Graham MacDonald holds up a package of dried bracken fern during his discussion on non-timber forest products as part of the Speaker's Corner series at St. John Gualbert Church in Port McNeill last Thursday.

Graham MacDonald holds up a package of dried bracken fern during his discussion on non-timber forest products as part of the Speaker's Corner series at St. John Gualbert Church in Port McNeill last Thursday.

Forest contains more value than trees

PORT McNEILL-Speaker's Corner guest shares market potential of non-timber forest products.

PORT McNEILL—North Vancouver Island’s forests contain millions of dollars in harvestable value — and that doesn’t even include the trees for which the region is known.

That was the message of Graham MacDonald to an audience of 20 people Mar. 20 in the monthly Speaker’s Corner series at St. John Gualbert Church.

He should know. From salal to sea asparagus to berries and mushrooms, MacDonald, a longtime North Island mechanic, has years of experience harvesting, processing and selling non-timber products.

Those items can be turned into a viable economic benefit to North Islanders, he said, but only through the combined efforts of local communities, the forestry industry and a political will to make it happen.

“These resources, they have to belong to the communities,” said MacDonald. “The TFL (tree-farming license) is the problem, because the logging companies won’t let you in.”

The bush boasts an array of potentially marketable products, with uses ranging from gourmet food, preserves, juice and tea to home decor to medicine and more. MacDonald believes a market in biodegradable packaging could also come from the area’s flora.

This is no theoretical pipe dream for MacDonald. Starting with processing of bracken fern in his own basement — “My wife developed a horrendous hatred for the smell of it” — he produced and sold 2,700 pounds of the material in three years.

But the he found out the fern was was being treated by herbicides by forestry companies. And that was only the first of the hurdles he encountered in trying to harvest on tree-farming land.

“Then it started to get complicated; now we had a problem,” he said. “For me, the politics got started. It became very disheartening … I started creating conflict between me and the forestry people, which took a lot of the fun out of it for me.”

The products are out there, he said. But a cooperative effort will be needed to turn them into an economic driver for the North Island. Dawn Moorhead of the Grassroots Garden Society agreed, noting grants are available for local food security issues — including money for a processing facility that could allow an export business on the North Island.

But, she said, political will is needed to apply for and secure the grants which could lead to such a facility. And MacDonald agrees.

“We have these new rules about food, and it’s a killer. You can’t get off the floor anymore,” MacDonald said. “You’ve got the provincial level, you’ve got your federal level. And it you want to export your product, which you need to do to create dollars, you have to meet the standards of two levels of food safety. It’s a lot of money.”

MacDonald called for the North Island to embrace agroforestry, which involves manipulating wild flora to enhance a market harvest. As examples, he cited pruning of wild berry bushes to increase yield, or boosting mushroom production by drilling holes in fallen logs and manually spreading spores.

“Private (forestry) companies in the States, they have their own bush house, and they have their own people picking,” said MacDonald. “They do it themselves and they make more money per acre with non-timber forest products than they ever did logging it. But up here, we ignore that.”

The next Speaker’s Corner is scheduled for Apr. 24 and will feature Colleen McCormick, speaking on tourism issues and possibilities for the North Island.