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--  COLUMN   --

Time to "Plug In" Some Human Experience and Common Senset

tractors.jpg (8686 bytes)By Jim Stirling

The health page in newspapers is a harrowing read these days. We’ve either done—or are about to do— irreparable harm to our bodies by poor eating habits and what we haven’t exercised. But should we survive long enough, it’s even scarier where computer technology via the Internet wishes to escort us.

A recent report from a major investment bank and brokerage firm predicts a time when an android sales clerk will question why you’ve ordered a blue pair of pants when your database says you prefer grey. This is undoubtedly clever stuff. But do we need it? No, of course not. We need less de-humanizing, not more.

Computers are wonderfully useful, but they don’t have to supplant everything else in the toolbox. It seems we’re in danger of doing just that in our industry, relying totally on little boxes of electronic chips to chart how we manage and harvest our forests, and process and market its products. Forgive the outdated notion, but what we should re-insert in the mix is common sense. It has a nice, comforting, practical ring to it compared with, say, bioelectronic technology. And when it’s hitched to experience, as it most frequently is, common sense is a potent attribute capable of saving forest companies and operations money and avoiding mistakes.

Plugging in common sense is easier than booting up computers. It means talking with—and this is important—and listening to people with years of practical experience in the woods and in the mill. They are a priceless resource, cheap to access and available within companies large and small. The key is to treat common sense and experience seriously.

Some years back on BC’s north coast, there was a plan to develop a fish hatchery. It was a good project. It demonstrated how nearby logging and fish habitat enhancement could be harmonized and it came complete with a positive public relations angle.

A team of experts was dispatched from Victoria to investigate the chosen site. A resident logger watched their work with interest. He started up a conversation with one of the scientists. The logger explained the creek above the site was prone to occasional flooding prompted by rainfall and snowmelt in the surrounding mountains. The scientist listened politely and informed the logger that extensive hydrology work had been completed and it indicated no problems from the creek. The hatchery was duly completed at a cost of many thousands of dollars. Then it rained in the surrounding mountains. Actually, it rained a lot. The creek burst its banks. The destroyed hatchery was not rebuilt.

There are too many examples like that and they exist across the country. They are expensive and to a surprising extent avoid-able when the common sense that comes from experience is blended into the computer modeling.

Locating claim roads on a proposed cut block is a task of increasing complexity. There are more places where they can’t go than where they can go. An experienced road builder can be a huge asset to the planner.

Someone who’s been moving rock and earth around for 35 years has developed an incredible store of knowledge. They instinctively know how a ditch should be blasted or if a hillside is likely to stay put. They might not know the scientific name for it, but they know for sure that a particular rock structure sloping away from the right-of-way is going to cause problems.

Trouble is, many of the bright young people in forest services, consultants’ offices and company forestry departments don’t appreciate what’s available to them to make the right decisions first. They’re a whiz with their computers and can pro-duce virtual landscapes with incredible precision on the screen. But they choose not to venture into the real woods too often. And they’re unlikely to give much credibility, let alone time, to a grumpy old machine operator with a grade five education and cussword vocabulary. It’s a big mistake. It’s not an infallible recipe, but behind most gruff exteriors there’s the kind of experience and common sense that’s not included on software programs.

Forest companies are re-inventing their harvesting systems to separate themselves from the dreaded clearcut stigma. They want to be seen as uniformly green by their frequently uninformed customers. This despite the fact that clearcutting can be the most sensible harvesting solution, ecologically sustainable, biologically sound and economically viable. Removing specific trees from a stand at certain times is sound theory and enjoys—if that’s the right word— political correctness. Removing trees in patches and strips and leaving the remaining stems windfirm is something else.

There was much trumpeting about a helicopter logging show in BC that took out selected stems from a hillside. The partners in the venture returned a year later and reported the stand was intact. They neglected to inform the media five years later after a windstorm levelled the remaining stems.

The point? Experienced fallers in the area tried to tell the planners this particular patch system was highly unlikely to result in a windfirm stand. Fallers spend their working lives reading forest canopies and understanding local weather phenomena. But the fallers weren’t listened to.

Theirs is the kind of information that should be in a computer database. Better that than risking a surge in blood pressure when some faceless sales assistant tells you what colour pants to wear. It’s just plain common sense.

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