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A DUBIOUS PROPOSAL: Forest Giant's Rainforest Conservation Plan Is Unsupported by Scientific Data

Keywords: biodiversity, British Columbia, carbon cycle, clear-cutting, climate change, logging, temperate rainforest, wilderness tourism.

Summary: Faced by a campaign to boycott products from its clear-cut harvesting operations in British Columbia's old-growth temperate rainforest, MacMillan Bloedel, Ltd., Canada's largest forest company, proposes to phase-out clear-cut harvesting and "pursue a new stewardship strategy which focuses on old-growth and habitat conservation." The proposal appears designed primarily to reverse a decline in the company's annual timber harvest, while saving the expense of extracting the low value timber that will comprise the residual, selectively logged forest. The plan may thus improve the company's financial fortunes, but scientific data to show that it will yield environmental benefits are lacking.

July 14, 1998: The world's largest temperate rainforest is located along the northwest coast of North America between Oregon and Alaska. Much of the old-growth timber, including many of the world's largest trees, has already been cut. Of what remains, about half is in British Columbia, and of this, most is slated to be logged within the next dozen years.

Led by the Amsterdam-based organization, Greenpeace, and the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, environmentalists have engaged in a campaign to boycott forest products from what remains of British Columbia's ancient rainforest. The Rainforest Action Network demands an immediate end to harvesting in all of the world's remaining ancient forests, whereas Greenpeace demands an immediate end to clear-cutting and a phase-out of industrial logging in old-growth forests.

The effectiveness of the campaign was acknowledged by MacMillan Bloedel, Ltd., Canadaís largest forest company, when on June 10, it announced plans to phase-out clear-cutting of old-growth coastal forests in British Columbia and introduce a "variable retention" harvesting system.

The effectiveness of the campaign to halt clear-cutting, or any form of cutting within old-growth forests, reflects support for three principal goals: (1) to preserve biodiversity; (2) to slow the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, thereby reducing the risk of global warming; and (3) to protect one of the key resources of western Canada's nascent tourism industry.

British Columbia, according to the Rainforest Action Network (1), "is the most biologically diverse region of Canada, containing approximately 70% of its bird species and 74% of the land-dwelling mammal species, most of which are forest-dwelling." Among species to which the old-growth coastal rainforest provides either a permanent or seasonal home are the grizzly bear, black bear, woodland caribou, cougar, bald eagle and Pacific salmon.

The role of the forest, particularly the vast accumulations of biomass comprising the world's rainforests, in determining atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has been concisely explained by distinguished mathematician and author, Freeman Dyson: "of the most active reservoirs of carbon in the global carbon cycle, the atmosphere, the plants and the soil, all are roughly the same size. This means that large human disturbance of any one of these reservoirs will have large effects on all three. We cannot hope either to understand or to manage the carbon in the atmosphere unless we understand and manage the trees and the soil too" (2).

As a recreational area, British Columbia is arguably the world's largest usable wilderness. Its appeal to urban dwellers depends largely on the perception that it is a land barely touched by civilization. The preservation of the ancient rainforest is thus vital to the long-term success of one of Western Canada's most promising growth industries.

With the aim of satisfying the demands of those engaged in the boycott campaign, MacMillan Bloedel announced a plan (3) that would see the company "... phase out clear-cut harvesting in all of its British Columbia operations and pursue a new stewardship strategy which focuses on old-growth and habitat conservation."

The Plan involves the creation of three "stewardship zones:"

The Old Growth Zone [that] will comprise about 10 per cent of MB's land base where the primary management objective will be conservation of the old growth forests. MB will develop management plans in this zone based on the assumption that 70 per cent of the old growth forest will never be logged. Within areas subject to harvesting, retention will be high and openings will be less than one hectare.

[The] Habitat zone [that] will comprise about 25 per cent of the land base where the primary management objective will be wildlife conservation. Across the Habitat Zone about 40 per cent of the original forest will be retained.

The Timber Zone [that] will comprise the remaining 65 per cent of the company's forests. While more commercial in its management, variable retention also will be applied throught the zone and about 28 percent of the original forest will be retained.

Greenpeace responded to the plan with a press release (4), issued the same day as MacMillan Bloedel's announcement, applauding the company's "leadership and vision."

Equally positive was a Rainforst Action Network press release (5), also issued the same day as MacMillan Bloedel's announcement, headlined: "Logging Giant's Groundbreaking Forest Plan Wins Kudos From Greens."

But it may be too early for the Rainforest Action Network to dispense with its slogan "The oldest living things on Earth, or tomorrow's lawn furniture," for as their press release (5) cautions: "Despite these progressive measures [MacMillan Bloedel] has not yet committed to end all logging in old-growth forests."

Greenpeace, likewise, expressed reservations (4): "... MacMillan Bloedel has not yet committed to leaving the remaining [69 our of an original 353] pristine rainforest valleys intact... [and Greenpeace] calls for a more expedited shift of [MacMillan Bloedel's] operations to second growth forests."

Reservations are justified. The "sensitive old-growth sites" comprising the Old Growth Zone, where, according to the plan, "harvesting will be greatly restricted and conservation will be emphasized" account for only 10 per cent of MacMillan Bloedelís holdings (3). Yet, according to a MacMillan Bloedel backgrounder entitled "Statement of Intent" (6): "About half of the approximately 1 million hectares [2.7 million acres] of private and publicly owned forest land in B.C. managed by MB... is second growth."

From these data, it follows that the Old Growth Zone, "where the primary management objective will be conservation of old growth forests," actually accounts for less than 20% of the companyís old-growth forest.

This means that MacMillan Bloedel has assigned most (80%) of the old-growth forest under its management to the so-called Habitat or Timber Zone. As the Habitat Zone accounts for only 25% of the companyís land base, at least 15%, and probably much more, of the old growth forest must be included in the Timber Zone. But whether classified as Habitat or Timber Zone, MacMillan Bloedel has indicated that most of the timber outside the Old Growth Zone will be harvested.

Thus, as MacMillan Bloedelís Statement of Intent (6) concludes, "Until the second growth matures, old growth will account for the majority of MBís harvest. Second growth will replace old growth as the major source of MBís harvest in BC within the next 25 years." Further, according to the Statement of Intent (6):

The company estimates that implementation of the Forest Projectís recommendations will result in an initial reduction of MBís theoretical Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) from 6.2 milion cubic metres a year to 5.7 million cubic metres a year for the next 10 years. However, over the previous 10 years, MBís harvest levels in BC declined by 20%. The company sees a stable harvest level of 5.7 million cubic metres a year, for the next ten years, as preferable to the current status quo of a continuous decline driven by uncertainty and controversy. It also sees an average harvest of 5.7 million cubic metre[s] a year as more realistic than its theoretical AAC given changing market conditions, forest profiles and operating constraints.

MacMillan Bloedel's acknowledged aim is thus to "increase conservation of coastal old growth forest lands in BC," while reversing the historical downtrend in their annual timber harvest. A remarkable accomplishment, if achieved.

If the conservation goal is remarkable, what of the plan to phase out clear-cutting? It is to be done, says MacMillan Bloedel's press release (3), by:

... the application of variable retention harvesting instead of traditional clear-cutting. The system, which has been promoted by prominent forest ecologists, retains various sized stands, clusters and clumps of trees in ways that protect biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

The system provides different harvesting styles such as retention, group selection and shelterwood, each with varying degrees of exposure or opening size. The most restrictive applications are in MBís Old Growth Zone where the majority of the old growth will not be logged and openings in areas subject to harvesting will barely be visible.

"To the casual reader, 'clearcut' sounds bad, and the alternative, 'selective logging,' sounds good," wrote Gordon Gibson in a column about MacMillan Bloedel's plan in the (Toronto) "Globe and Mail" (June 23, 1998). But "There is," he continued, "just one small problem ... Another word for clearcut is 'full utilization' of the fibre resource. The lower grade and decadent wood that is mixed with the good stuff has historically been required by the Forest Service to be removed and utilized, at high cost to the companies. Another word for selective logging is 'high-grading.'"

The question, then, is whether MacMillan Bloedelís plan offers any real environmental benefits, or is simply a hard-nosed ploy to bamboozle environmentalists and improve what, for decades, has been a disappointing company bottom line?

Here is how Tom Stephens, MacMillan Bloedelís President and C.E.O., sees it (7):

The economic and political status quo is driving MBís and most of the BC coastal forest industryís cut downward. Unless we make changes the trend will continue.

The question is whether we will ever again reach our theoretical AAC (Provincially approved annual allowable cut). We donít think thatís realistic. There are too many obstacles for us to have any confidence in that goal.

MBís plan will enable us to stabilize our operations at a harvesting level that can be sustained over time. We believe our plan will help put the decline in our actual cut behind us, improve profitability and allow expansion of our business over the long term.

This makes it clear enough that the purpose of MacMillan Bloedel's plan is to enhance company profits. However, to understand the plan's environmental consequences and its long-term impact on the economy of British Columbia, a number of questions must be answered:

  1. Where the plan speaks of retaining 28, 40 or 70% of the forest according to "stewardship zone," what exactly will be retained? Will it be primarily undisturbed "clusters and clumps" of trees, or will "shelterwood" be the rule? If the former, will the clumps and clusters have any future economic value or will they consist mainly in stunted, diseased, or damaged trees, concentrations of uneconomic species, or timber that is swamp-bound or otherwise difficult to harvest? And if the latter, does the stated percent of forest retention refer to the number of trees or the volume of timber? The difference is crucial. The seventy-two per cent of the trees removed, or even 30%, could account for close to 100% of the timber volume.

  2. What impact will the proposed harvest method have on wildlife and biodiversity in old-growth forests?

  3. How much carbon will be released to the atmosphere following selective logging as a result of the decay of logging slash, stumps and roots of harvested trees, and the organic matter of soil warmed by exposure to the sun?

  4. How will North American, Asian and European wilderness tourists like visiting British Columbia's ancient rainforest without the ancient trees?

  5. How will the selection imposed by variable retention forestry affect the genetic composition of the residual timber, as that affects disease resistance, timber yield and wood quality?

  6. How much blow-down will occur as a result of the numerous openings created in the forest canopy by selective logging?

  7. How will productivity of the forest after variable retention harvesting compare with that of a well-managed plantation established after clear-cutting?

  8. What management will be applied to stands that have been subjected to variable retention harvesting, and who will pay for the treatment?

  9. Finally, but not least important, what incentive will MacMillan Bloedel have to undertake the demanding management task of tending the complex residual stands produced by selective logging, on land the company does not own, to produce timber that the company will have to pay for when it becomes available for harvest many decades in the future?

The technical questions are well within the means of science to answer. Unfortunately, they are not questions that the Government of British Columbia has seen fit to ask. Furthermore, the British Columbia Forest Service, which has overall responsibility for managing of the Provincial forest estate, has never had a major forest research program. Indeed, under the existing legislation, it has no mandate to do research at all except in connection with a tree breeding program (8).

The Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, housed in a building dedicated to the memory of H.R. MacMillan, chief architect of MacMillan Bloedel, Ltd., has in recent years, rarely been avid in the pursuit of information of little interest to sponsoring corporations. And the forest industry in British Columbia, as a whole, has shown little interest in either the ecological impact of its activities, or the long-term economic viability of the communities in which it operates.

As to a major effort being made now to resolve the outstanding technical questions, the probability is slight. This year, the Province sharply reduced the Forest Service budget (it has been reduced by a third over the past three years), causing substantial cuts to research conducted both in-house and at the University of British Columbia. The forest industry's investment in research on forest and environmental management is trivial. MacMillan Bloedel's small research group has a low profile within the company, and in the present era of downsizing and bottom-line focus, that is unlikely to change.

In the present state of knowledge, it is impossible, therefore, to be sure whether MacMillan Bloedel's proposal would, if approved by the Provincial Government, yield any substantial environmental or economic benefits. It is possible that the outcome would be worse than that which would result from a continuation of the present harvesting regime. Clear-cutting, which MacMillan Bloedel plans to phase out, minimizes both the amount of road building needed for timber extraction, and the area of forest impacted for a given volume of timber harvested. Furthermore, with adequate silvicultural investment, a clear-cut forest can be rapidly regenerated.

Selective cutting, on the other hand, can yield a silvicultural slum unless there are people on the ground with an intimate knowledge of the forest and the resources to remove diseased, damaged or badly formed stems, to space new growth, and to combat weeds and pests.

Acknowledging the forest industry's lack of incentive to manage publicly owned forest land effectively, Tom Stephens proposes what the (Toronto) "Globe and Mail" reports (June 27, 1998) as the "extensive privatization of government-owned forests" in order to "harness and expand the role of market forces in the forest sector." Mr. Stephens proposal, which does not, in fact, use the word "privatization," seems unduly complicated, designed as it is to maintain the privileged access to timber on Crown lands currently enjoyed by British Columbia's established forest corporations, while saving them the actual expense of managing the land.

But the principle of privatization is sound, and should be undertaken in an orderly way by auctioning blocks of forest to the highest bidder, as the timber becomes due for harvest. With the implementation of such a plan, British Columbia's powerfully entrenched forest companies might be surprised to find that there are investors, both in Canada and abroad, ready to pay good money not merely to own, but to manage forests in British Columbia.

Such a gradual privatization would maximize sales receipts to the Government; give everyone who might wish to do so, a chance to invest not only their cash, but also their energy and silvicultural expertise in forestry in British Columbia; and minimize complications arising if land privatization is initiated while native land claims are still under negotiation. Combined with a well drafted forest practices act, which would make the holding of forest land unprofitable except for the purpose of timber production, or other approved uses, forest privatization would unlock the productive potential of British Columbia's enormous forest estate.

From 47 million hectares (470,000 square kilometers) of commercial forest land, British Columbia's annual timber harvest is approximately 75 million cubic metres. That is just over one and a half cubic metres per hectare per year. But intensively managed Douglas-fir stands on the most fertile land in the Pacific North West yield more than ten times as much. And Sitka spruce can yield over twenty times as much, as recorded in intensively managed plantations in Scotland and Ireland.

With the incentive of private ownership, it is conceivable that the forest industry's present consumption of timber could be sustainably grown on between 10 and 20 million hectares of British Columbia's more productive lands. That would leave vast tracts for the settlement of native land claims and the expansion of wilderness reserves.

But until a thorough study has been made of the ecological impacts, the rapid liquidation of British Columbia's old-growth rainforest should cease. The Western Wilderness Committee of British Columbia, a respected conservation group, which played an important role in pursuading the last British Columbia administration to set aside up to 12% of many ecosystems as wilderness reserves, proposes that 40% of old-growth coastal forests should be placed in a wilderness reserve.

This is an eminently reasonable proposal but unduly modest. The wisest course would be to impose a moratorium on logging of all old-growth coastal forests for a minimum of 5 years, while the Government of British Columbia organizes an adequate scientific effort to determine what is at stake. When the information is in, it will be time enough to decide whether conservation of 40% of the old-growth forest is sufficient to best serve the environmental and economic needs of both Canadians and humanity at large.


  1. Rainforest Action Network.

  2. Dyson, F. 1993. From Eros to Gaia, Penguin Books, London, New York, pp 132-133.

  3. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. 1998. Press Release (June 10): MacMillan Bloedel to phase out clearcutting. (Target file now removed from Web)

  4. Greenpeace. 1998. Press Release (June 10): Greenpeace celebrates landmark victory in forest debate.

  5. Ranforest Action Network. 1998. Press Release (June 10): Logging giant's groundbreaking forest plan wins kudos from greens.

  6. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. 1998. Backgrounder: Statement of Intent. (Target file now removed from Web)

  7. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. 1998. Comments by Tom Stephens, President and CEO (June 10). (Target file now removed from Web)

  8. Forest Act. Statutes of British Columbia.

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