Capital Daily

The Policy Argument For Old Growth

Episode Summary

With tensions rising between protestors and loggers, we analyze the policy that could be the answer for all parties involved.

Episode Notes

With tensions rising between protestors and loggers, we analyze the policy that could be the answer for all parties involved.  

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Episode Transcription

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Jackie: Hi, my name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Wednesday, May 26. Welcome to the Capital Daily Podcast. Today on the show, we get a better understanding of the policy around old-growth logging and the paths forward the government has for the prosperous resource sector. Since we last covered the old-growth logging protests on Vancouver Island, there have, as of Monday, been 53 arrests, according to RCMP. The vast majority of those for breaching the injunction with some arrests for obstruction. The arrests have taken place at multiple locations, including the Caycuse camp, which was the first site to see RCMP injunction enforcement. Arrests have varied from protestors refusing to leave the exclusion zones to protestors chaining themselves to structures, and in one case, someone locked a part of their body underground. That protestor was eventually extracted but held up active felling for several days. There have also been tree-sitters where RCMP have used what they call "high angle rescue" to attempt to arrest people. On May 20, one person escaped this via a zipline but was arrested later in the day. On May 21, the Rainforest Flying Squad claimed there was a protestor in the trees at Caycuse. Tree felling was reportedly happening one tree away from the tree-sitter. Worksafe BC showed up on-site, and the felling was shut down. That same day the Save Fairy Creek Instagram was taken down by Instagram over a video they posted the day before. According to the Rainforest Flying Squad, the video showed a violent arrest of two protestors, one being an Indigenous woman. The social media site said the reason for removing the account was because it was promoting violence. It is still down as of writing this episode Tuesday evening. According to the Rainforest Flying Squad, there are also accounts from protestors that guns were fired allegedly by loggers in areas where tree-sitter protestors were still occupying. In response to the media exclusion zone, which we covered in our most recent episode on the blockades, the BC Civil Liberties Association published an open letter calling the RCMP's action overboard. They say two of the checkpoints near the blockade are not warranted by injunction. The RCMP presence and enforcement have been consistently increasing, though the movement shows no signs of letting up so far. Meanwhile, the government has not been very vocal about the situation at all, despite protests out front of John Horgan's office and the Legislature. As tensions continue to rise, we wanted to better understand the policy around old-growth logging and learn about the strategies the government can follow that would still allow for a prosperous resource sector. To do that, we're joined by Ben Parfitt, a Resource Policy Analyst BC CCPC. Ben, thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Ben: Well, there wasn't really much of a policy at all. I mean, what we've seen from the province pretty much continuously is old-growth logging happening under whatever particular regime of the day is in power. There have been periods in time where there have been pushes to protect more forest, and we've seen various governments agree to the protection of more wilderness and old-growth. But time after time, year after year, we're seeing continuous logging of old-growth.

Jackie: This government actually campaigned on protecting old-growth. Has anything changed since they came to power?

Ben: Well, if you're talking about since they came to power in the first go-round, there has been a commitment to study the issue. And there has been a commitment of a sort to protect more old growth. But there's a great deal of work to be done in terms of understanding what exactly the government is going to do, in terms of how much old-growth they are going to protect. And that is giving rise to ongoing concerns that I think are shared by many, many different people, people in the environmental community, people in labour, people in First Nations communities, everybody, I think, is concerned about both the ongoing rate of logging that is happening and old-growth for us. And in particular, what the government is going to do in terms of both protecting more old growth. And simultaneously, what it's going to do is to try and do something about the extremely sharp decline that has occurred in terms of forest industry employment in the province. So I think that there are two things that are going on in tandem that are important to focus on. One is very, very clear evidence of a steady erosion of the remaining old-growth forest base in the province. And simultaneously with that is a very clear and marked decline in the number of people that are working in the forest industry; the two are related. I believe that declines in all growth very clearly are mirrored in declines in forest sector employment. And I think that that has placed the government in a bit of a bind, and they need to, in my opinion, be very, sort of about what they're going to do, to try and achieve two very important mandates that the current Forestry Minister has been given. And those two mandates are to protect more old-growth forests and to move the forest industry more up the value line, in other words, to create higher-value forest products. And if that is done, if the ladder is done, that could result in potentially some increases in forest industry employment, which would certainly help to reduce the very sharp declines that we've seen in sector employment over the last decade. 

Jackie: This issue has a ticking clock on it for a number of reasons. One, there is very little old-growth left, and the longer the government waits on it, the less there are. Two, we have the economic consequences of a pandemic that we're currently dealing with. So when it comes to jobs, that's incredibly important, as well. And, you know, there's a lot of pressure on the government to act fast. They have committed, and they have, to their credit, they have commissioned the strategic old-growth review. But they haven't acted on anything. in both situations. As I said, there's a ticking clock. Is it normal for a government to have this much pressure over policy? Or are they kind of in a unique situation that's hard to act on?

Ben: No, they're far from in a unique situation. I mean, if you look at the arc of history in this province, there have been very, very protracted, much more high-profile protests on the loss of old-growth forests that have happened in this province. So this issue has come up again and again over the decades. So the government of the day is not in a unique position. The other thing that I think is very important to point out is that at this particular point in time, we're seeing among the highest prices for lumber recorded in provincial history. There is obviously an incredible demand for lumber; record-high prices are being paid. And that is resulting in tremendous pressure to log more and more for us, but there's a price to be paid for that. The price to be paid is first. There's only so much for us to go around. And all one has to do is look at satellite imagery, whether it be on the coast, which is a very distinct region as compared in the interior, to see that there are huge areas for us that have been logged and not very much old-growth or primary forest remaining to be logged. So there is tremendous economic pressure that is being applied to essentially continue the status quo. But every day that we do that, we have less old-growth forests left up. So I think what that means is that if we really want to get serious about having, you know, a good ecologically diverse and healthy forest system, we clearly have to conserve more for ourselves than we currently have. And the second thing that we have to acknowledge is that in many rural regions, the province's resource industry activities remain a very important part of the economy. And the question is, “Do we continue the status quo? Or do we move in a different direction?” And in the work that I do, and I do this with the support of both conservation organizations and forest industry unions, is to say that there is a different way that we can go about doing things. And the government of the day has essentially acknowledged that the general direction that I think we should be going in is one that ought to be pursued. But I think what ends up happening is the government becomes captured by economic interests, that the state can keep them the way that they are. So I would say that if you want to look at ways to do two things that I think the general public would be in support of, which is to increase forest conservation and protection and have healthier, more stable, more diverse jobs in the forest industry. What you have to end up doing is you have to find ways to do more with a limited amount of raw material, that bottom line. So let's think about the coast for a minute. And in recent years. With the notable exception of last year, which was a very unusual year, because of COVID. We have had log export levels. So this is the exportation of unprocessed raw logs from the coast of British Columbia. We've seen those export levels, averaging about 6 million cubic meters of logs per year. Bear in mind that a cubic meter of wood is equivalent to about one telephone poles worth of what 6 million telephone poles per year, leaving the province unprocessed. 

Ben: My estimate is that if you simply match the current job production from the wood that is processed in the province, just the act of exporting those 6 million cubic meters of raw logs per year is equivalent to giving up about 3600 manufacturing jobs in the province. That's a lot. That's a lot of jobs. Now, my proposition would be what would happen if the government required both the provincial and federal governments to get serious on this; what would happen if they were to institute a complete ban on raw log exports? What I think would happen is that with the cut, there would be companies that would step into the fray to say that they could actually do something with that wood. And my belief is that it is entirely possible that we could be conserving more old-growth forests on the coast of British Columbia. And we could have, at the very least, a wash in terms of the number of jobs because if we, for example, protected enough old-growth forests to equal, let's say, half of those log exports, but it required the industry to get super serious about processing the other half, we would have at least as many jobs as we've got today, if not more. And that's the thing that I think that we need to be focused on. We need to be focused on adding more value here at home. And the reason I say that is let's think for a minute about the number of jobs in the forest industry in this province that have been lost in the last ten years alone. So if you go back ten years, there were approximately 91,000 people working in the forest industry in British Columbia. Today, numbers 49,000, we have seen a huge decrease in the number of people working in the forest industry. At the same time, we have seen significant increases in the amount of raw logs that are being exported from the province. That's just the first example. Let's look at another one. In the remote northeast of the province, there is now a proposal in the Fort Nelson region, which is one of the largest forest regions in the entire province and has the most remaining intact old-growth or primary forest in British Columbia. There is a proposal in the works that this government is going to have to decide on that would essentially result in about 1.2 to 1.5 million cubic meters of trees per year being logged and turned into a very, very low-value product called wood pellets. So the proposal is essentially to take up to one and a half million cubic meters of logs per year, grind them into chips, and turn them into a product that is then going to be burned. I don't believe that that is value-added. I know that the three forest industry unions in the province that I worked with on this particular story most certainly do not think it is value-added. And I know that many conservation organizations are opposed to this kind of proposal, which essentially takes whole forests and turns them into what I would call the second-lowest value product you could create in British Columbia, short of cutting down trees on just exporting them in unprocessed form.

Jackie: I want to interrupt because I want to ask about that. So there are many reasons why jobs decrease in an industry. Oh, one of the things that we see every day in every industry is that there's automation, and there are efficiencies that are made so that you can lower the workforce and increase revenue. Is that something that is impacting the loss of jobs? Is this something that can be countered just by changing the way you export or process or use the lumber that we're extracting? 

Ben: Very good question, there is no doubt, and there will always be improvements that are going to continue to be made in the efficient processing, particularly of commodity products. That's a reality everywhere in the world. You can't run a business without running it efficiently. Many of the milling enterprises that we have in the province are highly automated. The number of people working in those mills is a fraction of what it used to be because of those changes to technology. So there is no doubt that the number of jobs per unit of wood process in the province has been affected to a significant degree by technological advances and changes. However, a very, very large number of the jobs that have been lost in this province result from the direct closure of sawmills. There have been approximately 100 milling operations in the province that have closed their doors in the last 20 years. And why has that happened? A good part of the reason that has happened is that many of those mills were designed to process larger diameter, old-growth blocks. And those old-growth logs are nowhere near as readily available as they once were. So there is a correlation between the rapid decline in the amount of available old-growth logs and the closure of many mills, and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. 

Jackie: I think some people are gonna hear that, and they're gonna think, okay, that means that we need to continue to log old growth to keep those sawmills open.

Ben: So let's look at what has happened on the coast because I think that that is important, especially when we're talking about log exports. More than half of the logs are currently exported from the province every year, so more than half of those 6 million cubic meters of logs are not old-growth logs. They are second-growth logs and What I and others have advocated for is to let us get serious about protecting the last remnant patches of overall forests we have, particularly on the coast of British Columbia. And let's work to make up the difference in terms of jobs that could be impacted by instituting policies that are going to result in increased investments in second-growth manufacturing, okay. Because if you look, if you look at the bulk of the logs that are being exported, and I have, again, the majority of them are second World blogs, they're being exported to China, to Japan to Korea; those are the three big destination points. And all of that second-growth log volume is turned into finished products there, some of which we buy back. So if we were to institute policies, and I'll speak of one of those policies in a minute that would encourage people to get into the business of second growth, manufacturing, I think that could happen. And to give us an example, there is an independent milling company in Vancouver by the name of the SAM Group. They are the first company in almost 20 years in the province that has invested substantially in new milling technology in the community of Port Alberni. They are going to be working exclusively with second-growth. So, in the work that I've done, I have received strong support for policy recommendations both from the woodworking unions in the province and from major conservation organizations, saying “We need to protect more old-growth, we need to halt the exportation of logs from the province. We need to be encouraged at every step of the way and focus on the manufacturing of second-growth logs.”

Jackie: From what I've been able to gather as somebody who's not a researcher in the industry, old-growth logging results in more immediate money. But second-growth logging is more sustainable. When we shift away from old-growth logging, Is there a financial hit that's going to come in as we adjust? Is it going to be a fast profit and then nothing or a quick decline and then a slow rise?

Ben: I think the bottom line is that if businesses are prepared to make the investment, second-growth logs can be manufactured profitably. We have examples of companies that have made those investments and a new second-growth processing facility on the coast. And as I just mentioned, the SAM Group has recently done the same thing. So if you're prepared to make investments in new mills, you can profitably process second growth with new technology. And you can do so and get products into international markets. To give us an example of why I believe that is the case. I mean, you only have to look at what's happened in the interior of the province where we have major companies like Canadian Forest Products, which is the biggest company operating in British Columbia. And West Fraser and inter for all three of those companies in recent years have made investments in new mills and forest acquisitions in the US south, the US South has no growth forests left of any kind. You're talking third, fourth, in some cases, fifth-generation trees that are being processed. Those companies are making money with those investment decisions. There's no reason why we couldn't be doing the same thing in British Columbia. Now, one thing that I think is very important is that, in my opinion, if you're going to process second-growth wood in the province of British Columbia, you're better off if you can let those second-growth trees get older and bigger before you log and process them. A tree that has more mature wood on it, if you do that, then you're able to get a higher value from it. So, second growth is not all the same. A 120-year-old Douglas Fir tree is a lot more valuable than a 60-year-old Douglas fir tree. So it's about thinking about value. Bear in mind, too, that what I am talking about when I talk about foregone jobs, I'm talking about the current employment situation as per unit of wood processed in British Columbia. So think about this for a minute. On average, each job in the forest industry in British Columbia today requires about 1000 cubic meters of trees to be harvested. That's what it takes, on average, to generate one full-time equivalent job in British Columbia. So if you think about that, then think about higher value products and lower value products. If you take logs and turn them directly into chips, to make a low-value product, like a wood pellet, you need 24,000 cubic meters of wood to sustain one full-time job. That's at the very low end of the spectrum in terms of job generation. So I think what we need, and this is why the Forest Minister has been instructed to do so in her mandate, we need policies in this province that are going to encourage investment in higher-value mills so that we can move up the value chain, which is what the Minister has been instructed to do. If we move up the value chain, we close off opportunities to export raw, unprocessed logs. We discourage the manufacturing of really low-end products like wood pallets. There's every reason to believe that we could protect moral growth for us, substantially protect more for us, and we could have more jobs. 

Jackie: Because everything's under capitalism, the industry is going to run under or how much revenue they can take. And that's how it's going to be. So when they're thinking about their investments for the long term into making second growth, maybe their number one source, are they going to be looking for that initial investment? I mean, you said Teal Jones is one of the companies that has made major investments into second growth. They're the company right now at the center of this argument over old-growth logging in Fairy Creek. Is that so? Is that something for them? They're thinking, "Yeah, the second-growth looks like a great opportunity. But to fund that, let's get these quick earnings and then turn that money into our investment." How do you turn people away from that with policy?

Ben: Well, I think it's very clear from the government's perspective, the way you turn them away from it is to simply say, we're serious about our commitment to old-growth protection, and we're going to dramatically increase the amount of old-growth that is protected. And when I say that, I want to be very clear, and most people in the province view old growth as the very large, iconic trees that are situated in the valley bottoms. And there's very, very, very little of that wood left or forests left. It really is incumbent upon the government, which has jurisdiction over crown lands in this province, to make the decisions that are required around increasing forest protection. And that is required. We need to set parameters around how much more forest we're going to protect. And that then provides the baseline from which decisions can be made about investments. I mean, it's very clear to me that if we continue down the road that we are on, we end up eradicating the one-time old-growth resource that we have, which will never be replaced, and we impoverish our future in terms of making needed investments in second-growth. So I think we really need to think very carefully about how it's going to proceed. And I think that one of the ways out of this mess is to do the brave and necessary thing. And fully commit to substantial increases in old-growth protection while at the same time instituting those policies that are gonna result in investments being made. And second growth, I think it's very clear that second growth, processing can be done, is being done, and could be done more in the future years and decades to come.

Jackie: I hate to put environmental policy behind revenue or income for companies because, unfortunately, that's where we are. But I feel like when you're trying to convince the people who are making money, the people who own those companies who are doing logging, you have to entice them with numbers, right? And that's, unfortunately, where we're at. But the government, as of now, it doesn't seem like that's happening either.

Ben: I think that the one thing that sometimes gets lost in all of this is that, with the notable exception, and it is it isn't notable exception of the southern portion of Vancouver Island 94% of the province of British Columbia is crown land, it's public land that we share with First Nations in this province. And the provincial government has responsibility over those lands. So these are public policy decisions. I think we need to look beyond the economic value of old-growth to the many, many other values that old-growth forests have. They are our largest natural stores of carbon, and they are critically important to the healthy flow and functioning of water in our province, which is coming under increasing stress due to climate change. They harbour the greatest biological diversity of any force in Canada, among any force in the world. And so the government has a responsibility that goes well beyond just ensuring that there is quote, unquote, fibre supply. For the forest companies, it has a duty to protect those forests and, frankly, to provide meaningful economic opportunities; it has the responsibility to do both of those things. And I think that anybody if asked to look at recent satellite imagery, of pretty much any corner of British Columbia, if they look at that satellite imagery, and they're asked if the glass is half empty, or half full, they're gonna say it's not only half empty. It's way closer to being empty altogether in many parts of the province. So the government has a responsibility here to ensure that adequate amounts of forest are protected. And I think very clearly, there's a considerable amount of public opinion, including opinion within the more progressive elements of the forest industry unions in this province, that ought to be bringing an end to all growth logging. And from a jobs perspective, I mean, the way to go clearly is to move towards the second world because that's where the largest supply of fibre is going to be. You know, the government should be leading on this file. And, unfortunately, we've seen, I think, the right words being expressed about the need to protect more old-growth and move up the value chain. But what we don't have is any compelling evidence that the government is prepared to pull the policy levers that it needs to pull to make those two things happen.

Jackie: I don't want to make excuses for the government. But I do think that this is a fair thing to bring up. We are in a pandemic. So this argument about old-growth is historical in the province, but where we're at is actually quite new because this is an industry that is still creating lots of revenue for the government. They are hemorrhaging money from other industries to try and keep them afloat. Is there more at play right now for the government? They're thinking about immediate income and not making investments and letting things stay the status quo because they feel like they need to right now.

Ben: What I can tell you for sure with revenues from natural resources is that the ebb and flow. And right now, there is increased revenue that is coming in for each unit of wood that is logged in the provinces for us because of the incredible run-up in lumber prices. But that's not the end. And I think we need to be taking the longer view here, which is that a very significant amount of forest has been locked, logged at a rate that even the provincial government in the various documents that people can look at it, they want to even at rates that the government itself, as acknowledged on paper are not sustainable. It's in nobody's interest to keep going. 

Jackie: I want to ask you one more question. One of the overlaps of resource extraction is the relationships with the Indigenous communities. Most of all resource extractions happen on Indigenous lands. In the situation with Fairy Creek specifically, on the one hand, we have the council asking for protesters to leave the land. And on the other side of things, we have a Hereditary Chief who's welcoming people and is at the forefront of these protests. Is there something that the government can do policy-wise to get people to be on the same page about this or to make their interactions with the First Nations communities less divisive? Because it seems like they're, as it stands right now, they're putting a wedge between people within that community? 

Ben: I don't think that there's any doubt that there are people in government and in the industry that are only too happy to see those wedges. Try and ensure that people are identified within individual First Nations communities that will be on board with resource development proposals. I think government's actions on resource policy and on deals involving resource industries and First Nations, I think it's very clear that when those deals are struck government is very quick to point out its commitments to First Nations rights and reconciliation and to point to those agreements as proof that they're taking their responsibilities seriously when it comes to rights and reconciliation. What you will also notice, though, is that in those cases where First Nations have spoken up forcefully to attempt to protect lands and resources, you don't see the same kind of language from the provincial government or industries. I think a good example of that would be around some of the recent pronouncements that the government has made around First Nations and Site C. A lot of praise and acknowledgement of those First Nations that have essentially thrown their lot in with the proposed development and are reaping economic rewards. There hasn't been much acknowledgement on the government's part about the ongoing opposition to that project from other First Nations in the area who are before the courts, as a Western member of the First Nations. So I think that it's a mistake to characterize any resource policy as necessarily having the complete backing of a First Nation within First Nations communities. Like within our own communities, there are no firmly held and often opposing views as to how we should.