The Administration of Timberlands in Canada


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Bernardo Strozzi, Sleeping Child, after 1607

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: “Administration of Timberlands in Canada,” a chapter from Bernhard E. Fernow’s A Brief History of Forestry in Europe, the United States, and Other Countries, published in 1911.

In the development of ownership conditions, the realization of the valuable assets in timber growth had not been overlooked by the home government, care of supplies for naval construction giving, as in the United States, the first incentive to a conservative forest policy.

Even under the early French rule, the grants of land were made under reservation of the oak timber fit for naval use, as is evidenced from a landgrant made in 1683. This reservation led to considerable friction as it hampered the colonists in making their clearings on the best lands. Later, the reservation was extended to include other timber needed for military purposes, and when the British occupation began, these established rights of the crown were not only continued, but reservations of larger areas for the timber were ordered, notably around and north of Lake Champlain. In 1763, and again in 1775, the home government ordered reservations to be set aside in every township. 

But the great timberwealth seemed so inexhaustible that the governors paid little attention to the wise instructions of the home government for the creation of reservations, and whatever regulations regarding the cutting of timber were made, failed to be strictly enforced. In 1789, the policy of reserving to the crown all the timber as far as not granted, and giving licenses to cut, was inaugurated; but not until 1826 was even the revenue feature strongly enough realized to attempt systematically to secure the benefit of it, namely by allowing anyone to cut timber “such as was not required for the navy” who would pay a fixed rate for what was cut; a surveyor-general of woods and forests being appointed to collect the timber dues with the aid of qualified “cullers” (1811). There was even an attempt made to prevent waste by doubling the rate of timber dues on all trees cut which would not square more than 8 inches; this restriction probably remained a dead letter for lack of supervision.

Lumbermen, however, found it cheaper to buy the land, making only part payment, and after cutting the best timber, forfeiting the land; contractors who had the monopoly for cutting the timber for the royal navy cut also for their own account; corruption and graft pervaded the administration, which enriched its followers with the revenues obtained from the timber licenses and otherwise. The strong hand which, in the absence of a strong government, lumbermen were driven to use in order to protect themselves from piracy by their neighbors, or else to perpetrate such, brought about many bloody conflicts. The general maladministration of the so-called “Family Compact” besides other grievances, caused the revolution of 1837, which, although readily put down, led to the union of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, and to reform of the abuses. It was then, that, after the new governor-general, Lord Durham’s admirable report on the situation, the home government turned over the administration (in part at least) and revenues of the crownlands to the several provincial governments. At that time in New Brunswick, where a thriving export trade had been early established the dues on $2 million worth of production were involved, and in Quebec and Ontario the income amounted to between $200,000 and $300,000.

But even then, the immediate revenue, and not any concern for its continuation animated the administration of the public or crown forests. The free-hand sales for nominal sums were changed into licenses to cut, and in order to secure larger returns these were by and by put up at auction for competitive bids, the premium or “bonus” being paid for the limits, (i.e., a limited territory on which the holder or licensee had the exclusive right to cut), in addition to the fixed dues or charges per unit for the timber actually cut. Later, to discourage the holding of timber limits for a rise of prices, an annual cut of first 1,000, then 500 feet per square mile of holdings was required. To still further accelerate the use of the licenses to cut, the Crown Timber Act of 1849 limited the license to one year, and provided for an eventual limit in size of the grants. All these provisions forced to more rapid cutting and overproduction, and depression in the lumber market was the result, the supply in 1847 being 44 million feet to meet an export of 19 million.

New rules were promulgated in 1851, introducing a ground rent system, a set price being paid per square mile of limit, and doubling the ground rent for unused limits each year. Needless to say, the impracticability of this geometric progression in ground rents became visible in a few years.

The final present systems in the disposal of timber limits, varying in detail, were gradually perfected in varying manner by the several provincial governments, but they agree in general principles, in that they grant limits for a certain time, some by the year, others by periods, usually 21 years, during which certain conditions as to establishment of mills and amount of manufacture without waste must be fulfilled, and a ground rent, a bonus, and timber dues for all timber cut are to be paid by the limit holder, details and prices varying and being changed from time to time. A diameter limit below which trees are not to be cut also mostly prevails. Lately, sales by the thousand feet B. M. have been inaugurated in Ontario, and sale by the mile is to be abandoned.

As a rule licenses become negotiable and can be transferred upon paying a small fee per square mile.

The governments reserving absolute rights to change conditions of this contract at any time, the interest of the licensee is to cut as fast as he can; other unsatisfactory conditions leading in the same direction.

A Department of Crown Lands in the Dominion government and in each province (in Nova Scotia the Attorney-General acting as head) administers the lands. Scalers or cullers attend to the measuring of the cut. The revenue derived by this system by all the provinces amounts now to round 4.5 million dollars per year, Ontario leading with about 20,000 square miles now under license, (mostly pine), producing in 1910, $1,835,000; the yearly average for the decade ending 1910 was 134 million dollars, and some 41 million dollars have altogether accrued since 1867; Quebec, with over 70,000 square miles under license, (mostly in spruce,) producing only about $700,000, nearly 30 million dollars having accrued during the 43 years, or at the rate of $418 per square mile, two-thirds of which from dues.

Since land for settlement is, as in the United States, obtainable by homestead and other entries, a good many fraudulent applications under guise of settlement have curtailed the revenue, until now closer scrutiny of the fitness of land for settlement is made.

The retention of the lands by the government is naturally a feature which would permit and should have earlier induced conservative forestry methods, but the immediate revenue interest has had and still has a more potent influence than considerations of the future.

Development of Forest Policy.

The impetus to introduce conservative features seems to have largely come through the influence of the forestry movement in the United States, and, although voices of prominent Canadians, like that of James and William Little, and Sir Henry Joly de Lotbinière had been heard before in advocacy of a more far-seeing policy, the meeting of the American Forestry Congress at Montreal in 1882 may be set as the date of the inception of this movement in Canada.

The definite result of that meeting was the inauguration of forest fire legislation in the various provinces. In the Province of Ontario, the Fire Act of 1878, which had until then remained a dead letter, was improved, in 1885, by inaugurating a fire ranger system, in which limit holders pay one-half the cost of the rangers. The force of fire fighters, 37 in the first year was gradually increased until, in 1910, nearly 1000 were employed at a cost of $300,000. In that year a change was made, the whole service including inspection being charged against the limit holder. In New Brunswick, a fire law was passed in 1885, followed, in 1897, by the introduction of the Ontario ranger system. In 1883, Nova Scotia passed a forest fire law, which, like that of New Brunswick, remained ineffective for lack of machinery; this was not provided until 1904, and since then has worked most satisfactorily. Recently a forest survey of this Province was made. Quebec also enacted fire legislation in 1883, but did not provide means to carry it into effect until 1889. Since at first only $5,000 annually was allowed for its execution, and by 1901-2 not more than $7,226 was expended for fire protection over an area of 40 million acres, its effectiveness may be doubted. But in 1905, a special Forest-Protection Branch, with a Superintendent and a ranger system after the Ontario pattern was organized, and the service has become more effective.

The need for more organized effort and advice led to the establishment of special bureaus of forestry. In Ontario, a Clerk of Forestry was established in the Department of Agriculture in 1883, and, in 1895, he was replaced by a Clerk in the Crown Lands Department, later named Director of Forestry (Mr. Thomas Southworth). This office, later, was changed to a Bureau of Forestry and Colonization, and a technically educated man was appointed as Provincial Forester, with a view of developing a forest management, at least in the Reserves. This movement, however, soon collapsed for lack of appreciation; the office was transferred back to the Department of Agriculture, which does not control any timberlands, the Forester resigned, and the bureau was, finally, in 1907, restricted to the colonization work, the forestry part being deliberately abandoned.

Meanwhile the Province of Quebec pursued a more enlightened course. To control the cut, a Culler’s office was established in 1842, which, however, only checked the square timber, then the principal material. In 1873, after various futile attempts to secure better supervision, a corps of forest rangers was created; but as they worked without organization the results were only partial until, in 1889, they were placed under seven chiefs or superintendents. In 1897, the number of superintendents were reduced to one, but having to work with incompetent men, political appointees, this improvement in headship did not produce much result. In 1907, a re-organization took place by introducing two professional foresters educated at government’s expense at American colleges of forestry who upon their return were employed to supply the technical supervision of cutting on licensed lands, and otherwise to forward forestry reforms. In 1910, the logical sequence occurred by placing the entire forest service except the protection against fire under one of these technical men as chief, with the other one as his assistant, and a corps of three civil engineers, 40 forest rangers and six scalers, besides 20 student assistants—the first organized provincial forest service in Canada, administered under the Superintendent of Woods and Forests in the Department of Crownlands.

In 1898, the Dominion government had also recognized the need of more technical administration by instituting a Forestry Branch in the Department of the Interior under a superintendent with a view of developing improved methods. At first manned without technical advisers, who were, indeed, not in existence, gradually the professional element was introduced, and the scope of the Branch enlarged, the irrigation interests of the country being added. Under the able guidance of the present director—whose task under the political conditions surrounding it is not an easy one—this department may in a few years also become fully organized with technical men, of whom there are now seventeen employed, besides student assistants.

These various government agencies and other propaganda produced at least the important result of committing the governments to see the propriety of setting aside permanent forest reserves.

The first movement in this direction was made in 1893, and in 1895, the first Dominion reservations were made by Executive Order through the Minister of the Interior. These, to be sure, were located in the thinly timbered parts of the province of Manitoba, the Turtle Mountains and Riding Mountain, mainly for the protection of water supply.

Several other similar reserves were set aside by the Minister, but to give more stability to these reservations, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1906, declaring their permanence and placing them, 3,380,000 acres, under the administration of the Superintendent of Forestry. There are so far, some 26 Dominion Forest Reserves created, or in the act of creation, comprising an area of over 25,000 square miles. The Forestry Branch is making a brave beginning to survey and manage these reserves under forestry principles.

Of the provinces, Ontario was the first to recognize the principle of reservations in 1893, when a partially cut over, partially licensed territory of over one million acres was set aside as the Algonquin National Park in the Nipissing District, but the first definite establishment of a forest reserve policy dates from the Forest Reserve Act, passed in 1898, which authorizes the Executive, as in the United States, to withdraw lands for reserves. Some eight reserves and two parks have so far been established, and the reserved area amounts to around 20,000 square miles.

Of management on forestry lines on these reserves there is so far little to be heard, except an effort to keep fires out.

Quebec has followed this example of Ontario, first by setting aside the Laurentides Park in the Saguenay region, (1,634,000 acres), which, like Algonquin Park, was more in the nature of a game preserve. During 1906-7, however, under a law authorizing the Lieutenant Governor to set aside forest reserves, over 100 million acres were placed in reserve. Apparently, however, no administration of this preserve in the forestry sense is as yet attempted.

British Columbia, which until lately was only concerned in disposing of the well timbered crownlands, after having disposed of the best parts, has placed under reservation the balance, and a forest commission of inquiry has been constituted to devise further measures in the interest of forestry. Its report, appearing in 1911, gives a very clear statement of conditions in the province and the promise of active organization of a better service.

Of other attempts to foster forestry interests may be mentioned a law in Quebec, passed in 1882, providing a bonus of $12 per acre for tree planting, which seems to have remained without effect; another, providing for a diameter limit of 12 inches on the stump for pine and 9 inches for other kinds (these dimensions are now varied) inaugurated in 1888, may have preserved some young growth on the limits, although, since pulpwood is now the main product, and supervision has been inefficient, not much may be expected from such laws. Indeed, the chief of the forest service reports that 60% of the regeneration is of the inferior balsam fir.

In Ontario, a very competent Commission was created in 1897, with a noted lumberman, Mr. Bertram as president, to formulate methods of reform; but the able report remained barren of results.

The Dominion has been active in encouraging tree-planting in the prairies. The Agricultural Experiment Station at Ottawa not only set out object lessons by planting some 20 acres of sample plots, but for a number of years distributed plant material to settlers. This work was later taken over by the Forestry Branch and increased to a larger scale, some 85 acres being in nursery, and the distribution having grown to 15,000,000 seedlings in 1910.

Ontario, under the direction of its Department of Agriculture and in co-operation with the Agricultural College at Guelph, has lately embarked in two movements of amelioration, namely, establishing a State nursery from which plant material at cost, with advice as to its use, is given to farmers, and purchasing and reforesting waste lands in the agricultural section.

Tariff legislation is another means which is in the hands of the Dominion government to be used for encouraging forest conservancy. It has, however, so far not been used directly for such purpose, fiscal and commercial policies being uppermost. But the provinces have in this respect helped themselves by encouraging manufacture rather than export of raw materials, Ontario leading in this matter by prohibiting export of unmanufactured logs from Crownlands in 1898. Other provinces impose an export duty on pulpwood cut on crownlands, as does also Ontario.

At present writing, a reciprocity agreement with the United States is under contemplation, which would admit wood products from Canada free of duty—an arrangement which whatever its commercial advantages bodes no good for a conservative forest policy.

Meanwhile private limit holders, here and there, had begun to see the need of conservative methods, and by 1908, at least two large Paper and Pulp concerns had placed foresters in charge of their logging operations.

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