AROUND Bob McMinn's kitchen table, a revolution in logging techniques is being planned.
The plotters are members of the Ecoforestry Institute Society. They want to log Mr. McMinn's 300 acres of forest near the provincial capital using sustainable methods to teach timber professionals how to do the same thing. The wood harvest will mimic the natural cycles of nature - selecting specific trees for cutting and leaving some dead wood to rot on the ground to enrich the soil.
The concept is not new, but it appears to be gaining momentum, despite industry complaints that it is not economical. Environmentalists are protesting current timber company practices in Canada, and point to this ``natural selection logging'' as the way of the future. They are concerned about the ecological impact of clear-cutting, which has fragmented old-growth forests into increasingly smaller ``islands,'' making it harder for the rich genetic variety of plant and animal life to be preserved.
``We have to change our economics to meet the needs of our ecology,'' says Duncan Taylor, an institute director. Even in economic terms, he says, forests hold value other than wood, from biodiversity to gourmet mushrooms. Salmon streams are endangered by erosion and pollution, partly because of large-scale clear-cutting in the Northwest.
``I'm sure in the past we've been part of the problem,'' concedes Gary Patrucco, a forester with MacMillan Bloedel, a timber company that has become the main target of protests here on Vancouver Island. But he says new government guidelines will ensure that future clear-cuts are no more than 100 acres in size. Other recent rules aim to prevent loggers from polluting streams where fish spawn.
To ecoforestry advocates, however, such steps still do not amount to ``sustainable'' forestry, especially given the rapid rate of cutting. Doug Patterson, the institute's executive director, says logging should not be done at all in the remaining old-growth forests. This would be a bitter policy for industry, since these trees, hundreds of years old, are the most valuable. This is because of their tight growth rings (the trunks add about the same volume of growth each year to an ever-expanding diameter). Few second-growth forests are nearing old-growth status.
The Ecoforestry Institute hopes to convince skeptical labor unions, timber companies, and government officials that more forest-friendly practices are not only needed but economical.
One example that bolsters their case is that of Merv Wilkinson. He began selectively harvesting his private land on Vancouver Island in 1945. He says he reaps greater wood-value from his land by harvesting portions every five years than he could by clear-cutting. Moreover, because his methods employ less-expensive machinery and put less wear and tear on it, operating costs are actually lower than for clear-cutting, he says.
``It's not that people are saying it can't be done,'' Mr. Patrucco comments, but ``we need to know a little bit more about it'' before pushing such methods into widespread use.
``We are certainly looking at changing the way forestry is practiced,'' adds John Cuthbert, British Columbia's chief forester. However, ecoforestry would ``certainly'' be more expensive, he says. Yet even clear-cutting's costs are rising, since more roads will be needed as cut areas grow smaller.
Larry Rewakowsky, an official with the timber union IWA Canada, says more environmentally sensitive practices are needed for logging on erosion-prone steep slopes. But he says ecoforestry's costs would drive people out of work if mandated for the whole province.
Ecoforestry advocates suggest that all companies be required to move into new methods together, to keep one from being disadvantaged. Next month proponents of this idea will meet in Toronto to hash out the standards that governments might use to certify that wood has been harvested sustainably.