Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The great log disgrace

with 7 comments

Robert Matas has a longish piece in the Globe and Mail this morning explaining why our river and our beaches are such a mess. He also makes it clear that since present trends are likely to continue, it is not going to get any better, any time soon.

River Eagle North Arm Vancouver BC

River Eagle North Arm Vancouver BC

Moving logs around in booms is something that I have only seen here. It has been, of course, a feature of BC’s logging business for a long time. And everywhere  you go here when you are near the water there will be logs lying around. There is a system to collect them, but it simply doesn’t work. There is not enough reward for the log salvors.  I know the word “beachcomber” has some resonance with Canadians, which is why, I suppose, the Globe used it in it’s headline. But it does not seem to me to describe what the people who go out and try to make a living by collecting logs actually do.

Logs cause a lot of problems to people who use the river. Traffic control in Victoria constantly has to warn shipping about “bundles” that are drifting in the shipping channel. In a small boat logs are a real hazard – and can cause plenty of damage to even large craft. And with more people living in houseboats, clearing logs out of moorings is a constant and expensive chore.

log debris Woods Island Marsh

log debris Woods Island Marsh

Since most logs that escape the boom are not recovered they just become litter. They have “no value”. But of course it took a lot of effort to cut them  down and get them into the river. The sheer wastefulness of the industry should be an alert. Trees are a valuable resource – and if the business that cuts them down does not at least try to get the best use out of them they should not be allowed to exploit it. Stewardship of the forests has to be built in to the contracts that the BC government has with the forestry companies. In the natural cycle of the forest, dead trees are an important part of  the ecosystem – the rotting logs are the the source of the process of continuing regeneration of the he forest. The forestry industry has long fought against any idea that what they call “waste” should be returned to the forest floor. In many communities in BC beehive burners continued to pollute the air – long after they had been banned elsewhere. And the only reason that happened was the industry lobbied the government – and threatened to close the mills if their costs were raised by ideas like taking the chipped bark back to the forest floor.

Nurse log

Nurse log

The forestry industry is of course now in deep trouble. The shameful softwood lumber deal, and the decline of the US market for construction materials being only two lines in the long litany of its troubles. And, of course, it is raw logs that are now exported. We simply gave up on the idea that we needed jobs in forest products processing.

There are some people who use logs. You see them down by the beaches all the time – with a big pickup truck and a chainsaw. The logs are cut up, dried and stacked – and used for firewood. The open hearth burning of wood for comfort in the home being specifically exempted in the local air quality rules. Of course, a closed wood stove would be much more efficient, but if there is a ready supply of fuel for free floating past, there is not much incentive to go for a modern, efficient stove.

Logs on the roof

Logs on the roof

The Globe story concentrates on the log salvors – as it should. But it is part of a much bigger picture. That here in BC we like looking at the mountains and the forests as we drive by. Some even go camping and hiking in the woods. But mostly we just take the existence of the natural environment for granted. The neglect of the rivers and beaches is only part of a general preference to remain concerned about our businesses and profits. We keep being told that this is “the best place on earth” – a slogan designed to bolster complacency. It seems highly unlikely that anyone has the concern – or the intestinal fortitude – to tackle any of this at the moment, or any time soon

Written by Stephen Rees

December 20, 2008 at 10:12 am

Posted in Environment

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7 Responses

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  1. Yeah I saw that article too. I didn’t post it too my blog because to me it’s a non-issue. Yet then I see your post and thought maybe we could talk up the issue a bit..

    Forest Ecologist Chris Maser writes an excellent book called: From the Forests to the Sea… It’s all about an entire ecosystem of driftwood that has vanished from the earth.

    That “mess” that you refer to is similar to those who see the last remaining old growth trees as decadent and full of rot and out of place amidst the baby plantation tree nightmare we live in.

    Did you know billions of tuna once were born and raised under the shade of rafts of driftwood in the open ocean? Did you know all that driftwood that use to line our beaches actually prevent coastal erosion?

    Or how about a common way whole ecosystems exchange species via giant mile long rafts of wood and earth that once would break off the river banks and journey the ocean: kinda like nature’s version of Noah’s ark.

    So my point is wood floating in water is the opposite of a mess that needs cleaning up, in fact we need bigger messes if we’re to restore our planet’s aquatic functions.

    What do you think?


    December 21, 2008 at 12:09 pm

  2. That we need to devise ways of fitting into the ecosystem better. You seem to be suggesting that the whole planet would be better off without mankind – which indeed is a tenable argument if you adopt that value system. But given that we are here and we will likely keep wanting lumber and shipping and other activities going, we need to do a better job of managing our impact on the ecosystem.

    There is obviously a difference between a tree falling in a forest through natural causes (the one no-one hears) and the ones we cut down. The forest floor needs dead trees quite as much as tuna breeding grounds – if there are to be more trees and all the life forms that depend on their existence.

    BC still seems to treat forestry as just another extractive industry like mining. Take what is “valuable” and then move on – and don’t worry about what is left behind. It is my view that as the forests are often “public property” there is a role that government should be playing in holding the extractors to higher standards.

    Stephen Rees

    December 21, 2008 at 12:42 pm

  3. You really can’t talk about log booms without linking to The Log Driver’s Waltz.

    In the late 70s and early 80s I grew up along the Gatineau River when there were still a few log riders with their huts out in the middle of the river. The logs and booms made it a great place to go canoeing (though dangerous for swimming as you could get caught underneath). The stray logs would drift in to the beach, where I could rope them together to make a raft. When last I was there the logs were gone – for me, the river was boring.

    I’m not disagreeing of course. The industry should be held responsible for the impact of their activities.


    December 21, 2008 at 4:55 pm

  4. The problem with Canada in general and BC in particular is that we haven’t been here long enough. The First Nations have been, of course, but their ecological foot print was minimal. The Europeans came in what eventually became B.C. in the 19th century only and the whole area must have looked to them as a natural paradise, a land of bounty, compared to the overly man-made landscape of Europe. By contrast my birth town has been inhabited continuously since the prehistory and it already had houses, streets and a port, by 300 B.C Not that far from it the shores of the Atlantic Ocean were a long sand dune that trapped inland rivers behind it, turning the area into a giant marsh. The sand dunes kept moving back and forth with the winter winds and storms, even covering villages (in one town the church–used by the medieval pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela–that had eventually disappeared under the sands was excavated in the 19th century but the sands have to be kept back even now). It is only since the 18th century that sand dunes have been somewhat stabilized, the marshes drained by deep canals and the whole area planted with pines, the only trees that can grow there. This is now the biggest man-made forest in Europe and the trees are grown as we grow vegetables in gardens. Each cut tree is replaced by several seedlings that are eventually thinned out to allow only the most promising tree to grow. Very little of the trees are lost and even Scotch broom, growing under the trees and on the dunes, is weaved into very strong fences that last for many years. By the way that forest, with inland lakes behind the dunes and summer resorts both by the lakes and along the ocean, is very pleasant (unlike other areas most of the Ocean frontage is NOT build up). Around 90% of the forest is owned by something like 40000 owners, each owning a small lot.the rest is state owned (including local municipalities). Logging is done by relatively small companies that sell logs to various companies (furniture, floors, pulp and paper etc.). BACK TO B.C.I am not sure at all that there is no market in B.C for logs, more like a lack of will and knowledge on what to do with them. In many countries trees were cut–long ago– in winter only then left in a river or lake for many years before they were used to build houses that are still standing today. Years ago I read in a German magazine that a company was buying B.C. logs dirt cheap then making superb all wood kitchen cabinets that they sold for a premium. And what about automated stoves that use pellets made of sawdust from left over wood?. They are big business in Europe. I do find piled-up logs on the beaches and riverbanks extremely romantic but my tightwad side scream “what a bloody waste!” especially after looking at a USA book that showed houses–made of oddly shaped scavenged logs–that were so much nicer than the 2 by 4 plus chipboard sheets houses we build here. Check for a short article about the European forest mentioned above. Economically that forest is as important as the Bordeaux region vineyards. The Forexpo trade fair (next one June 2010) is an exhibition of the latest tools and techniques used in a forest. It was last attended by around 30 000 people from all over the world (any from B.C?) on alternate years from the Vinexpo international trade fair (next one June 2009). I am in no way associated with either trade fair by the way.

    Red frog

    December 21, 2008 at 4:56 pm

  5. Hi Stephen,

    interesting train. Worked for years on log booms – two years long ago for Gulf Log Salvage the big forest companies owned co-op to return lost logs and keep wood out of the water – and would like to point out that since almost all wood is now bundled, a couple of decades old practise, a very, very small percentage of all logs transported today are ever lost. Most of the wood you see on local beaches is wood with iron in it and therefor of no commercial potential – old float logs and boomsticks – or cottonwood/alder washed out of local rivers and creeks, with a smattering of logs lost but not yet salvaged and semi-deadhead pulp logs which cost too much to salvage. Go to the north end of Van Is and beaches can be strwn with ginourmous amounts of logs lost in inadvertant log barge dumps and other transport mishaps in and around QE Sound but that’s not really what you are talking about. Anyway, thanks for your blog,


    Bill Henderson

    December 21, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  6. The main problem as I see it is that the log salvors are charged an exorbitant “handling fee” to Gulf Log for delivering their salvaged wood, often more than they get paid for each log. Why should the salvors be charged a handling fee when they are not responsible for losing them in the first place? There is something very smelly here.

    Jo Hammond

    January 15, 2009 at 10:44 pm

  7. As a former Salvor and now an observer I can tell you that Gulf Log Coop is where all the blame exists. They take a percentage of the logs value from 10% to 50% and on top of that archaic mechanism, charge a 8.50 per cubic meter sorting fee. Right now they masterfully provide $18 per cubic meter for pulp logs (market is $38). They pay too little then sell for more on top of the split and the sort fee. No wonder the former manager Doug Cooper retired. The house always wins. If I tried that on Bay St where I now work I would join Conrad Black or Madoff on the front page. Open the books, bust it up.


    January 21, 2009 at 6:00 am

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