by Larry Smith
Ever since the pine forests of the Bahamas were logged during the first 60 or so years of the last century, their ultimate survival has been in jeopardy due to conflicts with agricultural and commercial development. But a new Forestry Act passed last year could change that.
This landmark legislation created a small Forestry Unit within the Ministry of the Environment that is charged with managing this important natural resource. And for the first time in many decades, a sawmill is operating again on Abaco.
The Forestry Unit has signed an agreement with a local company called Lindar Industries for the harvesting of pine trees on Abaco to make finished lumber, initially for the local market. Lindar is owned by Rob Roman, a Canadian engineer with a background in mining and forestry who is married to a Bahamian.
“Our pine trees are among the fastest growing in the world,” according to the new Forestry Director, Chris Russell. ”They can also produce a uniquely hard and attractive lumber that is highly resistant to termites. This lumber was used extensively for the construction of Bahamian homes in earlier years.”
Pine trees of various sizes will be systematically selected for harvesting as thinnings, Russell told me, with the retention of some trees as the future crop. "The better quality logs will be used for construction lumber and high-value timber products. Logs of lesser quality will be converted to charcoal, mulch and fence posts. Lindar Industries is partnering with the Ministry of the Environment to ensure responsible stewardship of the forest resource to support a sustainable lumber industry," he said.
For decades, conservationists have called for legislation to govern forest resources in order to ensure their long-term survival. Forests are important for the protection of groundwater resources, maintenance of the hydrological cycle, soil conservation, and biodiversity protection.
When regulations are implemented this year, the Forestry Act will create a new framework for the sustainable use of Bahamian forests. And the Forestry Unit will set fees and process applications for the harvesting of forest produce, as well as supervise the exploitation, transportation, milling and selling of forest produce by the government or the private sector.
The Forestry Unit will be required to prepare a national forest plan every five years, to detail the contribution of forests to the national economy, including timber and water production. Under the Act, the Environment Ministry may declare any Crown land to be a Forest Reserve, a Protected Forest or a Conservation Forest.
A Forest Reserve is to be managed as a permanent forest estate for the sustainable utilization of timber and non-timber forest produce. A Protected Forest is to be managed as a Forest Reserve until the land is required for other purposes. A Conservation Forest is to be managed strictly for the preservation of its unique natural resources and biological diversity.
Forest Reserves and Conservation Forests represent the highest level of protection, with only Parliament having the authority to alter their status. Forest Reserves and Protected Forests can be logged sustainably using best management practices. The land use of Protected Forests can be changed by ministerial order, subject to an environmental impact assessment.
The Forestry Unit will also establish nurseries to help maintain forests and forest crops. A small research centre is being set up at Adelaide for this purpose. Cutting of trees and roads in the various forest estates will be limited by regulation, and plans and funding for replanting or restocking an area must be in place before any timber is harvested. Penalties for breach of the Act’s regulations include fines of up to $25,000 and two years imprisonment.
The Director of Forestry will work with the Bahamas National Trust to implement the new Forestry Act. The BNT will administer a special annual budget to allow its park wardens to act as forest officers on Abaco, Andros, Grand Bahama and New Providence. The Forestry Unit is presently reviewing applications for the sustainable harvesting of pine timber in several forest areas, hoping to generate revenue from royalties, leases and license fees.
Since commercial logging ceased here in the late 1960s, thousands of acres of pine forest have been cleared for agriculture and other developments. In the 1980s, when the citrus industry was booming on Abaco, the government intended to put some 80,000 acres of forest lands under cultivation, which would have placed Abaco's remaining forests under serious threat. But the citrus farms were later bankrupted by disease.
The government's seminal 1977 land resources study put this conflict of interest into clearer context: "Although it is inevitable that the acreage of forest land will diminish because of agriculture...it is essential that such encroachment should be carefully controlled." In other words, the study said, destruction of valuable tree crops should only be considered where the benefits are clear and where alternatives have been examined and rejected. The new forestry law codifies this approach for the first time in our history.
According to Environment Minister Earl Deveaux, the biggest conflict Bahamians face is between development and trees. That is to say, how much coppice, pine forest and mangrove wetlands should be destroyed to build roads, houses, shops, hotels and marinas. The environmental cost of deforestation is a far more critical equation for the future of the Bahamas than the issue of how much land we use to grow corn. In other words, we should stop regarding our forests as mere wastelands.
Since the early settlers of the Bahamas virtually eradicated the most valuable hardwood trees (like Braziletto Mahogany and Cedar), our most productive forests have been the 500,000 acres of pineland on Abaco, Andros, Grand Bahama and New Providence.
The first license to log these pine forests was awarded to a Canadian named William Robert Bell in 1900. It allowed the cutting of trees with a diameter greater than seven inches (later reduced to six inches) on all vacant Crown land in south Abaco. The license fee was 100 pounds sterling per annum plus royalties of US37.5 cents per 1,000 board feet. There was also a fee of one cent per gallon of turpentine and 10 cents per barrel of rosin produced.
The Bahamas Timber Company was incorporated in 1906 and assigned rights to cut trees on Abaco, Grand Bahama and Andros. Exploitation was by hand, with the removal of logs mainly by light railway, traces of which still exist on Abaco and Grand Bahama. A sawmill for the first area worked on Abaco was built on the coast at Wilson City, not far from where the new BEC power plant stands today.
The loggers later moved to Grand Bahama, building a mill at Pine Ridge in 1944 (where future prime minister Hubert Ingraham was born). Large quantities of pit props were subsequently extracted for use in British coalfields. In 1956 the logging companies agreed to the conveyance of their lands to the newly formed Grand Bahama Port Authority (Freeport founder Wallace Groves had been previously involved in the timber industry).
Concessions were also granted to Sir Harry Cordeaux and Arthur Sands to cut the pine forest on New Providence in 1923, and a sawmill was built south of Gambier Village near Jack Pond. But this license was never profitable and was relinquished in 1930. The New Providence forests continued to suffer damage from charcoal burners and others removing timber for domestic purposes.
Although charcoal burners also operated on Andros for many years, logging did not begin there until 1947, when a sawmill was established at Stafford Creek. Both pulpwood and telephone poles were exported from Morgan's Bluff on Andros through the late 1960s. In fact, all the logging licensees turned to pulpwood operations from the mid 1950s, resulting in the clear felling of the forest regardless of trunk diameter. Pulpwood was exported from North Riding Point on Grand Bahama and Snake Cay on Abaco.
Revenue yields from these operations were minimal. It is estimated that the overall return per acre per annum for the Abaco operation from 1900 to 1967 was only $2.78. A minimum of five well-developed trees were left standing in each acre by the loggers to regrow the forest.
Although a draft forestry bill was prepared in the 1950s it was never introduced to parliament. In fact, the 1977 land resources study urged the government to enact forestry legislation "at the earliest appropriate date" to ensure protection, conservation and proper management and exploitation of forest resources.
Well, better late than never.