let companies have their own sand box and manage their fibre as they see fit, but they have to stay within the confines and rules set by government. I am an advocate for good planning and strong government oversight, and in this regard I have some criticisms of government.”
Bell’s ministry seems to be ignoring the potential for conservation-type carbon offsets. Some First Nations are developing these through reduced harvesting, hoping to sell the offsets on international carbon markets—exactly the opposite of industry’s drift to intensification. These types of carbon offsets do have climatic and biodiversity benefits, unlike the biofuel offsets proposed by Bell in his vision. In order to sell these credits and meet international standards, there have to be tenures that guarantee the conservation of carbon in these forest sinks for 100 years. That means tenure reform, and First Nations are pioneering some of the ideas for how this could be done.
Unfortunately, no one in the ministry is talking about it. Derek Thompson, who is now negotiating carbon conservation projects in the tropics for World Wildlife Fund and indigenous groups, says that what amazes him about the government is the sheer lack of public discussion about the potentially huge revenue source of conservation carbon projects for rural communities.
With no legislated commitment to planning, no budget to do so, and a new mandate to respond to only industry demands, the government has left the public out of the discussion. Only “the google eyed, bandy-legged dudes” once on the inside, seem to know what’s happening. What they are saying is that we can anticipate losing control over our choicest Crown lands—sacrificing them to single, intensive industrial uses with an accompanying loss of access, watershed and biodiversity protection.
Regardless of the type of future business interests—from biofuels to ecosystem services—all roads lead back to the basic message of the green rangers. Says Alan Vyse, “Sure these market forces might build into them some public interest, but where is the discussion about what those public interests are? It is way past time for some fairly significant discussions on the future of our public forests.” Will it create an “uncontrollable controversy”? It is hard to imagine anything more controversial than not consulting with the people.
A good place for the government to start that consultation would be with the green rangers and their 1500 years of experience. To manage healthy forests, Britneff’s first step would be to get forest rangers back into the bush and decentralize services away from city offices to forest-dependent communities.
His second step would be to restore adequate funding for forest management and for research, including exploring international market opportunities that build on environmental stewardship, resiliency and sustainability.
Finally, his third step would be to grant the province’s chief forester independent statutory powers for auditing forest management in 100 local Forest Service offices by the holders of community forest tenures and First Nations tenures, thereby restoring a stewardship ethic to local forest models.
Without such measures, a Big Burn of BC’s public forests seems imminent.
Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator.
BC government gives Pacific BioEnergy green light to log rare inland rainforest for wood pellets.
October 18, 2020
Matt Simmons is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
SEAN O’ROURKE WAS HIKING in BC’s globally rare inland rainforest this spring when pink flagging tape indicating a planned cutblock caught his eye. Finding flagging tape is nothing new, but when he looked closer, he realized the tape had the name of a nearby pellet company on it—Pacific BioEnergy.
The company operates a plant in Prince George where it turns waste wood products—sawdust from mills, tree bark, wood shavings and clippings—into pellets to be burned to produce heat or electricity, replacing coal and fossil fuels. More than 90 percent of Canadian wood pellets are shipped overseas to Europe and Asia, according to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
But the ancient cedars and hemlocks in the rainforest in Lheidli T’enneh First Nation territory, about 60 kilometres east of Prince George, are most certainly not waste wood.
Sean O’Rourke amongst old-growth Red Cedar in the Inland Rainforest north of Prince George (Photo by Conservation North)
O’Rourke, a field scout with Conservation North, a grassroots organization advocating for the protection of old-growth forests in northern BC, took photos of the flagging tape to show his colleagues. He later combed through the publicly available harvest data to confirm the Province had indeed issued permits to Pacific BioEnergy to log the old-growth forest.
While wood pellets are often touted as a renewable energy source, Conservation North director and ecologist Michelle Connolly challenges that claim.
“If the raw material for harvested wood products or pellets is coming from primary and old-growth forest, it is not clean or green or renewable in any way, shape or form,” she said in an interview.
“Destroying wildlife habitat to grind forest into pellets to ship them overseas to burn, to feed into an electricity plant so that people can watch Netflix or play video games really late at night—we can’t allow that to happen,” she added.
The planned cutblock is set to be logged this winter for pellets, but Conservation North is asking the BC government to provide legal protection to all primary forests—those that have never been logged—in the northern region.
Rare ecosystem home to massive trees, endangered caribou, vast carbon stores
After O’Rourke showed his colleagues his photos, they went to the rainforest together to explore the areas slated for logging. The group walked for almost two hours to get to the flagged boundary. The forest is surrounded by clearcuts and second-growth stands of lodgepole pine. Connolly described it as an oasis.
“There are low carpets of moss and beautiful fallen old trees,” Connolly said. “The stands that we’ve seen have really large western red cedars and western hemlock, and we occasionally came across massive Douglas firs that are really large for this area…it would take at least three people to wrap your arms around them.”
More than 500 kilometres from the coast, the inland rainforest is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. Temperate rainforests far from the sea are only found in two other places on the planet: in Russia’s far east and southern Siberia.
The rainforest supports a variety of animals including moose and endangered caribou. The stands of old-growth trees have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and the soil also stores huge amounts of carbon.
The rich biodiversity of these old-growth forest ecosystems is threatened by logging, according to a report published in June.
As The Narwhal reported last year, much of what remains of the inland temperate rainforest is at risk of clearcutting. Connolly said there is “little to no social licence” to harvest these old-growth trees.
“We talked to a lot of people who hunt, who trap, who fish, who guide, and among those people, we’ve sensed a lot of dismay about what’s happening,” she said. “We’re kind of at the limits of tolerance up here.”
BC government ramps up support for pellet industry while plants run out of raw materials
The Province’s promotion of the pellet industry focuses on using wood that would otherwise be wasted or burned in the forest to reduce the risk of wildfires, but rarely mentions the use of whole trees.
“The pellet pushers [including the present NDP government] originally said they would use only logging and milling debris as the source of wood fibre for pellets,” Jim Pojar, a forest ecologist wrote in an email.
However, a recent investigation by Stand.earth found that pellets made of whole trees from primary forests in BC are being sent to Europe and Asia.
“No mature green trees should be cut down and whole logs ground up to produce wood pellets for export, especially if the trees are clear cut from globally rare and endangered temperate rainforest,” Pojar said.
Connolly said a lack of legal protection allows the provincial government to greenlight logging whole trees for pellets—and the government’s language around the industry hides the fact that old-growth is being cut down.
“My understanding is that this is allowed because these forests don’t have any other use,” she said, meaning that they aren’t suitable for making lumber.
“The BC government has some really interesting language around justifying pellet harvesting,” she said. “What they say is that they’re using inferior quality wood.
This isn’t the first time a pellet facility has logged trees to meet its production needs. As The Narwhal reported earlier this year, both Pacific BioEnergy and Pinnacle Renewable Energy, another large-scale pellet company, use whole trees to produce pellets.
Over the past few years, BC has been ramping up its support for the wood pellet industry, but as sawmills shut down across the province, pellet facilities are running out of raw material.
Recently, the Province handed out a number of grants to support projects that take trees that would otherwise be burned on the forest floor in massive slash piles and convert them to pellets. Pacific BioEnergy has received more than $3.2 million from the Province through the Forest Enhancement Society for projects related to its operations.
Connolly said the Province’s push to support the pellet industry is problematic. “We’re kind of rearranging the deck chairs, you know? They’re making little modifications of things they already do, instead of actually looking at the value of keeping the carbon in forests.”
The Ministry of Forests could not comment on this story because government communications are limited to health and public safety information during election periods.
Pacific BioEnergy was also not available to respond by publication time.
Ecologists say burning pellets is not carbon neutral
Wood pellets, sometimes referred to as biomass or bioenergy, are often touted as carbon neutral and sustainable, but critics claim that’s a dangerous misconception.
Burning wood to generate energy is less efficient than burning fossil fuels, which means more wood is needed to produce an equivalent amount of electricity, according to Pojar. More carbon dioxide is sent into the atmosphere from pellet-fuelled power plants than traditional coal or natural gas plants, he pointed out.
The pellet industry and its supporters argue that replanting trees will eventually sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which means burning pellets for heat or energy is carbon neutral. But even if that is true, it could take hundreds of years for those replanted trees to grow big enough to offset the emissions produced by harvesting, transporting, processing and burning the wood.
In a 2019 report entitled Forestry and Carbon in BC, Pojar outlined myths and misconceptions about emissions and the forestry industry. “The CO2 from the combustion of biofuel is released almost instantly, whereas the growth and regrowth of wood takes several decades at least (mostly more than 75 years in BC)”
Connolly, who was an editor of the report, said the green narrative around the pellet industry and industrial logging is misleading.
“It’s so ridiculous to claim that somehow logging is good for the climate,” she said. “What we’ve seen happen is that the BC government and industry have co-opted climate change to argue for more industrial logging. In this case, it’s for pellets, but they’ve been doing the same thing for harvested wood products for the last few years.”
As climate change, industrial logging and other resource extraction projects continue to impact forest ecosystems, maintaining intact primary and old-growth forests is essential, she said.
“BC claims to be exploring all emissions reductions opportunities, but they are not,” she said. “They’re ignoring basically the biggest, best and cheapest opportunity, which is protecting nature. If we’re going to meet our climate commitments, keeping primary forests intact is an important step and what all of us should be asking is, ‘Why are they totally ignoring this?’ ”
Matt Simmons is a writer and editor based in Smithers, BC, unceded Gidimt’en Clan territory, home of the Wet'suwet’en Nation. He is the author of The Outsider’s Guide to Prince Rupert. This story was originally published in The Narwhal under the Local Journalism Initiative.
Conservation North’s short video interview of trapper Don Wilkins on liquidating BC rainforests for electricity in other countries:
As UK’s Drax makes play for BC’s wood pellet mills, questions grow about wood-fired electricity.
First Published in Policy Note, April 11, 2021
WITH ITS SIX MASSIVE 660-megawatt power units, the Drax power station in North Yorkshire is the United Kingdom’s largest thermal electricity plant.
When it opened in the mid 1970s, the giant facility burned coal. Today, however, Drax burns something else: wood, a raw material that grew so scarce during the Elizabethan era that it forced the country to convert to coal.
So, when it comes to finding enough wood, Drax has an intractable problem. Only 13 per cent of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland combined is forested, a number that would be smaller still were it not for major tree-planting efforts over the last century.
Incapable of meeting its raw material needs from within the UK’s borders, Drax relies on imports, which now amount to 10 million tonnes of wood pellets annually. That is effectively double what all of the UK’s forests currently produce in new tree growth each year.
The scale of Drax’s enterprise prompted the company to hire engineers to design new rail cars capable of holding 30 per cent more volume than coal cars. The new cars feature retrievable tops that open for loading and close during transport, thus preventing the wood pellets from getting wet. Meanwhile, the port facilities that those trains travel to can accommodate huge bulk carriers that arrive at dock with as much as 63,907 tonnes of wood pellets. Big as such shipments are, they are not even enough to keep Drax operating for two-and-a-half days.
Only with big “fibre baskets” outside the UK, can Drax meet its needs. In early February it announced that it had reached an agreement with Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc., British Columbia’s largest wood pellet producer, to purchase the company. Pinnacle is the world’s second biggest pellet producer and owns facilities in Alberta and Alabama as well.
An ancient relationship
Logging forests to turn them into pellets has many British Columbians worried, including Quesnel mayor Bob Simpson.
“There is no justification with what’s happening with climate change to allow tree harvesting for pellets,” Simpson says, noting that we cannot afford to be “going back to an ancient relationship with the forest [where] we cut them down to burn them.”
The CCPA’s research shows that from 2010 through 2020, three wood pellet companies in BC— led by Pinnacle—took at least 1.3 million cubic metres of logs out of the province’s forests. At 645,211 cubic metres, Pinnacle alone was responsible for just under half those trees. Prince George-based pellet producer, Pacific Bioenergy, logged slightly less at 611,833 cubic metres while Princeton Standard Pellet was a distant third at a little more than 45,000 cubic metres.
The CCPA crunched the numbers using a searchable database known as the Harvest Billing System, which is maintained by BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The database provides details on logged trees by or on behalf of companies, where the trees were logged, the quality of the logs and what companies paid in stumpage fees to the Province for each tree they logged.
In Pinnacle’s case, 95 per cent of all the trees ascribed to it in the database were in areas of forest auctioned by BC Timber Sales, an arm of the BC government. The data show that Pinnacle paid an average of $20.57 for each cubic metre of trees it logged during those years and that its total payments to the Province were more than $13.27 million.
Most of its logs came from the Quesnel region, including trees from the extremely rare interior temperate rainforest to the east of Quesnel.
The CCPA asked Josh McQuillan, Pinnacle’s superintendent of biomass, and Mike Thomas, a Pinnacle biomass purchaser, for details on the company’s log supplies. Neither replied. Instead, an email came from Karen Brandt of Pinnacle’s communications department:
“The data you are seeking directly from Pinnacle is competitive in nature and therefore we are unable to disclose. However, I can say that we are 100% committed to ensuring that trees go to their highest and best use. Our pellets are either a direct by-product of the lumber industry, or the purposeful extraction of dead, diseased or damaged or low-quality trees.”
In addition to its data analysis, the CCPA has obtained photographs and video showing large numbers of logs amassed at Pinnacle’s pellet mills in Smithers and in Burns Lake. The photographs show pellet mill yards filled with whole logs that are destined to be converted directly into pellets. Simpson says a similar situation exists at a Pinnacle mill to the north of Quesnel. Because of Pinnacle’s decision not to answer any questions about its wood fibre sources, it is unclear whether the photographs represent logs that are in addition to those analyzed by the CCPA.
Logs at Pinnacle’s overflowing pellet mill yards could, for example, be delivered there by major logging companies under a new provincial program known as the “concurrent residual harvest system.” The new system, launched in the spring of 2019, encourages “business agreements” between logging companies and pellet mill operators, and is intended to ensure that “low quality” logs are delivered to pellet mills at deeply discounted stumpage rates. Identifying such logs would require knowing precisely who Pinnacle is doing business with. But that is something the company is apparently unable or unwilling to disclose.
Whatever the ultimate source of Pinnacle’s logs, the data and photographs contradict the pellet industry’s assertions that it uses “residual” (i.e., waste) wood fibre to meet its needs. It also contradicts what BC’s chief forester, Diane Nicholls—one of the most powerful officials in the forests ministry—has said about the province’s pellet mills in a promotional video for the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
Pellets: the antithesis of value-added
“When you look at pellet production in British Columbia, it’s part of building that circular economy in the forest sector. It uses residuals from sawmill production that may not be used otherwise,” Nicholls says in the video. “And that is a win, because it’s something that is an added value for the benefits of British Columbians. It provides jobs. It fulfills a niche in our sector that we didn’t have before.”
But while making wood pellets adds value of a sort to trees that are logged, Nicholls did not address just how few jobs the wood pellet industry actually creates.
Using job figures provided by two unions that represent workers at four of the province’s 14 pellet mills, along with published job figures from industry sources as reported in various media accounts, the CCPA estimates that BC’s 14 pellet mills directly employed just 303 workers in 2020. The United Steelworkers Union and the Public and Private Workers of Canada (PPWC) report that workers in the unionized pellet plants are paid about one-third less than their counterparts working in sawmills, and that pay in non-unionized pellet mills may be lower still.
That same year, according to labour force statistics compiled by the provincial government, 45,000 people worked in BC’s forest industry. That figure includes all logging and log hauling jobs, all jobs in wood product mills, and all pulp and paper mill employees. This means that the wood pellet industry last year accounted for just over one-half of one per cent of the province’s forest sector jobs.
Drax’s entry also comes at a pivotal moment for the wood pellet industry in BC.
In a move without precedent in the province, another new entrant onto the wood pellet scene—Peak Renewables—is proposing to build the largest wood pellet mill in Canada and by far the largest in BC, in the remote Fort Nelson region.
Because the Fort Nelson region has no active sawmills, the proposed pellet mill would feed on whole trees from the moment it opens. The company says the mill’s biomass would come almost exclusively from logging the region’s aspen trees and that about 1.2 million cubic metres of wood from such trees would be required annually (equivalent to approximately 1.5 million aspen trees).
When the CCPA published details on the proposed pellet mill in February, concerns were voiced immediately from forest industry unions and conservation organizations.
“A truly healthy and stable forest industry is built around the idea of circulating wood between mills, adding value at each step of the way,” Gary Fiege, national president of the PPWC, and Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, wrote in a letter to Katrine Conroy, BC’s minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
“The proposed Peak mill is the antithesis of that idea. If built, it will be the first pellet mill in the province that is intentionally designed to churn through whole, living, perfectly healthy trees to make one of the lowest value (from a jobs perspective) forest products on Earth,” they continued.
Conservation North, an organization that is fighting to protect primary, unlogged forests in the interior of the province, where all of BC’s wood pellet mills are located, also wrote to Minister Conroy voicing its opposition to the project. The Fort Nelson region has some of the largest tracts of primary or old-growth forests remaining in the Interior.
Protect more forest & add more value
“Wood pellets derived from primary forests are not a renewable source of energy,” Michelle Connolly, Conservation North’s director, wrote. “By definition, primary forests are forests that have never been disturbed by industrial or other human activity, and consequently are irreplaceable. They are ecologically important, they store more carbon and harbor more biodiversity than plantations or second-growth stands of the same forest type, and they mitigate flood risk.”
Numerous letters of opposition to the project were received in the minister’s office. Notably, Minister Conroy was told in her ministerial mandate letter from Premier John Horgan to both conserve more old-growth or primary forests and to ensure that more value is added to the province’s forest products. The ministry must now decide whether or not to allow Canfor Corp, the largest forest company in BC, to transfer logging rights it holds in the Fort Nelson region to Peak, which would mark a critical milestone in Peak’s pellet mill plans.
Opposition to the forest-harvesting project goes well beyond just conservation and union circles. Even the industry association representing Canada’s wood pellet manufacturers has voiced its objections.
Major wood pellet purchasers, such as Drax, do not operate in a vacuum. The European Union has made it abundantly clear that sourcing wood pellets from primary forests, which store huge amounts of carbon in their old trees, is to be avoided because it is neither renewable or carbon neutral.
The wood pellet industry portrays itself as using “residual” wood supplies, largely in the form of waste from sawmills or broken log bits left behind following clear-cuts logging.
Shortly after the CCPA released details on the Peak Renewables plan for the forests of Fort Nelson, Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC), published a commentary criticizing the company’s plan.
“WPAC does not support wood pellet manufacturing proposals that are predicated on the large-scale harvesting of forests for the sole purpose of pellet production,” Murray wrote, adding that his organization was “inundated” with calls after details of Peak Renewable’s plan surfaced.
“WPAC’s history is rooted in a fundamental principle: responsible sourcing,” Murray wrote in Canadian Biomass Magazine.
“That means our pellets are produced entirely from a combination of the waste or residuals left from harvesting and sawmilling activities, the limited quantities of low-quality logs that need to be removed for forest enhancement or salvage projects and material that can’t be used for any other purpose. We are opposed to initiatives that risk the reputation we have built as a leading global supplier in sustainable wood pellet production.”
A last resort
But what does Murray mean when he says “can’t be used for any other purpose?” In Quesnel, Mayor Simpson says there may be an argument for burning wood at some point. But in his view, it should be at the absolute end of the production train. If a tree is logged, the log should go first to mills where everything from lumber to furniture is made because solid wood products hold onto the carbon in trees and those products may continue to store that carbon for decades and in some cases centuries. After the logs first pass through such mills, Mayor Simpson says, the leftover wood is best sent to a pulp mill (of which there are two in Quesnel).
Traditionally, the mayor notes, pulp mills turned wood chips and sawdust into wood pulp that was then turned into various paper products. But these days, pulp mills can make everything from much-in-demand fibres used in surgical gowns, to bioplastics and biofuels. The pulp industry is only scratching the surface of what can be made from so-called “waste” wood, Mayor Simpson says, whereas the pellet industry is capable of making just one product and a product to immediately be burned at that.
Wood pellets, says the mayor, should be “the last resort,” the caboose at the end of the train.
What have we learned?
In 2018, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Rhodes, wrote Energy: A Human History, a book that looks at how societies transitioned from one energy source to another. The first chapter, No Wood, No Kingdom, begins in 1598 in London, England, as a group of workers dismantle a theatre building as William Shakespeare looks on. The timbers of the ancient theatre are then carted away and resurrected on the other side of the River Thames to become the Globe Theatre, where some of the playwright’s most famous works were first performed.
Scarcity is what drove the salvage and reassembly operation, as the forests around London—indeed across England—were steadily logged and people had to go farther and farther in search of trees to cut down.
Rhodes’s journey through more than 400 years of history makes two things abundantly clear: energy transitions occur as energy supplies run short, and when the transitions occur, they do not happen overnight because of the immense engineering challenges involved.
Fully transitioning from wood to coal did not happen in the blink of an eye. As coal-mining picked up, mines quickly became flooded with water and people then had to figure out how to dewater the mines, first with the power of horses and later, after horsepower’s limits became better understood, with steam.
Contacted at his home in California, Rhodes said he was mystified that England appears to be reaching far back in time to harness the energy of wood, a raw material in very short supply in the UK today, and one that will ultimately not solve a planetary climate crisis as there is no guarantee that the greenhouse gases emitted when wood is burned today will be made up tomorrow when a tree is planted.
“I really do wonder about this cycling of wood,” Rhodes said. “I really do wonder if there’s a CO2 advantage when they’re shipping these pellets. They’re putting them on diesel-fired freighters, I presume, and shipping them across the Atlantic.”
Despite this, the Wood Pellet Association of Canada believes that a surge in wood pellet demand lies ahead and that many more wood pellet mills will be built, including in BC.
By 2027, the Association says that installed wood pellet production globally could reach 51 million tonnes annually. That would require a 40-per-cent growth in the industry in just six years.
Where all the wood needed to make those pellets will come from is anyone’s guess.
If the new pellet mill in Fort Nelson materializes and is built to the scale that Peak Renewables envisions, it would bring the number of pellet mills in BC to 15. Based on last year’s logging rate in BC of 52.3 million cubic metres of timber, the province’s pellet mill industry alone would account for the equivalent of just under 15 per cent of the entire provincial log harvest.
The combined annual output of all of those mills would be a little more than 3.1 million tonnes of wood pellets, which is less than one third of what Drax’s power plant in North Yorkshire needs every year.
Can the world’s forests supply enough biomass for another four such power plants while still protecting forest ecosystems and forest industry jobs?
We may soon find out.
Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a longtime investigative writer. This story was originally published in Policy Note.
BC’s forest industry, with a little help from its dependents in mainstream media, has become expert at warping public perception of the industry.
Teal Cedar Products Ltd’s cedar shake and shingle mill beside the Fraser River in Surrey. About half of the cedar logs that go through the mill end up in the pile on the right.
TEAL CEDAR PRODUCTS LTD, the company in the news over its logging of old-growth forests on southern Vancouver Island, knows something that it doesn’t want you to know: About one-half of the ancient forest Teal cuts in TFL 46, trucks to its log sort at Duke Point, and then booms across the Salish Sea and up the Fraser River to its mill in Surrey, spends time as a pile of sawdust and wood chips on its way to a pulp mill or a bag of garden mulch or some other low value product. About half.
According to data published by the BC ministry of forests, approximately 52 percent of the logs removed from BC forests become wood chips or sawdust. Teal’s mill is no different. The image above shows its shake and shingle mill on the Fraser River. That big pile of sawdust on the right? That’s the destination of approximately half of the old-growth cedar logs it removed from TFL 46 near Port Renfrew.
Like the wood waste from any other mill in BC, the sawdust and wood chips are then transported to a pulp or pellet mill and turned into short-lived products like newsprint, toilet paper, burnable pellets or garden mulch. But the extent to which the forest is wasted when it’s logged is actually much worse than this, whether it’s old growth or second growth.
What can’t be seen in the mill image is the slash left behind in the clearcuts after logging: The stumps and roots, the non-merchantable tops, the branches, parts of the tree that were broken during felling, the rotten parts of the trees, smaller unmerchantable trees, standing dead snags, and woody debris on the forest floor. Oh, and the understory plants and the underground mycorrhizal network. Approximately one-half of the total biomass of a forest that is killed by logging stays in the clearcut until it burns or decomposes and then passes into the atmosphere. Yes, this would all happen over time, naturally. But logging unnaturally shrinks the time frame within which that occurs, and, in the developing climate emergency, accelerating the process of returning forest carbon to the atmosphere could be suicidal.
Logging slash left after clearcut logging of old-growth forest in the Klanawa River Valley on southern Vancouver Island (Photo by TJ Watt)
The wasted biomass left in the clearcut, along with the piles of sawdust and wood chips at the mill, account for 75 percent of the original biomass that was in an old-growth stand before it was logged. Seventy-five percent.
In BC, of the remaining 25 percent that gets turned into lumber, plywood, veneer, panels, shakes, shingles and poles, about 80 percent of that is exported, mostly to the USA, China and Japan. That means that only about 5 percent of the total forest biomass that is killed in BC each year by logging is actually used here as a product that could store carbon for more than a couple of years. Five percent. The other 95 percent is the forest industry’s big, dirty secret.
This matters because there is a climate emergency. Killing forests means killing the most effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and safely store it for hundreds of years. Over the past 20 years in BC, mainly as a result of logging, the province’s forests have lost over 90 percent of their annual capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon.
It also matters because killing forests means killing the wildlife that lived in those forests. As a consequence of logging, BC is experiencing an unprecedented decline in wildlife populations. The greatest cause of biodiversity collapse is loss of habitat.
And it also matters because British Columbians are subsidizing this colossal forest-wasting exercise: By paying for the forest management necessary for the gargantuan scale of logging involved to meet export market demand, by subsidizing the industry’s electrical energy usage, and by failing to tax the immense carbon emissions and loss of carbon sequestration capacity caused by the forest industry.
As awareness of these facts grows, both the ministry of forests and industry are desperately trying to create counter arguments about the damage the industry is doing to climate stability and wildlife.
On the government side, provincial and federal forest mandarins are scrambling to promote initiatives that make it appear they are on the verge of mitigating the harms to climate and biodiversity. “Innovations” like “collecting logging residue” to make “bioenergy” and “mass timber construction” to store carbon are being promoted as climate friendly reasons why forest conservation is unnecessary. These initiatives—eviscerated by serious scientists—only address the symptoms, not the disease itself, which is too much logging. Worse, these unproven initiatives likely will have no impact at actually reducing the harm, and instead provide only the appearance of “We’ve got this.”
Individual forest product companies, too, are finding their own creative ways to maneuver their businesses through the climate and biodiversity minefields. This brings us back to Teal Cedar Products Ltd, and its claims about guitars.
In BC Supreme Court, Teal emphasized its role in guitar making
Recall that in its February 2021 application to the BC Supreme Court for an injunction against logging road blockades in TFL 46, Teal emphasized the impact the blockades had on its “Teal Tonewood Division.” The company’s injunction contains the term “shake and shingle mill” only once, with no description of the extent of that business at all. Yet for its “Tonewood Division,” Teal included this long description:
“Teal Cedar will suffer particular damage to its Tonewood division, which supplies book-matched pairs of timber used to manufacture custom-made guitars.
“Only the highest quality all-blonde, straight-grain Western Red Cedar meets Teal Cedar’s standards for this business. This wood is difficult to come by. A disproportionate volume of the Western Red Cedar logs that do meet this standard originate from the Southern Vancouver Island logging area where the Blockades have occurred.
“From September to December 2020, Teal Cedar experienced a decline in production of approximately 25,000 Tonewood units, resulting in lost revenue exceeding $250,000. This was due primarily to a sharp shortage in Western Red Cedar logs available during this period for production. Teal Cedar’s customers have begun to seek out substitute suppliers and lower cost European and Sitka Spruce product alternatives. For these customers, the shift to lower cost, lower quality alternatives would likely be permanent.”
Just based on the difference in the number of words used to describe its cedar products, you might think that most of the cedar Teal takes from TFL 46 is being used to make guitars. “Shake and shingle” got three words; guitars got 146.
Teal’s use of the injunction application to emphasize the tonewood aspect of its business raises some questions about the veracity of the company’s claims.
For one thing, Teal removed 2.5 times the volume of cedar from TFL 46 in 2020 than it did in 2019—when there were no blockades. That increase in volume doesn’t support Teal’s claim of a “sharp shortage.” Moreover, the log market value of the cedar Teal did remove from TFL 46 in 2020 was about $9.7 million, and this is a much lower value than that of the wood products made from those logs. Why would “lost revenue exceeding $250,000” need to be highlighted by Teal?
Secondly, according to Teal-Jones’ videos about the company, its Tonewood Division is located in Lumby, BC. Teal has a shake and shingle mill in Revelstoke, 175 kilometres distant from Lumby by highway, that also uses old-growth cedar cut from that area. The Revelstoke area is known for being able to produce excellent guitar tonewood, both from red cedar and Sitka spruce. From Port Renfrew to Lumby is 600 kilometres by road and a log boom across the Salish Sea. Why wouldn’t Teal have simply made up the difference from its nearby Revelstoke operation instead of losing all those valuable tonewood clients?
But these are mere side issues relating to the believability of Teal’s claims. The main question that needs examination is this: Are guitar tonewoods actually a big part of Teal’s Vancouver Island logging and Surrey milling business, or is that just corporate greenwashing of the larger harms the company is doing? Several reporters covering the old-growth logging blockades emphasized the guitars.
Mainstream media: Teal-Jones is “world's largest maker of acoustic guitar heads”
On April 9, a week after Teal was granted an injunction, the company’s efforts to rebrand itself as a guitar maker hit mainstream media. Darren Kloster, a reporter for Victoria’s Times Colonist, interviewed Teal spokesperson Jack Gardner. Kloster wrote, “Gardner said ‘every stick harvested’ is processed at its mills in BC, including a facility in Lumby that cuts cedar blocks for guitars. Teal-Jones, he said, is the world’s largest maker of guitar tops and ships cut pieces to guitar makers in Canada and around the world.”
Over the following weeks, as public support for the blockades grew and the RCMP began to arrest forest defenders, media coverage of the conflict ballooned and the “world’s largest maker of guitar tops” claim metastasized.
Writing about the blockades in the May 27 Globe and Mail, Justine Hunter reported, “The Teal Jones Group is the largest privately owned timber harvesting and primary lumber-product manufacturing company in British Columbia. The family owned company is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads, and it also produces dimensional lumber for construction, log home timbers and cedar shingles.”
On June 6, reporting for Reuters, Nia Williams wrote: “Teal Jones is a private company based in Surrey, near Vancouver. The company, the world’s largest maker of cedar guitar heads, says although the Fairy Creek watershed is almost 1,200 hectares, only about 200 hectares are available for harvest.”
The role the guitar factor played in how reporters thought about what was important was clearly evident in stories written by former Vancouver Sun reporter Rob Shaw. Now a reporter for Victoria’s CHEK TV, Shaw produced at least two stories that included Teal’s guitar parts business. For the Daily Hive, he wrote: “The company’s Tonewood division is one of the world’s largest suppliers of acoustic guitar heads and plans to use some old growth trees—cedar and spruce have the best grain—to make guitar parts and other instruments.”
On The Orca website, Shaw reported that “Teal-Jones, and its Tonewood Division, is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads.”
Based on that “world’s largest maker” status, Shaw calculated that “There’s likely several protesters at Fairy Creek right now, as well as other environmental activists, holding acoustic guitars made from the very trees they demand not to be felled.”
Shaw went on to observe, “It’s easy for the forestry community to paint them [the protesters] as hypocrites—though in reality, we are all guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to decrying the harm caused to the environment, and then consuming the very products that worsen those harms.”
Shaw didn’t quote anyone from the forestry community who had accused guitar-playing old-growth protesters of being hypocrites; perhaps he sniffed out the hypocrisy all on his own.
From Shaw’s stories, it’s clear that Teal’s guitar claims had influenced how he viewed the company, the logging, the protests and the protesters.
The four reporters didn’t all agree on which part of an acoustic guitar Teal was producing, but they all agreed that it was either the “largest maker,” or “one of the largest makers” of that part in the world.
According to Teal’s Youtube video, it produces approximately 2-foot-long, quarter-inch thick, quarter-sawn planks of red cedar and Sitka spruce—known as tonewood—that can be used for the front panel of a guitar body, the surface that has the sound hole in it. Tonewood is still a rough sawmill product though, not what could properly be called a “valued-added” product, though Teal does. To make tonewood, Teal takes a cedar shake bolt and runs it through a bandsaw instead of a hydraulic splitter. If Teal turned the boards produced into guitars—they don’t—that would be “value-added.”
FOCUS contacted Kloster, Hunter and Shaw and asked how they had confirmed Teal’s “world’s largest” claim. All responded, but none provided any evidence that supported the “largest maker” claim. It appears that Gardner’s claims to Kloster, along with information included in one of the company’s Youtube videos, was all that it took for the company’s logging of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island to be characterized by mainstream media reporters as an essential part of the global manufacture of acoustic guitars.
There were significant gaps in their reporting: None mentioned that the manufacture of red cedar shakes requires felling the same iconic, ancient red cedar trees that Teal claims to use to make guitar parts. None of the reporters mentioned that Teal’s shake and shingle mill in Surrey is arguably the largest manufacturer of red cedar shakes and shingles in BC—and possibly the world.
I can only say “arguably” because the privately-owned company has not provided a public account of its Surrey shake and shingle mill’s output for at least 10 years, if ever. The ministry of forests conducts a voluntary “Major Mill Survey” each year that publishes the estimated annual output of every kind of mill in BC. Almost every large mill participates, but not Teal-Jones’ shake and shingle mill in Surrey.
What is the mill’s output? Its physical size is evidently much larger than that of the largest shake and shingle producer that does participate in the ministry’s mill survey. A video about Teal’s shake and shingle mill states there are 23 resaw machines—the company produces 24-inch tapersawn shakes—with matching packing and banding facilities below the resaw machines.
Some of the 23 machines at Teal-Jones’ Surrey shake and shingle mill that produce tapersawn shakes (Photo via Youtube)
Compare that with the company’s video description of its funky “Tonewood Division” facility, which it says is located in Lumby. The video shows a few glimpses of a rustic building containing cedar or spruce blocks, and a bandsaw leisurely cutting off a thin plank destined for a guitar. It’s clearly a small, niche operation.
Teal-Jones’ Tonewood Division manufacturing facility, identified in a Youtube video as being in Lumby, BC
But given the prominence of the guitar business in its application for an injunction, it appears Teal doesn’t want the public to think of the company as a roofing producer. Instead, it would like to be seen as a manufacturer of acoustic guitar parts. Why?
Turning old-growth forests into roofing is like dynamiting the Sistine Chapel
Ask yourself: would you feel better about Teal chainsawing down a majestic 1000-year-old Western red cedar if you were told it was felled to (1) make musical instruments, or (2) make roofing?
If cedar shakes are installed properly on a steep roof that’s well maintained, the shakes will last for about 30 years. The roofing then needs replacing. This is the worst possible use of old-growth cedar. I should know. I’ve installed a number of shake roofs on houses I’ve built, and they have all been replaced in that time frame.
Cedar shingles on a roof will have an even shorter lifetime. As decorative siding, shingles are likely to last a little longer, but not as long as the trees from which they came would have lived if they were left standing.
Teal understands that it’s easier to sell old-growth forest destruction during a climate emergency and in the midst of biodiversity collapse if the public thinks it’s being done to make acoustic guitars than if it’s done to produce a roofing product or decorative shingles.
FOCUS did a thorough internet search for Teal’s guitar-parts making business in Lumby—and throughout BC—but we couldn’t find it. We did an extensive search of satellite imagery for mills in the Lumby area. Mills of any size, from small to large, stick out like a sore thumb—there’s always a big pile of wood waste nearby. Yet the Lumby guitar-part-making mill could not be found. We searched through organizations of luthiers (guitar makers) around the world and could find no mention of Teal’s guitar parts business, even though it “is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads,” according to the reporters. On the other hand, Acoustic Woods, the Port Alberni based tonewood supplier, could easily be found in all of these searches.
We requested information about “Teal Tonewood Division” from Teal—and the lawyer who had prepared its injunction application—several times—but they provided no response.
Teal seems to have found a way to draw attention away from its core business and direct it toward a more palatable use of old-growth forests. Mainstream media seem more than willing to amplify that mischaracterization of the company’s activities.
You can understand Teal’s dilemma: It has a large mill equipped to make a product that seemed like a good idea in the early 1900s. But it’s early in the twenty-first century, BC is down to its last few hundred thousand hectares of forests containing large, ancient trees, and there’s a climate emergency and a biodiversity collapse. Using those rare remaining stands for short-lived roofing products or decorative siding could easily be seen by the public as reprehensible, like dynamiting the Sistine Chapel to make ballast. But using ancient forests for acoustic guitars that can then make beautiful music that feeds the human soul? How could you be against that?
Why would mainstream media be so willing to pussy-foot around the demolition? Let’s go back to that big pile of sawdust beside Teal-Jones’ mill. That mound of ground-up fibre is an inevitable by-product of milling, and it is no different here than anywhere else on Earth. What that by-product has mainly been used for in the past was the production of newsprint, the cheap medium upon which Canada’s mainstream print media—like the Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail—depend on for their continued business health. Deep down, newspapers don’t want to see those sawdust piles disappear. If they vanished, or became scarce, cheap paper—the oxygen of the newspaper business—would disappear. Given that fact, for newspaper reporters to say anything seriously critical about the forest industry would be, well, hypocritical.
David Broadland is the former publisher of FOCUS, a print magazine whose financial stability depended heavily on paper prices hardly ever rising. He and Leslie Campbell were happy to begin the process of decarbonizing the publication in 2016 and have now completed that project.
As more old-growth trees topple and forest industry jobs plummet, an obscure government subsidy scheme fuels the collapse.
Thanks to generous BC government subsidies, wood pellet mill yards are overflowing with logs culled from the interior region’s primary or old-growth forests. Photo: Stand.earth.
FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS, the BC government has rewarded logging companies with millions of additional old-growth trees to chop down thanks to an obscure “credit” program that allows companies to log bonus trees that don’t count toward their licensed logging limits.
The virtually unheard of program was noted briefly in a report released by the government in June following a press conference in which Premier John Horgan boasted of his government’s efforts to protect more old-growth forests even as protesters were being arrested in his own riding for blockading logging roads leading into ancient stands of trees.
Despite being a fixture of government policy for a decade-and-a-half, the credits or subsidies, which one former senior-ranking civil servant in the provincial Ministry of Forests likens to a Ponzi scheme, have flown almost completely under the radar.
Under the scheme, which applies across BC’s vast interior region, logging companies that truck lower value trees to wood pellet mills and pulp mills receive credits from the government that allow them to go back into the forest and log as many trees again.
In addition to accelerating the loss of irreplaceable old-growth ecosystems, the bonus logging is certain to fuel even more job losses in BC’s battered forest industry, where 40,000 workers have lost their jobs in the past 20 years. But a new investigation by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives finds even more to be concerned about including:
• No record of how many millions of additional trees have been logged since the subsidies began in 2006, and government refusal to provide such information short of a formal Freedom-of-Information request, which could result in months if not years delay.
• More than $37 million in taxpayer dollars given directly to wood pellet and pulp mills or their suppliers to help underwrite their costs of purchasing lower-quality wood fibre.
• Rapidly rising demand for lower-quality logs from BC’s wood pellet mills, which further threatens old-growth forests, despite the industry’s claims to the contrary.
The credits effectively amount to a government-sanctioned double-dip for the logging companies. But the biggest consequence may be that the bonus logging is off the books.
In its June report, the government disclosed that the credit logging doesn’t count towards a company’s logging entitlement, known as its Allowable Annual Cut or AAC. That means that one of the only tools the government has to control logging rates—a cap—is badly compromised.
Despite the government acknowledging that the subsidies will accelerate “declining mid-term timber supplies,”—a euphemism for running out of trees—it cannot or will not say how many millions more trees have been logged as a result of the credits.
It’s certain, however, that the number is high. In the Prince George area alone, a 2017 report by the province’s chief forester, Diane Nicholls, found that in just one five-year period, logging companies cut down an additional 2.4 million cubic metres of trees under the credit scheme, with much of the downed trees going to the region’s wood pellet mills, a bottom-feeding industry that cares not a whit whether its wood comes from centuries-old or 20-year-old trees.
In the same report, Nicholls, who occupies one of the highest positions in the provincial Ministry of Forests, noted that it is possible that the rate of credit logging will increase even further, resulting in a greater area of forest logged each year. However, she said, the additional logging was an “important tool” to keep lower quality logs flowing to the region’s wood pellet mills, and therefore she would not adjust future logging entitlement (AAC) downwards to reflect the additional number of trees being logged under the subsidy scheme.
In an interview, Anthony Britneff, a former registered professional forester who held senior positions in the same ministry during his nearly 40 years of public service, called the credit scheme “a secretive, fraudulent Ponzi scheme in which the public’s timber is being allocated out of the legislated AAC process.”
He said all British Columbians will be the victims, since the credit logging is happening in publicly-owned forests, “and that those responsible should be held accountable.”
“A crime against the province”
Arnold Bercov, a former president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada, said he is deeply unsettled by the subsidy program’s implications. He fears the credit logging will further deepen problems for already stressed forest ecosystems, community watersheds, rural First Nations, non-Indigenous rural communities, and forest industry workers alike.
“It’s so bad what we’re doing. We’re liquidating what’s here. That’s what’s going on. And that’s just a crime against this province,” Bercov said.
The union is one of three representing forest industry workers in BC and has been vocal about the need to protect more old-growth forests, and ensure that much higher value is added to whatever trees are logged in the province’s forests.
While Bercov says the credit program poses risks to forests and forest workers alike, its biggest victims will be First Nations on whose ancestral lands all the bonus logging is taking place. “Ultimately, it won’t matter about First Nation land claims. In a few years, it won’t matter if they win or lose because there won’t be anything left to win,” Bercov says.
“Here we are speeding down a climate emergency and we are putting holes in our only lifeboat,” says Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
Simard said she wonders now how many of the logs “trundling out of the woods daily” near her home community of Nelson in the West Kootenay region may be a result of the credit program, including trees from the interior rainforest, one of the rarest forest ecosystems on earth.
Simard’s concerns are shared by Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North, an organization devoted to trying to protect the interior region’s primary forests, those forests not disturbed by logging, mining or other industrial activities.
“The BC government is targeting natural hemlock forests in our inland temperate rainforest for pellets even though this ecosystem is red-listed,” said Connolly. “Now we find out that the direct destruction of these rare forests is being subsidized with public money and packaged as a bioeconomy. I really want to know how decision-makers sleep at night endorsing this and calling it clean and green.”
Connolly’s and Simard’s concerns appear to be borne out by data analyzed by the CCPA showing escalated the logging of old-growth cedar and hemlock trees, a clear sign of increased logging in wetter forests where such trees are found.
Where the trees go, the jobs go
Despite such concerns, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, says that it cannot say how many trees have fallen as a result of the credit program. In an emailed response to a written request from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives or CCPA, the ministry said that information on credit applications and approvals is largely confined to paper documents and therefore not available. To arrive at a rolled up figure for the total number of credits granted would involve a “large and complex” search that the government won’t even consider doing until it receives a formal Freedom-of-Information request.
“Although some of the information is available electronically, most is housed in other forms that will take time to research and compile,” Doug Kelly, the ministry’s acting executive director of safety, engineering and tenures said in an email.
Short of waiting months if not a year or more to learn how the government would respond to an FOI request and what, if any, documents it would release, the CCPA has tried to gauge the potential scale of the credit program by analyzing publicly available logging data in BC’s interior region for each of the years from 2006, the year the credit began, through 2020.
The vast interior region stretches east of the coast mountains to Alberta and everywhere between BC’s southern and northern borders. Some of the largest sawmills in the world are located in the region, along with pulp mills and a growing number of wood pellet mills.
The combined horsepower of all those mills has escalated demand for trees from the region’s forests, which have been extensively logged for decades as well as being hammered by wildfires and massive beetle attacks that prompted even more logging.
The CCPA analysis identified three notable trends including:
A 50 per cent increase, on average, since 2006 in logs that could potentially trigger credits. These logs are identified in the database as Grade 4 logs.
Steady logging of the highest value trees, which yield Grade 1 and Grade 2 logs. Under the credit scheme, a company receiving credits for delivering low-value logs can then use those credits to log higher-value trees.
A decline in the logging of higher-quality pine trees, and increases in the logging of higher-quality spruce, fir, cedar, hemlock and balsam trees.
The drop in logging of higher-quality pine trees suggests that logging companies have effectively run out of many forests where healthy pine once dominated, and are making up the shortfall by intensifying logging elsewhere, including the rare inland temperate rainforest, which scientists warn is on the verge of ecological collapse.
Collapse, also neatly summarizes forest industry employment, which in 20 years has plummeted from 91,000 jobs to just 49,000 today.
A beetle attack, logging frenzy and mounting wood waste
The credit program has its origins in the epic mountain pine beetle infestation that gathered steam in the interior more than 20 years ago and that killed hundreds of millions of lodgepole pine trees.
The scale, severity and duration of the infestation was made far worse by climate change, but infinitely worse by ill-advised, government-approved clear-cutting and tree-planting programs.
Those programs saw vast swaths of forest logged and replanted primarily with tiny nursery-raised lodgepole pine seedlings, even though in many cases the forests that had been logged contained a mix of tree species.
Forest scientists including Alex Woods, David Coates and Andreas Hamman were among those to warn early on that the overreliance on clear-cutting and pine-planting was a mistake, because the plantations would act as magnets not just for mountain pine beetles but tree-killing blights such as Dothistroma.
As more and more of those vulnerable pine plantations began to fail, making a mockery of computer models that confidently predicted that they would maintain their health and vigor, the scientists warned that such plantations had become “a major restoration liability” and would remain so for years if not decades to come.
In response to the epic infestation, the government decided to open the floodgates and allow logging companies to dramatically escalate clear-cut logging in the name of “salvaging” millions of the beetle-attacked trees before they became unusable as feedstock for two-by-fours and other lumber products. But data maintained by the BC government showed that it wasn’t just damaged pine trees that were logged, but millions of healthy spruce, fir, cedar, balsam and hemlock trees as well.
The salvage logging was a bonanza to the interior forest industry and its two undisputed powerhouses, Canadian Forest Products or Canfor and West Fraser Timber, which own and operate some of the biggest lumber mills on the planet.
But it also fueled a surge in wood waste, as millions more trees fell, only to be rejected for hauling to the nearest sawmills because they allegedly lacked the highest quality wood fibre. Making it easier for the companies to leave the rejected logs behind, provincial timber-pricing policies required them to pay just 25 cents—the bare minimum —for each cubic metre of lower quality logs left behind, even though many of those same logs could have been made into lumber.
The credit program emerged in response to the mountains of wood waste, but it also had roots in the growing demand for wood fibre from an aggressive new player in the forest industy.
In 2006, the nascent wood pellet industry had eight mills in the province and was consuming roughly 2.5 million cubic metres worth of wood fibre a year. In the years to follow, it would grow to 13 mills and its appetite for wood would increase fourfold. And the industry isn’t done growing. Witness a proposal to build what would be the largest pellet mill in Canada in Fort Nelson, a mill that would require the logging of an additional 1.5 million trees per year.
Traditionally, pulp and paper mills relied mostly, but not exclusively, on the mountains of wood chips and sawdust generated at sawmills, where, as a consequence of round logs being turned into rectangular products, only about half of each log ends up as lumber.
But with surging wood pellet production putting the squeeze on a finite wood supply, it wasn’t long before both pellet mill and pulp mill owners were clamoring for huge numbers of whole logs. With droves of trees being cut down and left where they’d fallen, the challenge became how to convince Canfor, West Fraser and others to bring those logs into town.
Enhancing business conditions
The credit program effectively put fuel in logging truck tanks by rewarding logging companies with the promise of more trees to come.
But there were even more tangible ways that the government subsidized or accelerated old-growth logging. It put money directly into the pockets of the major logging companies and sawmill operators, as well as the wood pellet and pulp companies.
In 2016, a program unveiled by the provincial government created a new entity called the Forest Enhancement Society with an initial infusion of $85 million in taxpayer dollars, later topped up with a second installment of $150 million.
The society is chaired by former provincial chief forester Jim Snetsinger, who is now a forestry consultant based out of Prince George.
Over the years, the society has doled out money to reforestation and reclamation projects that rehabilitate lands damaged by wildfires and insect attacks. But it has also channeled significant funds into projects that it claims will substantially reduce carbon emissions by bringing lower quality logs and logging debris in from the bush, rather than seeing those logs burned.
After reviewing the society’s lengthy list of funded projects, the CCPA estimates that at least $37 million in taxpayer dollars went directly to wood pellet mills and pulp mills or to companies working to bring lower quality logs and wood fibre into mill towns.
Notable recipients of those public funds included:
$4.37 million to BC’s biggest wood pellet company, Pinnacle Renewable Energy. Pinnacle is now owned by Drax, a UK company that burns 10 million tonnes of imported wood pellets per year to generate electricity.
$2.18 million to Pacific Bioenergy, another large wood pellet producer based out of Prince George.
$1.5 million to the Prince George Pulp and Paper mill.
$1.25 million to the Domtar pulp mill in Kamloops.
$3 million to Mercer’s Celgar pulp mill in Castlegar.
In its 2020 “accomplishments” report, the Society states that “one of the biggest challenges” with lower quality logs left behind at logging operations “is that the value of the wood waste is lower than the cost to haul it to a facility like a pellet plant, co-generation electrical plant, or a pulp mill.”
“Through grants that help cover transportation costs, we support organizations and companies who want to use that leftover wood fibre...instead of burning slash piles, the wood fibre is put to good use and supports our province’s bioeconomy and climate change goals.”
Left completely unsaid is how saving wood from being burned at logging sites only to deliver it to pellet mills that make a product that is then burned equates to a climate benefit. Also left unsaid is the sweet deal that the combined Forest Enhancement Society and credit program subsidies bestowed on the companies involved.
Old-growth cedar logs from one of the world’s most unique and imperilled forest ecosystems—BC’s interior rainforest—make their way into a wood pellet mill yard in Prince George. Photo: James Steidle.
Take as one example, Canfor. Canfor is a partner in the Pacific Bioenergy pellet plant. It also owns the Prince George Pulp and Paper mill.
Through grants received by the society, Pacific Bioenergy and Prince George Pulp and Paper got to underwrite their log purchase costs at taxpayer’s expense thereby increasing their profits.
Then, after delivering such logs to those facilities, Canfor could apply for credits allowing it to log even more trees, including the higher-value trees that it covets for its sawmill operations.
Credits equal further losses of remnant old-growth
On BC’s coast, the earliest commercial logging dates back to the 1820s, when a sliver of the forest’s tallest and straightest old-growth fir trees were cut down to make ship’s masts. Since then, significant tracts of coastal forest have been logged two or more times. But in the interior, the commercial logging of “primary” or “old-growth” forests, which have never before been clear-cut, really only got seriously underway half a century ago.
Because many interior trees are smaller than on the coast, the area of land cleared to yield a similar volume of wood to that on the coast is far greater.
The interior region is also much more conducive to clear-cut logging on a vast scale due to its generally gentler terrain, which is not the case on the more mountainous coast. That reality, combined with the interior’s proximity to the United States’ lucrative housing market, made the region a magnet for lumber producers.
When the first significant modern era pine beetle infestations began in the late 1980s on the vast Chilcotin plateau west of Williams Lake, the combination of big sawmills and highly automated logging equipment in the form of feller buncher machines resulted in a rapid increase in clear-cuts. The even more consequential beetle attacks that followed 20 years later only accelerated the deforestation because by then the sawmills were even bigger.
The consequence? In just 50 years much of the interior’s once-bountiful primary or old-growth forests are gone, with horrendous consequences for endangered wildlife species such as woodland caribou, who need all that the forest contains and where a “low-quality” tree for lumber may be the highest-quality tree for lichen, without which caribou cannot survive. The additional forest losses associated with climate change and its role in fueling more prolonged and intense wildfires, tree-killing droughts, insect attacks and tree diseases, have further speeded the losses, leading to the deepening ecological and economic crisis.
The BC government, which regulates the forest industry, says it cannot say how much government subsidies may be contributing to logs showing up at pellet mills, like this one in Burns Lake. Photo: Stand.earth
Earlier this year, the environmental organization Stand.earth released photographs and video footage showing pellet mill yards in Smithers, Burns Lake and Houston filled to overflowing with towering walls of logs.
The images confirmed that contrary to the pellet industry’s assertions that “residual” wood chips from nearby sawmills were the primary feedstock for pellet mills, it was massive numbers of whole logs that kept such operations afloat.
Provincial government subsidies have fuelled additional logging in the Houston area, where logs like this await conversion into wood pellets. Photo: Stand.earth
Two of those pellet mills—in Burns Lake and Houston—are in the Nadina Natural Resource District, which is administered by the provincial forests ministry.
In addition to the two large pellet operations in the Nadina district, Canfor operates a sawmill in Houston that was the largest mill in the world when it opened its doors in 2004 and remains one of the biggest lumber mills on the planet.
The CCPA analyzed five years of logging data in the Nadina and found that on average the region’s logging companies extracted 14 per cent more trees from the region’s forests than they were entitled to cut under their Allowable Annual Cuts.
Nearly one in every three trees logged during that timeframe were “lower quality” logs that could be used to generate credits. Although just how many actually resulted in credits being claimed is unknown because of the government’s refusal to release such information.
Because we don’t know that number, we also cannot say to what extent Canfor and other companies operating in the Nadina may have used the credits as collateral or leverage to get what they really wanted, which was access to the highest-quality old-growth trees.
But what can be said, because the data supports it, is that Canfor and others logged the region’s richest forests at a prodigious clip with two out of every three trees extracted producing Grade 1 and Grade 2 logs.
What can also be said is that any lower quality logs claimed as credits by Canfor in the Nadina district provided a double economic benefit to BC’s largest forest company. As is the case in Prince George, where it is a partner in the Pacific Bioenergy pellet plant, Canfor has a stake in the Houston pellet mill, where it is a co-owner and operator along with Pinnacle Pellet and the Moricetown Indian Band.
In Houston, Canadian Forest Products (Canfor) operates one of the world’s largest sawmills and is also a partner in the local wood pellet mill. Logs seen here will be chipped to make wood pellets at the Houston pellet mill. Photo: Stand.earth
In the absence of a proper accounting from the government, it remains uncertain how much the credit program contributed to the Allowable Annual Cut being exceeded for five years running in the Nadina district. It is also uncertain how much the credit program has contributed to the increasing clip at which logging companies throughout the entire interior region have cut down the highest quality trees. In 2011, 39 per cent of all the trees cut down by Canfor and others yielded the highest quality logs. Every year thereafter that number increased to reach 59 per cent of the total at the end of last year.
But what is certain is that logging more trees today means logging less trees tomorrow. A fall down in future logging rates is guaranteed for the simple reason that the industry is running out of the most desirable trees to cut down. And when the fall down comes, don’t expect any of the region’s major logging and sawmilling companies to stick around. Both of BC’s lumber giants, Canfor and West Fraser, have invested heavily in mills and forest assets in the US South, a hedge on the day when BC’s interior forests are thoroughly depleted.
And we all fall down
At more than 6.4 million hectares in size, the Mackenzie Timber Supply Area surrounding much of the massive Williston Reservoir is one of the largest forested administration zones in BC and larger in size than many European countries.
But the once prosperous community of the same name is a shadow of its former self.
As Mackenzie’s forest industry built up in the 1970s, jobs were so plentiful that workers were firmly in the driver’s seat. They could quit a job in one of the town’s mills in the morning and be working at another mill in the afternoon.
Nearly 2,000 workers were once employed in one of Mackenzie’s five sawmills, two pulp mills, one paper mill, a value-added mill and a chip plant.
Today, only one sawmill remains employing roughly 300 people (although the mill has been taking periodic shutdowns) along with the value-added mill, which employs a little more than 100 people in an operation that takes short trim ends from lumber mills and fits and glues them together in a process called “finger-jointing” to make longer finished boards.
So decimated is Mackenzie’s once vibrant forest sector, that the value-added mill now imports trim ends from mills eight or more hours away.
Peter Merkley is president of Local 18 of the Public and Private Workers of Canada, which recently lost 211 members who worked at Canfor’s last remaining sawmill in Mackenzie. The mill closed its doors for good on June 17, 2019.
The union used to represent upwards of 800 mill workers in Mackenzie. Today, not a single union member is employed in the town.
Adding to the angst of those who cling to the increasingly dim hope of a resurgence in local forest industry activity, Mackenzie’s remaining residents watch as logging trucks by the thousands truck logs past their doors to sawmills starved for logs in Prince George, Quesnel and elsewhere.
Last year, according to data analyzed by the CCPA, Canfor pulled more than 425,000 cubic metres of logs out of the Mackenzie TSA, with a healthy 43 per cent of all those logs being the highest quality Grade 1 and Grade 2 logs.
Merkley equates the activity to strip-mining. And he now fears no forest or community will be spared.
“It’s going to happen everywhere, without a doubt, until there’s nothing left. And then, the companies are going to be out of here. It’s disgusting. And our government’s letting it happen, which is beyond me.”
Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a longtime investigative writer.