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The temperate rainforest: Canada's clear-out secret.

Last November, when Canada became the first industrialized nation to ratify the biodiversity treaty negotiated at the Earth Summit, its well-cultivated reputation for environmental leadership got a boost. As the world's leading exporter of forest products, Canada is sensitive to the political repercussions of cutting trees - and has promoted itself as a prudent steward of forests. British Columbia, which produces more than half of Canada's lumber and pulp, has been particularly aggressive, touting its "super, natural" beauty in $9 million worth of tourism marketing each year. In April, the federal Forestry Minister announced a $5 million publicity budget for burnishing the timber industry's image with European consumers, adding to the $1.2 million B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt spent last year.

But behind this polished veneer, British Columbia has been rapidly liquidating North America's largest and most productive temperate rain forest. With less than 40 percent still standing, foresters project that at current rates of logging, no ecologically viable stands of ancient rain forest will grow on British Columbian coasts 15 years from now. Cathedral groves of ancient Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and red cedar are being razed at rates faster than the tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil. With about 44 percent of the world's temperate rain forest already gone, the 23 million hectares (58 million acres) that remain are of incalculable biological value. (By comparison, the total area of tropical rain forest is about 610 million hectares.) The largest contiguous zone - the "Amazon Basin" of temperate rain forest - is found along a narrow coastal strip between Oregon's Siuslaw River and the Alaskan Peninsula. But in Oregon and Washington, no intact watersheds of more than 500 hectares remain unlogged. And while large stands survive in Chile and Alaska, the largest undeveloped areas in the warmer, more productive zone are found in British Columbia.

Temperate in forest thrives in the mid-latitudes where moist ocean air collides with coastal mountains, causing precipitation throughout the year in excess of 2,000 millimeters (80 inches) - about the average rainfall in the Amazon, and more than twice that of Europe. The ecosystem produces most of the planet's oldest and largest trees, not to mention its heaviest accumulations of organic matter, fastest, developing soil, and highest density of fens and bogs. The diversity of invertebrates, fungi, and soil organisms found in British Columbia may rival those found in tropical rain forests, according to Conservation International and Ecotrust, a pair of U.S.-based nonprofit groups working to preserve rain forests. The most biologically rich portion of the temperate rain forest is the soil, where at least 8,000 species of arthropods (insects, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes) play a critical role in recycling nutrients to the trees.

The historical roots of British Columbia's relentless logging date back to 1945. In aggressive pursuit of revenue to expand the provincial network of hyroelectric dams, power lines, and roads after World War II the government encouraged multinational timber companies to log its forests by offering perpetually renewable contracts for sprawling tracts of old-growth trees at fire-sale prices. More than 95 percent of B.C.'s public forests are legally available for timber extraction. "Under the B.C. Forest Act, forests are synonymous with timber," says Bob Nixon, publisher of Forest Planning Canada, a magazine on western Canadian forestry.

Today, nine multinational timber companies control two-thirds of the timber cut on public lands. And the archaic pricing system ensures their grip: while small timber operations must pay British Columbia an average of $21 per cubic meter of wood they cut, the major companies pay just $7.

Compounding the timber giants' domination of this market is the virtual absence of monitoring or regulation of forest practices by the Ministry of Forests. So cozy are government and industry that the provincial government owns a 4 percent share in MacMillan Bloedel, B.C.'s largest forest products company. Timber companies even refuse to share with the ministry much solid data on their logging areas, claiming that it is proprietary information. Without independent public oversight, the result is often ecological ruin.

A random audit ordered by the Ministry of Forestry in 1992 found that of 54 fish-bearing streams surveyed within 21 logging sites on Vancouver Island, 34 had suffered "moderate to major" damage. The study concluded that more than 90 percent of the damage could have been prevented had the logging companies operated according to ministry guidelines. Dependent on upstream watersheds for stable flows of clean water, salmon spawning grounds testify to logging's ecological impacts. In 1990, effluent from Port Alberni pulp mills removed most of the oxygen in the waters, killing at least 100,000 salmon.

What has prevented B.C. citizens or environmental groups like the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in Vancouver from curbing the logging is the remarkable absence of environmental regulations that most Americans take for granted, such as the National Environmental Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Forest Management Act. "Basically, we live in a state of anarchy up here," says Vicki Husband, chairperson of the Vancouver-based Sierra Club of Western Canada.

Who is creating the demand for B.C.'s timber? Primarily its southern neighbor: the United States bought more than half of all B.C. exports of forest products last year, up 14 percent from 1991. Ironically, part of this increased demand is due to environmental protections placed on timberlands in Oregon and Washington. "Efforts to save the northern spotted owl in the Northwest have definitely boosted our profits and exports," says Bryan McCloy, a forest economist with the Council of Forest Industries in Vancouver.

In each of the past three years, British Columbia has cut more than 73 million cubic meters of timber, enough to load a convoy of logging trucks parked end-to-end for 120 kilometers (75 miles) each day, year-round. The Ministry of Forestry calculates the harvest to be 25 percent above the "sustained yield." Even worse, about three-quarters of the timber cut is mature or ancient forest (150 to more than 2,000 years old).

While clear-cuts are restricted to no more than 16 hectares in the United States, they typically range between 30 and 300 hectares in British Columbia. Combined with other industrial practices like short rotation cycles, herbicides, and replanting grids of monoculture trees, such clearcutting destroys the natural evolution of this complex ecosystem. Northeast of Prince Rupert in the North Nass Valley forests of the Nisga'a tribe is a clear-cut of 6,000 hectares (more than 23 square miles). Nisga'a Chief Sim'oogit Hleek says, "The Nass Valley is a sea of rotting stumps."

Since the United States purchases the majority of B.C. forest product exports, the potential for American consumers to demand reforms in British Columbian forest practices is substantial. An encouraging precedent is the new timber policy of B&Q plc, the largest home improvement chain in the United Kingdom. By 1995, the company has announced it will stock only sustainably-produced timber, defined to exclude all clear-cut timber, whether primary or secondary growth. Working with World Wildlife Fund and others, B&Q is developing a clear definition of "sustainable production," labeling requirements, and independent monitoring system.

South of the 49th parallel, pressure for reform is building. In January, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and six other U.S. environmental groups took out a full-page ad in the West Coast edition of the New York Times, entitled "Is British Columbia Becoming the Brazil of the North?" Some B.C. forest activists worry that such external pressure could be perceived by Canadians as environmental imperialism. "There probably will be a provincialist backlash against these international groups telling us how to manage our forests. But without it, nothing will change," says Bob Nixon.

Pushed by domestic and international demands to change, British Columbia could shift its forest practices to a more sustainable basis in two fundamental ways, says Herb Hammond, professional forester and author of Seeing The Forest Among The Trees (Polestar, 1992). The first is to move from treating forests as inventories of vertical logs to managing forests as the complex and endangered ecosystems they are. This approach would include broad landscape-level plans to ensure fully functioning ecosystems at all scales and in all forests. The second is to restore a more equitable forest products industry by dismantling the present oligopoly. Through legislative reforms, community forest boards - operating by consensus and with public oversight - would determine the appropriate mix of uses for their local forests. Overarching this local control would be a province-wide network of connected preserves of old-growth forests that would ensure the genetic, species, and ecosystem-level biodiversity that Canada agreed to protect by ratifying the treaty.

It is ironic that in North America, where the rescue of the tropical rain forest has become a rallying cry for environmentalists, a rarer - but less publicized - forest is being extirpated for 2-by-4 studs and newsprint. Now, for Canada to begin redeeming its sullied reputation for environmental leadership, it need only look to its own back yard.
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Title Annotation:Canada's hypocritical environment policy
Author:Denniston, Derek
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Pioneering greenhouse policy.
Next Article:The politics of water.

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