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Forests a tie that binds U.S., Canada

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

EDMONTON, Alberta – Forests often seem to be greener on the other side of the fence.

At least that’s the view taken by many of the 1,500 foresters from the United States and Canada attending a once-in-a-decade joint gathering this week of the two nations’ forestry professionals.

Canadians, with their massive amount of forest and relatively few public land managers, look south longingly at a nation where government scientists have the luxury of overseeing even the tiniest timber sale. Forestry professionals from the United States drool over the absence of judges in the management of Canada’s forest.

“I envy the fact that their courts are less activist,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said Sunday during the joint meeting of the Society of American Foresters and the Canadian Institute of Forestry, which ends Wednesday.

The Forest Service has difficulty managing millions of acres across the West because much of the agency’s time and budget is devoted to defending decisions against a barrage of lawsuits from environmentalist groups, Bosworth said. Forest health is taking a back seat to lawsuit prevention, he said.

One such case was a recent decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocking the Forest Service’s Iron Honey project in North Idaho. The court ruled in favor of arguments from conservationists who believe the project would further degrade streams and wildlife habitat in forests northeast of Coeur d’Alene.

Several major projects the Forest Service hoped would restore forest health in Idaho and Montana are on hold after the ruling. “There will be a consequence for doing nothing,” Bosworth said.

Many environmentalists, however, believe the courts have opened the door for greater public participation in how wildlands are managed. In Canada, the decisions are often made by large corporations holding long-term harvest contracts for the country’s forest, 94 percent of which is publicly owned.

“The Canadian environmental groups have deliberately tried to import the American model,” said George Hoberg, head of the Forest Resources Management Department at the University of British Columbia.

Canada’s Indian tribes, known as First Nations, are having better luck convincing judges to reshape how forests are managed. Courts are now requiring timber companies to consult with First Nations before cutting on lands once called home by the tribes. British Columbia, for example, is now negotiating land claim settlements with 45 of the province’s 197 First Nation communities. These negotiations and a pair of pending court cases could have profound effects on Canada’s forestry, according to conference attendees.

The differences in management are also at the heart of a long-simmering lumber trade dispute between the two countries. U.S. officials allege that the Canadian government subsidizes its timber industry, making it easy to flood the U.S. market with cheap softwood lumber. Canadians argue that their public timber harvest contracts are sold at lower prices because greater management demands are placed on the country’s private logging companies. The companies are required to sign long-term contracts, which promote sustainable forestry.

Regardless of the outcome of the trade dispute – the two countries have been bickering over softwood lumber since 1820 and resolution is not expected anytime soon – Canada and the United States will remain linked by wood, said Sen Wang, a forest economist with the Canadian Forest Service. Exports to the lumber-hungry United States account for 75 percent of Canada’s total forest products exports, he said. Canada is also a major market for higher-value forest products from the United States, including hardwoods and composite building materials.

The global marketplace is expected to become increasingly flooded with cheap timber from maturing plantations in South America and Southeast Asia, as well as from Siberia’s largely untapped vast forest. This will make the trading relationship between the United States and Canada even more important. “The interdependency will probably become stronger down the road,” Wang said.

Foresters from the two countries are also increasingly working together to solve problems that know no borders, including a massive infestation of mountain pine beetles and efforts to restore caribou and grizzly bear populations. Perhaps the greatest challenge to forests is global warming.

Consensus among foresters is that rising temperatures will greatly change the treed landscape of North America in the next 100 years. Canada’s cooler forests are expected to be among the hardest hit. Wise management by professional foresters is needed now more than ever, said John Helm, professor emeritus of the University of California-Berkeley and vice president of the Society of American Foresters.

“The welfare of human society is fundamentally linked to the health and welfare of the forests,” Helm said.