Vast, green forests and the wild creatures that inhabit them have inspired and motivated Vicky Husband over a lifetime. An Order of Canada recipient, Husband is revered by British Columbia environmentalists for her commitment and advocacy.
By Jenny Uechi
When prompted with a simple question about these forests, Husband embarks on a conversation that leads the listener down the winding pathways of forestry politics and onward through the long and dense history of logging and forest conservation on B.C.'s coast.
Husband lives in a home deep in the forest near Victoria. She laughs that a visitor once told her the area near her home is 'like Like Lord of the Rings'— she feels trees are among Canada's great natural treasures, perhaps its greatest treasure, vast and rich with immeasurable value.
Around sixty million hectares of forests cover British Columbia—an area larger than Spain.
But Husband is increasingly alarmed by the disappearance of trees from B.C.'s landscape, and a lack of meaningful government policy to halt the losses.
“We've logged almost all of the ancient forest on Vancouver Island," Husband comments, with a note of sadness in her voice.
Husband worries that people don't fully realize what they're losing, and what the heavy impacts will be for future generations. She has turned to social media to raise the public's awareness.
Months before the provincial election in May, she worked with members of Commons BC, a nonpartisan citizens’ group dedicated to documenting use of B.C.'s public lands, to produce a time-lapse video. The video, based on satellite imagery and forest ministry data, shows logging activity on Vancouver Island over the years.
"We thought the forests would last forever," reads a caption in the video in the opening slide.
The video then demonstrates just how wrong that assumption has been. It starts over 100 years ago, when the Island was painted dark green with massive trees. As the years go by, dark green areas keep shrinking, up to the present day.
The idea for the video was developed by John Broadhead at the Gowgaia Institute. He and a small team created the video by painstakingly sorting out the logging history year by year. Back in 1990, Sierra Club GIS mapper Dave Leversee worked with Husband and Broadhead to create a map showing the logging on Vancouver Island that had been occurring out of sight and out of mind for many people, and the 2017 video was an effort to raise more public awareness.
Broadhead says he and Husband's team poured more than 500 hours of work over four months to create the video. Husband didn't want shrinking forests to go unnoticed, as environmentalists and conservationists focused on oil pipelines and tankers.
Reports back in 2000 warned that logging of 90 per cent of provincially managed forest units was occurring at unsustainable levels. Even though British Columbia claims to have improved many of its practices over the last 20 years, experts say it's still far from good enough, both economically and environmentally. Currently, just one job is generated for every 1,020 cubic metres of wood in B.C., compared to 221 cubic metres to produce one job in Ontario, according to a 2016 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Raw log exports to Asia have increased dramatically in the last decade. Critics argue that the exports, which increased under the BC Liberal government, undermine jobs in the province.
Husband fears that if taken for granted, the ancient forests which have been integral to B.C.'s industry, tourism, and cultural identity will become a thing of the past.
"We will never see these ancient forests again. We have to change our course before everything is gone," she says.
And with the recent wildfires raging across the province, B.C. is bracing for yet-unknown losses of dwindling timber supply.
"Given the extent of the wildfires in the Cariboo, the ministry recognizes that there will likely be significant impacts on timber supply," the Forests ministry said in an email through spokeswoman Vivian Thomas. "However, we won’t know the full impact until after the fires have finished. There is also varying degrees of damages to trees by wildfire, and some may still be suitable for harvesting."
The ministry also stated its Forests for Tomorrow program will also prioritize burnt areas, that are not in licensee areas, for reforestation.
Ken Kalesnikoff, a third-generation sawmiller and board chair of the Interior Lumber Manufacturers Association, lives by the credo of “take care of the land, and the land will take care of you.” The Association consists of 11 independent, family-owned companies throughout the southern part of British Columbia.
For 78 years, his company, Kalensnikoff Lumber, has been manufacturing products near the small community of Thrums, B.C, west of Castlegar. His family-owned company operates on the principle of making the most out of every cubic metre of wood harvested in the province.
When people talk about 'value-added' specialty manufacturing products in forestry, they're often referring to companies like Kalesnikoff's. He exudes pride as he talks about independent companies' production of paneling, flooring, wood for furniture, and the latest technology in the mill industry. His company even branched into piano and guitar boards for a time.
“We don’t own these trees. They're a public resource," he says.
Kalesnikoff firmly believes B.C. needs a "paradigm shift" to try to get the most value out of each tree by “getting the right log to the right mill,” growing the diversity of products in B.C.
"We should be maximizing the value out of every single tree,” he adds.
Ray Travers, an independent forestry consultant based in Victoria, says B.C. needs to manage its logging better if the province plans to see British Columbians benefit more fully from the industry.
"The good wood is already gone, especially on the coast," he says, adding that B.C. once had an abundance of very high quality wood, rare and valued all over the world. But that high quality timber has now all but disappeared from the coast. Politicians, he says, "have seriously not thought ahead about this."
Travers has been in the industry 51 years, since obtaining his forestry degree from the University of British Columbia in 1966. He recites facts and quotes from magazines and government reports from memory, in the same way scholars recite passages from Shakespeare or the Bible. He feels policymakers should have been planning better for sustainability, since they've been warned decades in advance.
He vividly recalls words by H.R. MacMillan in Three Men and a Forester by Ian Mahood and Ken Drushka. MacMillan was the founder of the company that would become MacMillan-Bloedel. Although MacMillan was a "through-and-through industrialist", he was also a forester who could see a crisis coming for B.C., explains Travers.
During the 1955 Sloan Royal Commission on Forestry, MacMillan warned that "unless the province's forest policy was altered, the people of B.C. would have their birthright stolen....and the forests that are the foundation of their present and future wealth destroyed." He advocated fiercely for the small, independent saw mills and the need to log sustainably to keep the industry healthy decades down the road.
"It will be a sorry day for ... British Columbia when the forest industry consists chiefly of very few big companies, holding out most of the good timber — or pretty near all of it — and good growing sites ot the disadvantage and early extermination of....the independent market logger and the small saw mill man," MacMillan told the Commission.
"Mega-dollar investments" and politicians would stifle diversification of the industry, he warned, predicting "dark days in British Columbia" if foresters didn't have a strong role in planning in the forest industry. "Smaller enterprisers and working people," he said, would soon come to "the realization that a very large portion of few companies would acquire control of resources and form a monopoly." The 1990 book's authors warn that decisions about B.C.'s forests would be heavily influenced by people who have never had "rain in their lunch buckets" from working amid the trees.
"They say you can't predict the future, but the best decision makers have foresight," Travers remarks, gently implicating premiers of decades past. He's careful to inject nuance, noting that the situation is far more serious on the coast than it is in the interior.
A spokesperson from the BC Council of Forest Industries had a different view, saying the province's forests are in healthy shape and that logging rates have been reasonable over the years.
"B.C. is a world leader in sustainable forestry," BC COFI spokeswoman Mina Laudan said in an email. "Less than one per cent of the timber harvesting land base is harvested each year, and by law, these areas are replanted after harvesting."
It's a sentiment shared by Kalesnikoff, who notes that workers in the industry do more to help sustain forests than people generally give them credit for.
“We plant three trees for every tree that's harvested in this province,” Kalesnikoff said. “I truly believe we are second to none in North America for managing forests. I really do.” That said, he said he believes it's important to remain vigilant so that future generations are able to work in the forests over the long-term.
The B.C. government, for its part, argues that it has taken adequate steps to make sure trees remain abundant in the province.
"With regard to timber supply reviews, by law the Chief Forester (not a government minister) is required to set the Allowable Annual Cut for each of the province’s timber supply areas and tree farm licenses at least once every 10 years. However, this is occurring more frequently in the areas affected by the mountain pine beetle," the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said in an email.
"While the Chief Forester temporarily increased the allowable annual cuts at the start of the mountain pine beetle infestation, it was always known that the AACs would be lowered as the infestation subsided. Over the past few years, the AACs have been coming down in these areas to ensure a sustainable long-term timber supply."
Travers suggests B.C. has been taking too much of a big-box, Chapters bookstore-style approach to forestry, processing trees into standard dimensional lumber when they could be making diverse products that suited for the different trees' characteristics.
He defines truly high-quality wood on the coast as being "clear, with no knots or small knots, and cylindrical in shape." This is often the kind of wood that old growth trees provide — these 'old growth' trees, hundreds of years old, are in lower supply than ever before. In large sawmills that have been mechanized to be as efficient as possible, trees of different types all get processed to make similar lumber products.
Travers thinks B.C.'s industry as a whole tends to waste too much wood. He spoke about an incident where large piles of wood — good quality wood, which was circular, uniform, and had few knots — was simply burned, reduced to ash because it wasn't a good fit for the mill. If a value-added wood producer had seen what happened, he likely "would be beside himself" over the waste, he said. An estimated 5 million tons of forest fiber were burned last year, which critics say could have been put to use.
This burning of usable wood is not unusual in B.C., and is a result of the economics in the province, he says.
In his view, B.C. is going through high-quality wood faster than it can replace it.
With his children already working in the company that his great-uncle started, people like Kalesnikoff want to see the forests sustain well-paying jobs for B.C.'s future generations. But for that to happen, the province will eventually need a directional change in policy, he says, and the process will be "like turning a big ship."
Warren Carter, of North Enderby Timber, which employs 160 directly in the north Okanagan community, argued in a Truck Loggers Association article in fall 2016 that both tenure consolidation and the mountain pine beetle have presented serious challenges to his business. He said he is often forced to augment his supply by turning to BC Timber Sales (BCTS), First Nations and woodlots.
However, “while we may have fibre today, we are left waiting for others to determine our destiny,” he comments in the publication. He says supply is so uncertain that it is virtually impossible to plan for the future because he hardly knows from one month to the next where his next supply is coming from.
Mina Laudan of BC COFI said B.C. does have "a system where we can ensure we get the right log to the right mill" and that the "timber harvesting land base is accessible to both smaller and larger companies in B.C."
"The forest sector is made up of a wide range of companies; some are large, global players, some are mid-sized businesses and some are family-owned. All have strong connections to the communities in which they operate and strong relationships with their customers here and around the world," Laudan said.
She said the forests products sector "strives to utilize 100 per cent of the harvested log maximizing the value of each harvest with products such as high-quality lumber, pulp, paper, panels, pellets, OSB and biofuels."
But is it possible for government to create sound decisions around B.C.'s forests with possible gaps in information?
Environmentalist and writer Briony Penn detailed the troubling decline of data around B.C.'s forests, which she likened to the muzzling of scientists and dismantling of research during the Harper era, last June in Focus on Victoria magazine. She's not alone in her assessment.
Government scientists in B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations complained in a survey that research oversight was being outsourced from government to industry interests, creating what some call the 'fox guarding the henhouse model'.
Anonymous scientists complained in a report by Evidence for Democracy that deep cuts in funds and staff mean scientists are unable to do the research required for their jobs. The scientists accused government of developing policy "as a result of political pressure" from vested interests, notably forestry stakeholders, rather than basing it on science.
Recent news headlines lend weight to these concerns.
A forester filed a civil suit against the British Columbia government in May, alleging that the province blacklisted him and blocked him from bidding on government contracts after he complained about the lack of accurate data on forests.
Because of changes in the 2002 Forest Act , the province's chief forester is no longer legally required to conduct an inventory of trees in British Columbia. With no reliable inventory data on which to base annual allowable cuts, it's unclear how the province can make policy decisions.
"It's incumbent on the government to keep good baseline information about our forests," Ben Parfitt, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' resource policy analyst, says.
Anthony Britneff, a retired professional forester, worked with the B.C. Forest Service for 40 years. He remembers a time when the government published "fabulous statistics" on inventory and other data about trees in the province. Britneff observed with alarm as the government began cutting inventory budgets for the collection of the information. With grossly inadequate budgets, the foundations for good policy were weakened considerably, he asserts.
An aerial view of the provinces forests shows that they are in rough shape, Britneff says.
And the truth about B.C.'s forests are plainly evident to him when he studies the flat patches of lands on Google Earth, lands where rich forests once thrived.
"The camera does not lie," he says.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development argued that its data is sound and continually kept up to date, contrary to critics' claims.
"The Chief Forester uses robust analysis and looks at many factors in determining allowable annual cuts, including allowing possible uncertainties," the ministry said in an email. "The Chief Forester’s office continuously improves and updates data and analysis based on field audits and assessments and new or additional information."
Quesnel mayor Bob Simpson, a former BC NDP forest critic, leads a community where 45 per cent of the town’s income depends on forests. For years, Simpson has warned that large corporations have excessive power to log too much, too fast, without adequate long-term planning for the future.
“This has been repeated ad nauseum in the history of humankind. You think of the cedars of Lebanon, of Europe, being logged all over. With us, it’s the same thing," he says. "Our forests were abundant and the last in North America to be developed. And we didn't learn from the past."
Simpson thinks B.C. needs a kind of 'Manhattan Project' where the best minds across the province come together to work out a solution for reviving the forestry sector, before its too late.
Simpson sees potential in unconventional wood product creation, such as bio-diesel and wood pellets that are in demand in Asia.
"It's a whole other way of looking at our forests," he says. "You have a world that wants to wean itself off of fossil fuel, so the answer might be to substitute petrochemical products with biochemical products."
"What's lost in the politics is an obligation of the Crown to manage the single largest renewable resource that we have," he says. "We have to manage it in a way that takes into consideration both economic and ecological factors, like climate change."
“We will never see these ancient forests again,” Simpson says. “We have to change our course before everything is gone, and manage our forests… They are our future.”
Husband believes some people in the industry are also concerned about the current state of forest management.
"Recently, I was at a party in Nanaimo, and a forester approached me. He said, 'You won't remember me, but I wanted to say you were right twenty years ago. We were overcutting.' I told him he could still do something about it, but he shook his head and said, 'No. I'm working for a company in the interior now.'"
She sighs with frustration. In her view, the undervaluing of B.C.'s most precious resource will inevitably have serious impacts on other aspects of the province not just from an environmental, but also economic point of view. Husband emphasizes she's not against logging as a whole, but worries that without sound management, a fundamental part of B.C.'s identity — not to mention thousands of more jobs — will be lost.
"We talk about forestry like it's just about the trees, but it's not. It's a whole system of inter-connectivity," she says.
"It's the salmon, it's the bears, it's the eagles. You can't just take the trees away and expect all that not to be affected."