More Than The Trees Are Worth? Intangibles, Decision-Making, and the Meares Island Logging Conflict

Oxford Insights invites its staff to blog on topics they are passionate about. This week, André Petheram writes about how governments treat value, and what that says about their values. 

The loggers for MacMillan Bloedel boast that the company has already spent nearly three million dollars to “protect their rights to Meares,” and will spend whatever it takes to win, even if it costs more than the trees are worth.

The Indians (sic) and environmentalists have spent an estimate of $100,000 to save Meares. Donations from concerned citizens continue to pour in.

They are equally determined to win.’

Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Meares Island News, Summer 1985

Photograph by André Petheram. All rights reserved. 

Photograph by André Petheram. All rights reserved. 

For MacMillan Bloedel, a Canadian forestry company, three million dollars, but this was paying over the odds. For the Tla’o’qui’aht and Ahousaht First Nations and environmentalists, just one hundred thousand dollars, but making up the shortfall with determination. How much are the trees really worth?

For my part, I paid about $30 to see Meares Island in British Columbia (BC), Canada, for the water taxi from the small town of Tofino. The boat races through Clayoquot Sound until a tiny jetty emerges from the unbreaking wall of western red cedars. Ducking under branches, the transition from sea to deep rainforest is immediate. Soon you see the biggest trees, up to 1,500 years old, crooked, huge and humbling. The island has never been logged, and it must be one of the most remarkable places on earth.

Paying $30 was certainly worth it for the visit, but I started wondering what was the most I’d pay. $50? $100? And from the perspective of those who blockaded Meares in the 1980s, when the forestry company MacMillan Bloedel held logging permits for the island, how much would they have accepted to see the trees chopped down? In any reasonable guess, there would have been no possible price.

These seem like crude, even cold, questions, but they can still be useful. The theory goes like this: for individuals and policy-makers, resources are limited, and this forces us to make trade-offs. Our expenditure in terms of time, money or calories will reveal what we love as well as what we need.

We do not always need to reflect on these trade-offs in a rational manner, and my own belief is that MacMillan-Bloedel should have been nowhere near Meares Island. Arguably, however, policy choices about how to manage natural resources should be made as rigorously as possible, balancing sectors such as conservation, forestry and tourism. Given that money is our most common way to measure time and effort, it is therefore most convenient to apply it to happiness and values. To do this, the preferred option tends to be ‘willingness-to-pay’ (WTP) or ‘willingness-to-accept’ (WTA) analysis of the sort imagined above. This captures a price for ‘intangible’ or ‘non-market’ values.

Curiously, it seems that WTP was not included in the analysis of the different logging options for Meares Island. As Jeremy Wilson writes in his account of the Meares Island conflict, ‘qualitative discussion of impacts on values such as recreation [were] juxtaposed against cost-benefit estimates’. The idea that you could include values within a cost-benefit analysis itself does not seem to have been considered.

Could this have made the Meares decision easier for the BC Environment and Land Use Committee, perhaps showing that the economic benefits of an unlogged island to local communities would vastly outweigh MacMillan Bloedel’s profits? I don’t think it would have been so simple: quantifying values in this way has social and psychological effects.

When asked to value things in WTP research, people often offer ‘protest zeros’. They rebel against the form of the question, effectively saying that some things simply cannot be described in economic terms. Of course, the likelihood of this response hugely increases when a place is a community’s ancestral homeland, as in the case of Meares Island.

This doesn’t just make valuation more difficult. It also raises the question of how governments and managers communicate with communities about issues - and places - involved in resource and development decisions. It is an issue of how to get people speaking the same language.

As I pointed out, the Meares Island process did include a ‘qualitative discussion’. However, the decision to log Meares was in fact made on the basis of a late, privately-submitted proposal from Macmillan Bloedel that prioritised ‘economic considerations’, as related by Jeremy Wilson. This not only disregarded the local consultation process, causing widespread anger, but apparently closed off the opportunity to count people’s values in the overall decision.

Indeed, by relying on measurement in dollar values, governments might be contributing to a moral framework which primes societies to value rationalisation above other crucial things: empathy, public duty and connection to place, for example.

As my colleague Emma Martinho-Truswell has reflected elsewhere, morality and emotion are crucial parts of the operations of government. By using non-economic methods of measuring impacts, asking people to reflect on their most deeply-held values without resorting to quantification, governments can enable a more empathetic style of governing more closely attuned to citizens’ needs. This is especially true if such methods are co-designed with communities. Of course, this works both ways: people are arguably more likely to trust their governments if, when decisions are made, they are allowed to express what they cherish in the way that is most natural to them.

How, then, might this have worked in the conflict over Meares Island? It would not have been a case of simply holding a wider consultation. The planning committee might have selected a representative group of locals and asked them to narrate their likely reactions to different logging plans. Then, the committee could have analysed the results to unearth the values expressed within, and chosen the action most commonly associated with ‘employment’ or ‘economic growth’ over ‘spirituality’ or ‘sustainability’, or the other way round.

Deciding the future of Meares Island on this basis would have made clear what the BC government itself valued most. This would have made it harder to defer the decision to what, in this case, was a relatively opaque cost-benefit analysis. Effectively, this would have provided communities with more direct input into the decision. Depending on its choice, the planning committee would have had a better sense of the risks to its legitimacy.  

In the end, the BC Court of Appeal ruled that the Tla’o’qui’aht and Ahousaht First Nations had a potentially valid land claim to Meares, and that logging should be delayed. Its red cedars remain, and the next fight is to have Meares Island officially recognized as a Tribal Park.

How much are the trees really worth? More than the timber, I’m certain. And we don’t need to count the dollars to know that.

André Petheram