Forest Economics | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Forest Economics

Seedling Containers
Container seedlings such as this white spruce are grown in greenhouses and planted in March or June (courtesy Alberta Forest Service).

Forest Economics

 FOREST economics is the application of economic principles to a wide range of subjects extending from management of the various forest resources through the processing, marketing and consumption of forest products. Forest economics has much in common with AGRICULTURAL ECONOMICS, but although the latter discipline has an established academic history in Canada, no departments of forest economics exist in this country. Forestry students may, however, emphasize economics subjects, supplementing a single forest economics course with courses in rural SOCIOLOGY, agricultural economics, outdoor recreation economics and forest policy.

Forest economics courses per se concentrate on the evaluation of the forest resource, on BUSINESS MANAGEMENT principles as applied to forest regeneration and stewardship, and forest products industries, and on the relation of the forest resource and its exploitation to national economic and social policies. Thus courses address factors affecting the financial viability of a given operation, the industry in general, and the objectives of society as a whole.

Fiscal factors that affect the success of a particular operation include the revenues and costs involved in licensing of public timberland; TAXATION; industrial legislation and regulation; costs of inputs and prices of commodities; geographic distribution of customers (as it affects transportation costs); marketing constraints; LABOUR MARKETS; and various federal and provincial policies. The forest economist must also be familiar with technical aspects of forest management and industrial production, and should have at least some knowledge of forest ecology, the processing of timber products, technological innovation and WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT.

FORESTRY resembles agriculture in that both deal with CROPS, but the differences between them point out some of the constraints that forest economists must consider. For example, agricultural land is usually cropped annually; forests must be managed over several years (the shortest crop cycle, that of hybrid POPLAR for pulpwood, is approximately 10 years). Failure to do so threatens the long-term viability of an operation also has a negative effect on the ECOSYSTEM. On the other hand this extended perspective has some advantages: it enables the industry to make management decisions, marketing arrangements and other plans for the longer term.

Another difference between forestry and agriculture is that while farmers own their land or rent it from private owners, most forestland is publicly owned (the provinces own 71%, the federal government 23%). This may create a conflict between short- and long-run objectives for public forests. There are also several economic and social activities, such as grazing, HUNTING, recreation or watershed protection, that may conflict with timber harvesting in some locations.

Finally, the scale of operation is also an important factor for forest economists. Farms occupy a few square kilometres, but at least 30 million ha are cropped annually. In contrast, forest areas under management are often much larger, but only 1 million ha, or less than one-quarter of 1%, are harvested in a given year.

Analytical Framework

While forest economists apply general economic ideas such as supply and demand, and other market factors like financial rates of return, capital investment, development, conservation, etc, they must take great care when choosing the analytical framework they work with. For example, the relative costs and benefits of forest management differ depending on the length of time under consideration; on whether the calculation involves indirect as well as direct effects; on whether it is done from the perspective of an individual company, a province or a national economy. An experienced analyst can ensure the recognition of economic, social, environmental and political linkages.

One of the most important issues today is the apparent conflict among forestry investment criteria. The traditional approach in professional forestry was to emphasize biological growth. A forest was said to be mature and ready for harvesting when timber of sawlog size was available, or when a timber stand ceased to add volume because annual growth was exceeded by disease, decay and mortality. In recent decades, support has grown for the concept of financial rotation, whereby the ideal harvest date is set by its calculated maximum value to the owner. A financial rotation age is based on economic efficiency as measured by market prices, costs and profitability. It assumes free competition and the absence of external costs to the ENVIRONMENT, wildlife, etc. This method tends to favour exploitation for timber over other values.

Since timber supply problems began to emerge worldwide in the 1970s, the fairness of liquidating forest capital was questioned. This change in attitude resulted in the increasing use of CONSERVATION criteria that seek to keep the resource base essentially intact over time. This is a goal with particular appeal to managers of public land who do not operate by the profit motive and are not expected to apply corporate financial criteria. Conservation tends to emphasize stewardship of ecosystems rather than timber.

This approach does not mean a complete break from financial rates of return. Provincial land managers must still use financial methods to allocate funds budgeted for REFORESTATION, and they must choose among sites and silvicultural treatments to achieve the best growth and yield possible with limited funds. Economics aside, the only politically and socially acceptable policy, for public and private forest managers alike, is to replant promptly after harvest. But how much should be spent on intensive silvicultural activities, such as thinning and fertilizing? For provincial foresters the answer is largely political, though it is based on expected long-term economic and social benefits. Private industry and small woodlot owners apply a variety of measures to determine the level of forest management, usually with a shorter time in mind than their public counterparts and with taxes playing a key role.

Forest economists may also play a crucial role in formulating PUBLIC POLICY. Such policy is aimed at maintaining the present harvest in perpetuity. Unfortunately the record of forest RESOURCE MANAGEMENT in Canada is still below the level necessary to sustain existing harvest levels, let alone to provide for stable growth. Although Canada does have some of the best forestry performance in the world, it also has too much that is below an acceptable level. As a result of decades of neglect, timber supply deficits have emerged in many communities. In recognition of this threat the provinces and the federal government have begun to formulate new policies and programs that will double or triple spending on forest renewal. Federal government leadership has fallen well below what it was in the 1980s, when priorities included increased funding for Canadian forestry faculties; increased research and development; joint programs with the provinces in such areas as replanting, timber stand improvements, a network of 10 model forests, and improved FOREST-FIRE suppression (eg, through establishment of a fire co-ordination centre in Winnipeg and a fleet of CANADAIR CL-215 water-bomber aircraft). Provinces now carry the entire responsibility for replanting and follow-up SILVICULTURE on provincial land.

Forest Renewal

The case for forest renewal is based on the need to stabilize existing forest industry employment. According to the Forest Products Association of Canada, there are close to 225 000 persons who work for the Canadian forest industry. There are also more than 670 000 people who have jobs that are indirectly related to this sector of activities. It is estimated that thousands of new jobs could be created in forest renewal alone, as well as in higher value-added processing. In addition there is the generation of billions of dollars in tax revenue, foreign exchange earnings, watershed and wildlife protection and the support of a multibillion dollar recreation and TOURISM industry. The social costs of neglect are community dislocation, employee relocation and welfare. These costs are probably much higher than those of maintaining the timber supplies of threatened forest-based towns.

Other Issues

Other issues for the forest economist are the social and economic impact of ACID RAIN on forests, the pricing of non-timber (ie, edible and non-edible plant and animal products and medicinal products) forest products, and the trade-off between forestry and fishery values.

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