Review of Griffin and Rajala, The Sustainability Dilemma

"Planning a logging show," 1959. Chester P. Lyons fonds, University of Victoria Archives.

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Robert Griffin and Richard A. Rajala, The Sustainability Dilemma: Essays on British Columbia Forest and Environmental History. Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2016. 426 pgs, ISBN 9780772669742.

Reviewed by Sinead Earley.

In the post-WWII period, plans to manage British Columbia forests under philosophies of multiple-use and wise-use conservationism were ambitiously draped over the forest industry’s primary need: to get timber to market, thereby attracting international investment, generating jobs, and filling provincial coffers. However, the intention to incorporate and uphold a wider set of resource values did not settle smoothly onto the contours of a profit-oriented industry. In The Sustainability Dilemma, two leading resource historians trace in fine detail a series of resulting land-use controversies.

The book is comprised of five chapters, three by Griffin and two by Rajala. They are all meticulously researched, drawing on Forest Service records, company documents, public hearing transcripts, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and scientific reports. They also answer Gordon Hak’s 1999 call for more scholarship on the under-studied forests of BC’s Interior and northern regions, with Griffin providing insight on the milling centers of Kamloops, Williams Lake, Quesnel, and Prince George, while Rajala takes readers to Fraser Lake, the Stellako River, and Haida Gwaii.[1] This book is written for those with a focused and keen interest in forest history; readers unaccustomed to dense, studious prose may find it a challenge.

Much of Griffin’s work documents the battle over cutting control and harvesting rights in the Interior. He shows that the role of the BC Forest Service in the postwar period was to provide stability to the industry through sustained-yield policies. A degree of stability was achieved, but as the book documents, not by all industry operators. Bidding and timber sales systems favoured established mills. Big players gained the supply stability they needed to feed their new integrated production plants, while small operators experienced extreme instability and often closed.[2] What surfaces is the classic story of corporate and capital consolidation in BC forests.

“Planning a logging show,” 1959. Chester P. Lyons fonds, University of Victoria Archives.

Griffin examines the implementation of maximum sustained yield (MSY) policies. He shows how confusing the new access and boundary-making policies were, and illuminates significant challenges the Ministry faced in regulating harvesting practices in newly-created management units. Decision-making powers were contested between district offices and Victoria. Boundary disputes were common. Many district rangers had no maps and limited data pertaining to their jurisdictions. Furthermore, MSY policy was not designed to deal with already overcut areas – a critical issue as the Forest Service sought to monitor annual allowable cuts. Faced with these challenges, the Ministry of Forests struggled to establish ‘public working circles’ and ‘public sustained yield units’ across the province. Explaining the increased complexity of BC’s forest bureaucracy is one of the book’s major contributions. This is a timely moment bring attention to the Forest Service and its role (in theory) as a well-informed, arm’s length regulatory body. Documenting what it has been in the past provokes thought on what it can be in the future, particularly in light of its downsizing since 2001 (as traced by Ben Parfitt and others at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) and the current shift towards ‘professional reliance’ and increased corporate control of BC forests.

All chapters address the persistent question of who had authority over the province’s forest lands. Rajala provides two valuable case studies of inter-jurisdictional conflict between the provincial Ministry of Forests and the federal Department of Fisheries. The Stellako River controversy is particularly captivating because of the practice at its centre: “one of the grandest and most destructive traditions of North American lumbering – the river drive” (121). He busts through the mythologized figure at the center of the drive – the daring, industrious, log-rolling lumberman – to expose the irreparable damage that log driving did to river shores, riverbeds, and river-dwellers. These chapters show precisely how challenging resource management negotiations were when multiple land-use values overlapped, a negotiation that has not gotten easier in the present.

Front-page log-drive coverage, Prince George Citizen, 13 June 1966.

The authors highlight important themes that are of interest to forest, resource, and environmental historians, as well as those who are engaged in contemporary BC forest issues. These include regulatory power, scientific uncertainty, the costs of ‘progress’ via resource exploitation, forestry’s ideological underpinnings, corporate and capital consolidation, and chronic economic instability in resource-dependent regions. The way the book exposes the hierarchy of resource use is useful for those aiming to ameliorate resource conflicts today: each chapter suggests that forest policy was – and is – never a ‘given.’ The authors document how policy was routinely challenged and underwent continuous revision. This prompts a close examination of today’s status quo and prompts critiques of controversial current policy issues such as appurtenancy clauses (which require forest companies to process wood in the area it is harvested), raw log export quotas, and the regulation of old growth management areas.

Little Indigenous knowledge or First Nations agency surfaces in the book. Contestation between stakeholders is useful to spell out, but in territories where First Nations never ceded, sold, or surrendered their land, it really is necessary to incorporate sources that speak to the experience of these rightsholders first and foremost. Doing so will help decolonize forest history and environmental history. Also, neither author ruminates much on the concept of ‘sustainability’ that is at the centre of the book, which is unfortunate. Despite this, their painstaking and valuable portrait of deep conflict in BC’s forests and forest industry during the post-WWII period has strong resonance with current controversies, making it clear that what we can see in the province over the last sixty years has been a sustained sustainability dilemma.

[1] Gordon Hak, “Making Sense of Forestry,” BC Studies 122 (Summer 1999): 89-92.

[2] ‘Integrated’ is a general forestry term pertaining to those production facilities that are designed to process a wide variety of inputs (e.g., saw logs, peelers, wood chip, etc.) to produce a wide variety of end product (e.g., dimensional lumber, veneer, pulp and paper, etc.).

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Sinead Earley

Sinead Earley is currently an Assistant Professor with the Geography Program at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, BC. She is a critical resource geographer, forest historian, and advocate of outdoor education and environmental literacy.

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