“They are going full-bore,” says Mike Hicks, Juan de Fuca electoral area director. “They are logging the heck out of it.”

“They” are forest companies operating on private lands, and newspaper reports say TimberWest and Western Forest Products’ logging trucks are rolling through communities like Sooke and Lake Cowichan at a pace that has not been seen for a decade.

Some of the upswing in logging relates to an imminent expiry, on January 31, of a three-year restriction on raw-log exports from private forest land. That’s not entirely unrelated to increased market demand from Asia, in particular China, which the provincial government has been keen to promote.

While this might sound like good news for our battered coastal forest industry, it really is just accelerating a downward spiral for our coastal industry that in the long term is bad for business and the economy, and that continues to be bad for the environment and communities.

The fact is the forest industry on Vancouver Island is increasingly operating in lower value, younger stands of timber, and getting lower margins for the wood. At the same time, these low timber margins contrast with relatively high land values for real estate development, since Vancouver Island has become a popular place to relocate (retire) to, and that trend shows no sign of abating.

Ecotrust Canada has been working on an alternative business model for private land, one where the landowner generates revenue from a range of resource developments, not just timber. We believe that encouraging local, value-added business to create the highest and best uses from good quality timber can transfer the focus of activity away from the high-volume/low-margin model to a low-volume/high-value one.

We need to change the age demographics of our forests. Increasing the age of the forest by not chasing volume through logging younger and younger trees allows for growth of higher quality timber properties, and in the process creates higher biodiversity values. Lower harvest levels initially will result in a drop in revenue for the owner, but this opportunity cost can be financed by replacing timber revenue with alternative sources of income.

Using alternative operating methods and new management goals, it is possible to focus on a mix of ecological goods and services, non-timber forest products, recreation and forest friendly community developments. Markets for all of these services and products exist or are fast emerging (think carbon), and creating alternate revenue streams is possible depending upon the specific properties of the forest.

However, to develop the business model that does not rely too heavily on any one product, it is important to still have a robust and reasonably good quality timber supply to work with. Our model has been developed using a timber supply created from a variety of silviculture systems, with a focus on retention harvesting, which allows us to slowly increase the age and the individual tree size in the forest.

The recent acceleration of timber harvesting on private land is already putting in doubt the ability to move away from the current business model to our more ecosystem and product friendly approach. After carefully analyzing a large area of private land through the latter part of 2009, we found the owners had accelerated their cut level so much over the last two years that there was not enough older age class timber left to work with.

Herein lies one of the big issues with industrial farming of trees (or anything else). As you reduce your diversity and increase your dependence upon fewer products, the resilience of the forest is decreased, and your ability to adapt your management system is likewise decreased.

Our chance to adapt to a different kind of forest management, one that provides a far greater range of resources for an ever-increasing local population, is diminishing with every hectare of young second-growth being harvested. It is also the case that Crown land tenure owners take their lead from private forest land operators (in many cases, companies operate on both private and Crown lands), such that we are already seeing young second-growth stands on the east coast of the island being harvested, a trend which will accelerate as older stands become increasingly hard to find.

Our province promotes itself as a leader in forest practices and environmental stewardship. Yet here we go again, succumbing to an old model of industrial forestry, chasing down the food chain in a spiral of ever decreasing returns from ever increasing areas of harvest. A few companies might create the illusion of getting rich for a quarter here, or a quarter there. But once again, our forests are being ransacked, our communities impoverished, and the opportunity to innovate, to invest in a new model of forest development, and to inspire the world, is being squandered.

Ian Gill is President of Ecotrust Canada, and Neil Hughes manages Ecotrust Canada’s forestry program.