Marketing of Forest Floor Has Consequences

Fred Sampson heads out in his truck from his home on the Siska reserve, near Lytton, to the Coquihalla high country, where he's going to collect some huckleberries. Sampson, now chief of the Siska First Nation, remembers making this journey when he was a small child. His family went to Merritt by truck, where they met his grandparents, and they completed the last leg of the trip by horse and buggy along a dirt road, years before the Coquihalla Highway existed. It was two weeks of family time: the men hunted deer, which was smoked and dried in the camp, while Sampson picked the tasty huckleberries by hand with his aunts, uncles, and older brother, putting them into cedar-root baskets.

However, when Sampson returned to the site of his traditional camp last July, he saw a large van parked by the side of the road and a dozen people in the bushes. Commercial huckleberry pickers were using rakes to scoop the berries off the bushes and into plastic buckets.

"We got there and there were no berries," Sampson says. "They cleaned the area out. They use rakes that take the leaves off the plant while it's still in photosynthesis. When I saw this, at first, I felt anger, then just plain sadness. It's really upsetting to go to areas and see they've been raped like that."

More and more people in British Columbia are realizing there's more to the forest than just the trees: many wild plants have commercial value. The harvest of pine, morel, and chanterelle mushrooms has already proved to be a big business, and now increasing numbers of people are looking to capitalize on the harvest of berries, salal, ferns, moss, and countless other species. The market for herbal medicines from the forest floor is also growing: St. Johnswort, cascara bark, Oregon grape, and devil's club are all collected in B.C. forests and sold to herbal medicine companies.

According to a study this year by the Forest Practices Board, the harvest of forest plants and mushrooms, called non-timber forest products (NTFPs), brings in an estimated $280 million dollars each year in B.C. and employs more than 32,000 people on a seasonal or full-time basis. Wendy Cocksedge, a researcher at Royal Roads University's Centre for Non-Timber Resources, says that many of the harvesters are immigrants who came from Vietnam, Korea, and other Asian countries, where some of them worked harvesting rubber and cork. The NTFP industry provides a chance for communities traditionally dependent on logging to diversify their economy. However, because the harvest of plants from Crown land is unregulated, the growth of the industry is raising questions about its impact on the forests and on the First Nations people who depend on them.

BETTY SHORE COULD be called the grandmother of the commercial NTFP industry in B.C. and at 70 years old, she's seen a lot of changes in the business. She originally started picking boxwood when she was a Brownie leader raising money for her troop in 1954 and she was the first person in Canada to export mushrooms to Japan in 1979. For 22 years, based in Britannia Beach, she made 100 percent of her income from the forest.

On a chilly, autumn day, Shore turns her truck off the Sea to Sky Highway onto the Callaghan Forest Service Road, just south of Whistler. Her truck climbs up the mountain, following a rocky logging road the width of a footpath. A large balsam tree catches her eye and she stops the truck, gets out, and jumps across a small stream running along the roadside. Her knee is hurting this morning, so Shore hands the clipper to her assistant, Pete, who cuts some silvery boughs off the tree. Shore tears off a few handfuls of boxwood, a shrubby plant with tiny leaves that is sold to the floral industry for use in bouquets.

"I've picked wild herbs, mushrooms, floral greens, anything that's salable," she says.

Shore retired six years ago, but she still sells wreaths to a few florists. Today she's out to collect cedar, balsam and pine boughs; later she'll use a wreath-making machine to wrap the boughs around a wire frame to create classic-looking Christmas wreaths. Shore also teaches workshops near Victoria at Royal Roads University's Centre for Non-Timber Resources on sustainable ways to harvest forest products.

"It doesn't hurt the tree if you harvest it properly," she says. "It's like pruning a tree in your yard. We're taking three pieces off the bottom of this balsam. You shouldn't clip more than two thirds of the way up a tree and you should leave the top branches."

Shore points to the vast mountain valley behind her, covered with cedar and balsam trees. "Loggers consider balsam a junk tree. It's everywhere in the forest. There's no way we could begin to pick it all."

However, harvesters are starting to notice that plants once considered impossible to overpick are becoming harder to find. Salal is one of the most common plants on the forest floor of coastal B.C. and it's picked commercially as a floral green. There's little threat such an abundant species would be wiped out; however, people who make a living harvesting on Vancouver Island are finding that near the end of the season there's not enough commercial-quality salal left to pick. No one knows the impact the removal of NTFPs is having on animals and other plants in the forest, as there's been very little research done.

Shore says that in the days when only locals were harvesting from the forest, most people had a sense of stewardship and took care of the land. But with transient pickers moving from place to place, she's seen problems with overharvesting and with people leaving garbage behind. Other veteran harvesters complain that the transients are tearing up ancient moss beds on the forest floor with rakes while looking for mushrooms.

Last May, the Forest Practices Board, a public watchdog body for the forestry industry, put out a report--Integrating Non-Timber Forest Products Into Forest Planning and Practices in British Columbia--advising the provincial government to get more involved with the management of NTFPs. The report says the current system gives harvesters and buyers no incentive to sustainably manage these resources or to consult with First Nations. The Forest Practices Board also says there could be great economic benefits if we manage the forests to promote the growth of certain NTFPs. For example, current rules require logging companies to replant trees densely, which inhibits the growth of salal and huckleberry. Communication is also a problem: if forest companies inform botanical harvesters where they're building new roads, they can come in and remove plants like deer and sword ferns, which would normally be destroyed.

"When you're in the pioneer phase, you don't need to regulate and it seems like there's endless supply," says Bruce Fraser, chair of the Forest Practices Board, in a phone interview from Victoria. "Eventually, you reach a point where there's not endless supply, and you have to organize tenure, rights, and taxation policies. It comes with a maturing industry. Right now, we're just at the beginning edge of that with non-timber forest products."

IN A COLD WAREHOUSE in South Burnaby, Kenny Crompton is standing in front of a pile of shiny green bunches of salal that reaches up to his elbows. Kirby Floral's storehouse is a veritable cache of products from the B.C.'s forest: there are boxes of huckleberry boughs, stacks of dagger ferns, and a giant pile of mountain boxwood, all which are used in flower bouquets. He has cedar, fir, and pine branches for Christmas arrangements, and clear plastic bags full of moss, used for potted plants and funeral wreaths.

His biggest seller from B.C. is salal, which he gets from buyers in Campbell River and Powell River. Crompton pays $2.50 per bunch and sells it for $4.50 to other wholesalers in B.C., Alberta, and Hong Kong: he sells about half a million dollars worth of the plant each year.

Crompton says he has heard tales of busloads of pickers going to a mountaintop and destroying everything in sight, and he says there are many unscrupulous people in the NTFP business. "I have people knock on my door every day trying to sell floral greens," he says. "Pickers show up here with a truck full of salal and they're offering it for a quarter of the normal price. I won't deal with them. I only deal with reputable people."

Crompton doesn't think government regulation would help the industry. "It's impossible to regulate. They've been talking about regulation for years and I haven't seen anything," he says. "Besides, I wouldn't want to see regulation because any time the government gets involved, it costs everybody more money. We have to compete internationally and it would kill our market."

With more and more harvesters heading to the woods, one woman in the Kootenays says she doesn't feel safe on the land any more. Laura McCoy is an elder of the Ktunaxa First Nation in Cranbrook, and, like Fred Sampson, she used to go with her family each year to the mountains and pick huckleberries. The area has become very popular with pickers, who export huckleberries to the U.S., where they're used to make jams, shampoos, and salad dressings. A few years ago, McCoy spoke with a Native woman from across the border in Montana who had been threatened by non-Natives while she was berry-picking.

"I don't go picking any more," McCoy says. "If we have to be fighting to get berries, there's no reason to go out there. I feel that it's another thing that's been taken away from us."

She says the depletion of the berry crop also means that bears are going hungry and, inevitably, they head into town and cause problems. However, McCoy isn't sure if regulation will help: she would prefer if local people had more control over their resources instead of the government.

At this point, nobody is sure what a regulated system would be like. Would it operate like the lumber industry, where large companies get the rights to harvest a section of land in exchange for paying government fees? Would one company get the rights to mushrooms on a piece of land while another company gathered salal in the same area? And who would have the immense task of enforcing these rules by keeping watch of the vast forests of B.C.?

Chief Sampson was pondering these questions several years ago, when members of the Siska First Nation were living in a mountain camp, blockading a forest company from logging their watershed north of Boston Bar. "We were sitting around the fire at night talking about our inability to stop what was happening in our traditional territory," Sampson recalls. "We decided it was partially our own fault for not maintaining a presence on the land."

At the camp, they decided to create a business for harvesting and selling traditional plants from the forest. Today, harvesters ranging from eight years old up to 70 go into the woods to collect huckleberries for the commercial venture, called Siska Traditions. The elders teach traditional techniques: they only take 30 percent of the berries in order to leave some for the birds and bears and to nourish the plant itself. They also collect arnica flowers, wild mint, dandelion, yarrow, plantain, devil's club, wild ginger, juniper, and stinging nettle for use in teas, soaps, jams and jellies, and herbal medicines.

Today, Siska Traditions employs three full-time staff and up to a few dozen seasonal pickers at peak periods, while only two band members work in the lumber industry. This spring, Siska Traditions plans to launch its wild jellies, teas, and soaps on the Vancouver market. It will be another step in Fred Sampson's plan to make sure that when the government finally starts planning how to manage non-timber forest products First Nations will have a strong position at the table.