New Age Forestry?

by Clark S. Binkley
Clark Binkley is dean of the Faculty of Forestry and specializes in forest economics. This article first appeared in Branch Lines, the faculty's newsletter.

A recent book edited by Kathryn Kohm and Jerry Franklin, Creating a Forestry for the 21st Century, called for "changing the focus of forest management from quantity to quality, from industrial-type production to the provision of goods and services. This paradigm shift is not unique to forestry. It is part of a much broader move from the industrial age to the information age."

Foresters in B.C. and elsewhere no doubt hear suggestions that, in this new age, silicon chips soon will replace wood chips, leaving little need for structural wood products. Such claims bear careful scrutiny. Just what does the "information age" mean for forestry?

It is fruitful to begin with what it does not mean. The World Resources Institute -- hardly a sycophant for the forest industry -- estimates that world demand for wood is increasing at a rate of 75 million cubic metres per year. In comparison, the current allowable annual cut in B.C. is about 70 million cubic metres. Due to population growth and increased income, each and every year the world consumes an additional amount of wood equivalent to finding a new B.C.!

Apparently the prosaic problems of timber supply will remain important well into the next millennium. Just who do the information-agers imagine will attend to these problems if not foresters?

Of course, while timber supply will remain an important issue, the non-market service of forests are simultaneously becoming more important. A recent article by Robert Constanza and colleagues argues that the value of ecosystem services from the world's forests equals $969 per hectare per year.

Rough estimates I have recently compiled for the U.S. suggest that their forest-based recreation is worth about as much as their industrial timber production, and that the role forests play in removing carbon dioxide and important greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is worth about a third as much.

Here is where the information-age paradigm has currency for forestry: how do we "produce" more of all of these forest outputs from a more-or-less fixed forest land base? Doing so will surely require far greater knowledge and greater reliance on science and technology than has been the case in the past.

The need extends from advanced satellite-based remote sensing to the biotechnology of forest trees; from more sophisticated ecosystem science (especially large-scale experimentation) to the technologies that allow more efficient use of wood (e.g. new approaches to wood building design and construction, robotics in value-added processing).

Such a technology-based approach is consistent with leading thinking about human relations with the environment. In a recent article in Science, four ecologists who analysed human impact on the Earth's ecosystems found that we have transformed between one-third and one-half the Earth's land surface, and have had a major impact on key carbon, nitrogen and water cycles.  They conclude, "Humanity's dominance of earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet."

This responsibility requires, they argue, using resources more efficiently and understanding better both the natural and social scientific aspects of ecosystems. These are sensible prescriptions for forestry as well.

Our capacity to substitute information-age knowledge for natural resources depends on the investments we make in producing and adapting new knowledge. Canada's current performance in this respect has, with one notable exception, been poor.

A recent study found that R&D -- public and private -- in the Canadian forest sector was generally low and declining. (In 1994, one U.S. firm, International Paper Company, spent more on R&D than did the entire Canadian industry.) The only bright spot in this otherwise bleak landscape has been the research program of Forest Renewal B.C. (FRBC).

Originally targeted at between 10 and 15 per cent of their total expenditures, last year FRBC spent about $40 million on R&D activities ranging from environmental protection to growing trees to value-added forest products.

Maintaining this program -- and expanding it to its intended size -- is critical to our future. But even with FRBC's current research program, total forest sector R&D in B.C. still falls far short of the standard in other advanced forested countries such as Sweden, the U.S. or Japan. And extensive public ownership of forest land in B.C. implies a special responsibility for publicly funded forestry research far greater than in these other jurisdictions.

The information age is creating amazing new technologies and understanding. This revolution does not imply that material demands on the world's forests will diminish, but rather that foresters have powerful new tools to meet those demands while responding affirmatively to the increasingly valuable ecosystem services of our forests.

Effective adaptation of these information-age tools to forest conservation, management products and production processes comprises a major challenge to forest stewardship now and in the 21st century.