Retirees on the rampage

By Briony Penn, January 2013

Pension-owned companies may be liquidating our forests, but some communities are fighting back.

John Woolley, a retired public school teacher, recently blockaded a logging road with family and fellow islanders on Cortes Island to protect the 2,700-acre forest from an unlikely adversary—his own pension funds. Woolley is the latest kind of Vancouver Island activist: a pensioner appalled at the way his pension is being invested in the liquidation of private forest lands on Vancouver Island by companies in the portfolio of BC Investment Management Corporation (bcIMC). Says Woolley, “We are killing our own local economy and we are doing it to ourselves.” 

Woolley is outraged that the company managing his pension—and those of half a million other British Columbians—has moved aggressively over the last ten years into “destruction of habitat and the devastation of our forests, which is not responsible investing.” bcIMC owns 25 percent of Island Timberlands, 50 percent of TimberWest (the other half is owned by the federal Public Sector Pension Investment Board), and is a major shareholder of a Brookfield Asset Management (BAM) company that owns another 51 percent of Island Timberlands and 49 percent of Western Forest Products. 

Says Woolley, “This means that virtually every retired teacher, university professor and public servant at all levels of government is unknowingly invested in unsustainable and destructive industrial logging practices that weaken the economy of Vancouver Island and nearby coastal regions.” 

In correspondence with Doug Pearce, CEO of bcIMC, which touts its “responsible investing” practices, Woolley offered a challenge to the company: “As an institutional investor with massive influence, will they apply direct engagement to shift their heavily invested logging companies (Island Timberlands, TimberWest and Western Forest Products) toward ecosystem-based forestry practices that will sustain future generations?”

Neither bcIMC or Island Timberlands returned calls to Focus, but David Vipond, Director of Collective Agreements with the BC Government Employees Union, who contribute to one of the five pension plans managed by bcIMC, had little to allay Woolley’s concerns. “We are not opposed to logging and if there is a problem with forest practices, then that is a public policy issue. The only company we have ever divested stock from was weapons and antipersonnel mine manufacturers because it was illegal. If people want to challenge the company’s practice, they can propose their own shareholder resolution at the company’s AGM.”

Woolley’s reaction is symptomatic of the widening and deepening range of voices in this new “war in the woods.” Zoe Miles, a young Cortes Islander who helped deliver a petition of 7000 names to BAM’s corporate offices in Toronto, says, “With the spotlight on us at the moment, we want to shine it on an issue that is affecting every rural community, not just Cortes Island—industrial forest liquidation by large corporations and the pension funds that invest in them—and the alternatives.”

Multi-billion dollar companies might not think a small island of 1000 people has much clout, but they might well be reconsidering in light of recent events. The Christmas blockade by islanders—both on land and by sea—that saw Island Timberlands back off temporarily, is now spotlighting ideas on sustainable economies that have been decades in the formation. Bruce Ellingsen, a fourth-generation islander who owns a local sawmill and is director for the Cortes Community Forest Co-op, advocates a type of forestry that sees logs, jobs and profits stay in the community rather than shipped off to mills and offices around the globe. “Cortes has a high proportion of people with knowledge and experience who are interested in a discussion of the future direction of rural economies. We have been meeting in our community hall for 20 years about how to manage our forests sustainably.”

The issue started in 1990 after a bitter battle between islanders and then-Macmillan Bloedel. The islanders stopped the logging and MacBlo agreed to stop clear-cutting and come up with a plan that was sustainable. It took MacBlo four years, but the amount and rate of harvesting were still too high for islanders. Ellingsen says, “This firmed up the community’s attitude about what our bottom line was.” In 1998, islanders established the Cortes Community Forest Committee with an ecosystem-based management plan.

Iconic forester Herb Hammond helped islanders prepare the plan that gave the community what it wanted—logs for their own sawmills, jobs for their own kids, a 200-year rotation with selective logging that maintains the major functions of a forest: watershed protection, conservation and social benefits. 

Making this type of forestry pay meant exploring diversified revenue streams through eco-certification, local log markets, developing tourism and recreation, and exploring carbon revenues, while saving money on avoiding flood controls and infrastructure. Unfortunately, MacBlo was taken over by Weyerhaeuser, which was bought by Brascan, which turned into BAM. And the rest is history. 

With the arrival of pension investment shareholders, the three major timber players converted themselves into asset liquidation and real estate companies. Ellingsen and other Cortes islanders approached Brascan about the community forest plans. “We were told ‘No,’—they didn’t want to join in an ecosystem-based management plan because the profit margin wouldn’t be large enough to be responsible to their shareholders, and that has been the story every since.”

Carrie Saxifrage, a Cortes landowner and journalist, targets the inequity of the current forest policy: “The province has given the forest companies big financial breaks from the very start, including extremely low property tax rates. In return, the forest corporations are exporting raw logs and converting forests to real estate to fulfil the short-term expectations of shareholders. It is the province’s duty to protect the long terms interests of BC’s citizens by regulating forests lands for these purposes, or, if corporations want to liquidate forests without regard for local value-added jobs or ecosystems, by taxing their land at the rate of other private property.” 

As Zoe Miles points out, this two-decade-long discussion has positioned the community well to comment on current gaps in forest policy: the regulations are inadequate; the model of “professional reliance,” where government relinquishes oversight and puts it in the hands of the companies, isn’t working; and the checks and balances of what companies claim as “ethical investment policies” aren’t there.

Anthony Britneff, an ex-provincial forester— and a pensioner—couldn’t agree more. The Private Forest Managed Land Council, which oversees the 2 million tax-exempt acres regulated under the Private Forest Managed Lands Act is “the fox guarding the coop.” The Private Forest Landowners Association is, according to Britneff, “perceived as a bullhorn for the huge corporations answerable only to holding companies and shareholders.” 

Down the Island Highway, Bruce Fraser, also retired from public service and now regional director for Shawnigan, is watching his pension’s impacts on private land logging in his own watershed. He estimates 70-80 percent of the forest cover has been removed—which, under provincial Crown land regulations that he oversaw as past-Chair of the Forest Practices Board, would be illegal and signal a red alert for flooding, erosion, ecological and visual impacts. He points out that the biggest legislative gap is that there is no mechanism to deal with the cumulative impacts of all these companies. Fraser asks, “Each cutblock might be regulated, albeit weakly, but who is watching over the ‘collective coop’? At Shawnigan, residents look up into a fragmented and devalued landscape, logging is continuing and there is not a thing that we can do about it, nor a mechanism to comment.”

Back on Cortes, Zoe Miles points out that Island Timberlands has proposed token concessions to its plans—like saving single trees over 250 years old, or moving a proposed road out of a riparian zone where it shouldn’t have been considered in the first place, and leaving small, contested areas for a period of one year. “Essentially, it is a bunch of smoke and mirrors and it still remains industrial forestry. They are really talking about liquidating the forest and selling it as real estate, as they are doing everywhere.” Island Timberlands says they won’t log the old growth over 250 years , but Miles claims this just diverts people from the real issue at hand: “We want a fundamental change in the way forests are managed—not just saving a token 250-year-old tree surrounded by a clearcut.”

Woolley, in correspondence with bcIMC’s Pearce, questions bcIMC’s claims as an ethical investor. Pearce claims that at 25 percent ownership, bcIMC is only a minority investor, and therefore has no say in day-to-day operations. Woolley argues that “does not excuse blindness to corporate responsibility.” But Pearce says Island Timberlands operations meet ethical investment standards under Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification, a certification that leading market campaigner and Cortes Islander Tzeporah Berman has plenty to say about. A recent report by ForestEthics, which she co-founded, describes SFI as a front for the paper and timber industries, from which it derives virtually all its funding. SFI does not perform rigorous audits or any chain-of-custody tracking, and there is a legal investigation regarding the legitimacy of this corporate “brand” by the US Federal Trade Commission and the IRS. Berman and Miles have launched a campaign aimed at the mills which buy SFI-certified raw logs and the retailers which sell the lumber: Home Depot, Lowe’s and ProBuild amongst others.

Cortesians are mounting an offensive on all fronts including building a war chest to buy parcels of land—if all else fails. A recent offer by the Strathcona Regional District to purchase just 70 acres from Island Timberlands was rebuffed however, on the grounds that the timber prices were valued too low and not at international prices. Given the history of logging conflicts in BC, sooner or later intransigent companies fall victim to market campaigns. It worked in the Great Bear Forest, and they now have a legislated ecosystem-based management model with carbon revenues. It’s fair to speculate that between market boycotts, angry pensioners, impacted politicians and young women raised on sophisticated talk of sustainability, islanders might have some success in pushing the provincial discussion ahead. If the Goliaths think they can get off lightly on this one, they had better think again.

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.