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Alberta Woodlot Owners Urge Sustainable Cuts

How far can private landowners go in harvesting and selling their timber? Woodlot operators in Alberta tackle the thorny questions of sustainability and environmental accountability.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Private woodlot owners, government, industry and conservationists are using the current slowdown in Alberta private land logging to try to reach a consensus on how the resource should be managed in future.

Wood buyers, particularly from Montana and BC, have been cruising private woodlots in Alberta for the past three years, offering landowners quick cash for their wood. The provincial government has taken the side of landowners over objections from environmentalists, stating that selling the wood resource is the landowner's right. However, they have placed more control on log transport to track the logs' place of origin. This move is an attempt to cut down on log poaching from Crown land.

In 1995, a group of landowners from the Cochrane and Bragg Creek area spearheaded the creation of the Alberta Woodlot Association - partly to ensure that they will maintain the right to sell their wood resource, and partly to encourage private woodlot owners to practice sustainable management. They now have 140 members province-wide.

Stakeholders, including the Alberta Woodlot Association, are to be gathered in Edmonton in mid-October. They hope to identify hot issues related to private land logging, and to draft an action plan with a commitment from woodlot owners, industry, government and conservationists to work toward the objectives of that action plan. A key element to that plan is promoting sustainable forest management over a quick, one-time sale.

But even the person responsible for private land-related activity and silviculture under the province's Federal/Provincial Agreement on Forestry for three years has doubts if the Association can convince landowners to choose sustained forest management over a quick buck.

"It's difficult to say if the association is coming in too late," says Byron Grundberg. He is now co-owner of Ezra Consulting, a firm active in general forest consulting. Even though the Woodlot Association has a goal of improved education for private woodlot owners, he says we don't even know how much private forested land there is in Alberta. How, then, do we know if promoting sustainable management is working.

"I don't have much expectation that we're going to have a huge amount of consensus out of this conference," says Grundberg. "But at least we can see what the hot issues are going to be, and whether there are prospects of movement on some of the more important ones, and trying to find some middle ground." Woodlot Association board member and secretary Gordon Kerr says he senses some movement on the more contentious issues.

Kerr owns forested property in the Crowsnest Pass area, as well as near Cremona, 40 km northwest of Calgary. It's that area where some environmental groups have demanded a total ban on private land logging. Kerr says these groups had a legitimate concern, given the poor approach initially to logging private land by some contractors. But Grundberg adds that the worst offenders have since left the province.

"The amount of timber being extracted from private land, I believe, exceeds what can be sustained," Kerr says. "I think we're in time though, to change some of that. Some of those lands can still be reforested, and some of those lands can be managed differently in future." Part of the problem, he says, is that many Alberta private woodlot owners have not realized the resource they own.

"All this guy's lifetime, he's looked at those trees as an obstacle to making a living," says Kerr. "Now, all of a sudden, it's a bonanza and he sells it, not realizing that if he had made it a full-time business, he could be getting revenue every year, or every five years, forever. So, he liquidates it and turns it into fourth-rate pasture."

Part of the difficulty to encouraging sustainable forestry on private land, says Kerr, from the standpoint of the owner, is taxation and capital gains. Some rural municipalities have already begun assessing the timber value on property for taxation purposes.This practice forces landowners to sell the timber prematurely, to earn a better tax break with the land being reassessed as agricultural instead. Plus, only farmers and active small businesses are entitled to the $500,000 capital gains exemption.

"We'd like a more level playing field on the government policy side," says Kerr, "so that people who are managing land for renewable resources are all treated similarly." In addition to taxation issues, the recent conference also tackles three other important issues.

The first is non-market values from woodlots and how they are accounted for. This was addressed primarily to voice the concerns of conservationists, dealing with issues such as wildlife habitat. Among the questions raised was how to balance society's desire to maintain forested areas, while protecting the landowner's right to manage his property as he sees fit. If society prefers forested land on private property, should the landowner be compensated, and who should bear the cost? The second issue is land-use policies. For example, there are policies in place to manage grass on grazing leases, but not timber. Plus, some mills in Alberta are able to purchase private woodlots to practice woodlot management, while multinationals cannot. The practice of woodlot licensing modeled on BC's system was also discussed. The third issue is the economics of woodlot management - is it economically viable, and if not, how can it become economically viable.

"To my mind, those forest products have to be harvested and can be managed in an environmentally friendly way," says Kerr. "I would hope that it (the conference) has brought some common thinking to it all, and we can set up a system where it is a positive all the way around." Kerr says all forestry stakeholders support the goals of the Alberta Woodlot Association.

"I'd like to believe that the Woodlot Association is a conservation association," he says. "We're not out to strip the land. We're out to promote sustainable forest management, and that means harvesting trees as well as protecting the environment."

Both Kerr and Grundberg emphasized that the goal of the conference was committed action, not just an action plan that gathers dust. Kerr said a similar process in New Brunswick resulted in nothing. They don't want that repeated in Alberta.


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