Wednesday, February 16, 2000
The Halifax Herald Limited

Freer trade, not environmental treaties, key to saving forests

By Brian Lee Crowley

PATRICK Moore is the co-founder and former president of Greenpeace. But he’s not one of those environmentalists whose ideal world is inhabited by northern spotted owls and rare lichens, but no human beings.

In fact, Dr. Moore, in the introduction to a recent book on teaching children about the environment, wrote, “As a father and environmentalist, I am often discouraged by the amount of misinformation conveyed to our young people through the school system and the media.” He encouraged parents, teachers and children to learn to “think critically and to develop a sense of balance about the environment.”

There are few areas where Dr. Moore’s call for balance and critical thinking is more needed than in thinking about our forests. Almost every attempt to talk about trees, their value to people and the environment, and how to manage them sensibly, rapidly degenerates into name-calling and grandstanding.

Canada, rich in forests, is concerned that ill-considered international treaties on forest management are going to devastate an industry that is making a major contribution to the economy and human well-being. As a result, it is calling for the negotiation of a newer, better treaty, while resisting the creation of a UN Forum on Forests based on the old treaties.

Canada’s objections to the UN forum are characterized as short-sighted and anti-environment by some ecologists, accusing Ottawa of favouring a “log and talk scenario.” Canada delays action while corrupt logging practices continue uncontrolled around the world.

That’s a nasty charge. But the world’s more complicated (and balanced) than that.

Take Canada. According to the Canadian Forest Service, between 1970 and 1996, in only one year did loggers cut the maximum timber allowable under government guidelines. In most years, they were well shy of it. About half of Canada’s forest land is protected, or is inaccessible to commercial logging. Canada consistently grows more wood than the year before. It also consistently grows more wood each year than is harvested. Last year alone, according to the OECD, Canada grew 75 million cubic metres of wood more than it harvested and lost to natural causes combined. Southern Ontario, one of our most heavily populated and industrialized regions, has seen its forest cover increase from 25 per cent of its land area to 29 per cent over the last few decades.

That’s only to be expected. Trees are becoming more valuable, not because there are fewer of them, but because we manage them better. Generally speaking, the people who cut them have to bear the cost of reforestation, so that is passed along to the consumer. That makes people use lumber and trees more carefully, while their higher market value encourages more planting, not less.

Ironically, it is governments, not the supposedly rapacious forestry firms, that are the environmental offenders. Outside the Maritimes, most of the forests are owned by the provinces. In the name of jobs, those governments frequently charge below market value for their trees, and offer other forms of subsidy to the forest industry. This encourages overcutting. Similarly, tax policy often penalizes prudent long-term management of forests in favour of short-term harvesting or even residential and other development.

But even other countries, whose policies have not traditionally been as responsible as Canada’s now are, are making improvements, and would make more if freer trade internationally led them to reduce or eliminate subsidies to agriculture. Those subsidies encourage farming on marginal land better devoted to forests. Even without that, practices are improving markedly. In Asia, one acre is now reforested for every two harvested, and the ratio is improving steadily. Debt-for-forest swaps are allowing international environmental groups to buy Third World debt and exchange it for forest rights in sensitive areas. And if Canada’s experience and that of other rich countries is any guide, the early deforestation phase is quickly followed by remedial policies as incomes rise and people demand a better environment.

Canada’s forests are expanding, not shrinking. The state of the world’s forests is far less dire than alarmists like to paint it. And the best way to help poor countries preserve their forests is not through intrusive environmental treaties, but freer trade to raise their incomes and reduce destructive subsidies to farming. But that’s not the way the environmentalists see it. Where’s Patrick Moore when you need him?

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. E-mail:

Copyright (c) 2000 The Halifax Herald Limited