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Praise and skepticism greet Macmillan Bloedel's announcement of sweeping new changes to the way it harvests timber

Macmillan Bloedel (MB) has recently announced dramatic changes to its forestry practices -- changes that have environmentalists applauding enthusiastically in public, but in private questioning the sincerity of a company with one of the worst environmental reputations in Canada.

When CEO Tom Stephens announced that BC's largest forest company was going to stop clear-cutting old growth forests within five years, Greenpeace forests campaigner Karen Mahon was right by his side, toasting him with a bottle of Dom Perignon.

"Evidence tells us that some of society's values are shifting," says Stephens. "We hear it from the public; we hear it from our customers; they hear it from their customers and yes, we hear it from environmentalists."

By all measures, MB has taken a progressive step forward, leapfrogging the rest of the industry, by responding to the environmental demands of increasingly sensitive markets in Europe and Asia. "For a CEO to take any step [in that direction] is a quantum leap," recognizes Greenpeace activist Tamara Stark.

The public applause has quietly given way to reserved skepticism though, as environmental groups begin a closer examination of work plans and the practical realities of how MB is going to carry through on its promises. Even Greenpeace's congratulations were quickly followed by a note of caution. Mahon warned Stephens that MB would be carefully monitored to ensure that it follows through on its new course of environmental stewardship.

In the process of re-engineering its business methods, MB looked to the US and its European neighbours for ideas. At the heart of the company's revamped forestry practices are three new management zones formed by subdividing its 1.1 million hectares of public and private lands into an old growth zone (ten percent), a habitat zone (25 percent) and a commercial timber zone (65 percent).

For example, within the 100,000 hectares that will make up the "old growth zone", no tracts greater than one hectare will be logged. (Current BC forest practices limit clear-cuts to areas less than 40 hectares.) Within this zone, 70 percent of the land will be permanently protected.

"This is a lot more than other companies plan to protect," acknowledges Aran O'Carroll, a legal assistant at Sierra Legal Defense Fund. But he also notes that the forestry giant is still only designating a small fraction of its old growth holdings as part of the new "old growth management zone."

Company figures previously posted on their web site state that MB's public and private land holdings consist of 500,000 hectares of old growth forests, but that only 100,000 hectares of these forests will be officially designated as part of the "old growth zone." "They are essentially being given carte blanche to cut down the majority, if not more, of the other 400,000 hectares of old growth," says O'Carroll.

MB's chief forester Bill Cafferata acknowledges that although MB has promised to phase out clear-cutting of old growth forests, it will still continue to log old growth. In fact, Cafferata has stated that it will take up to 25 years before second growth will replace old growth as the major source of harvest.

For now, one of the key differences will be in how the company chooses to cut. MB plans to implement variations of a popular logging technique known as variable retention harvesting. Properly carried out, this technique involves logging selected trees within an area while minimizing destruction to wildlife habitat and the surrounding landscape.

Currently, the BC Ministry of Forests does not recognize variable retention harvesting as an approved silvicultural method, but according to the Forest Practices branch, new regulations will be in place by early in the new year. Ministry experts are working with MB on an implementation strategy.

However, many are concerned that MB has turned to variable retention harvesting to escape the strict clear-cutting regulations that have been put on clear-cutting in BC. Jill Thompson of Friends of Clayoquot Sound believes that variable retention is just another name for clear-cutting. "We're witnessing what VRH [variable retention harvesting] is on the ground, and when MB says it's not a clear-cut, we know it is."

Patrick Moore of the industry-linked Forestry Alliance concurs, predicting VRH will still leave clear-cuts the size of football fields. He claims MB is merely trying to make itself look good at the expense of other forestry companies, even though its practices are no different.

There is also a concern that because variable retention harvesting requires a larger harvesting land base, more roads would have to be built to harvest the same volume of timber. The Sierra Legal Defense Fund notes that the "adjacency" rule that currently prevents back-to-back clear-cuts may eventually be used to MB's business advantage.

According to the Timber Harvesting Practices Regulation of the Forest Practices Code, 60 percent of the "leave strips" (areas left in place between clear-cuts) stipulated by the adjacency rule can still be logged with special permission from the district manager. This could eventually mean areas that have been previously clear-cut are surrounded by leave strips that have been subject to variable retention logging.

Within the bigger picture though, "the number one issue for most forest-environmentalists is that basically we are cutting way too much, way too fast. In BC, we are over-cutting by 38 percent each year," says the BC Forestry Report Card, which was released by a coalition of environmental organizations in April 1998.

The provincial government acknowledges this problem by incorporating a claw-back provision that decreases the amount of timber companies can cut by five percent each time a tree farm license is renewed (once every five or ten years). This clawback formula was implemented by the BC government to help shift the forest industry towards more sustainable cutting levels. Despite this provision, MB has asked the ministry to allow it to maintain a stable cut of 5.7 million cubic metres a year over the next ten years.

MB's CEO has said, "We must give credit where credit is due." Environmentalists, however, are waiting for the proof.

Christine Cheng is in Systems Design Engineering and General Arts at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:lumber cutting in Canada
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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