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Forestry and Biodiversity: Learning How to Sustain Biodiversity in Managed Forests

By Glen Dunsworth, Fred Bunnell

November 4, 2013

Review By David Brownstein

 “No more clear-cuts!” So announced MacMillan Bloedel CEO Tom Stephens in a dramatic 1998 policy shift. The gap between global social expectations and the firm’s perceived destructive logging practices, primarily the accusation that it over-harvested pristine old-growth forests, had prompted waves of international protest. Pressure from the company’s own customers meant that business as usual was no longer possible. In response, company management convened six teams and gave them ninety days to address different aspects of the question of whether or not the company could stop clear-cutting and still make a profit. Previous impossibilities were now thought possible. The company’s subsequent rebirth was to be phased in over five years so that, by 2003, implementation would be complete. 

Forestry and Biodiversity documents the learning process undertaken by MacBlo employees, commissioned researchers, and hired contractors to solve a complex, “wicked” problem –how does a for-profit company sustain biological diversity in a managed coastal temperate rainforest? Its authors argue that the answer was a two-pronged approach that included forest-zoning and variable retention logging, both informed by adaptive ecosystem management. They proposed that if select, representative areas were reserved from logging, then the forest patches would act as lifeboats. After logging, the adjacent cutblock could be recolonized by species in the reserved habitat, whether or not those species were known to, or understood by, science. 

This book is a highly structured, very complicated case study, and it is certainly not an easy introduction to either adaptive management or coastal ecology. Most readers will want to approach it as a reference volume – something to sample rather than to consume from beginning to end – an approach greatly facilitated by the many section signs that point elsewhere in the text to related passages. It should be of great interest to advanced students of biodiversity conservation as well as to local forest managers and policy-makers (and their critics). The lucid, highly condensed chapter summaries act as an intelligible mental gathering point, an antidote to the often highly complex sections that they summarize. 

Forestry and Biodiversity is divided into three unequal parts, with contributions from six authors, most variously linked to the University of British Columbia’s forestry school. Part 1, the comparatively short “Introduction,” has four contextual chapters. These include a description of the resource management problem, the 1.1-million-hectare empirical case study, and two chapters on the adaptive management approach employed. Part 2, “The Indicators,” has seven challenging chapters that consider the three major indicators of success in sustaining biological diversity (ecosystem representation, habitat structure, and individual species) and information derived from each. Part 3, “Summary,” provides a concluding statement in two chapters, one on the monitoring program that guided the transition project and another on the progress made and lessons learned through implementing an adaptive land management program. 

The question in most readers’ minds will be whether this was a successful transformation or a complicated corporate attempt to pass one of many evaluations the authors describe: “the BC-TV test” (65). The answer is buried in the book’s details and is indeterminate. While the authors have many valuable insights to share, they find it very difficult to assess the initiative’s ongoing environmental impact. We learn that the approach created progress in the initial years of implementation, when the operational environment was conducive to improvement, but that “it is probably naive to expect direct short-term feedback from monitoring results in the face of much stronger economic pressures on forest managers. Ultimately, monitoring may lead to improved practices not by direct feedback but simply by serving as a frequent reminder that particular forest practices are valued for more than their economic contributions” (170). 

During the project’s first six years, this enormous forest tenure was sold and resold by four different companies. With each change in ownership, personnel within the company also changed. The authors confide that lack of corporate continuity was partially responsible for some failings in attaining the goals of the adaptive management program (240). Government also hindered the process. Since the original analysis in 2001, the provincial government attempted to resolve a trade dispute with the United States via a 20 percent take-back of Crown lands. Further, funding came from four different programs aimed at quick, rather than enduring, results (282). More recent efforts to update the analysis have been unsuccessful. New company ownership no longer allowed access to data from private lands, information was lost because of company cutbacks for resource analysis, and some government information was not readily available (100). Throughout Forestry and Biodiversity, the authors make oblique, scattered observations indicating that even relatively simple ecosystem monitoring requires great commitment from a stable corporate and government infrastructure. I would add that this is obviously a situation not enjoyed by forest species in British Columbia. 

This book represents a state-of-the-art articulation of current ecological and silvicultural understanding, a monumental labour, and a model for what might have been. An unfortunate shortcoming is that there is no mention of any attempt to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into the process. Indeed, apart from infrequent mentions as stakeholders, Native peoples are entirely absent. That complaint aside, this book is certainly timely. The United Nations declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and 2011 the International Year of the Forest. This volume is a strong reminder that, despite MacMillan Bloedel’s quasi-religious transformation in the late 1990s, that fervour has since faltered and has not been taken up by other companies in the province. The BC Forest Service has seen such severe cuts in recent years that nobody has a clear idea of the state of the provincial forest. Forestry and Biodiversity should serve as a call for reinvigorated attempts at ecosystem-based land management. But, given the highly technical nature of the book, I fear few are likely to read it.