Natural value

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 26, 2002

men with axe & paddleDon’t believe all the census hype claiming that Canadians are indiscriminately abandoning rural areas for the cities. Canadians love living in the countryside when the countryside stays true to rural ideals. But place Canadians in countryside that has been converted into an industrial site – whether it be a large-scale forestry, mining, or agricultural operation – and many will flee for more hospitable parts of the country.

Take Port Alberni, B.C., a logging town on Vancouver Island that lost 5.5% of its population in the last five years. In spectacular Clayoquot Sound, Port Alberni could have based its economy on the beauty of its surroundings, capitalizing on the sea and old-growth forests to attract year-round residents and tourists alike. Instead, it gave short shrift to tourism and – pushed by federal and provincial governments hell-bent on creating short-term jobs – razed its surroundings. The strategy had locals patting themselves on the back for years. Now that the valuable, near-in trees have been turned into pulp and two-by-fours, now that the loggers need subsidies to justify logging the trees further out, and now that property values are dropping, the self-congratulations have died down. Port Alberni is in decline.

One hundred and thirty kilometres west of Port Alberni lies the prosperous town of Tofino, B.C. Also in Clayoquot Sound, Tofino’s population rose by more than 25% in the last five years as people glory in this little piece of paradise.

Tofino has become a growing tourist destination by offering the world environmental amenities that are increasingly in short supply. With its designation in 2000 as B.C.’s first United Nations Biosphere Reserve, the forests near Tofino have earned a measure of protection against rapacious Canadian governments that would decimate Tofino’s surroundings for short-term political gain.

With the U.S. government’s decision last week to slap softwood lumber duties on our exports, all Canadian forests have received a long-needed reprieve from our governments’ reckless exploitation of our old-growth forests.

President George W. Bush did Canadian citizens and the Canadian economy a favour by saving our forests from our own governments. Nowhere is this more so than in British Columbia. As fodder for mills, most of our coastal forests – 60% of which are hemlock and balsam – have no value at all.

Forest companies such as Interfor, one of B.C.’s largest exporters, sell hemlock for an average of $60 a cubic metre, and balsam for less. Meanwhile, they spend $100 a cubic metre bringing these two species to market.

“We lose $40 on every cubic metre of hemlock that we bring to the sawmill,” explains Interfor’s Steve Crombie, who adds that provincial law forces the forest companies to harvest the majority of coastal stands at a loss.

In the gnarled logic of many Canadian commentators, Canada’s forest policies represent global free trade and America’s are narrowly protectionist. In truth, our forestry laws are rooted in protectionist and paternalistic governments that value economic activity for its own sake – even when it’s money-losing. Because private owners of old-growth forests have ignored government entreaties to log, even when governments have provided them with strong incentives, governments have a history of refusing to sell our forests to the citizenry. Throughout Clayoquot Sound and other beautifully forested areas, Canadians bid up the value of forests for residential and recreational purposes – their highest value by far – whenever our governments deign to allow private ownership.

As the recent census shows, Canada’s places of beauty have been big gainers, coast to coast. In the Maritimes, only Prince Edward Island gained population. People didn’t move there for its potatoes; its sea and sand make it a playground for urbanites and a retirement destination for all.

Canada’s fastest growing area of all lies in western Alberta, the potent combination of a good economy and a great amenity called the Rocky Mountains. Calgary’s 16% growth in population is noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the 30% growth of Canmore and other Alberta places whose prime business is the enjoyment of beauty. In B.C., Whistler gained 24% over the last five years, a figure all the more impressive given its 60% increase in the previous five years, and communities on Vancouver Island – at least those not threatened by logging – similarly attract people and investment simply because they are wonderful places.

The big population losers, the census shows us, are regions artificially developed for resource exploitation, and now undeveloped in other amenities. These include Newfoundland, which has plundered the seas of fish stocks, northern logging and mining communities from Quebec to British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, which found it could not profitably plough under its once pristine prairie grasslands.

These regions, which have neither the rich amenities nor the rich resources required to attract and maintain a large population, should have remained largely wilderness. Had Canadian governments not foolishly encouraged their exploitation, often through the force of law, they would never have been intensively developed.

Thanks to globalizing trends in forestry, in agriculture and in mining, rapacious Canadian laws are increasingly being trumped by free markets. With our governments’ ability to sell out our resources now curbed, citizens are increasingly empowered over the government-industrial complex that simultaneously destroys our economy and our environment.

President Bush’s softwood tariffs further this globalizing trend, raising hopes that our governments will realize that their ability to plunder has reached its limits. They might then agree to sell their forest lands to their citizens.

If they did, our governments would have the cash they so desperately need to finance their activities, our forests would be owned by true stewards of the land, Canada’s economy would savour a big boost and Americans would have our deep gratitude.


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