Public Policy and the Success and Failure of New Technology:the Case of Tree Harvesting Systems on the Miramichi in New Brunswick, Canada

Article excerpt

CONSTITUTING A GENUINE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION in the woods, the technologies and work processes of woods work in Eastern North America underwent a dramatic (and largely unstudied) transformation in the period between 1960 and the late 1980s. Motivating that development was the effort of the owners and managers of mills and their contractors to increase wood production, to decrease the costs, and to do both with fewer and fewer workers (MacDonald and Clow 1999). Horses and muscles have been replaced by the noise and fumes of fellers, delimbers, slashers and skidders. A truly bewildering array of machines together with new tree-harvesting systems resulted, appearing in rapid succession in the forests (Drushka and Konttinen 1997; Silversides n.d.).

The research on which we are reporting has been conducted on the Crown Land of the Miramichi Valley, in northeastern New Brunswick. We have conducted fifty in-depth, unstructured interviews during the summers of 1991- 93 with workers, contractors, company officials and forest engineers - some of whom provided us with company documents - connected with tree harvesting for Repap Pulp and Paper and its predecessor companies on the Miramichi. These interviews were transcribed and analysed with the aid of Ethnograph, a programme which permits the systematic analysis of qualitative data. Some more recent data are also presented.

That work has presented a research puzzle. At the end of three decades of industrial development one would anticipate the successive replacement of numerous, diverse and less productive systems with a few, relatively homogeneous, highly productive ones. But when examining the woods on the Miramichi, one finds something unexpected: the latest, most productive and advanced tree-harvesting systems have not uniformly pushed out earlier, less productive systems (Clow and MacDonald 2001). Some older and less efficient systems remain in use decades after the introduction of the newer, more efficient systems devised to replace them. The explanation of this phenomenon requires more than the simple notion of developmental time lag, that the old systems are simply being run into the ground to recover their capital costs. This is especially the case for the older harvesting systems, given that one of their definitive features is relatively low capital investment. This paper will attempt to provide an explanation for their persistence, for this 'unfulfilled industrialisation'.

The problem we perceive is certainly acknowledged by participants in the industry. They suggest that considerations of 'terrain', 'distance' and 'volume' militate against the utilisation of a few standard harvesting systems, thereby providing the rationale for the presence of a variety of systems - diverse in their technological development, heterogeneous in their productivity - as the optimum mix given the conditions of the Miramichi. But their answer itself needs to be explained. These factors, which appear to grant salience to the natural conditions of the area in the determination of the mix of harvesting systems, can only be understood by looking at the political and social conditions within which forestry operates in New Brunswick. And these conditions, we argue, are mediated by the fact of public ownership of the bulk of the land and the corresponding forest-management regime established by the Crown Lands and Forests Act (clfa) of the Province of New Brunswick. While the economic goal of the industrial revolution in the woods was clear and unambiguous, the success and failure of the technologies developed during the industrialisation of tree harvesting are subject to more complex and contingent social and political determination.

Statement of the problem

We turn to place (the Miramichi), to time (1991, at the close of industrialisation), and to the harvesting systems in use. Repap, the large integrated paper and lumber company in the region, acquired its wood fibre from the sources identified in Table 1. …