Making the Connections

I own a small woodlot in Cumberland County; it's a small island of forest in a sea of clearcuts. Most of the clearcut land around me is owned by the Irving forestry interests or the Crown, and other parts are owned by non-resident and dis-interested folk who probably have never visited their woodlot more than once in their lives.

There are two big pressures on the forests in my neighbourhood: one is government policy, and the other is energy prices.

This blog explores the intersection of those two pressures.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Looting our Crown Lands

Minister Tobin and the press
Have we learned nothing from the collapse of the northern cod stocks?

Everyone knows that the cod fishery of Canada's East Coast collapsed in the early 1990's, and while many are prepared to blame this on the warming of the oceans I think that they know in their hearts that the stock was overfished. In the 1990's there were several technological advances that allowed nations to increase their catches of cod. The use of the GPS system allowed trawlers to know exactly where they were on the Grand Banks, the use of fish-finding sonar allowed them to find the fish easily and locate them in the water column, and the development of factory-freezer-trawlers allowed a ship to stay on the fishing grounds for a month or more, processing the cod just as soon as it could be hauled in. And they just took everything. The honking great nets scooped up every living thing in its way, and whatever fish they did not need or weren't allowed to take were simply thrown back overboard, dead or dying.

The northern cod stocks were fished by many nations but the most determined seemed to be the Spanish and Portuguese fleets. They had been fishing the Grand Banks for 400 years and they were not prepared to let anyone or any international body tell them to stay away, and if the cod stocks were in decline they were darn sure that they were going to get their share before the fish were gone.


Eventually Canada decided to arbitrarily (and probably illegally) declare sovereignty over the Grand Banks to protect the remaining stocks, and as part of the enforcement Canadian fisheries vessels one day chased a Portuguese trawler off the Banks and grappled for the illegal net that the Portuguese crew had cut loose. Fisheries Minister Tobin hung the net on a wharf in New York and showed the world that the remaining cod were so small that the net had to be lined with a finer (and illegal) net if the Portuguese were to catch anything.

The Collapse of the Northern Cod Stocks has been used as a textbook example of Garret Hardin's theory of the Tragedy of the Commons.  Hardin's thesis was that an un-regulated common resource will be destroyed by agents acting to maximise their own gain without concern for the costs imposed on others. (Wikipedia  has a nice article on this.) The classic example involves a common pasture that can carry 10 cows, each owned by a peasant family. Should one family decide to put a second cow on the pasture all eleven cows will do less well, but the family with two cows still gets a greater benefit than if they stayed with one cow: instead of getting 1/10th (10%) of the benefit, they get 2/11ths (18%) of the reduced benefit.  So, human nature being what it is, all families will then put a second or even third cow on the common pasture and the pasture will be ruined for all. Too many fleets fished the northern cod without thought for conservation, and so it collapsed.


Are our Crown lands any different from the northern cod stocks?

The Government of the Province of Nova Scotia purchased 550,000 acres of woodland from Resolute Forest Products (the owners of the Bowater-Mersey paper mill). Those lands belong to all of the citizens of Nova Scotia. Those lands, along with the other Crown lands, are a common resource which could benefit all of us and the generations to come. Those lands belong to my grandchildren. And yet somehow a group of local forestry companies and multi-national corporations have secured permission from the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil to mine the lands - to cut off all the trees except the few they are forced to leave, to trample anything they can't sell, to allow the forest floor to be baked sterile by the sun, and to allow the remaining nutrients to be washed into the lakes and rivers by the fall rains - and they get to keep the benefits for themselves. My grandsons will get no benefit from those lands in the future because the Westfor Management Group has arrogated those benefits for themselves in the present.

If the lands were being harvested sustainably we might have less concern. But from what I can see WestFor's management of the Bowater lands consist of spreading the clearcuts around so that they attract the least amount of attention and bad publicity.  I have heard no evidence of selective cutting, or taking only what is ready, or actually managing the harvest on my grandsons' lands. They are being mined - the commons is being exploited for the benefit of a few companies. What makes them so special? I know the answer: they own the bureaucrats in the Department of Lands and Forestry, which means that they also own the Minister of Lands and Forestry, who appears to be an ambitious but weak man: the perfect puppet for the bureaucratic operators.

And WestFor Management Inc knows that one can win any argument in Nova Scotia by shouting "Jobs! Jobs! But what about the jobs?!"

So our commons will be destroyed for personal gain. It was ever thus: the rich get richer and the rest get left out. But do you suppose that this time we might be able to stop the looting before all of the peoples' forests are gone?

Subsequent work on Commons demonstrated that, in fact, in the real world, many commons are co-operatively managed for the benefit of all. The biggest threat to a commons is the activities of free-riders - people who can only see personal and immediate benefit, and who do not concern themselves about the long-term viability of the commons. They are acting to maximise their own gain without concern for the costs imposed on others.

Right now, in the middle of a global pandemic we are all being asked to make sacrifices for the common good. What sacrifices are the owners of WestFor Management Inc making? Depositing their loot electronically rather than in person lest they risk a teller's health?


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