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Under the canopy: the gathering of mushrooms, berries and other forest materials is becoming a billion-dollar industry.

COUNTLESS orange and yellow trumpets glow under the jack pines. A delightful apricot-like fragrance surprises your nose when you bend closer. It's August, prime chanterelle mushroom season in Saskatchewan's boreal forest.

These beauties also happen to bring up to $11 per kilogram fresh weight to pickers. Today's harvest may be bought by Northern Lights Foods, owned by Lac La Ronge First Nation, to be cleaned, sorted for drying or distributed fresh to markets around the world.

The chanterelles, as well as the black morels and pine mushrooms Northern Lights sells, are certified organic by Quality Assurance International. Markets for such sustainably produced non-timber forest resources--mushrooms, berries, syrups, floral greenery, bark, medicinal plants and many others--are taking off worldwide.

Such rising demand offers great potential for individuals or groups that, by choice or cirumstance, fall outside the mainstream wage-based economy. The Canadian Forest Service estimates that non-timber products could easily bring in one billion dollars annually; they presently bring in around $280 million per year to the British Columbia economy alone.

BC community development consultant Tim Brigham characterizes non-timber forest products as an "emerging industry" that in some ways "has been in existence for a very long time in Canada." For millennia Aboriginal peoples have used such products for food, medicines, materials and technologies, and for cultural and trade purposes.


Even large-scale commercial exploitation of non-timber forest products is not a new phenomenon. In the 1930s and 40s, resources of cascara bark (used to make laxative products) in BC "were getting hammered," Brigham says. Regulations regarding its harvest were put in place and plantations were established.

"In many ways, we're just at the beginning of the journey with this industry. Thankfully, we haven't yet reached the point they have in the United States where conflicts over non-timber resources are becoming more commonplace--that's a situation we have to learn from," Brigham says.

This new trail through the forest won't be easy. For example, while many within the Aboriginal community see non-timber forest products as viable and welcome income sources, some Aboriginal people consider certain medicinal plants sacred gifts freely given by the Creator, and therefore question whether they should be sold at all.

Issues relating to forest tenure and management, overharvesting or damage to the land base during harvest can divide communities.

Forest tenure--who has access to do what activities in forests--is surprisingly complex. The basics seem simple: on private forested land, anyone wanting access must ask permission from the landowner; on public land, those wanting access are not required to ask permission. But on public land subject to private tenure, things are less clear.

Forest companies, some of the largest tenure-holders of public lands in Canada, typically operate under licence agreements. They acknowledge their permission is not required for harvesters to come in and take a few kilos of high bush cranberry bark. However, access to that bark is usually from a private logging road the company has built and maintains at its own expense. The company is liable for any accidents that may take place on that road.

The forest company is also far from the only party with a stake in non-timber resources on its licence area. Provincial governments, First Nations, companies that buy and export non-timber products, researchers, environmental groups and others each have their particular interests. The federal government, for example, may be concerned with non-reporting of income. Which, if any, of these groups should be managing non-timber forest products activity on public lands?

In one unique venture in southeastern British Columbia, community residents are managing both non-timber and timber resources through an agreement signed with the provincial government. The Harrop-Procter Community Forest Pilot Agreement was the first forest agreement or licence in BC to include the commercial harvest of non-timber forest products.

The Harrop-Procter participants are proceeding cautiously with harvesting and commercialization of non-timber resources. They've begun with research into sustainability of plants with medicinal properties such as devil's club, prince's pine and wild sarsaparilla. The Harrop-Procter Community Co-operative has made and sold small volumes of dietary support extracts from products harvested during the sustainability trials.

In a report prepared for the BC Ministry of Forests in 2002 on property rights and non-timber forest resources, authors Sinclair Tedder, Darcy Mitchell and Ann Hillyer advocate a blend of state, common property and private management approaches. A flexible approach is needed, they suggest, given that it's difficult to restrict access to forests and there's such wide diversity among the resources themselves, their market value and the people who are harvesting, buying and marketing them.

In Saskatchewan, the big non-timber cash crop is wild mushrooms, primarily the pines, chanterelles and black morels sold by Northern Lights and others. Topgrade pine mushrooms can bring $22 to $33 a kilogram fresh weight to pickers. Anywhere from 100 to 200 pickers will be out on average, a number that can peak at 500 during a good mushroom season.

Gerry Ivanochko of Saskatchewan's Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization agrees with minimal government involvement. The province's non-timber forest products industry is small enough that it can regulate itself, he says.

But across Canada industry players and watchers are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of non-timber resources in a largely unregulated environment.

Left to their own ingenuity, groups have begun to coalesce locally and to invent their own approaches. In New Brunswick, for example, the Eastern Canada Ground Hemlock Working Group is working on broadening sustainable harvest guidelines that were first developed by the Canadian Forest Service and the Prince Edward Island provincial government.

Eastern ground hemlock contains taxol, a natural substance used in making anti-cancer drugs. The plant is currently being tested in clinical trials and is not yet being harvested at commercial levels. However, it holds great potential, says Simon Mitchell of the Falls Brook Centre, a non-profit community development group based in Knowlesville, New Brunswick, that is part of the working group. When the industry does take off, stakeholders in New Brunswick want to be ready to head off the kind of harvesting pressure that has threatened the Pacific yew, a related plant, in BC.

Harvesters out gathering seneca root or fiddleheads tend to be an independent bunch, precisely the trait that hampers them from having an effective voice in influencing policies governing the resources they rely on for income.

Like many in the non-timber industry, Dave Buck feels harvesters should be front and centre as the industry evolves and matures. Buck is manager of the Northern Forest Diversification Centre in The Pas, Manitoba. The centre has developed a strong reputation for training people in the region to sustainably harvest, develop and market a wide range of non-timber resources and products.

"We've documented 220 harvesters from 22 communities that are delivering product to us," says Buck. The products include Labrador tea leaves, black poplar buds and many others. Buck and his colleagues are working with people in the industry to launch a provincial association for non-timber products harvesters in the fall of 2004. A draft code of ethics will be presented to harvesters to discuss at that meeting.

As the non-timber forest product industry grows and matures, conservationists are beginning to wonder whether a case can be made for conserving forest land through replacing logging with non-timber resource harvesting.

This line of thought is similar to the argument for tourism as an alternative to forest cutting, says Sinclair Tedder, with the BC Ministry of Forests' Economics and Trade Branch. And, he says, it raises similar questions.

"If the assumption is that non-timber forest products or tourism can replace timber extraction and provide communities with similar levels of wealth," says Tedder, "then we need to consider what level of extraction would be required to support the same number of timber jobs and income." We should also consider "what impacts the necessary level of extraction would have on the ecosystems we were so interested in preserving," Tedder adds, "not to mention the effect on traditional users of the forest."

Greater emphasis on non-timber forest products can provide only part of the answer for rural communities seeking more stable economies. And any serious expansion of current harvesting is likely to increase tensions between timber and non-timber interests, between harvesters and conservationists, and between local communities and provincial authorities about how best to ensure long-term economic viability. But such conflicts are not new. Perhaps if they are anticipated and addressed while the industry is just beginning to expand, many of the mistakes made in the past can be avoided.

Avery Ascher is a freelance writer in The Pas, Manitoba.
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Author:Ascher, Avery
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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