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Time Award to "Public Relations" Forest Discredits Environmental Efforts

It’s one way to get on the map. Time Magazine readers may never be able to find it on any authentic atlas but they now know that much of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rain Forest will be saved from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. Great Bear is a fanciful name environmentalists have given to the coastal forest in BC and it has a fine ring of prehistoric wilderness about it. But it has never been officially recognized. Yet a decision by the forest industry to forego the profits from old growth timber there has been selected by Time Magazine as the top environmental achievement in the last decade of the last millennium. It was chosen ahead of four other events: a drop from 1.7 per cent to 1.3 per cent in world population growth in the last 13 years; a plan to improve the Florida Everglades to save the alligators; a campaign by children in German schools to reduce greenhouse gases by cutting electricity use; and the birth of a panda bear in San Diego Zoo.

The citation in the Time article said: "You don’t have to be a conservationist to know trees that have stood tall for centuries should not be cut down to make paper and bookshelves. That’s why environmental groups rallied this year to protect British Columbia’s Great Bear Rain Forest. Responding to threats of a consumer boycott against wood from Great Bear, timber companies agreed to spare some pristine watersheds and giant American retailer Home Depot said it would not buy lumber from particularly fragile forests." There has been a lot of things wrong with the forest industry’s harvesting systems. Time’s editors could have chosen from any number of conservationist initiatives to applaud. It chose the sexiest. Environmentalists won’t be satisfied with the Great Bear prize, though—they’ll want more. If they wanted to stay focused on BC, surely the editors could have given a thought to top honours for the Delgamuukw court decision that recognized an Indian band’s right to aboriginal land title.

BC is the only province without treaties between the colonizing Europeans and the aboriginal people. Now the native people are waving the Delgamuukw decision as their justification for asserting rights over much of BC, including the pristine wildernesses being worked by the forest industry. Aboriginals say they know how to harvest those trees ecologically and sustainably. The environmentalists believe them. But the native people say logging is their best bet for relief from their historic poverty. If environmentalists hold social values vital in deciding how to manage the forests, surely Delgamuukw meets the standard. Then there’s the biggest prize of all, which escaped Time’s attention—the BC Forest Practices Code. It’s the most advanced charter for sustainable logging in North America. Just what the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission ordered.

The code, with its endless paperwork and overzealous bureaucracy, has helped make logging in BC the most expensive in the world. It’s one reason why much of the industry has been in the red for the last few years. But BC is now just about the only jurisdiction in North America where Brundtland’s target of a 12 per cent set-aside for protected areas has been met. That’s 12 per cent of the land mass where the trees will never be harvested. Environmentally, that’s quite an achievement. As for the future, Forest Renewal BC is not very popular with the industry. But it supervises one of the most intensive silviculture and reforestation programs on the continent. That must have merited some attention from Time.

Out of all these candidates for the big prize, Time has chosen a moderately significant event in a forest with a slick, and invented, public relations name that shows up on no real maps anywhere. Time’s choice seems whimsical at best. But it has given the environmental lobbies a valuable political prize which they can turn to their advantage. It can be spun into a web of fine gold to go with their strategy of consumer boycotts. As long as the political point is made for them by Time, the lobbies need not bother so much with the industry’s arguments for a broad public dialogue about the best way to manage the forests. Canadian corporations have been trying for years to win sustainability certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, the most widely accepted qualifying body and darling of Greenpeace and the other lobbies.

But they’ve been dancing in the dark because the FSC hasn’t been able to establish regional standards to fit Canadian conditions. None of this is to say there’s no case to be made for leaving old growth timber alone. But what Time Magazine has done is to narrow the debate. Great Bear may symbolize ecological achievement. But it’s only one event and Time has trivialized the fundamental changes the industry is trying to make. The politics of sustainable forestry are a bit like the international fight over genetically modified (GM) foods. There’s no more proof today that GM food may be harmful in the long run than there is that non-modified food improperly regulated as it is in many parts of the world may not some day be found to be harmful. But traditional agriculture, especially in Europe, works hard to keep GM food out of their markets, to obvious economic advantage for them.

The lesson is not lost on European wood producers who can benefit from anything that limits North American imports into their markets. In the wider world, awarding the prize to the Great Bear Rain Forest is no more than a sound byte. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t give enough credit to the adaptations being made by Canada to improve forest management. In Canada, the forests are part of a comprehensive land use planning process that involves a lot more than saving some watersheds. The big corporations, small operators, communities and native people are all in it together, trying to figure out what’s best for the total environment. That kind of planning is complicated and sometimes exposes animosities among the groups. But they are part of the process. It discredits their efforts to leave them in the shadow of Time’s big prize.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004