New ALR Tree Planting Rules Gets it Right

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New ALR Tree Planting Rules Gets it Right

I normally point a skeptical lens towards government policies and can be guilty of viewing most compromises as deals that are bad for all involved. But I am pleasantly surprised with the balance and good judgement that has been shown in the new regulations governing tree planting on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in British Columbia (BC).

Under the new regulations, property owners in the ALR will need to apply to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to plant trees on properties larger than 20 hectares, if those trees are not for an accepted ALC farm use such as food production or agroforestry.

These new regs essentialy allow business as usual for the appropriate use of trees on farms in BC for food production in either conventional (e.g. orchards) or agroforestry settings, while putting the brakes on the recent carbon-credits driven mania. In a recent land rush, primarily foreign multinationals have been seeking to offset their emissions in Europe and the United States by buying and afforesting farms and ranches in the interior of BC. In essence, they were were preserving their unsustainable manufacturing emissions profiles, by ripping land out of agricultural production into carbon-credit reserves, with serious implications for the long-term sustainability of BC agriculture.

BC’s agricultural land base is far too small to remove large blocks of land to devote solely for carbon sequestration. Especially given that we can achieve improved food security and conservation without removing this land from production. With expanded use of agroforestry we can proverbially have our cake and eat it too. These new regulations are win for an integrated approach to land use.

Ecological Services Initiative Review

Ecological goods and services (EGS) are the natural outputs and processes that create health, economic or social benefits. In British Columbia, as in many other jurisdictions, agricultural operations tend to occupy portions of the landscape both high in biodiversity and supporting key ecological functions. Agricultural lands have therefore become a focus for the development of payment for ecological services (PES) programs as a means to reward private-land stewardship that restores or maintains EGS.

The Ecological Services Initiative (ESI) was established in 2009 to demonstrate and test the concept of PES schemes for agricultural producers. As a next step to advance support of EGS from agricultural lands, the British Columbia Agricultural Research and Development Corporation (ARDCorp) undertook a strategic review of the ESI and explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC.

UPDATE: The Ecological Services Initiative is now known as the “Farmland Advantage” Project

Access the review here.

AEI-GF2-ARDCorp logos and text

Disadvantages of Agroforestry: Support

Finding support – be it research and development, extension, financing or in government regulations and policies – is one of keys to the survival of any natural resource enterprise. For many, a significant disadvantage of agroforestry is that this support either does not exist locally, is highly fragmented, or runs afoul of institutional barriers and professional biases.

As I have noted before, agroforestry is an ancient land use practice, and some indigenous groups have utilized these systems continuously for thousands of years. For most of the planet however, agroforestry has worn the label of an “emerging” or “novel” land use system in the last quarter century. And for most of the modern era, agriculture and forestry have been seen as separate activities. Moreover, within forestry, the timber and non-timber components are typically seen as distinct. And in agricultural settings, production and conservation are not generally viewed holistically (the notable exception being Prairie shelterbelts), and trees and shrubs can be viewed as impeding cultivation, rather than being a source of diversification and integrated production.

The consequences of this fragmented thinking, is a fragmented support network. At best, you may be educating the “support” agencies you seek out for assistance on the potential benefits of agroforestry and why they should help. At worst you will be fighting against strong-willed professional and political biases that will actively try to subvert your efforts.

With notable exceptions that have progressively implemented agroforestry programs, generations of natural resource professionals have been trained in narrow disciplines, and generally in isolation of each other. Academic silos may make the job of setting up university departments easier, but they don’t reflect the integrated reality of our most pressing production (i.e. economic) and conservation challenges, nor acknowledge the great potential in integrated solutions.

These institutional biases can permeate government departments, and are reflected in the regulations and policies that govern resource use and support programs. The divisions are so ingrained at times, that even the most sympathetic elements of the bureaucracy may have their ‘hands tied’, because agroforestry overlaps elements of many program areas, but is not a core responsibility for any one agency or individual.

You may also find yourself fighting against the apathy or animosity of fellow land managers. Other producers and producer associations harbour insecurities and fatigue from the seemingly endless fight to find support for conventional agriculture and forestry (which admittedly has also been a great struggle against a growing urban culture largely divorced from land management issues). Some constituents therefore view agroforestry as a threat to their existence, rather than an option to move forward. There are conventional agricultural producers that actively or passively resist reintroducing trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes. And the conventional forest industry, particularly those that have large tenures on public lands, can view cultivation, grazing or integrating non-timber production with timber to be planning and production barrier to their business interests.

Agroforestry has tremendous potential as an integrated solution to complex problems. There is support available. There are fantastic models around the world in government agencies, universities and non-profit organizations that can show the way forward. But for many producers trying to navigate their agroforestry enterprise into uncharted waters, the lack of clear support networks and regionally relevant information, infrastructure, financing outlets and government policies, can feel like they are perpetually fighting a head wind.

Forest Farming for the Future

Part of the process of retaining your sanity when middle-aged is to recognize you are not young anymore and things, for better or worse, have changed. Avoiding a mid-life crisis can be as simple as casting your gaze forward and not back. Learning from the past is essential, but living in the past is a dangerous lifestyle.

So it goes with the socio-political development of the ‘new world’. The majority of North American colonialists and their descendants have tended to view the world through the eyes of youth. A world of expanding frontiers and virgin territory to exploit. A world where there is enough land and room for everyone to do their own thing.

But that is the world of the past. We are on the exponential climb in global population from 6 billion plus to at least 9 billion people in the next 30 to 40 years. Three billion more mouths to feed. Three billion more children to house, cloth and school. Nine billion plus of us with aspirations for a good life. And while most of that growth will occur outside North America, its effects will be felt in every corner of the globe.

This monumental population surge will be the driving force behind at least concomitant increases in demand for food, energy and other raw materials. And the demands that a 50% increase in population will bring for food, fibre and energy will need to be satisfied by a finite productive land base, that is shrinking through degradation and development of urban areas, transportation systems and other industrial activities. And the area devoted to resource use will need to be further reduced if we are to set aside more areas to conserve and restore natural functions and biodiversity.

In the ‘middle age’ of North American society, we collectively need to adapt to mounting land use pressures and demands for natural resources and economic development. At the same time there needs to be more emphasis on conservation and restoration. In simple terms, in the coming decades we will need to produce more with less. Many changes in the way we use and allocate resources are needed. And agroforestry, and forest farming in particular, offers practical options for rising to these challenges.

Forestry and agriculture in North America still largely operate as if there were unlimited room to expand. Arable land ear-marked for agriculture is often stripped clear of it’s ‘unproductive’ forest cover. Areas used for forestry equate forest management with timber management, leaving the full natural productive potential unrealized. And in many jurisdictions there are mountains of regulations and zoning restrictions to make every possible effort to keep different activities on the land divided.

But politics and regulations are usually reactive, not proactive. Society and enterprise are already leading the way to an integrated future. We are already seeing a convergence in forestry, agriculture and bioenergy industries and markets. Bioextracting and biorefining technology will mean that we will increasingly look to forest and field for the raw materials for health and wellness products, petrochemical replacements and other bioproducts. Treating forestry, agriculture, energy and conservation as separate entities that can be compartmentalized as unique disciplines or sectors, no longer makes sense.

Forest farming provides integrated land use systems to blend agriculture, forestry and conservation, independent of whether food, fuel, fibre or any other bioproduct is being harvested. Structured properly, forest farming operations can produce more per unit area than separating forestry and agriculture into single use activities. Managed properly, timber and non-timber crops not only coexist, but benefit from the synergies that flow from the natural facilitative processes in nature.

So, for our collective mental health, let’s skip the mid-life crisis and the self-destructive distractions that come from looking back and trying to live in our colonial youth. There are integrated options that will allow us to meet the demands for natural resources in a more efficient and productive manner from our working land base and also devote land to conserve and protect the natural wealth. It is time to recognize that forest farming is the future, and start making public policy and regulations that support this option.

‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Redux

Summer is upon us and an army of grey-market gatherers are descending on the forests of British Columbia to harvest berries, mushrooms, floral greenery and an array of other botanical products, part of a largely informal non-timber forest products (NTFP) sector worth somewhere near a half billion dollars a year in sales.

The BC-based wild NTFP harvest has steadily marched towards big business in the past few decades in the shadow of the conventional forest (read timber) industry with increasing numbers of pickers and wholesale businesses capitalizing on the natural wealth of the province. However, because the harvest of NTFPs from Crown land is largely unregulated (and in my interpretation of the Land Act, most of the commercial harvest is in fact illegal), the emergence of this industry has raised concerns about its impact on the forest ecosystems and on the aboriginal and other traditional users who depend on them.

We have little research documenting the impact the removal of NTFPs is having on wildlife and forest processes, but empirical evidence has been mounting for years that the unmanaged commercial NTFP harvest is succumbing to overexploitation by an unscrupulous segment of the industry that has no concern for sustainability or other users. On Vancouver Island, once prime areas for salal collection, a staple of the floral greenery market, are now only producing a sparse understory of low-quality plants. Transient picking crews are moving from site to site and harvesting everything in sight, often leaving garbage behind and disturbing other vegetation and soil for ease of their access. Unethical harvesters, supported by some equally unethical wholesale buyers with no concern with how or where their product is sourced, are tearing up the old growth forest floors with rakes while looking for mushrooms, irreparably impairing future production. In the southern interior there are examples of vanloads of ‘picking’ crews raking mountaintops clean of huckleberries and in the process destroying plants, leaving nothing for wildlife or First Nations harvesters exercising their traditional food gathering rights.

Five years ago, the Forest Practices Board, in a report titled “Integrating Non-Timber Forest Products Into Forest Planning and Practices in British Columbia”, recommended the provincial government should increase its involvement in the management of NTFPs. The report emphasized that the current system does not give harvesters or buyers any incentive to manage these resources sustainably or to consult with First Nations. First Nations throughout BC have unextinguished rights and title to timber and non-timber resources on public land in BC and these rights are routinely ignored by NTFP harvesters. Five years have passed since the release of this report with full public recognition of the problem that has been decades in the development, but very little action has been taken to regulate the activity and provide security to the legitimate players in the sector. What we are left with is homegrown example of the tragedy of the commons.

In Garrett Harden’s seminal 1968 Science article “The Tragedy of the Commons’ he used the analogy of the unregulated use of a pasture shared by livestock herders. Each herder in trying to maximize their own production increases their herd size whenever possible, but the positive and negative consequences of this action is not shared equally. The herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal produced, but the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal and this negative externality is shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for each individual herder there is little incentive to conserve or restrain their activity and overgrazing of the pasture is the result. So too the tragedy of BC’s NTFP commons – each harvester is fully rewarded for each additional mushroom/berry/branch they pick, but everyone (including other non-commerical users and wild species) share in the pain of overexploitation.

For the NTFP industry to develop sustainably in this province there must be incentives to invest in resource management and penalties for those who otherwise would not voluntarily adhere to sustainable and ethical management. Regulation of the NTFP harvest in BC is a complex issue deserving something greater than a one-size-fits-all approach. The commercial resources are widely dispersed over an enormous forest land base and often the objects of harvest are transient in nature (not growing in the same location from year to year), making tenure options complicated. But complexity is no longer a suitable excuse for inaction. We have examples of businesses, such as ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ in Port Alberni, who on their own initiative have set very high standards for what, when and how things are harvested, and employing a very progressive and enlightened approach to ensuring the safety and quality of their product, and equitable treatment of harvesters and other stakeholders. We need to draw on the experience and insights of businesses like ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ and get the process of regulating NTFP harvest in BC underway.

With the current downturn in the forest industry, increasing numbers of laid off workers may now turn to harvesting NTFPs as their unemployment benefits begin to wind down. Without some concrete actions towards legitimizing and regulating the NTFP industry in BC then the price we will all pay for continued inaction is the loss of part of our collective natural heritage and the loss of the opportunities to develop sustainable rural jobs and economic stability.


© 2009-2018 by George W. Powell. All Rights Reserved.

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