A couple of weeks or so ago, a knowing and quiet smile of anticipation formed on the lips of this member of North Island’s environmental movement. Try to follow me here, through a somewhat complicated chain of corporate ownership responsible for logging the North Island. Cascadia is the company which Brascan set up to operate the coastal public or Crown timberlands for it after Brascan bought Weyerhaeuser last year. The deal came after word had been out for a long time that Weyerhaeuser would much rather be running just its privately-owned timberlands. Weyerhaeuser's desire to do that intensified when the government announced a couple of years back that it would be taking back 20 percent of the big logging companies' Crown holdings. And it probably is no coincidence that logging private lands affords less public scrutiny, especially through the sustainable logging certification program. Well, that calculation by Weyerhaeuser apparently went double for Brascan, which sold Cascadia to get the heck out of Crown-land logging on the coast about as fast as it could. I've had a front row seat to this and more as a member of the Campbell River area's North Island Woodlands Advisory Group: public volunteer representatives tasked with helping to frame good practices for whichever corporation has been logging our region. First, we consulted with MacMillan Bloedel, then Weyerhaeuser and most recently with Brascan via Cascadian and another Brascan offshoot, Island Timberlands. Particularly in recent times, I can attest, the job has been made arduous by increasingly paltry information and foot-dragging from Weyerhaeuser and its successor firms. And you have to wonder why. A stamp of approval from our body, after all, allows the forest company to expand its markets and make money by selling approved-sustainable lumber to customers all over North America and beyond. Memo to the new owners: Let's turn this thing around in a positive direction. 'Dragging a horse to drink' Our North Island Woodlands Advisory Group is just one of four woodlands advisory groups set up to help, first, MacMillan Bloedel and then WeyCo get through the process of having fibre from Defined Forest Areas marked and tracked through the sawmill process to the end customer as having been produced in a sustainable manner. That keeps the environmental groups happy and aids in sales through large chain stores such as Home Depot, etc. But after WeyCo split into Cascadia and Island Timberlands, it took months before a representative of Island Timberlands showed up at one of our meetings to discuss whether Island Timberlands even wants to continue with the sustainability-certification program on the private woodlands. From the very beginning, members of our advisory group have struggled to ensure proper attention is paid to safety, environmental and long-term-sustainable-yield issues, all of which have led to some long and complicated discussions and debate at the table. All too often it's been like dragging a horse to drink. As an active, participating member, I've been to more than 50 North Island Woodlands Advisory Group meetings and remain actively involved. And yet I, and many fellow members of our group, just don't feel we have any kind of a handle on whether the Defined Forest Area -- which currently still includes both private and Crown land -- under the WeyCo/Cascadia/Island Timberlands umbrella is being logged sustainably. A foggy picture That goes back a long way now. The North Island Woodlands Advisory Group was set up by MacMillan Bloedel. The goals was to help the company obtain sustainability certification from the International Standard organization and the Canadian Standards Association. The North Island Woodlands Advisory Group set the guidelines which helped carve the path for the rest of BC and we've strived ever since against company reluctance to improve the process. In the summer of 1999, I became the environment representative. At that time, all the initial standards, indicators, objectives and guidelines -- including the Defined Forest Area -- were already in place. Some improvements have been made but, after all those years of struggle, I don't think any of the public representatives on the North Island Woodlands Advisory Group would claim to have anywhere near enough pieces of information to be able to say exactly or for sure what the sustainability jigsaw picture really looks like. That's in part because we (I and my ever-changing group of public representatives) have seen spotty and inadequate representation around the table; have fought in vain for the establishment of meaningful safety-program and process-satisfaction indicators; and have been profoundly frustrated by a steady and serious decline not only in the company's employment levels but also the information it gives the table. Nor do we get enough input from hourly "front-line" personnel and the burgeoning contractor sector, which now handles the vast majority of the division's operations. The paucity of the information, more often than not, makes the process feel like wading through waist-deep mud. One of the main issues has been that sustainability involves things being done in a sustainable manner for the future, but direct employment by the company has plummeted from some 350 hourly personnel to fewer than 150 over the past three to four years. And the union - which continues to struggle with a list of close to 20 formal grievances - largely withdrew from the NIWAG table, saying it felt neither it nor the group as a whole were making anything near to sufficient progress in ensuring the company was operating sustainably. Safety concerns If sustainability includes safety on the job, our group doesn't yet have a handle on it. For example, the company switched to on-highway haulage, putting large quantities of heavily-laden trucks on the public's North Island Highway; it dived headlong into progressively contracting out virtually all of the woodlands work; and it led the charge in the industry in introducing extended workdays for truck-loggers, running up to as many as 16 hours a day and demanding a set number of deliveries to the dryland sort per day. Allegations started to filter through that, perhaps as a way of reducing its logging personnel, safety problems were being used as a means of disciplining and even cutting employees, by diverting attention mostly to personal failures and away from systematic flaws. Personnel were reportedly taking their own bandages and other first-aid materials to work to help them get through the working day without reporting a minor but treatable injury, so they could get home and, if necessary, report in sick the following day. That way, the incident didn't show up on a medical-injury report, which could bring disciplinary charges or action against the company. Lip service In another case, two summers ago, a senior divisional manager refused to shut down a tinder-dry logging operation that was close to extreme-hazard areas and was taken severely to task by NIWAG members returning to the table in the fall. In a final response, he told them that they should go back to their bookwork and should leave the day-to-day running of the operations to him. In the final analysis, the company has assuredly driven home the message that woodlands advisory groups like ours are really just regarded as a pain in the butt but a very useful international marketing and sales strategy, with little to no sting, and just an inconvenience that is necessary to keep environmental groups off the companies' backs. So it came as no surprise to various people involved with WeyCo/Cascadia and their Crown-timber holdings, that Cascadia and its 3.6 million cubic metres of annual Crown-timber cutting rights are being sold to Western Forest Products, in a three-cornered transaction worth an estimated $265 million. That means WeyCo/Brascan will be out of BC's coastal Crown lands where their operations would continue to be under public scrutiny, in part by groups like our North Island Woodlands Advisory Group. And as a bonus, the debt-laden Western Forest Products will get a chance to refinance its debt through the deal. But will Western Forest Products work seriously to achieve an authentic sustainability stamp of approval? Not if they stick with the script Cascadia/Island Timberland has been reading to our group. Woolly assurances When she finally turned up at one of our meetings, Island Timberland's sole sustainability contact -- who is split between four separate woodlands advisory groups along the southern B.C. coast at present -- made it clear that the company had made no decision on whether to continue with sustainability-certification for the private lands after the expiry of the current three-year certification period next spring. In this neck of the woods, only the woolliest of assurances has been given that those lands -- particularly in the Iron River watershed -- are being harvested in accordance with long-term-sustainable-yield principles, unless calculated on a very, very long-term basis. Accusations keep arising that they aren't and that the company might shut down those areas then await their regeneration. The same concerns also apply to Crown lands. Some people suggest that Island Timberlands has done its level best to take out as much fibre as possible within the rules and guidelines, and has sold to Western Forest Products at firewood-sale prices to help keep it from sliding back into bankruptcy. It's a great escape clause for WeyCo/Brascan/Cascadia. That deal is expected to finally close sometime next spring after going through all the necessary approvals. Of course, all of this is after Weyhaeuser found itself sitting pretty straddling the border in the Canada-U.S. softwood timber fiasco, nailing hard into the union to the benefit of the owners south of the border. Hanging in One bright spot: A senior manager for the government-run umbrella program B.C. Timber Sales recently voiced to our group a commitment to forest and harvest sustainability certification for timber harvested on public lands. He expressed the desire to make use of the advisory group's extensive record and experience in that area. It has been a long and increasingly bumpy road for the North Island Woodlands Advisory Group. It has not worked well to the advantage of the environmental movement, nor even been able to ensure socio-economic sustainability. And for me, it has highlighted the serious fallibility of the process. But maybe we'll see some real, substantial improvements in that next year - that's why people keep hanging in. Just a small footnote: ironically, plans are now afoot from within Campbell River to nominate the community for Forest Capital of B.C. for 2006, under the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals' decades-old awards program. Quentin Dodd is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. He lives in Campbell River.