Viewed from a helicopter, there appears to be no shortage of trees in British Columbia. Douglas firs, hemlocks, alders, and other species cover the hills of Vancouver Island like a thick carpet.
But the frequent patches of bare earth - reddish at first, then gray-brown after they have weathered - attest to the fact that clear-cutting of old-growth forests continues in this resource-dependent Canadian province. In fact, it has been an article of faith within the forest-products industry here - which accounts for half of the province's exports - that clear-cutting is the only truly cost-effective and safe way to log.
MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., based in Vancouver, British Columbia, sent shock waves through the Canadian forest-products industry last month when it announced that it would phase out clear-cutting in old-growth forests in the province over the next five years.
It is clear, says William Beese, a forest ecologist at MacBlo, "that if we don't clean up our act, we risk losing our social license."
The forest-products industry here has changed dramatically over the past several years. Foresters in both the private sector and in government have heard the warnings in new research about the value of biodiversity.
"I can't think of any other term or concept that has had such an impact in such a short time," Mr. Beese says.
And a new statutory Forest Practices Code has been introduced. But, Beese says, "We've seen that the social agenda is moving faster than the law." Practices such as clear-cutting may still be legal but are becoming less acceptable to consumers, particularly affluent, educated Europeans.
These buyers want to know how a piece of wood was harvested before they buy it. They are particularly important customers right now when Japan is in a slump and lumber exports to the United States are constrained by a trade agreement.
Mimicking nature's harvest
MacBlo is switching to "variable-retention logging," which calls for leaving a portion of the trees in a tract standing. When a fire or a windstorm or an insect infestation rips through a forest, the destruction is never complete; some trees survive. By means of these, the entire ecosystem can regenerate itself. Variable-retention logging seeks to mimic nature's "harvesting" of trees.
Foresters have several techniques for leaving trees standing, depending on whether the emphasis is on preserving habitat, maximizing the tree harvest, or simply maintaining old-growth trees. A shared goal is to maintain forest structure; that is, ensuring that what is left standing is as complete as possible a microcosm of the original woods.
Forest-products companies don't usually win kudos from environmental groups, but MacBlo has on this one: The Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco called the decision "courageous."
"There's no doubt about it, this is a great leap forward," says Karen Mahon, a forests campaigner in Vancouver with the environmental group Greenpeace, which has campaigned heavily against clear-cutting. She adds that MacBlo's decision will put other companies under pressure to stop clear-cutting, too.
MacBlo is somewhat sensitive about being seen as knuckling under to environmentalists.
"We'd like to say we're not reacting to pressure from lobby groups. We'd like to say we're being proactive," says Craig Neeser, senior vice president of the company's solid-wood group.
But what MacBlo brass call the "market access" issue is much on their minds. The very changes in practices that are making the companies better eco-citizens have also driven up costs, which makes it all the more imperative for MacBlo and its competitors to do whatever it takes to win ecology-minded consumers.
Although Beese and his colleagues had been doing forest-ecology research for years, the policy change came at the behest of MacBlo's new chief executive, W. Thomas Stephens. An American whose career includes a stint guiding the Manville Corp. through its difficult asbestos litigation some years ago, he realized that his new company had serious image problems as a defender of clear-cutting. At the beginning of this year, he launched a major research project to consider alternative logging methods.
Safety and cost issues
New technologies, such as the use of helicopter logging, or the reintroduction of old technologies, such as use of horse-drawn wagons, have helped make variable retention more economical.
Safety is also an issue. The industry has traditionally argued that clear-cutting is safer for loggers, and MacBlo has said it will not compromise safety to undertake variable-retention logging.
Some observers point out that MacBlo's decision represents a certain amount of enlightened self-interest. A giant within its industry, it has the resources to try a new approach. The company has been in business long enough, and has been reforesting long enough, that it has alternatives to old-growth clear-cutting that other companies don't. Higher costs - about 10 to 15 percent - may be offset by getting premium prices for the "environmentally correct" timber.
However positive the response to MacBlo's decision, clear-cutting is not the only issue here. An underlying question remains unresolved: whether old-growth forests should be logged at all. Ms. Mahon of Greenpeace says she's "quite disappointed on the old-growth issue," especially in the light of new satellite data that show how severely old-growth forests around the world have been logged.
The provincial government's chief forester, Larry Pedersen, says, "If you accept that a true definition of sustainable development includes a balance of economic, social, and environmental benefit, then you have to accept that there has to be some way to develop the land."