1613 A forest with a mission

The Tree Farm: The Evolution of Canada’s First Community Forest
by Michelle Rhodes

Vancouver: Page Two Books, 2021
$35.00 / 9781989025680

Reviewed by David Brownstein


Michelle Rhodes’s The Tree Farm celebrates what was once an anomaly. Whereas local community-directed forest management used to be rare in British Columbia, with each passing day, this model increasingly looks to be the way of the future. Subtitled “The Evolution of Canada’s First Community Forest,” the book is a belated City-of-Mission Forestry-Department funded 60th anniversary project. In it, Rhodes loosely argues that local populations are better equipped than provincial or company technocrats, to make decisions on how to use and sustain forest resources for long-term benefit (pp. 9, 25). Over 10 chapters, Dr Rhodes, associate professor of Land Use and Environmental Change at the University of the Fraser Valley, constructs a classical regional geography of the combined Stave Valley and Stave River Delta, 70 km east of Vancouver. She synthesizes the many interesting qualities that make the Mission forest unique, some of which include: its physical geography, Indigenous history, colonial forest management regime, proximity to urban centres, and the shifting context of reconciliation. She concludes with a squint into the future. Overlapping thematic sections build the whole.

The original boundaries of TFL 26, Mission Municipal Forest, with the Fraser River below and Stave Lake above. Source: Don Reimer, Mission Municipal Forest

The book maintains a fairly tight focus on the presently-named Mission Municipal Forest (the Tree Farm). So, what is the Mission Municipal Forest? In response to 1930s and 1940s public perceptions of forest mismanagement, provincial Royal Commissions recommended a policy-regime that favoured large industrial corporate entities as guarantors of perpetual forest products. “Tree Farm Licences” or TFLs were created as area-based tenures awarded to companies, which in turn, were responsible for creating forest management plans producing a minimum quantity of timber each year (the Annual Allowable Cut, or AAC). Government retained ownership of the land and received a fee for the trees cut, “stumpage”, but privately-held integrated forest-products firms would log (and later, replant) the forest. The system assumed overlapping interests between company and community. In the early years of these TFLs, however, Mission was the lone non-corporate entity to operate such a licence (p. 128) — a situation that arose because of a confluence of local circumstances.

Prior to contact, Rhodes informs us, the Stave proper was not occupied or controlled by one particular First Nation, village or family network. The territory was shared, and at times contested by many nations. Families managed resources in distinct and often exclusive areas of the forest or shoreline (p. 69). Those with claims to the area today, the Matsqui, Kwantlen, and Leq’á:mel, did not control the nineteenth and early twentieth-century newcomer industrial activities that they hosted: primarily electricity-generation via dam-construction and logging. In the larger scheme of things, significant economic decisions also eluded local settlers. Mission’s modestly-sized sawmills could not compete with larger facilities elsewhere, and after the Second World War, Mission’s political leaders “foresaw a future where the fortunes of this [industrial] growth passed them by” (p. 23). By the 1950s locally owned mills would have problems getting enough timber to operate. The reason was that a range of homesteaders and logging outfits had harvested the majority of local fire-resilient mature timber, and the naturally regenerated second growth was a patchy mix of commercially less-desirable species. The Municipality had acquired about 3,000 acres of this transformed landscape during the 1920s and 1930s because of homesteaders’ failure to pay their taxes. What to do?

Logging on Mission Municipal Forest, 1971, showing spar tree, loading shovel, cat (caterpillar for yarding logs), and logging truck. Courtesy Mission Community Archives
Logging truck at Mission, before 1961. Mission Community Archives

For inspiration, Rhodes writes that Mission’s political leaders looked to the Swedish experience (pp. 26 and 123). As a first step, 1948 BC Municipal Act amendments allowed the tax-default lands to be assembled as the Mission Municipal Forest Reserve (p. 125). But there were also forested Crown lands within the municipality, and political leaders were keen for management rights over those as well. The result was Mission’s pursuit of a Tree Farm Licence, the eventual 1958 TFL 26.[1] This departure from the standard corporate structure required additional provincial changes to the Forest Act (p. 143). Yet Rhodes reminds us that Mission was actually the province’s second municipal forest — North Cowichan having been created from non-Crown fee-simple E&N Railway-belt municipal lands in 1946 (also tax defaults). However, Mission began working their reserve almost immediately, whereas North Cowichan did not begin forest operations until the early 1960s (p. 28).

Mission Municipal Forest’s nursery, May 1980. Mission Community Archives

Rhodes recounts the 1960s through 1980s, years in which local staff acquired the silvicultural expertise to transform cut-over forest into a landscape representative of future economic value. This involved calculated commercial logging to generate cash for planting seedlings, including Douglas fir and Yellow cedar, and extensive road building. Fire management, research and education were also prominent. During its first two decades, Rhodes observes that the TFL’s greatest advantage was the lack of stumpage obligations. Instead of a fee paid to the province for each tree cut, the TFL rights-holders paid a more modest royalty once a year, saving on average $50k per annum, funds that were reinvested in the tree farm (p. 169). In this sense, TFL 26’s experience foreshadowed contemporary tensions, as community-forest profit-direction remains an issue today. Some contemporary community forest managers are fearful that community profits are to be redirected to the province.[2] Mission’s royalty arrangement ended in 1979 when the Pearse Royal Commission noted that it represented an undocumented transfer of money from province to municipality. The timing of a new stumpage regime was a challenge, occurring just before a wood products market collapse, spiking unemployment and US trade battles (pp. 217-219).

The ceremonial planting of the millionth tree in Mission Municipal Forest, 1971, after 23 years of operations. Mission Community Archives

Other important early assumptions have also changed. Rhodes tells us that the tree farm began as a source of local economic stability, as intended by its creators, but how this was achieved has changed with time. The local seasonal workforce that once completed much of the manual labour in the forest is gone, as Mission residents are today less likely to work in the woods. And a preference for local companies in timber sales has been replaced by a regime in which more logs are now cut by fewer people operating powerful harvesting equipment, sometimes coming from as far away as Vancouver Island (pp. 159, 253). Despite these structural changes, local benefits continued to accrue as, for example, the TFL revenues paid for the entirety of a new 1994 Library and Archives building (p. 233).

Map of TFL 26, Mission Community Forest. Fraser River at bottom, Stave Lake at top. Courtesy City of Mission

Rhodes is at her strongest when exploring events from the 1990s to present. This includes especially the “Bridge Builders” section of Chapter 8, through Chapter 10’s “A Shared Territory.” In 1999, the Ministry of Forests renewed the TFL licence for another 25 years, without changes requested by the Kwantlen First Nation.[3] In the short term this brought Native-Newcomer relations to a new low, but out of these depths came the establishment of an adjacent First Nations Woodland Licence (FNWL), in 2011. These First Nations tenures resemble tree farm licences, in that they are renewable and require management plans and a certain level of harvesting. The symmetries encouraged communication and cooperation between neighbours as the Kwantlen hired staff to run their own woodlot on Blue Mountain (p. 259). Land swaps with the subsequent Kwantlen & Katzie FNWL cemented these activities. The Matsqui and the Leq’á:mel are also pursuing forest opportunities, though they have yet to acquire long-term licences.

Foresters touring the tree farm, late 1960s, including UBC forestry professor, Dr. J.H.G. Smith, fourth from left with no helmet. Photo courtesy Mission Community Archives, 0305-7
Author Michelle Rhodes of the Geography Department, University of the Fraser Valley

And ironically, combating shared problems also draws communities together. Rhodes colourfully portrays unruly, anti-social behaviour on the west side of Stave Lake, worsened by nearby urbanization, having brought uncontrolled camping, campfires, target shooting and off-road vehicle use that compounded damage to culturally sensitive sites and the natural environment. The area has become more family friendly courtesy of monthly Stave West Leadership team meetings, that bring together representatives from provincial, municipal and First Nations governments. The area has been named mekw’wa’t a’xwest ikw’elo’, a beautiful Halq’emeylem phrase meaning “everyone shares here” (p. 302).

Rhodes concludes by acknowledging the challenges that face future sharing of the Stave by diverse constituents. Climate change aside, in 2020, the AAC was increased to 60,000 cubic meters, a 33 percent increase over the previous five years. Simultaneously, Mission is growing, welcoming tens of thousands of new residents. These are people who, I would observe, like those presently protesting in North Cowichan,[4] will likely perceive the Stave valley and delta as ecologically fragile recreational lands, not as a space for commercial forestry (p. 294).

Looking west from Stave Lake to Sayres Lake, within TFL 26. Photo by Jason Brawn

In keeping with the volume’s anniversary origins, the profuse archival and contemporary photos, colour cartography and original botanical illustrations all impart the attractive qualities of a coffee-table book. However, the extensive research and oral-history testimony necessitates far more text than that category normally implies. The prose has been shaped for speedy reading by a lay audience, though the back of the book contains unnumbered endnotes, linked to significant passages by snippets of phrases. This imposes a bit more work on the technical reader, who must turn to the back and fish around in search of note associated with an interesting lead.

Aerial photo of an active logging setting in Mission Community Forest
Harvesting second-growth timber on TFL 26. Photo courtesy City of Mission

Rhodes’s welcome book adds to a literature on an understudied topic. BC community forests are worthy of deeper investigation, though unfortunately the author does not connect the Stave experience with similar efforts elsewhere. The interested reader might start on such a journey with other volumes, or by reading another of Rhodes’s related co-publications.[5] Today, municipalities do not operate under the TFL structure. Rather, there are now 60 Community Forestry Agreements under a new Crown tenure arrangement initiated in 1998. These extend beyond lumber production to now include non-timber forest products and recreation. Community Forest Agreements have been found to deliver local benefits better than industrial tenures, but at the same time, there is great variation among them.[6] Because reconciliation demands that decision-making power shift from the Ministry of Forest’s centralized control to dispersed First Nations, community forests are uniquely positioned to lead the charge in the co-management of resources.[7] Might this be Rhodes’s next project?

The Tree Farm: The Evolution of Canada’s First Community Forest is a welcome example of strong local scholarship that will be of interest to many residents of the rapidly-growing Fraser Valley. More broadly, it provides a useful and informative blueprint for those seeking alternative forest management models and strategies to navigate shifting relationships and economies.

Aerial photo of Mission Forest, looking south-west over Stave Lake


David Brownstein

David Brownstein, historical geographer, is the principal of Klahanie Research Ltd, which undertakes archival research and writing projects on behalf of First Nations, governments, museums, artists, and the private sector. David recently wrote a two-part history of logging protests in British Columbia for the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE): Part 1 and Part 2. Editor’s note: David Brownstein has also reviewed books by Greg Nolan, Nicholas Raeside, and William L. Lang & James V. Walker for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] For a copy of Mission Municipal Tree Farm Licence No. 26, see here.

[2] Jill Hayward. “B.C.‘s community forests are at the heart of sustaining rural regions: an inside look at community forestry in British Columbia.” North Thompson Star/Journal, Dec 31, 2021.

[3] For a copy of the Ministry of Forest’s TFL licence renewal of 1999, see here.

[4] See here for ACTIVE Conservation of North Cowichan Community Forest.

[5] For example, Lisa Ambus. 2016. “Community Forestry in British Columbia: From a Movement to an Institution” in Sara Teitelbaum (ed). Community forestry in Canada: lessons from policy and practice, UBC Press, Vancouver; see also Kirsten McIlveen and Michelle Rhodes in the same volume, “Community Forestry in an Age of Crisis: Structural Change, the Mountain Pine Beetle, and the Evolution of the Burns Lake Community Forest”. For the origins of the Mission Tree Farm itself, best to consult Kim Allan and Darrell Frank. 1994. “Community forests in British Columbia: Models that work” in The Forestry Chronicle, vol 70, no 6, pp 721-724.

[6] Jordan Benner, Ken Lertzman and Evelyn W Pinkerton. 2014. “Social contracts and community forestry: how can we design forest policies and tenure arrangements to generate local benefits?” in Canadian Journal of Forest Resources, vol 44, pp 903-913.

[7] Sean O’Donnell. 2018. “”First Nations First”: Understanding the Status of Aboriginal Involvement in British Columbia’s Community Forests.” Masters Thesis, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts Amherst. 658.

The City of Mission Forestry Department, July 2019. Back row, L-R: Pat Watson, Brett Saniger (both forestry operations), Rob O’Neal (retired director of forestry), Brad Laughlin (foreman), Chris Gruenwald (director of forestry, with crosscut saw). Front row, L-R: Kelly Cameron (forest technologist), Dave Heyes (retired manager of forest business), George Kocsis (forestry operations), and administrative assistants Michelle Weisgerber and Erika Duplisse. Photo by Jason Brawn

2 comments on “1613 A forest with a mission

    1. Hi Gary, best thing would be to ask your local independent bookstore to order it. Failing that, contact the publisher by email: hello@pagetwo.com and ask them to mail you a copy or to suggest bookstores in your vicinity. I hope this helps! Thanks for reading the BC Review, Richard Mackie

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