Issues of fibre supply are overshadowed by the ecological implications of clearcutting of ancient forests, compounded by the assorted sources of wood fibre, form natural forests to tree plantations.
The Cut and the OverCut
There is no doubt that British Columbia forests are being radically overcut. No working forest in BC will have more than a fraction of trees more than 200 years old within the next 100 or 200 years, in a province which built its wealth on old, even ancient, trees. This overcut of old strong-fibre trees is part of the reason British Columbia is so richly endowed with pulp mills and their pollution.
Most environmental organizations in British Columbia have been protesting this overcut for years:
“According to BC Ministry of Forests data, for decades we have been cutting our forests by at least 20 percent faster than they can regrow. Unless the government immediately reduces the rate of logging, sustainable ecosystems will be further threatened and lumber mills will continue to close because of wood shortages.” Overcutting Supernatural BC.David Suzuki Foundation
Despite the environmentalists’ charges of overcut, the BC government responds that the cutting of natural old growth will be replaced in the next 50 years by harvesting trees planted and tended in plantations. Northern pulp suppliers face stiff competition from pulp produced in pine plantations in the southern United States, and from eucalyptus plantations in South America.
But no matter how handy these plantations can be to cut and chip with computer-guided machines, they do not replace natural ecosystem forests. As the World Rainforest Movement writes: “They are far from a real forest, which is something more messy, primal and elusive –a place to learn not just about nature and hunting but about the world of your ancestors.”
Call them hybrid poplars, genetically enhanced poplars, or super-trees, there are plantations of them springing up all over the world, many of them in Canada and the US. In the Pacific Northwest, the Weyerhaeuser Company has dozens of variants under patent. The main feature of the trees is that they grow fast, as much as three metres in height per year, or an average Mean Annual Increment of between 20 and 50 cubic metres per hectare in fertile coastal soil. Because of their fast growth, they can return significantly higher revenue to the farmer than food crops. (Saskatchewan Forestry Centre)
Unfortunately, they also require the best cultivars, the best soils, plenty of water but not too much, good weed control, concentrated cultivation, and are somewhat prone to fungi infection. (Tembec and Poplar in Quebec) In seeking to use hybrid poplar, forest companies such as Tembec, which is leading in Forest Stewardship Council Certification of its woodlands, is trying to increase its fibre supply by 10% over the next ten years.
For lots of information about hybrid poplar in Canada, including the progress of applications for expansion of herbicide approvals to treat disease, visit the Poplar Council of Canada web site.
And then there’s Genetically Modified Trees. Genetically modified to have less lignin which has to be treated in pulp making, modified to be sterile, modified to be disease and bug resistant. Ecologists worry that these traits could transfer to wild forests. In the meantime China has planted over a million Bt-producing genetically engineered trees in an attempt to halt the spread of the desert, to control flash floods, and to provide timber. Meanwhile, experiments have shown that the genes from GE poplars are being transmitted to natural trees nearby.
Greenpeace and groups such as Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (NW RAGE) protest that the dangers of letting GE trees lose in the environment endanger natural forests around the world.
Paper, of course, doesn’t have to be made from trees. In fact, through most of history, it wasn’t. Now about 10% of the world’s paper is made from alternative fibres, which includes waste straw from prairie farms, kenaf, grown in the US south and of course, that old stand by, hemp.
For more information on tree-free alternative fibres and paper see the following sites:
Canadian content on commercial hemp
Green Biz (Link expired)
State Environmental Resource Centre (link expired) for a state by state presentation on the status of alterative fibres
The Green Seal recommendations on alternative fibres and paper making.