Vancouver Sun


Don Cayo

Forest renewal plan could yield big bucks for Haida

A Haida band on the Queen Charlotte Islands wants to restore its river banks, which were logged over in the 1950s, to what will become eternally protected old-growth forests in the fewest generations possible. And they think private companies will line up to pay them big bucks to do it.

How sweet a deal is that?

A great one, but also attainable, says John Disney, the economic development officer in Masset, who has been working for four years to get the band on the carbon-trading bandwagon.

In case you wonder if he has been smoking something to dream up a deal like this, note that several senior corporate executives, bureaucrats and environmental crusaders have studied his plan -- and they all seem to agree.

This is, as far as Disney knows, the first concrete proposal in Canada to treat forest renewal as a carbon-trading activity.

The principle of carbon-trading is simple. People -- or, more frequently, companies -- who do something that spews carbon dioxide into the air can mitigate the damage by doing something else to clean it up. Some see it as a mere variation of the old religious practice of buying indulgences -- paying the church to atone for sins -- that Martin Luther rebelled against. But it is being widely adopted worldwide. Some may buy into it simply because they see it as the right thing to do, and the incentive for others is that it is a cost-effective way to comply with increasing requirements for commercial activities to be carbon-neutral.

The Queen Charlottes are well positioned for this particular carbon-trading experiment for several reasons, Disney says.

First, the riverbank land that was cut over half a century ago is now protected watershed. That is key because, no matter how beneficial reforestation may be, no carbon credits are given for improving a forest that, sooner or later, will only be cut again.

Nature has also made the banks of the Yakoun and Mamin Rivers ideal candidates. Fifty years after being cut, they are still clad mainly with alders, which take root with incredible speed, then choke out seedlings of other species that could grow into big trees. The alder beds sop up some carbon dioxide, but not much compared with a full-fledged temperate rainforest.

Disney said that if conifers are planted to replace pockets of alder scrub, they will actually absorb less carbon for about five years. But after that, the equation changes fast, and the conifers will be ever-more beneficial.

That's especially true on the relatively warm and very wet Charlottes, where evergreens, once established, grow faster than anywhere in Canada.

"If we left this land alone with the alders choking out larger trees," Disney said, "it would take 250-300 years to get back to what we'd call old-growth. But trees grow so fast here that we believe we can shave 150 years off that."

The band has spent about $250,000 over four years on studies and administrative costs to demonstrate the project's feasibility. He estimates it will take another $4.5 million to get a 1,000-hectare pilot project under way, hopefully by spring if final Ministry of Forests permits come through in time.

He said Ecotrust Canada is willing to lend the money for the up-front costs, and Shell Canada -- an opponent of the Haida on offshore drilling issues, but an ally on this project -- is interested in being the first customer.

Carbon credits are a new commodity, and prices so far have been volatile, so it is hard to estimate just how much this could be worth. But it will be a lot.

Not long ago, Disney said, the price was up to $80 for one credit -- i.e. the removal of one tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere. Today, that price is down to just $15.

But Disney reckons his cost, with skilled forest-renewal crews following custom plans for each small block of land, will cost just $5-$5.50 a tonne.

With 1,800-2,400 carbon credits potentially available for each of the 15,000 hectares of land on the two rivers' banks, "Even if it goes down to $10, we can still make a lot of money."

The initial 1,000-hectare pilot project will employ about 35, and if the project expands to the 15,000 hectares available, the workforce will grow to about 100.

That's a huge number on a reserve with a population of just 750, yet none too many jobs for a place where about 70 per cent of working-age adults have no job.

Disney believes he can spin the project into even more work -- for example, using the profits to fund reforestation on other land that will be eventually re-cut. And the technique could be used in other places where trees grow fast up and down the B.C. coast.

Indeed, he said, the coast "can fund a whole economy with this."