Old-growth forests fall in tough economy

Firms face clashes in Island towns as they struggle to make profits

By Judith Lavoie, Times ColonistMarch 7, 2009 www.timescolonist.com

From 2007: Environmentalist Jessi Junkin in an old growth grove on the Koksilah River surrounded by areas where selected logging was slated to occur. Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist

Cash-strapped forest companies are aiming their chainsaws at patches of old-growth trees in easily accessible areas as they struggle to keep costs down while harvesting high-value trees.

The decision is leading to more clashes with communities, as companies log in areas close to towns that have often been left alone for generations and are widely used for recreation.

Many of the biggest and best trees on the Island have already been logged off valley bottoms and slopes, leaving the companies with two sources of valuable old-growth trees, the kind of trees they say they need to log to make money: remote, steep areas that require significant resources to get timber out, or forests near existing communities where trees had previously been left behind to prevent protests.

“The old-growth stands are more and more marginal or more and more controversial,” said Ken Wu of Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

In Gold River, 90 kilometres west of Campbell River, a fight is brewing over a plan by Western Forest Products to log old-growth stands adjacent to the town in areas that have long been used for hiking and biking.

Mark Kenny, the company’s West Island regional manager, said the tough economy has driven WFP to look at the old-growth blocks it owns, because they contain Douglas fir, “which is attractive to our customers.”

“We had stayed away from there, but they are mature trees and this is the time,” he added, noting that many forestry companies are in survival mode as mills shut down and markets dry up around the world.

Duncan Kerr, WFP chief operations officer, said the cost of getting logs out of the forest is a key part of the economic equation.

“We have to keep distances down,” Kerr said, explaining why companies are looking at areas closer to existing roads and infrastructure.

A similar situation is unfolding near Parksville, where Island Timberlands is logging near the boundary with Englishman River Falls provincial park. Many residents were outraged when the company used helicopters to log a small island in the Englishman River, a source of drinking water, and then logged along the park boundary. The company owns both parcels of land.

Rick Jeffery, CEO of Coast Forest Products Association, said that in this “impaired” market, companies have to keep down costs and find the right log and right mill for specialty markets.

“The markets are small and higher on the value chain and, quite often, they demand the characteristics you find in old growth — tight knots and tight growing wood,” he said.

That makes it worth heli-logging areas such as the Englishman River, Jeffery said. But environmental groups and those who have used the forest for recreation say the forest companies are being short-sighted.

“The companies are just doing whatever they can to get out the cream of the crop,” said Maurita Prato of the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based environmental group. “They are ignoring the fact that these are high biodiversity areas which people love and use. Because of the economic situation it’s a quick in-and-out scenario, but it’s not a long-term strategy either economically or environmentally.”

Kerr said Western Forest Products allows the public to use private lands, but people have to remember the trees will, one day, be harvested. “We think it is a socially better choice to let communities use the land between rotations. The alternative, which I don’t like, is closing the land to public use so people don’t develop expectations.”