Big timber: The world of Weyerhaeuser
Seattle Times staff reporter
WALBRAN CREEK, Canada — Basted by 800 years of rain, the cedars in this Vancouver Island valley have fattened to old-growth trees of classic proportions. Some, with massive fluted trunks, measure a dozen or more feet across. Their tops — broken time and again — have resprouted in pitchfork shapes that claw the sky.
"If you tried to log this forest in the States, there would be a hippie chained to every tree," said Ken Wu, an organizer for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.
Weyerhaeuser has logged more than 800 acres in this valley and in coming years plans to log most of the big timber on 5,800 more acres.
The Walbran is a small corner of Weyerhaeuser's logging domain in Canada, which now stretches from the rain-soaked valleys of Vancouver Island to the slender pines of the interior plateaus, to the scraggly, slow-growing spruce and hardwoods forests of the northern regions of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario.
Altogether, Weyerhaeuser holds long-term rights to log from more than 50,000 square miles of Canadian public lands — an area nearly the size of the state of New York.
In an era when logging on U.S. public lands is sharply curtailed, Canada's public lands keep American consumers supplied with cheap 2-by-4 studs, clear-grain cedar decking, toilet paper, newsprint and other wood products.
But logging these lands is proving a challenge to Weyerhaeuser's corporate image and bottom line. While Canada's timber industry supports more than 330,000 jobs, there are competing claims for the forests, and Canadians are struggling to determine the fate of these public lands:
• Conservationists prize Canadian forests as a great global resource, with large roadless areas that offer refuge to grizzly bear, pine martin, lynx and hundreds of other species. Adept at organizing economic boycotts, they are pushing to slow the pace of logging and put more land off-limits.
• Canada's hundreds of Indian bands have aboriginal land claims to these public forests. They want greater control of timber harvests and a bigger share of the wood.
• Provincial governments are under pressure to overhaul the long-term contracts that serve up public timber to Weyerhaeuser and others. U.S. competitors claim the contracts are below market value and help Canadian mills flood U.S. markets. The U.S. response: stiff tariffs on softwood imports. Last year, tariffs dragged down Weyerhaeuser earnings, costing more than $60 million.
Back home in the Pacific Northwest, Weyerhaeuser sidestepped much of the battle over old growth in spotted-owl forests. It prospered by cultivating and cutting farmed trees on its private lands.
Today, the company embraces tree farming on more than 7.4 million acres of U.S. private lands. And it has invested in tree plantations from New Zealand to the pampas of Uruguay, where a seedling can mature into a saw log in just 21 years.
Its corporate motto, "Growing for the future," appears on everything from grocery bags to annual reports and is reinforced by advertising featuring Chinese brush paintings of fresh young forests.
But it's in Canada, where trees take 40 to 100 years to reach a size worth felling, that Weyerhaeuser is logging hard. Despite decades of cutting, there are not enough mature, second-generation trees to maintain the industry at its present production levels. So Weyerhaeuser and other companies are targeting an ever-widening arc of first-growth forests, which may have been singed by fire or infested with beetles but have never before been logged.
Each year, more than 2 million acres of Canadian trees are felled, with Weyerhaeuser financing the logging of more than 160,000 acres.
A gentle green giant?
Weyerhaeuser crossed the border into Canada in the '60s. By 1999, the corporation made a huge north-of-the-border expansion, spending $2.4 billion to acquire MacMillan Bloedel, an old-line Canadian company with long-term harvest contracts that include more than 2.6 million acres of coastal rainforest.
"We have spent the last 20 to 30 years trying to figure out how to do business in Canada, and we feel we are very successful," said Bill Gaynor, a recently retired Weyerhaeuser executive.
The coastal forests offer the most valuable wood but also have generated the greatest controversy, with conservationists in the '90s launching economic boycotts that cost MacMillan Bloedel and other companies millions of dollars.
Within the coastal forests, Weyerhaeuser has tried to cast itself as a kind of gentle green giant helping to usher in a new era of Canadian logging.
Weyerhaeuser has backed conservation agreements that cover more than 200,000 acres on Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound, a spectacular forested area along the Pacific coast.
Two years ago, the company gained international acclaim for helping forge a landmark agreement that suspended logging on more than 2.4 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest, along the north and central coast of British Columbia, while government protections were put in place.
In return, four conservation groups agreed to suspend economic boycotts against Weyerhaeuser and others with logging contracts in the area.
"Both sides took some risks, and we found it was possible to find some common ground," said Linda Coady, a former Weyerhaeuser official who now works for the World Wildlife Fund.
But even on the coast, where trees grow faster than almost anywhere else in Canada, a transition to second-growth harvests is decades away. So Weyerhaeuser mills still rely on old-growth timber, and that has pushed the company deep into the Walbran, a glacier-carved valley on the southern end of Vancouver Island.
For many conservationists, this is precious ground that grows some of Canada's most epic trees. Logging protests in the '80s helped gain park designation for 40,000 acres of the Walbran and another nearby drainage.
Logging continues, however, in the upper Walbran. And today the area is far from pristine, with miles of roads and replanted clear-cuts
But step into the dank, untouched stands of trees, and the old-growth world still holds sway. Some of the hemlock and fir gather branchtop soil mats that crawl with spiders, mites and beetles. A few of the bugs, evolving in treetop isolation, are found nowhere else on earth.
Weyerhaeuser foresters have tried to fashion a better way to cut the old growth here and elsewhere on the coast. They have abandoned the big clear-cuts of the past, carving smaller openings and leaving more trees behind. In the Walbran, the goal is to retain 30 percent of the old forest, creating a kind of lifeboat for wildlife.
Critics say that new approach is no substitute for an intact forest. Neville Winchester, a University of Victoria entomologist who has documented more than 300 new bug species in his canopy research on southern Vancouver Island, says insects won't thrive in the altered landscape.
"There's nowhere for them to go to colonize. You're going to lose significant parts of the ecosystem."
Weyerhaeuser officials cite numerous favorable reviews of its new logging techniques by independent scientists, some solicited by the company and some by conservationists.
"It's really cutting edge for corporate forestry anywhere in the world," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor who helped develop spotted-owl protection plans for Northwest forests.
Weyerhaeuser officials say Walbran logging fits into an overall corporate plan of sustainable logging in Canadian coastal forests.
"I can hold my head high and say that we are doing a very sound approach to the Walbran," said Craig Neeser, a vice president. "It's always going to be an emotional issue, but I can say that from a scientific point of view it is acceptable."
The annual coastal harvests have dropped by more than 30 percent since the late '80s. Still, a 2000 report, "Canada's Forests at a Crossroads," concluded that the current coastal cutting rates may need to fall by at least another 30 percent to protect wildlife and other public-land values. The report was published by Global Forest Watch, a conservation group chaired by William Ruckelshaus, a Seattle attorney and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who also sits on Weyerhaeuser's board and once worked for the company.
Ruckelshaus says he does not take sides in the debate but stands by the scholarship that produced the Global Forest Watch report and has encouraged its review by corporate and provincial government officials.
Sting of U.S. tariffs
Even without any additional declines in the harvest, Canada's coastal timber industry is in trouble. During the past five years, companies have laid off more than 13,000 workers and closed 27 mills, according to the Ministry of Forestry.
The industry problems are partially a result of conservation set-asides, the high cost of logging in coastal forests, and what industry says is a straitjacket of government rules that have discouraged new investment to update the mills.
"The business on the coast needs to change. All the companies acknowledge that," said Gaynor, the retired Weyerhaeuser senior vice president.
The industry slump has been deepened by the tariffs imposed last year by the Bush administration.
The tariffs help stir a bitter stew of attitudes in the Vancouver Island town of Port Alberni, where Weyerhaeuser has two mills. Back in the '80s heyday, bars were jammed with loggers who could pick up a hot job lead over a beer. Now bar stools are empty and loggers guzzling beers are likely unemployed.
On a Wednesday evening, 21-year-old logger Troy Thompson, was one of the few patrons at The Zoo, a cavernous basement strip club. He still was logging but bemoaned the fate of his father-in-law, laid off after working 26 years in the island woods.
"There's no money to go around — it's completely dead," Thompson said.
Reforms spark controversy
To help prop up the timber industry, the provincial government offered a package of reforms this year that offer more flexible logging rules. The government also plans to spend $200 million (Canadian) to buy back up to 20 percent of the timber now held in long-term contracts by Weyerhaeuser and others.
Some of the timber would be transferred to Indian bands to help resolve land claims that blanket virtually all of British Columbia's public forests. These land claims have been bolstered by a string of court decisions, and Weyerhaeuser, in response, has reached out to tribes, hiring Indian contractors and partnering with five bands in a Vancouver Island joint venture.
But the slow pace of the Indian land-claims process has frustrated many bands, and Weyerhaeuser's attempts at diplomacy have at times fallen short. Last fall, the company was booted out of a logging site in the Okanogan Valley claimed by the Penticton band. It has yet to retrieve some 60 truckloads of timber.
"Weyerhaeuser is infringing on aboriginal rights all over the region," said Chief Stewart Phillip, a leader of the Penticton band.
In dealing with the Indians, Weyerhaeuser is taking a pragmatic approach: "In the long run, if the First Nations turn out to be the landlords instead of a provincial government, that's fine. We'll work out the arrangements," said Gaynor, the recently retired vice president for Canadian operations. "But fundamentally, the issue is uncertainty. And that needs to be resolved."
Weyerhaeuser officials have backed government reforms as a "middle ground" that may yet resolve tribal claims and help the industry rebound.
But peace is not yet at hand.
Unions oppose some of the recent government reforms, fearing more job losses. And conservationists and Indian bands want to see at least half of the long-term harvest rights taken away from Weyerhaeuser and other timber companies.
"This won't be the end," said Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative, a British Columbia conservation group.
Battle for the Walbran
The tug-of-war over public forests has returned to the Walbran valley, and Weyerhaeuser again finds itself in the middle. Loggers want jobs, tribes want land, and conservationists want more set-asides. Last fall, they asked Weyerhaeuser to abandon logging on the valley's upper reaches.
Company officials considered it, then decided enough of the area already had been set aside as park land. This spring, the corporation scheduled about a 100-acre harvest, ceding half of the cut to a logging crew organized by Indians.
But on April 22 — Earth Day — work was halted by a blockade of a couple of dozen protesters, who unfurled a banner that read: "Corporate logging, stolen trees and stolen future."
The protest was organized by Women of the Woods, a group led by Betty Krawczyk, a 74-year-old grandmother and veteran of logging protests and provincial jails. This spring, she and friend Jen Bradley were determined to be arrested in the Walbran, hoping a trial would allow them to decry the logging and provincial forest policies.
The protest was peaceful, with Weyerhaeuser logging contractors politely surrendering the road to protesters and abandoning equipment and downed timber. Seventeen days into the blockade, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hauled Krawczyk and Bradley off to jail.
A few days later, logging trucks reclaimed the road, carrying fresh loads of timber to island mills.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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