Ian Gill and Mike Vitt, Truck Logger Magazine, Winter 2007

As recently as a decade ago, B.C.’s forest industry considered itself – rightly or wrongly – to be surrounded on all sides by environmentalists promoting parks and protected areas. Much was made of these incursions into industry’s historical domain. Any land deducted from the timber harvesting land base was loudly mourned, the wailing accompanied by dire, often hysterical predictions of the death of the forest industry, and its attendant multipliers. Much of this was in fact a smokescreen intended to disguise the fact that technology, not parks, was driving a dramatic reduction in forest-based employment, and that B.C.’s Coastal industry was increasingly uncompetitive and woefully outsized for the markets at hand.

Today, a new phrase is striking fear into the boardrooms of Coastal forest companies. It is called ecosystem-based management (EBM), and it is the new bogeyman in B.C.’s persistently unimaginative and, predictably, declining forest industry. Parks and protected areas have had a negligible impact on the industry, but live on in the public imagination as having had a huge impact on forestry. Arguably, a much greater impact on forest practices in B.C. could flow from the other shoe dropping on our parks and protected areas strategy, which is the implementation across the Coast of EBM. Already on the Central and North Coasts, EBM is viewed as either a great step forward for forest management, or another blow to a reeling industry. It is being resisted, in some quarters, with a zeal not seen since the pitched battles over places like Clayoquot Sound, the Carmanah, Gwaii Hannas and the Stein Valley.

But just like parks and protected areas, EBM is inevitable. It is a natural extension of society’s desire to see large parts of B.C. protected, and to see world-class forest management occur in places where harvesting is permitted. Some in industry resist EBM as just another set of onerous constraints that adversely affect planning and harvesting, and endanger economic success. Other, more visionary companies will welcome EBM as a crucial opportunity for the industry to reposition itself around true ecological, value-based forestry within an increasingly competitive global forest economy. Value, not volume, is where the future of B.C.’s forest industry lies, and EBM charts a course towards value that could save our Coastal forest industry.

Ecosystem-based management is not a new concept. The U.S. Forest Service, and a host of landowners and land managers across the globe, have been implementing various versions of EBM for decades. For many generations, First Nations have had their own approaches to EBM. In fact, it was only with the birth of the industrial forest industry in B.C. that non-EBM became and operational norm. That began to change when the Scientific Panel for Sustainable Forestry Practices in Clayoquot Sound offered up its version of EBM back in 1995. More recently, the Central Coast and North Coast Land and Resource Management Plans (LRMPs) have set aside some 35 per cent of the land base into conservancy areas, and have designated the remaining lands as EBM forestry areas. Currently, there is an active debate about the technical details of what a full implementation of EBM might look like north of Cape Caution. But there can be no doubt that EBM presents some subtle, yet extremely important changes in our approach to forest management in B.C.

The argument for an advanced level of EBM forestry in B.C. begins with a recognition that despite tremendous knowledge and capability in the B.C. forest industry, there is still a very limited understanding of the extremely complex ecological functions at work in natural forces. At the same time, there is a general acknowledgment that industry has significantly modified the natural forest landscape, whether by converting complex old growth temperate rainforests into simplified shorter rotation second growth stands, or by fragmenting and altering the natural age class distribution in Interior fire-based ecosystems. In the end, we have taken substantial risks with ecosystem function in order to minimize the risk to industrial development. EBM fundamentally reverses this equation, minimizing the risk to the ecosystem first, and then designing appropriate development to suit.

EBM forestry is fundamentally about ensuring that the entire ecosystem is fully functional and protected through all current and future forest development. In other words, it is about ecologically sustainable forestry not sustainable yield forestry. However, EBM is about more than just forestry and other land use, and must include a balance with social, cultural, and economic needs. The Coast Information Team (a group of scientists, foresters, and other technical stakeholders) defined EBM as “an adaptive approach to managing human activities that seeks to ensure the coexistence of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems and human communities.” EBM tends to be discussed in a technical forestry or logging context, but it is important to not lose sight of the overall objective of a fully integrated land use approach that maintains ecological, social and economic integrity.

On the forestry side, EBM is not a radical departure from the best operational practices of today. However there is a subtle, yet extremely important change implied when a much higher value is placed on maintaining the ecosystem very close to a natural forest system at the landscape, watershed and stand level. The fundamental change in moving to EBM forestry is the paradigm shift to focusing first on what must be retained to ensure a fully functional natural ecosystem, and only then focusing on what can be developed or removed. Even the most advanced “total chance plans” begin with trying to maximize the logging opportunity within protection constraints, or mimimum retention levels that are “adding back” in various forms. It is a crucial change in mindset to start with the ecosystem, not the development.

Happily, many of the tools and practices required for EBM are already in place. The primary challenge is reconfiguring the tools into an EBM framework that is more directly in context with the ecosystem. EBM requires a more “multi-scale” approach, which requires looking at the landscape, watershed and stand levels simultaneously. Practically, this means focusing not just at the stand level (i.e. variable retention, etc.), and the watershed level (i.e. true total chance watershed planning), but also at the landscape level. At the operational level, EBM will add new protection measures that take less risk with hydrological and biological systems, some of which will reduce harvest opportunities, and all of which will add new complexity. As much as this will be perceived as an irritant by some, it is in fact an absolute necessity if the wonderful complexity of our forest ecosystem is ever to be honestly reflected in management systems.

EBM will certainly push towards openings and harvest patterns that better mimic natural occurrences in the forest, i.e. more gaps and small openings on the Coast, perhaps larger openings with heavier retention in the fire-based systems. What is less clear is how economic and ecological success can occur simultaneously.

True application of anything like true ecosystem-based management will be an ongoing challenge. Companies will need to champion value creation, forest planners will need to become more sophisticated, and loggers will need to become more innovative. And, perhaps most importantly, markets will have to value the dramatic changes to how forestry is done in this province.

Can all this actually occur?

There are several existing or emerging working models of EBM forestry being developed within a community-based context in Canada. Here at home, perhaps the best and worst working model of Coastal EBM is in Clayoquot Sound, where the blue ribbon science panel set up a prescriptive form of EBM more than a decade ago. Detractors will immediately point to Clayoquot as a failure to launch, in that ever since the science panel recommendations were accepted by the NDP government, a viable EBM operation has struggled to emerge from Clayoquot Sound.

But we believe there is still a huge potential for Clayoquot to prove detractors dead wrong. That is why Ecotrust Canada recently partnered with Iisaak Forest Resources to work on repositioning its business model for operating a mid-sized forest management operation in an EBM context.

Ecotrust Canada is also working with First Nations on the Central and North Coasts to define and implement an updated version of EBM on a large scale. Prince Rupert-based Triumph Timber Ltd. has led the way with EBM operational plans with the Gitga’at Nation, and Triumph continues to operate successfully with an EBM focus in difficult market conditions. And there are other examples across the Coast of various versions and degrees of EBM being deployed in woodlots, pilot areas and other tenures.

What is common to all of these working models is a set of very high environmental and social values within an economic business framework. The missing link has been executing an unrelenting focus on value and quality. To that end, government needs to play its part, and begin to assist the difficult structural adjustment that analyst Peter Pearse has already presaged as absolutely vital for our Coastal forest industry.

Why make life more difficult for an already struggling industry? Just as the parks and protected areas push forced many companies, and the government, to consider anew what constitutes a social licence to operate in B.C.’s forests, EBM might well be the driver that forces us to take a hard look at the basic business fundamentals of our Coastal forest industry. Any MBA or entrepreneur worth her salt knows that when faced with an extremely competitive market, businesses can only create value with either consistently lower costs than competitors, or by producing a clearly differentiated product.

To aim someplace in between is to condemn oneself, in the long run, to either getting crushed by lower-cost competitors, or getting pushed out of the higher-end markets by better products. B.C. has a tremendous asset in the natural capital of our old growth forests, and our industry has succeeded for decades by producing some of the world’s best quality products from some of the world’s best timber. But with the shift to second growth, the industry now faces a fundamentally higher cost model for relatively standard raw log material, which in commodity markets puts B.C.’s industry in an unsustainable competitive position in the marketplace. What’s more, we have yet to truly adjust to the fact that in the coming years, First Nations treaty settlements and/or court victories will dilute the sway that the provincial government has over management of our forest lands, and will immeasurably alter the price of a social licence to operate at all in the forests of B.C.

Last year, Premier Gordon Campbell laid out five priorities for a “golden decade” that we can anticipate under the leadership of his provincial Liberals. One of the priorities was for B.C. to “lead the world in sustainable environmental management, with the best air and water quality, and best fisheries management, bar none.” Forest management was a singular omission from this statement, but no matter, the premier has also declared himself to be at one with aboriginal communities through his New Relationship. How better to demonstrate that than to invest – through vigourous application of EBM and the encouragement of value-added infrastructure and markets – in a “new relationship” with B.C.’s forests? Companies will claim it can’t be done, bureaucrats will aid and abet their resistance, but in the end, B.C.’s Coastal forest industry will either find new markets and a new lease on life by cracking the code of EBM and branding itself as a value player with premium products, or die trying.

Ian Gill is president of Ecotrust Canada. Mike Vitt is Ecotrust Canada’s forestry manager. Visit www.ecotrust.ca.

*Note: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the TLA.