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Making the North a forestry superpower (03/06)

When it comes to forestry, we’re a superpower” says Brian Emmett, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Canadian Forest Service. Canada is the third largest forest nation - with Russia first and Brazil second. We have 17 per cent of the world’s forests.

When it comes to forestry, we’re a superpower” says Brian Emmett, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Canadian Forest Service. Canada is the third largest forest nation - with Russia first and Brazil second. We have 17 per cent of the world’s forests. We are also the world’s second largest boreal forest nation.

Dave Robinson-editorial columnist-Northern Ontario Business
If being the third largest producing nation in the world makes Canada one of the world’s forestry superpowers, then being the third largest forestry region within the country should make Northern Ontario a forestry superpower in Canada. It doesn’t work that way.

As the third largest forest producer in Canada, Northern Ontario is more like a banana republic than a super power. The region has just one university level forestry program (at Lakehead in Thunder Bay), no major private research labs, less than its share of the training and research facilities of the country, and just one of five Canadian Forest Service research establishments.

The lack of research and training infrastructure is evidence Ottawa and Queen’s Park aren’t very committed to Northern development. It is no secret. The federal Assistant Deputy Minister for forests in Canada recently wrote “there are several agendas at play in terms of what might or should happen in our boreal forest. But none of them truly engage directly those communities that exist there,” and, “for some reason, the people in those cities, towns and villages, their opinions, and their well-being seem mostly left out.”

Northerners should be encouraged by this admirable honesty, but they shouldn’t expect Emmett or anyone else to solve their problems. The fact is that Northern communities will still have to fight for their share of the national research budgets. They will have to fight for their share of provincial training facilities. They will have to fight for value-added wood industries in Northern Ontario.

It is tempting to think that Northern Ontario can be served by research institutes in Montreal and Vancouver. In fact most of the research done in the urban research institutes is aimed at making the forest companies more profitable. Industry-directed research is good. There should be more. But who is doing research to make Northern communities more viable?

Research doesn’t obey Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down” theory. According to Reagan, or rather his chief economic advisor, David Stockman, tax breaks for the rich trickle down to the poor. In practice, advancing the interests of the poor by giving money to the rich was like asking the rich to drag the poor uphill with an elastic band. The rich moved quite a ways, but the poor stood still. If Northern Ontario is to develop, it has to have laboratories and researchers in Northern Ontario.

Training capacity in the North will be crucial as well. We know Canada’s rate of timber growth is about half that of Sweden and Finland. One reason is that we do so little to help the forests grow. A 1989 study by the federal government reported Canada had just one professional forester for every 50,000 hectares of forest land under management. Sweden had one forester for very 19,000 hectares, and the United States had one forester per 13,000 hectares, almost four times as many as Canada. More intensive management results in higher yields. More intensive cultivation also helps to explain why U.S. forests yield almost twice as many jobs per thousand cubic meters of wood production.

Increasing the number of foresters would also help Northern Ontario’s wood industry respond to global warming. Warming weather and changing temperatures and precipitation will stress existing trees, making them more vulnerable to insects and diseases. Areas with more intensive forest management are expected to do better than less managed areas. As the southern boundary of the boreal softwood forests moves north, a massive replanting strategy may be needed.

Northern Ontario could make a big contribution to fighting global warming. Rising temperatures should increase forest growth, taking more carbon out of the atmosphere. With more intensive cultivation, longer rotations, and a shift from short-lived products like paper to long-lived value-added products, carbon sequestration could be increased even more. As carbon collectors sink for the of the world our anthem would be an upside-down version of Murray Mclaughlin’s Farmer Song:

With all of the world producing so much
There’ll be somebody taking back out.

Northern Ontario’s forestry sector is facing major threats, but we also have some remarkable opportunities. To meet the challenge we’ll need more local research, more training, and much more community control.

Dave Robinson is a professor of economics at Laurentian University. He can be reached at .