VICTORIA – Forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel is suing for environmental peace, and Interfor may soon follow.
After years of battling environmental groups over its logging practices, MacBlo is prepared to abandon the clearcutting of old-growth forests.
Tom Stephens, president of MacMillan Bloedel, told the company’s annual meeting last week that many customers "don’t want wood from old-growth clearcuts." Just what harvesting methods MacBlo will use instead is unclear, except that they will be "selective."
No sooner had Stephens announced the dramatic change in his company’s policy, than Fred Lowenberger, senior vice-president of Interfor, jumped on the selective-logging bandwagon: "If they (MacMillan Bloedel) are successful with this, we’ll be right behind them."
Environmentalists, who have spent years lobbying overseas customers of B.C. lumber to boycott products from old-growth clearcuts, reacted as if they’d died and gone to heaven. The question is: should the rest of us join the celebration?
Well, that depends. If you like trees better than people making a living harvesting them, raise your glass and toast Greenpeace for a job well-done. In the long haul, things may not be that rosy.
I won’t even bother dealing with the assertions of many respected forestry experts who will tell you that under certain conditions and with certain species, clearcutting is not just the most economical but environmentally most sensible way of harvesting. Instead, let’s look at the most likely result of using exclusively selective harvesting methods.
One method is to use helicopters to cut trees selectively and fly them to a landing. That method doesn’t require roads, the conststruction of which ruins a sizable area for future planting, and it doesn’t damage trees left standing.
High-lining is another selective-logging method. A tower is erected in the area to be harvested. From the tower, a cable leads to a landing below. The cable is attached to trees along the way by block-and-tackle, and the cut trees are transported via the cable to the landing.
Selective logging is more labor-intensive than clearcutting. That’s both good and bad news. The good news is that more people will be put to work, the bad news is that it will raise the price of lumber considerably.
Increased prices, however, will make B.C.’s forest industry less competitive which, in turn, will probably result in layoffs.
Switching to selective logging also requires large capital expenditures. To amortize those expenditures, the companies will have to increase their cut. The problem is that annual allowable cuts are being reduced year after year.
The aforementioned scenarios all assume that the industry wants genuine change, the kind of change demanded for years by environmentalists. The industry’s collective heart, however, may not be that pure.
To minimize the losses resulting from the changeover to selective logging, MacBlo may try to be more selective than is healthy for the forests. In other words, the company may try to highgrade, harvest only the most valuable timber, leaving the less valuable trees standing.
Then there are the safety concerns. Not all areas lend themselves to safe selective logging.
"We have not found very safe ways of doing selective logging in old-growth forests," says Forests Minister David Zirnhelt. "That’s not to say it can’t be done but we haven’t proven it."
I don’t want to subject the environmentalists to an unnecessarily cold shower, but I’d caution them to postpone their victory party for a spell.