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Public Numbers, Public Land: Learning to Count Trees in British Columbia

2001 was a long year for British Columbia’s (BC’s) Ministry of Forests. In April, provincial elections replaced the incumbent New Democratic Party (NDP) with Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals, a right-leaning party sharing little but name with the Liberal Party covering the rest of Canada. By the end of the year, the province’s “dirt ministries” were in flux. An assortment of public institutions covering provincial forests, lands, mines, geology, parks, and fisheries, the dirt ministries and their matters rarely reach the headlines of the Vancouver Sun or the Victoria Times Colonist. Even before entitlement spending began to dominate provincial budgets in the 1990s, BC’s public mines inspectors and forestry researchers commanded a relatively meager share of the provincial budget. Members of the Ministry of Forests maintained a particularly low profile, despite being managers of a land base covering half a million square kilometers (think all of Ukraine, or Madagascar), an economic sector generating an eleven figure annual revenue for the province, and a job source for close to half the residents of BC’s sprawling rural north. Foresters periodically appeared in the news only to offer up seemingly self-explanatory numbers – this many cubic meters of lumber harvested last year, that many hectares of forest lost to fire. After 2001, however, deciding which forests get counted, who (or what) counts them, and how, got a lot messier.

Enter Dendroctonus ponderosae – the mountain pine beetle.

Photograph of pine trees on the side of a mountain. One in the foreground is covered in red needles.

Beetle-killed pine, in red. (Photo by Tom Ozden-Schilling)

Between 2001 and 2009, the mountain pine beetle, an endemic pest whose populations have historically been managed by Canada’s viciously cold winters, began spreading through the coniferous forests of BC’s central plateau in record-breaking swarms. Clouds of beetles set off the radars of rural airports, and everywhere the buzzing clouds touched down, they left behind red and gray swaths of dead pine. Broadcasting an image of ecological catastrophe visible along long rural highways and in the red-stained satellite scans funnelling towards Ministry analysts in Victoria, the first years of the pine beetle outbreak prompted extraordinary policy shifts: pre-emptive burning, conservation boundary movement, and “salvage” logging on an epic scale. The seemingly imminent collapse of the timber economy was enough to justify spectacular states of exception, and new mills sprang up along the highways of northern BC to handle the sudden influx of “salvaged” pine.

The timing of the beetle’s arrival could hardly have been worse. Months after the NDP’s reign came to an end in British Columbia, the Ministry of Forests began to close its regional offices and research stations throughout the province. Remaining staff were either recalled to the central office in Victoria, reassigned to other Ministry offices, or simply laid off. 2001 also saw the Ministry take its first steps towards implementing its Vegetation Resources Inventory (VRI) program, a largely automated computer system which compared between aerial photographs and satellite scans of discrete sections of forested landscapes and “normal” forest cover maps and images were translated into detailed information about harvesting volumes, fire damage, pest populations, and tree disease patterns. The sweeping scope of the VRI program spelled the beginning of the end for conventional inventory work, a monotonous, painstaking ritual whereby provincial foresters personally visited rotating sections of forest to assemble on-the-ground observations of harvesting effects, tree growth, and a variety of other information about the overall health of the province’s forests.

The years which newly hired field workers spent conducting inventory work across BC was understood by many to be a rite of passage within the Ministry itself, a way to handle an unending, labor-intensive task while also introducing new recruits to the idiosyncrasies of BC’s vast and varied forests. After all, determining how much wood regional loggers could “sustainably” remove each year depended on knowing quite a bit about how much wood was already out there, and how fast these existing trees were growing. The Ministry’s dwindling cohort of full-time researchers were particularly critical of the move, arguing that the loss of Ministry presence in far-flung forestry communities would create an empire of suspect numbers, a policy-ready quantitative picture offering few tangible avenues for critique. Under predictable conditions, the new system might be able to coordinate inventory counts much more efficiently than an army of roving foresters might. But if anything unexpected emerged, the numbers could quickly become almost meaningless.

Photograph of large piles of logs and heavy equipment in the foreground.

Beetle-killed pine arrives at a sawmill in Smithers, BC. (photo by author)

The unprecedented scale of the pine beetle attack – and the equally unprecedented scale of the provincial response – meant that the baroque simulators used to process VRI-derived data into inventory numbers and harvesting quotas were based on a number of suddenly very inaccurate assumptions about how the trees within a “normal forest” grow and die. Worse still, dissident foresters argued, provincial administrators used the new numbers when they agreed with them, but attacked their likely sources of inaccuracy when they appeared too pessimistic. With new projections overwhelmed by statistical uncertainty, the possibility of a collapse in future harvesting quotas began to loom almost as soon as large-scale salvage logging was underway. But just as quickly, government representatives vigorously defended their expanded salvage quotas by attacking the reliability of VRI-generated numbers. The very architects of the move towards automation have proven to be the first to discredit the new program’s results.

Since the spread of the beetle reached its peak in 2009, calls for expanded salvage logging have grown less urgent, and criticisms of the dismantling of the conventional inventory program and the loss of regional forestry research offices have swelled. As a swiftly approaching “cliff” came into focus in the Ministry’s projections of future harvest levels, environmental policy groups, internationally active conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, and the government’s own auditors combined in chorus to offer a pair of damning assessments: the Ministry no longer possessed the data to thoroughly describe the impending problem, and without the moral authority of its old, ground-sourced datasets to keep them from doing otherwise, the provincial government appeared eager to exploit the ambiguity to offer generous quotas to eager developers.

So why wait until 2014 to bring up thirteen years of frustration over missing data, then? According to the same pundits, retired forestry scientists, and other critics who first decried the Ministry’s increasingly ambiguous inventory numbers in the late 2000s, the end-game of the move towards automation was not merely temporarily expanded logging quotas, but the wide-scale privatization of BC’s forests. For a province that prides itself on being over 95% public land, the mere suggestion that large sections of land would be better managed by private “tree farm license” holders, unencumbered by government oversight, was interpreted by many as cynical and defeatist. As one retired Ministry forester put it, “There is nothing subtle about the government’s strategy for further privatization … It all started to unfold in 2001, when the government created its own perfect storm of mismanagement.” While the Ministry (now reorganized and renamed as the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, or FLNRO) only just finished conducting its first round of highly publicized community consultation forums about the proposed transition in May of this year, both those for and against the shift point to the discredited inventory data as the key variable. Once the beetle-affected forests are ceded to private management, the missing numbers will cease to matter, proponents promise. But if the data and its collectors hadn’t gone missing in the first place, critics respond, the economic and ecological arguments against private management would be achingly clear.

The dispersed network of rural foresters who for decades fielded local questions and channelled their observations and worries to Ministry headquarters in Victoria hardly constituted an objective, omniscient system. Nearly all of them supported clearcut logging to one degree or another, and all harmonized their analyses and expectations with the patterns of tree growth and forest change that clearcutting, replanting, and other aspects of “intensive management” were designed to bring about. During the anti-clearcut logging conflicts along the BC coast which made global headlines throughout the 1990s, Ministry foresters were often as not portrayed by conservationists as opponents. (The memory of demonstrations and picket lines remains so fresh that the Ministry’s central headquarters still sits in an unmarked building in downtown Victoria.) On the other side of 2001, however, former picketers and retired foresters alike wax nostalgic for a return to the seeming solidity of conventional inventory work, before critics of sweeping land management policy changes were placated with pleas of ignorance and promises of efficiency. On the other side of the avalanche of printed numbers which reshaped modern governance throughout the twentieth century, opponents of privatization are confronting new forests, where the same old numbers no longer seem to count.

Tom Ozden-Schilling is a Ph.D candidate in the History, Anthropology, and STS program at MIT. His dissertation in progress is entitled Salvage Cartographies: Mapping, Futures, and Landscapes in Northwest British Columbia.

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