SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999


Striking a balance between
making a living and the living forest

by Brigid Cumming

With a co-operative being considered and an islands-wide study underway, Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) are getting more attention than ever before. And what we don't know is staggering, according to Darcy Mitchell of the Centre for Public Sector Studies at the University of Victoria.

Ms. Mitchell (photo) and partner Ramsay Farran (photo) of Mitchell Consulting Associates are collaborating with Ministry of Forests economist Sinclair Tedder on Seeing the Forest Beneath the Trees, a joint research project sponsored by the South Moresby Forest Replacement Account and the University of Victoria Pacific Network for Non-Timber Forest Products. By March 2000, according to the proposal, they will prepare a social and economic profile, suggest methods of tracking annual employment and assess the development potential for Islands NTFPs. (list)

"We're trying to get as complete a picture as we can," says Ms. Mitchell. "We're not promoting any particular product ... we're trying to find out the full range of local ideas, anybody who's actively involved with any kind of NTFP activity, what people see as the opportunities and challenges." She emphasizes three critical points: local NTFPs must be "economically viable, socially acceptable and ecologically sustainable. If it isn't all three it won't work."

First, definitions: NTFPs are "anything other than saw logs or pulpwood" that comes out of the forest. Anything botanical, that is; deer and other forest fauna are not included, but they could be. NTFPs were originally studied in tropical rainforests. The shift in research to temperate rainforests is relatively recent, although in practical terms harvesting NTFP's has been around for as long as cone and mushroom picking and shake-bolt cutting. Interestingly, most long-range plans focus on making yields larger and more predictable ­ farming the forest, rather than foraging in it. In BC, NTFPs fall into one of two categories: Special Forest Products and Botanical Forest Products.

Special Forest Products describe about two dozen products that comes straight from trees, usually salvage timber. They're regulated under the Forest Act and Special Forest Product Regulation. Ministry of Forests aggregate values for 1991-97 show that over 98 percent of the $8.2-million billed to Special Forest Products belonged to five products: shingle bolts & blocks, (65%), shake bolts & blocks (19%), cants (7%), fence posts (7%) and Christmas trees (2%). This is a minuscule fraction of the $8.56-billion total value of all forest products harvested during the same period.

Botanical Forest Products are mostly unregulated, with over 200 recognised harvested products throughout BC. Wild edible mushrooms and floral and greenery products form the biggest part of this market. Mushrooms are very roughly estimated at being worth $45- to $55-million per year, although the market is notoriously volatile.

Mushroom picking and buying is "cut-throat capitalism" according to a trio of experienced local residents at the August 10 NTFP open house in Queen Charlotte. Bryan Pearson, Dwight Welwood and Don Plumb talked about how unpredictable, uncontrollable and unforgiving the mushroom business is. Mushrooms that sell for $35 a pound in France may fetch $1 a pound locally. American buyers backed by the strong American dollar can drive local prices up overnight, taking the best and leaving local buyers out of the game. These transient buyers make their quota and move on, leaving local pickers with spoiling product and a swamped market.
Somehow, most years it works. "And the Haida Gwaii name is both known and used internationally. Dwight Welwood recalled exposing faux-Gwaii fungi one year when there was no local Islands harvest. Otherwise, such deceptions would be hard to unmask. Still, fraud is perhaps the least of this industry's worries, at least locally. There are increasing concerns about the impact pickers are having on the local forests as well as how well the resource is holding up to ever-heavier harvesting.

The NTFP Co-operative Pilot Project starting on the Islands this fall will address some of these concerns. Jacqueline Pruner, the Islands Community Stability Initiative's new Community Economic Development Projects Co-ordinator has just started drafting the business plan and will be "sending out feelers, seeing what Islanders want to do." The basic plan is to organize on-Island NTFP harvesting and processing, starting with mushrooms. "NTFPs have great economic potential. The goal of the co-operative is to make the harvest of such potential products a locally-based economic venture," says Pruner.

The phrase "economic venture" sits uncomfortably with many people, even those who already augment their earnings with NTFPs. "I'm sort of afraid it becomes another type of clear-cutting," says Tlell resident and wildcrafter Liam Davis. "You see that a lot of times when government gets involved ... look at the Prime Minister's non-trip; he comes here to take the islands fish and doesn't even bother to meet with the islands people. As soon as the government gets involved they start salivating for revenue." Mr. Davis says, "ecosystem health should have priority over any harvesting ... and food gathering should have a priority over any kind of commercial harvest."

Chief Skidegate, Dempsey Collinson also placed food gathering far ahead of any kind of commercial harvest at the August 10 NTFP open house. He cautioned those present not to get too carried away. At the same meeting, Barbara Wilson raised the issue of intellectual property rights, particularly with regard to Haida medicinal plants.

Clearly, a delicate balance needs to be struck between making a living and the living forest. There is so much we do not know, but, as Ms. Mitchell says, "the breadth of our ignorance at least is getting larger." ·

An Economic Strategy to Develop Non-Timber Forest Products and Services in British Columbia, by Russel M. Wills and Richard G. Lipsey, March 15, 1999. Both the full report and the executive summary are available from;

Recipe for Success - a related story describing once persons experience using NTFP!


SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999