Course:CONS200/Environmental, economic and social benefits and drawbacks of British Columbia's raw log exports (1990-2017)

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This conservation resource was created by Alexandra Iannantuono, Rain Chen, William Tow, and Anderson Lu. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.
BC-Canada-province. By Qyd via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Located in a country that encompasses 9%[1] of the world’s forests, British Columbia is the westernmost[2] of the 10 provinces in Canada. The province has some 60 million hectares[3] of forest land, translating to roughly two-thirds its land base. In spite of the fact that only around 22 million hectares[4] of this area was ever suitable for logging, where much has already been logged, the abundance in forest resources has enabled BC to become ‘one of the largest wood exporters in the world’.[5]

While the demand for wood products is ever-increasing, extraction of these goods faces rising criticism. It is thus crucial to examine the economic, social, and environmental components of the BC forestry industry. Economically speaking, there is an increase in employment opportunities and income for the provincial government.[6] However, technological advances and the decline of paper mills may contribute to the loss of jobs.[7] The industry may eventually face the dilemma of moving away from the practice, which inadvertently causes devastating losses for the economy; or to continue in the ceaseless activities of commercial forestry at the expense of our natural resources. Regarding social costs, rural communities appear to receive the most impact.[8] For example, Port Alberni has the highest child poverty rate of 33.7% in BC.[9] Yet, the province held nearly 40% of employment opportunities in Canadian forestry and logging industry in 2015, followed by a year-to-year increase of 2.5%.[10] As raw log exporting continues, environmental impacts can be observed through pest infestations,[11] as well as greater carbon emissions.[12] Nonetheless, modern procedures present benefits through various safety procedures, such as the reduction in treefall risk on roadways or the combating of forest fires.[13]



Log driving in Vancouver. By Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

Industrial logging in BC first began in 1869,[14] when a steam engine mill was brought by the British to Vancouver Island. The mill was then set up in Port Alberni to produce large beams, known as ‘cants’,[14] which were then shipped back to England for further processing into ship-building materials. However, British Columbia’s log exports did not rise until the late 1990s.[15]
Today, the majority of logging companies in the province, especially on Vancouver Island, are owned by multi-national companies who bank their profits off-shore in order to avoid provincial and federal taxes.[14] Since these MNCs are owned by shareholders around the globe, social and environmental values of local communities are neither effectively considered nor incorporated in the daily operations of commercial forestry. The resulting impact of intensive logging for both domestic use and export has left BC, the most biologically diverse province, with the highest number of flora and fauna species at risk of extinction.[4]


Logging in British Columbia has mostly been controlled by the government, in which the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations is the principle agency responsible for B.C.’s public forest.[3] The Ministry’s objective includes the protection, management, and conservation of BC’s diverse forest resources on an environmental, economical, and social basis.[3]

Timber Tenure System of BC

Created in the 19th century for the sole purpose of fuelling the economic expansion, the BC timber tenure system is the system by which the government transfers specific rights to use Crown, or public, forest and range land and resources to others.[3] It has been developed for over 140 years,[3] and has progressed through the numerous eras during which the government directed the use of public forests to promote the forestry industry. Eventually, the system evolved to reflect values such as the sustainable management of forest resources.

Integrated Forest Management: Pre-1988

Prior to 1988 and just before the rise of raw log exports, the ‘integrated forest management’[3] system was enforced. This was a period in time when management regulations of one of the first long-term, volume-based timber tenures were established. These include the ‘Public Sustained Yield Unit’, the forerunner of the modern ‘Timber Supply Area’; and the ‘Forest Management License’, the predecessor of the ‘Tree Farm License’ today.[3]

Sustainable Management: 1988-Present

From 1988 onwards to the present, ‘sustainable management’[3] has been implemented. This system of management was a concept first given rise by the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission,[3] which emphasizes the interdependence of environmental integrity and economic development in meeting the needs of the current society as well as future generations. Starting in the early 1990s, when raw log exports began to increase, the BC government launched a stakeholder-based land use planning process[3] to determine public land use, areas for protection, development and other uses.
A new process in determining the Allowable Annual Cut (AAC)– decisions on the rate and volume of wood that can be logged made by BC’s Chief Forester[16]– was established with the Timber Supply Review shortly after in 1992, when AAC assessments were set to be conducted every 5 years.[16] Three years later in 1995, the Forest Practices Code of BC Act[3] updated new environmental standards for commercial forestry activities.
Following this series of progress in the various timber tenures, regulations continued to evolve in the 21st century. In 2002, the Forest and Range Practices Act introduced government forest operations[3] with the intention to reduce governmental and industrial costs via a streamlined approval process, and also to encourage innovative forest practices on part of forest managers and licensees. The introduction of the Forest Revitalization Plan by the BC government then followed in 2003,[3] of which was aimed to diversify the forestry sector and to increase the economic competitiveness of BC’s forestry industry. Moreover, the plan was a key strategy in timber reallocation, where the province’s largest licensees would return roughly 20%[3] of replaceable logging rights to the Crown.

Environmental Impacts

Old Growth Forests

An old growth douglas fir towers in an old growth forest. By Patte David, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Old growth forest timber is sought after due to its durable properties;[17] being more stable, more rot-resistant, and even termite-resistant compared to new-growth wood because of its high density, resulting from its slow growth.[18]

Old growth forests, rainforest with trees reaching over 1000 years old, face permanent destruction as they give way to second-growth logging.[19] These forests are prominent along British Columbia’s south coast as well as Vancouver Island, and while 55% of them are under some form of protection from logging,[20] 1,623,600 hectares are unprotected,[21] being harvested at a rate of 9,000 hectares annually between 2011 to 2015.[19] A single hectare of these old forests can store over 1,000 tonnes of carbon,[22] with research showing that almost 70% of that carbon being stored in the last half of the tree’s life[23] An estimated 375 tonnes of carbon stored on average brings a total count of 600 million tonnes of carbon being stored in these coastal forests.[19]

Unprotected forests of good and medium productivity are more likely to be logged.[19] Altogether, they span 602,000 hectares, storing approximately 225 million tonnes of carbon, equal to 828,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.[19] Clear-cutting releases around half of this carbon.[19]

Habitat Loss

The amount of biodiversity within an ecosystem is an indicator of its health. A greater diversity means more variety in species, allowing for better handling of any threats that appear to the ecosystem.[24] British Columbia contains 70% of Canada’s native breeding bird species, as well as 70% of Canada’s native mammal species.[25] However, changes to ecosystems have led to a loss of biodiversity, caused in part by human activities such as pollution, over-exploitation, or habitat fragmentation.[25] As of 2010, 116 of 1,345 B.C. forest associated animal and plant species were red-listed,[26] indicating that they are extirpated, endangered, or threatened.[27]

While forest harvesting operations are undergone, loss of habitat occurs. Although modern harvesting methods are said to be done so to emulate natural disturbances such as fires,[28] species decline is apparent in animals like the Grizzly bear. While they are found in nearly 90% of their historic range in B.C., when exposed to human activity, their numbers have dwindled, in some location extirpated.[29] After a forest is clear-cut, a technique that clears an area of trees and said to mimic that of natural disturbances.[30] Pioneer species, such as Aspen, spring up altogether as an even-aged stand.[31] These young forests attract herbivores like elk and moose, which in turn attract wolves and cougars.[32] These predators end up preying on caribou, a species we have deemed to need management actions due to declining populations, hurting efforts at maintaining biodiversity.[32]

Soil Disturbance & Erosion

Soil is the medium in which plant roots can grow. Its formation can take hundreds, even thousands of years.[33] Current logging practices such as road construction and skidding trails, as well as the machinery brought in can greatly disrupt the soil, reducing its productivity in regard to plant growth.[34]

Compaction, especially that of machinery, compresses the pores in the soil, restricting the movement of flora roots.[35] With a reduced water infiltration capability, water is unable to get absorbed into the soil and instead runs off, transporting nutrients and topsoil away, making it harder for plants to grow in the original location.[36] The leftover, poorly drained material can potentially induce landslides such as debris flows and debris avalanches.[37]

The B.C. Ministry of Forests, Mines, and Lands evaluates the degree of soil disturbance in harvested areas, stepping in when deemed necessary.[38] These instances where action was taken have decreased from 1995 with 43 enforcements, to 2007, where only 3 interventions were required, suggesting improved soil conservation processes.[38]

Economic Impacts

]Originally, when the western world was being discovered, what attracted the Europeans the most were the woodland creatures that the Northern half of America contained.[39] The fur trade was eventually established, and early Canadian settlers flourished under this structure. As more of the land was explored, it was revealed that Canada had more natural resources than previously thought, one of which was lumber.[39] Beginning in the 18th century, the settlers caused extensive deforestation,[40] although today with the incorporation of modern policies and practices, less than 1 percent of Canada's forests are affected by logging each year.[40] As Canada's third-largest province[41] the economic impacts of raw log exports experienced by B.C. have certain benefits and drawbacks.


Job Opportunities

The logging industry has had a major influence on job opportunities and in turn has benefited the government of Canada. With the advent of the industrial revolution, new machines were fabricated, giving rise to giant factories that were able to transform raw natural resources into useful things like paper[39] and other wood products. As the industry grew in popularity, so did the demand for employment. In 2016, the B.C. forest industry has generated 141,000 total jobs, $12.94 billion of GDP and $32.96 billion of output to the B.C. economy.[6] Wood products have become a vital resource by providing every day materials. The high demand nature of the industry enables a constant employment potential. Approximately 47% of all B.C. forest industry direct employment was in the lumber section, 32% of logging and remaining 21% in pulp and paper, and panels and veneer sectors.[6]

Government Revenues

While job opportunities stay in demand, government revenue benefits. It is estimated that the B.C. forest industry generated $4.12 billion of federal, provincial and municipal government revenues in 2016.[6] This revenue funds infrastructure and government services that British Columbians depend on. [42]

Export and Trade

B.C. forests products make up over one-third of all provincial exports.[6] Seen in the graph "British Columbia’s Forest Industry and the B.C. Economy in 2016", export and trade rely heavily on the United States but remains one of the top economic benefits to the Canadian government, maintaining British Columbia as the world's largest exporter of softwood lumber.[43] British Columbia also encourages the advancement of wood use in architectural and structural applications to demonstrate that it is a leading supplier of not only sustainable but also innovative wood-based products and building systems.[42]


As the world continued to change, the logging industry adapted to the growing needs of society. Wood products were becoming more common and indispensable for everyday household items. However, over time, technology and the digital world surpassed the logging industry in a way that could not have been predicted. Not only so, the invasive pine beetle infestations deepen the economical drawbacks by destroying healthy forests quickly. In addition, the growing softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the United States leaves an air of uncertainty for the years to come.

Rise of Technology

Technology is advancing at swift rates, with new forms communication continuously released. As digital world is pushed onto humans, the need for paper or any paper products for that matter diminishes. In particular, the rise of electronic media has resulted in a deep decline in the need for paper-based communications products, including several products, such as newsprint, that have traditionally been critical to the Canadian pulp and paper subsector.[7] In 2013, this subsector accounted for approximately 36% of the contribution of the forest section to the Canadian economy.[7] Over time, however, as the use of technology becomes more prevalent, paper will become increasingly irrelevant to the point of negatively affecting the entire subsector within the industry.

Pine Beetle Infestations

Mature Mountain Pine Beetle Adult. By USDA Forest Service - Region 2 - Rocky Mountain Region Archive, USDA Forest Service via

Insect infestations play a key role in damaging forests, yet their impact is not shown in aerial maps as the infested trees remain standing.[44] In such, as the forests are killed, logging can no longer take place impeding any sort of governmental profit. There is still an estimated 16,000,000 hectares of pine that are infested in British Columbia alone and although pest reduction techniques have been used, the beetle has not yet been contained.[40] Conversely, the impact of insects varies widely from year to year,[44] and areas that have already been affected are often harvested to salvage the dead trees or to prevent the spread of the infestation.[44] As a whole, invasive species have dire consequences for a forest-dependent economy.

Canada/US Softwood Lumber Dispute

Softwood lumber from Canada consists of spruce, pine, and fir, all of which are a key component of Canada's forest industry while supporting rural communities, generating $22 billion in GDP.[45] The United States is highly dependent on the Canadian logging industry in order to meet the needs of their citizens. Thus, the softwood lumber issue centers around the competition between Canadian and US lumber companies and the differences in their respective forestry management principles.[46] In Canadian forests, areas are predominantly owned by federal or provincial governments whereas in the United States the majority of the forest lands are privately owned.[46] In turn, the growing disagreement between countries leaves the logging industry vulnerable to economic complications. Both countries rely heavily on each other's natural resources, therefore any differences in opinion can lead to a shut down of previously implemented trading regulations.

Social Impacts


Job Protection

Exporting logs sustain local jobs, keeping workers employed in the forests, sawmills, and pulp mills. B.C. coastal sawmills, pulp mills, and value-add producers need log exports to ensure they can acquire the type of logs their mills need to operate.[47] Most manufacturing facilities require a particular type of log, or species of timber, to be able to operate. Log exports enable BC forestry workers to harvest the entire timber profile.

Sawmills are still being built, the most recent one being constructed in Surrey, that will have to purchase logs. Export of logs occurs because what is being harvested is surplus to domestic demand. 35% of coastal raw log harvest was exported in 2016.[47] Privately owned timberlands are the main source of harvesting in the region and log exports have been a principal product for decades. Despite this investment, however, sawmill employment has dropped in the Pacific Northwest, further driving consolidation in sawmills, which has caused the construction of larger and more cost-effective mills. Unfortunately, this has led to fewer people employed in comparison to the older and smaller mills, leading to an inevitable drop in jobs. Despite all that, without raw log exports, there would be vastly fewer forestry jobs available.[47]


BC raw log export advertisements (2013 - 2016). Compiled by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Forest Industry Job Losses

"Ban Raw Log Exports." Port Alberni, 3 May 2006. Photo by Save Our Valley Alliance. Used with Permission.

Based on government estimates, between 1990 and 2008, the logging sector lost more than 8,900 jobs. Presently, less than 1% of British Columbians are now employed by Forestry. While B.C.’s mills have been closing consistently since the 1980s, ever since 2001, they had been vanishing at the unprecedented rate of six mills/year.[48] Since 2013, almost 26 million cubic metres of raw logs were shipped from the province, with a combined sales value of more than $3.02 billion, an unprecedented level raw log exports in B.C.'s history.[8]

While foreign buyers are keen for B.C. logs, they have far less interest in B.C. lumber. Due to lower labour costs and more meticulous production methods, Chinese sawmills can turn logs into lumber far cheaper than B.C. mills. However, even if BC were to suspend or ban log exports, it wouldn’t spur local industries[48]. Rather, international log buyers like China turn their attention towards places such as New Zealand or South America for supply.

In 2016, nearly 6.3 million cubic metres of raw logs left the province.[49] Had those unprocessed logs been milled in B.C. instead, an estimated 3,650 more men and women could have been working in the province’s neglected forest sector. Moving up the value chain and making even higher value forest products would have added even more jobs to the tally.

Raw logs are the most rudimentary and lowest value of forest products derived from trees. Depending on age and quality, real value-added would mean transforming those logs into the studs and joists that frame our houses, the floors we walk on or the guitars and pianos we play.

Nearly one in three trees logged on the coast left the province in raw log form. If the raw logs that left B.C. in 2016 had been used just to make the lumber and other wood products commonly used in house construction, enough wood would have been milled to build approximately 134,000 homes,[50] what would be roughly half of Vancouver’s standing detached housing stock.

Port Alberni

As the export of this raw commodity continues, rural communities pay the highest social and economic costs, deepening the divide as B.C.’s major centres show modest job growth and opportunities decline everywhere else.

Port Alberni is one such example. The central Vancouver Island town was once a thriving, diversified forest products manufacturing centre. Now sawmill production is down at least 20 percent from the community’s economic heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the once-thriving plywood mill is closed and pulp and paper production have dropped precipitously — a 57-percent fall from its peak. The decline in high paying jobs in the once-bustling forest industry has brought a sobering social reality: Port Alberni has among the province’s highest child poverty rates.[51]

There is growing general unease as residents worry about the future of the region’s forests and its remaining forest industry[8]. Vancouver Island’s greatly diminished old-growth forests continue to be logged, while the logging of the smaller, second-growth trees accelerates. Despite that, all that logging is not translating into increased jobs due to more raw logs being funnelled towards international export.

As the departure of raw logs continues, BC Stats’ employment numbers portray a worrying reflection of declining in forestry jobs. In the past 10 years, at least 22,400 people lost their jobs. The largest job losses, by far, were in manufacturing — sawmills and pulp and paper mills, punctuating what is at stake with continued raw log exports.[52]

An accurate estimation would be to assume that the recent extreme job losses are a result of the lack of new mills. Assuming that enough mills were built to handle the almost 6.3 million cubic metres of logs that left the province in 2016, another 3,650 jobs would be made available. Generating the logs into higher-value components would create even more jobs.


Due to the emergence of industrial logging in 1869, the timber tenure system of BC was created as a method of regulating logging activity and stimulating the forestry sector. This system of management developed over time to adopt certain values such as sustainability, while British Columbia's log exports continued to rise since the late 1990's. As the logging industry grew exponentially, the economic impacts - beneficial or detrimental - were inevitable nonetheless. As more studies and statistics are brought to public knowledge, all disadvantages may eventually be eliminated in order for Canadians to truly appreciate the natural resources that surround them. While British Columbia’s (BC) raw log exports yield both beneficial and detrimental social impacts, most of the effects are currently commonly perceived to be largely negative, ranging from job losses to declining rural communities’ quality of life. However, the economic aspects of BC’s raw log exports yield high government revenues through international trades, making domestic social drawbacks harder to solve than simply decreasing raw log exports, and more social policy shifts will be necessary to mitigate these impacts. Because of having to produce high volumes of raw log to meet both domestic and export demands, logging practices err on the side of immediacy. The resulting environmental impact may lead to irreversible actions, as destroyed soil and old-growth forests take far too long to redevelop.


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