Exploring the Future of Forest History in BC: Conference Summary, Apr 2008

Scroll this

Introductory remarks: Graeme Wynn welcomed everyone to the conference and described the activities of NiCHE, in particular its origins as a SSHRC-funded network, and described the other cluster groups including the forest history cluster.

First session: Cultural/Ecological Perspectives
Chair: Emily Jane Davis

Charles Menzies, UBC Anthropology
Charles’s talk centred on the ways in which aboriginal people are elided or forgotten in much research, and on some of his own experiences with the Forests and Oceans for the Future Project. Charles first recognized that we are meeting today on Musqueam territory and that their treaty claim remains unseated. He then pointed to the ways in which research can forget about the existence of aboriginal people and/or locate them as an afterthought. The political context of the New Relationship and treaty process are technical guidelines but when foresters follow them, they may not work out so well ‘on the ground.’ Charles also addressed the problematic use of the term ‘cultural’ in settings such as these, emphasizing how ‘cultural’ has come to mean ‘aboriginal’ and ‘social’ to mean ‘white.’

Charles then discussed the Forests and Oceans for the Future project, which has taken place primarily on BC’s north coast, which he characterized as an ‘under-researched area’ currently experiencing an increase in new industrial economies such as wind power, and also as host to ecotourism ventures. Projects of this nature force us to examine the cultural subjectivity and entire sequence of positions and identities that are possible when dealing with logging and environmental issues. They are also essential for understanding the political economy of natural resource use; namely, questions of control, profit, job loss, and community experience through cycles of resource dependence. He also cited examples of communities who have experienced change but remain in the face of massive economic and social fluctuations. Anthropologists are also concerned with the role of the past in contemporary political practices, and in understanding how sites of conflict and collaboration are shaped by reverberations from previous points in time.

Sarah Gergel, UBC Landscape Ecology
Sarah presented on some of the work currently underway in her landscape ecology lab and on its intersection with examining the historical nature of forests. She also emphasized the importance of creating and maintaining skills such as air photo interpretation to enable diffuse forest history research.

Sarah explained the value of forests as a variety of scales, and how she is concerned with how these values can be quantified over time. She also sees implications for this research aiding today’s management scenarios, which often involve calculations of ecosystem services and ‘tradeoffs.’ She gave some examples of species and scenarios that she studies, including the western red cedar (valuable for its multiple cultural resources), and riparian zones (wherein the value of trees is variable based on location, as salmon habitat, as coarse woody debris, etc.). Understanding the past structure of the riparian forest can help produce restoration plans today. She also gave examples of some of the locations where air photo documentation has been key for this type of research, such as Bamfield. B.C. has had fairly consistent standards and procedures for the creation of air photo catalogues; however, the skills to interpret and utilize air photos and research have not been maintained and new and automated technologies are much more permanent now. Sarah then explained some fundamental aspects of air photo interpretation and its potential uses.

Marguerite Forest, Council of the Haida Nation, Haida Mapping
Marguerite summarized some of the variety of projects that she works on in her capacity with Haida Mapping, and particularly focused on the identification of culturally modified trees (CMTs) on Haida Gwaii. She also presented Haida Gwaii as a potential ‘hotbed’ for forest history research, given its documentation in paleoecology, air photos, CMT databases, etc. Haida Gwaii has at least 10,000 years of forest use, which she illustrated using a number of slides on a range of uses.

Marguerite provided some context by describing Haida Gwaii’s geography and history, and then elaborated on the different ways in which it has been documented. Paleoecology work was done using pollen analyses, which confirmed the presence of people during the shift from pre-glacial tundra to parkland to forest. In the future, she would like to see paleoecology work also focus on the multiple lakes and marshes of the islands and use finer scales of analysis, as well as applied in tandem with archaeology in order to look at historic forest use in specific sites.

Marguerite then explained the process of CMT identification on Haida Gwaii, and how extensive past use of the forests has been proven. However, the survey methods are limited and biased, as most CMT identification is done in an ’emergency’ fashion around cutblocks and coastal areas just prior to logging. She showed an example of what a transect looks like, and how anthropologists analyze sites. These efforts will hopefully continue to expand to encompass traditional trails and historic use areas that lie inland.

She concluded by outlining some of the other sources and methods that have been or could be incorporated alongside paleoecology and archaeology. These included logging records, BC Archives, and GIS to tie specific usages to points on maps. Finally, she discussed the importance of this research in the context of the decades of social protest by the Haida and others over logging on Haida Gwaii. Forest land use is currently structured around a strategic land use agreement with classes of management objectives.

Second session: Professor Foresters’ Perspectives
Chair: Chris Hollstedt

John Parminter, Ministry of Forests and Range
John described the formation and activities of the Forest History Association of BC (FHABC). These activities included a newsletter, annual general meeting, and the facilitation and publicization of archival repositories and resources. As part of this organization, he has observed two trends in forest history research. The focus of research has shifted from a largely industrial basis to a more diverse range of topics including environmental and social issues. Also, the number of publications in forest history has declined.

The FHABC was formed in 1982 in part to act as a coordinating agency in the collection of historical records pertaining to the conservation, management, and use of the forests of BC. It is a registered BC society. After receiving advice from a committee of archivists, the society reconfirmed the founding members’ direction that it not be a collection agency; it would cooperate in publicizing the existence of archives and directing material to them, and directing questions in various directions. The FHABC has carried out methods workshops on oral history and there have been quite a few interviews. Members have also given presentations, offered merit awards and other recognition to those working in forest history, prepared corporate histories, and participated in commemoration celebrations.

John showed a chart of forest history publications over time and sources of theses. Using this, he summarized the types of work done, discussing how subject areas are slowly shifting away from an industrial focus over time towards other things. He also asked if the publication trend of decline could be expected to continue or improve.

Barb Coupã©, RPF
Barb presented on a range of perspectives, including the role and perceptions of professional foresters, the importance of ecological and environmental considerations, on Interior forest history, and on what forest history means and what types of research it can encapsulate.

She first discussed foresters. Foresters, in her opinion, are historians, because they need to know the forest through elements such as stand history. But they too often focus on other things and neglect this, due to the complex and shifting nature of work as forester. There can be difficulties for foresters and anyone interested in studying BC’s forests in keeping up with all of the changes in regulation and the structure of the tenure system. In the past, forest management prescriptions were required in advance, and licensees were required to make basic silvicultural obligations. Foresters would often work in the same area for their entire career, developing a very in-depth and experiential knowledge of the landbase. But changes in forest policy have led to new regulations, often relocating foresters around the province with frequency, and it can be difficult for someone new to be aware of the past regulations and practices that have shaped the forest. Furthermore, there is no centralized database of information, and much of this experiential knowledge is being lost as foresters retire.

Barb then discussed aspects of forest history in the Interior, noting as many others would throughout the day that there are ‘many Interiors’ and a highly diverse range of experiences and landscapes encompassed by that term. She used the landscape of the Cariboo as an example, reviewing in particular the history of complex corporate changes and vertical consolidation in the area’s forest industry. Although there were once a number of family firms, there are only two major licencees at this point in time: West Fraser and Tolko. Barb also pointed out that our collection of history is sketchy in the interior. Material records are rather limited but do include a corporate history of West Fraser, and archival information in newsletters such as the Williams Lake Tribune. There are also plans for Kettle Valley Publications to make a history with Tolko. She concluded that forest history in the Interior can be scattered and that museums may lack the funding and capacity that they need to pursue it, but there is a definite level of interest in future forest history work in this region.

Barb then addressed a third aspect of forest history that she sees as incredibly important: the relatively recent development of ecological and environmental considerations in forestry. In the Interior, environmental groups do not seem to have done much with history at this point. There is also a recent history of land use planning including CORE, the Conservation Council, and Beetle Action Coalition. From an ecological point of view, she sees the provincial Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification Program as essential for underpinning forest management, and this history of its development and use as significant.

Barb concluded that she sees many different kinds of history in the forest: traditional knowledge, experiential knowledge, nostalgia of the forest, and more environmental interest. She then played a tune called ‘Bud’s Sawmill’ by Murray Boal, a Cariboo folk artist, to end her presentation.

Stan Chester, Forest History Association of BC
Stan described his hopes for the future of forest history from both the perspective of foresters and from his position as president of the Forest History Association. He contextualized these hopes within the current complex situation of BC’s forest industry and the challenges that it poses for the collection and use of forest history resources.

Stan began by discussing how changes today in the forest are occurring rapidly, and how this impacted an industry predicated on a vision of stability that is no longer valid. It is now hard to know what will happen next on a number of fronts. He then listed a number of factors of uncertainty facing BC’s forests: the scale of the recent mountain pine beetle outbreak, the impact of climate change on forest structures and growth, the rise of the Canadian dollar and sub prime mortgage situation in the US, the consolidation of the Interior industry to a small number of large companies, the disappearance of nearly all major companies on the coast, the growth of the environmental movement and awareness of other forest values, the removal of areas from the working forest for parks and other set-asides, the rise of negative feelings associated with ‘forestry’, the declining enrollment of foresters in school, the changing role of First Nations in forestry and on the landbase, and finally, the reduction and reorganization of staff within government and industry.

Given these current pressures, Stan sees an overall trend of reduced interest and capacity for preserving records. There can be little continuity in records, particularly as work is increasingly contracted out. Companies now utilize electronic storage, which is subject to loss, especially in smaller organizations that may not have backup capacity. Based on these situations, Stan predicted that in the future, various resources for forest history may suffer. Paper records will be fragmented to the extent that they will be harder to find and use. Equipment will be sold, parked or scrapped. People will be given early retirement or let go, and their knowledge and experiences maybe lost. The reduction of staff and office space will lead to more use of transient contractors and an overall reduction in space and capacity for collection. However, aboriginal knowledge will become more readily available for inclusion.

Stan concluded with a list of actions that he feels would ameliorate these pressures and allow a healthy field of forest history research in the province. This is essential because we need to know what has happened in order to make a better future. His recommendations included: a means of backing up electronic files; finding and storing archival records and equipment; creating and expanding museums to allow real hands-on experience with history; using local interviewers to create oral histories; incorporating aboriginal perspectives in meaningful ways; making materials widely available on the internet; holding educational courses and training as required; and identifying potential funding sources for forest history activities.

Mike Apsey, Ministry of Forests and Range Centenary Celebration Society
Mike discussed the history of the Forest Service, and how and why its 100th anniversary will celebrate past accomplishments with a sense of optimism for the future. He also explained the experiences that he has had in looking for forest history sources across the province in various capacities.

Mike began by explaining the histories that are missing, in his opinion. He pointed to how he has a bookcase of corporate histories, but that the personal and family histories that are part of this are often missing. He plans to work with I.K. Barber, for example, to document those elements in the history of Slocan. He has also worked with senior IWA and CEO members to document what types of personal records and material histories they may have.

Mike then showed a series of slides explaining the work that the Forest Service has done, and the benefits to celebrating its past. He explained how the Centenary Celebration Society was created under the BC Societies Act, and explained its governance structure, which consists of a planning committee and a number of other committees to produce theme papers, coffee table book, events, strategic planning, production of mobile displays, inventory and cataloguing of historic information, and more. The objectives in the Society’s work are to highlight many of the fascinating stories in forest history, and to reach out to some target audiences with the materials that they will produce.

Questions from the audience centred on the ways in which professional forestry creates a compartmentalization of knowledge, with numerous people working away in their own ‘silos’ and rarely communicating across certain bureaucratic boundaries. Panelists and audience discussed the importance of managing the landscape as a unit, not as an assemblage of ministries and people firing away at it from a range of perspectives with little communication. The importance of research and extension groups such as FORREX was cited as key to this.

Session three: Museum/archival perspectives
Chair: Ralph Stanton

Lorne Hammond, Royal BC Museum
Lorne discussed a range of issues pertaining to archival collection and museum display of materials. These included: the challenges of collecting and processing materials; the protection of local, community, and indigenous knowledge; the maintenance of interpretive skills; and the need to digitize a number of important collections that may otherwise be lost.
Lorne first explained how local archives understand place far more than a centralized institution can, and that the key to keeping them relevant is to tie together local museums to make sure that local information gets collected and collaborated upon. He cited the Coasts Under Stress project, which demonstrated the need to preserve local knowledge of practices such as fishing and how to keep knowledge of how such practices can be done in a sustainable and locally-appropriate manner.
Lorne then discussed how there exists a large amount of wonderful uncollected materials, which we desire to preserve, but there is a lack of capacity and funding to process them, store them, and make them available. Worries that in the future we will not lack the materials but will not be able to read them-we will lose our human skills and abilities to read things like foresters’ notes and air photos. These specialized professions could become reduced to the extent that their methods will not be known; therefore, we need to document how to use these methods now. Archivists can work to provide and organize materials, but we need people also to interpret them on an ongoing basis.

He also emphasized how forest history is also about landscape and broader processes, and how we need to use the internet as a mapping system and anchor that information. The internet is still very immature. We are still not at the point where it can give you three-dimensional landscapes. Can we get GIS and all these sources on the net for people to use? What are the challenges with this?

Lorne then discussed a variety of assorted issues. For example, the equipment and facilities used in forestry operations is significant as the material evidence of how communities began, but there are challenges for the preservation of large 3D materials in museums. Using interviews with people who worked with these machines may be one more cost-effective way to document these histories of use. He then turned to some examples of how we use archival materials and how we may need to rethink our approaches. For instance, in corporate records, the expenditure reports often more interesting than annual reports-AFEs are often seen as ‘first to go’ when materials are being discarded, but they are actually where people have to justify where and why money is being utilized. Also, the keeping annual records can contain gaps, because annual fiscal year dates change. He also cited the need for more research in the areas of First Nations’ mills, Sikh forestry work, and company town histories.

James Tirrul-Jones, Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum
James discussed the work and exhibits of the Museum, emphasizing the importance of primary, original sources in forest history and their accessibility. He also gave some history of Prince George’s mill history and the challenges of recording and working with it.

Work at the Prince George Museum has included: an oral history project with a range of individuals and community-based organizations; ‘We Did That!’ features celebrating forestry inventions and innovations; the collection of large equipment; and a relationship with the Northern BC Archives wherein the museum held larger equipment and materials and the Archives held paper documentation. He showed a number of slides exemplifying museum work, and explaining his interest in issues surrounding support material for the curation of large equipment. He also pointed out that a number of things were invented in northern BC, but were not patented.

James then discussed the regional history of mills in Prince George and how the museum documents this history. One important story might be the transformation of smaller mills into larger consolidated processes. Over time, the number of mills changed greatly, and they moved from small towns in the bush to being big city-oriented mills and this changed the social fabric of the communities and the north at large, with Prince George becoming a service city. He also reviewed the history of pulp milling in the area and the report that started it all – a $200 report to assess the possibility of having a mill in Prince George.

George Brandak, UBC Rare Books and Special Collections
George spoke to the patterns of archival collections and research that exist in BC, and the need to sustain and create archives if we wish for a meaningful future for forest history.
Today, archives are collected because they are historical evidence, to inform citizens and youth of our past, and to digitize cumbersome histories that would otherwise be lost. Today’s technologies and standards also mean that archives are to be entertainment, and not just for a small group of scholars. One example is oral history. Both oral history technique and the enthusiasm of forest companies for their own history has caused a large amount of interest in it. Oral history can be valuable for its ability to capture a lot of the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of forestry and government, the development of machines, ideas, etc.

George then reviewed a number of institutions that have forest history records, as well as offered a survey of ‘truly important’ themes in forest history work based on the bibliography of BC theses. He found 43 theses, with 12 related to economic themes. He also observed that coastal institutions have been more consistently involved in the collection of records but that there has been some movement in the Interior in the past 10 years. His recommendation for the future creation of more material forest history is the creation of more archives, particularly beginning with local and regional archives. He suggested that a forest history association needs to make a proposal to the Association of BC Archivists and build a provincial acquisition strategy for forest history, based on a mission statement that is amenable to all. Following that, there will be a next step of considering staff and space. George concluded that it has been memorable working with the forest history community at all levels and in a number of ways.

Questions from the audience included a discussion of the importance of capturing family and individual records and perspectives. Panelists shared some examples of experiences with access to various materials. The discussion also shifted to the topic of internationalism, and how there has been a decline of interest in BC in the eyes of some, largely within academic culture. It was pointed out that deep work at the MA level is more likely to be happening off-campus in high-quality small local histories, and so we may be losing those case studies of place in order to be more international.

Fourth Panel: Academic Perspectives
Chair: Jonathan Peyton

David Brownstein, Geographer and Independent Scholar
David discussed two main topics: what he sees as the interesting and ‘cutting-edge’ topics today in forest history, and then a list of specific ‘dream projects’ that he would like to work on in the future. He also described forest history as becoming much more broad; historians who may have previously focused on ‘pet regions’ are branching out and taking interest in a range of places and ideas.

In the past, much work has focused on the forest industry as an economic phenomenon, and little else. New work may lie exploring some of the following: the role of science and policy-making; how ideas about forest management have diffused around the globe; and a forest history of BC from time immemorial to the present. For the latter, he suggested a model of a collection of various sets of local knowledge.

David then turned to specific projects that he has either begun or imagined and discussed each of them briefly. First, he described potential work on the history of forest regeneration in BC and activities of seed extraction for a post World War I-European market, centred in New Westminster. This institutionalized the mechanisms for collecting seeds and cones in the province. Secondly, David has started collecting records on the history of beetle management in BC and forest etomology. Has only really gone so far to identify records in the archives, but thinks there is a much more complicated story to be told than one finds on the surface in newspaper articles. Finally, he discussed the early history of non-timber forest products in BC by natural historians, who were interested in encouraging a natural drug industry and promoting it to the provincial government.

David concluded by exploring potential outcomes of/outlets for these projects. The development of a large-scale museum display for some work is prohibitive due to costs, but he could envision a small display centred on a topic such as the history of beetle management in the province. He has worked in his capacity with the UBC Botanical Gardens on the creation of a ‘virtual museum’, which included slides, a website, written narrative, and oral histories, and sees much potential for another project of this nature. He also pointed to the funding for the digitization of collections available through the I.K. Barber Centre, and also to the importance of not only creating materials for researchers, but also in carefully planning the access to and interaction with these materials with finding aids and the like. David also brought up the idea of producing a small documentary on BC forestry, or of doing place-based research somewhere like the Aleza Lake Research Forest.

Richard Rajala, Historian, University of Victoria
Richard described what he sees as ‘good times’ for forest history at large, and listed a vast array of topics and projects that have been conducted on the subject. He then also listed some gaps that he sees, and some contemporary challenges to both the forest industry and the creation of forest history.

Richard described his own approach to forest history as one that treats the forest as both subject and setting, an arena in which various relations are laid out. He also raised an important question of how we can read forest history very broadly–so how broadly do we want to think about it today and as we move forward?

Richard’s list of topics included industry relations and state-making have been popular topics; labour movement in the woods; the environmental movement; the political economy of BC forests; First Nations’ relationships; national parks; histories of sport and recreation; wildlife; landscape perceptions; histories of pollution; and urban forests. He identified gaps in: our knowledge of the ways that race figured into labour and the IWA; more expansive knowledge of gender; Interior forest histories (an industry built around pine and spruce); logger and sawmill workers’ accounts of living through economic boom and collapse; production work and how loggers responded to and interpreted changes in their work and the experiences of technological transformation; BC’s role in developing systems of long trade along the coast and similar experiences in the US portions of Cascadia; or the stories of Chinese and Indian workers.

One broad focus for both forest history and contemporary consideration is the deindustrialization in BC communities, and how this has caused a loss of a way of life, with mills and enterprises de-coupled from communities. Richard cited the Cowichan Lake region as a representative example. Although helicopters and feller-bunchers now comb the valley bottoms and hillsides taking out second-growth timber, such technologies employ few loggers, and the three large mills that once provided hundreds of jobs are gone. Instead, only a single small mill now operates.

Richard concluded by discussing what form future forest history projects might take. He favoured the idea of collaboration although was unsure of how it would function, and cited the Coasts Under Stress project as a model. He also endorsed forest history that takes a long-range perspectives and engages scientists. Finally, he discussed the idea of having a record-generating and collecting initiative, and pointed out that the provincial archive has funds for working with industrial records that could be pursued.

Richard Mackie, Historian
Richard discussed forest history through the lens of his experiences as a freelance historians in the 1990s. He emphasized the importance of the form of a freelance or commissioned book as opposed to an academic monograph for inclusion of photographs and stories key to the telling of local and personal elements of forest history, and the significance of local forest history.

Richard’s primary focus was his book Island Timber, which is a social history of Comox logging. The methodology behind this work included about 150 interviews, and archival research on logging records, although he noted that there was even more material eventually donated to the Courtenay Museum that he did not have time to include. He also accessed a number of photo albums, and pointed to the difficulty in collecting and using collections of photographs while showing slides from Comox logging. Above all, he attempted to move away from academic theorizing and the creation of a standard academic history book to the production of a work that would reflect the people and stories behind the history, and explained how he utilized photographs, sidebars, and interview excerpts in the book to that effect, rather than relegating the personal elements to a footnote. In writing on Comox logging, Richard explained how he documented the daily and practical terms that loggers used, such as ‘from stump to dump’, to describe their work, and how he came to see how logging was a conveyer belt of continuous activity. Richard then concluded that he sees two things essential to any historical geography of forestry: the ability to think across scales and to immerse oneself in a region and allow a sense of ‘intense localization’ to also guide research.

Questions included further inquiries about the motivations and methodologies that historians employ. Discussion also centred on the social and technological changes that have been important for forest history, and on the role of labour unions.

Featured image: Photo by Maciej on Wikimedia Commons.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.