Tuesday, July 18, 2017

BC Wildfires – Causal Factors - Forest Care Matters

As is often the case in managing anything, strategy determines out come and no amount of genius in tactics will remedy a poor strategy; if this is true, we know that no determined strategy will generate the same frustrating circumstance of applying tactics without satisfaction in the outcome. 

The assessment of what is causing the “increase” and “intensity” of forest fires is beginning to roll in. One listens to the forest experts, fire experts, talking heads – they are all very intelligent people who have been examining the challenge under the rubric of existing policy and governance. Their thinking is forged by government policy, forest management history as it is affected by provincial policy and their solutions stem from tweaking existing policy – they are in effect essentialists – their map of reality is predetermined. The single constant element of all suggestions is more funding.  I am in no way belittling incumbent actors or experts, I know many and have a tremendous amount of respect for them – their hands are tied by a myriad of factors.

Forest policy in British Columbia, like much policy, has EVOLVED under a collection of human interests; largely socioeconomic, which results in action that is abstracted away from the realities of the forest itself and oft times the highest and best outcomes from an enviro-socio-economic perspective. The best forest policy emerges from a sound understanding of the natural systems at play, the outcomes that are desired and then design thinking being brought to the challenge to generate policy. As policy has EVOLVED, the policy has generated no clear long term strategy and as a result, there are many Faustian elements in practices undertaken.   

There are only two factors that matter in forest management, the natural systems in the forest and how we as humans interface with those natural systems.  Your thinking, thank for stating the obvious, while this is obvious – the power of vested interests and the resulting institutional inertia have, in many cases, divorced us from this obvious reality.

By way of example; I did some work related to assessing various land “units” that have as a large component of their value in timber. I contacted some staff at the Forestry and they were kind enough to provide data with respect to the economic value of various silviculture treatments. Thinning and limbing generated an approximate 5% per annum return (this return is a product of achieving a viable stem more rapidly and hence intensifying land use) – this is a general number for the purpose of illustration, it varies depending on stand type and other factors. So why are we failing to thin and limb forests in a significant way? Some takes place, but there are billions of hectors of forest unattended to.  

As forest policy has evolved and by extension, the way we interface with the land has put us in a curious circumstance. We are the best in the world at milling lumber. Very few, if any, jurisdictions can compete with the “manufacturing” aspect our industry. We are the most proficient in the world at harvesting timber – the complex of equipment and technology we use is unparalleled. Yet, when it comes to managing the forest itself, the foundation of our forest industry we do poorly; one symptom of this reality is the wild fire challenge. The mills are owned assets and production is constantly rationalised to returns. The harvesting processes are performed by owned assets and constantly rationalised to returns. The forest is held as a public asset and forest harvesting rights are in large measure “volume” based (companies are sent to various places in the forest to take trees then they leave) – there is no connection between a given land-base and those reaping its benefit. This has resulted in reality that has us being “tree harvesters” rather than “tree farmers”, as such the land-base is largely unattended to.   

To a degree, what has emerged out of the evolution of forest policy is the quintessential tragedy of the commons. There is a single steward of the forest, the government, the challenge is, the accountability loop is long and unclear and the management perspective is more influenced by the short term interests of a multitude of actors and political reality, than by the health of the forest or even the industry itself.  How does this relate to wildfires you ask? It has to do with the attention paid to any given hector of land and in the case of fire concerns, the immediacy of the threat to the affected party’s livelihood.  

In Sweden, where tree farming is common practice and often an extension of an aggro enterprise – the attention given to a given hector of land is greater, than in BC’s forest. When people live on a given piece of land economic concern is immediate and hence management of a resource is rationalised to returns – but something more happens, people become attached to the land – they are an extension of the land – it is their home – many times for generations.  There is a healthy dynamic that emerges out of the combination of concern for the land and the requirement to make a living from it, a more nurturing management perspective comes to play, as we manage the forest we have a more extractive perspective. When the management of the land-base is “micronized” to a specific acreage,  more effort is applied to production per acre and harvested fibre is delivered into the market in response to market singles rather than other imperatives, as is the case in BC now.

In the case of fire management, for example, fuel load, the primary causal factor in the disaster we’re experiencing now, is better managed in an intensively managed forest that is “farmed”, than in BC’s case where the forest is extensively managed.  Further to the point of attention to the land; a person who owns timber harvesting rights to a given piece of land has a heightened concern with respect to a threat like fire, than an entity as defuse as government – which is why we are in the state we are.

Tenure options are many, and one realises that in BC we have many users on the forest land-base, we can develop a tenure regime that protects the tradition of multiple users of the land base, yet captures the management imperatives that the forest requires to maximise its health, protection and benefit to us.


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