Historical and Current Use


This learning module introduces you to the broad historical context within which the current use and management of “Non-timber forest products” or NTFPs has developed.

Although often perceived as a ‘new’ industry, human use of what we now describe as non-timber forest products or NTFPs was likely the first use of forest resources by humans. For example, for First Nations people, NTFPs were essential resources for survival, sources of trading goods, and important contributions to the rich and vibrant culture of these societies.

The commercial development of NTFPs is comparatively recent, but has a longer history than is generally recognized. The dynamic nature of commercial trade in these products is driven by demand, which in turn is dependent on established needs, trends, fashions, and new discoveries. With a renewed interest in ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ products, we can expect to see NTFPs in the marketplace for many years to come.

Today, non-timber forest resources play an important role in the economic activities of many communities, First Nations and non-First Nations alike. To ensure the sustained use of these resources, we must learn how to combine traditional management practices with new management knowledge.

In this module, you can learn more about:

  1. First Nations Historical Use and Management of NTFPs
  2. Current First Nations Use and Management of NTFPs
  3. Early Commercial Development of NTFPs
  4. Current Commercial Use of NTFPs


Historically, First Nations culture and survival depended on the use and management of non-timber forest products. First Nations peoples utilized non-timber forest products for a wide range of purposes including: food, clothing, tools, vessels and medicine. Click on the image to view a larger version.






      Birch Basket Red Elderberries
Drying Berries
BC Archives
Bark Gatherer
BC Archives
Digging Stick
Birch Basket
Red Elderberry
W. Cocksedge

In the past, trade in non-timber forest products between different First Nations groups was widespread. Elders in First Nations communities passed on important information on uses and management of non-timber forest products. In many communities, the interdependent link between the natural resource and cultural survival contributed to respectful management strategies for non-timber forest resources.

Historical Traditional Uses

Many First Nations diets depended on edible berry bushes and shrubs that surrounded communities (1). To uncover root vegetables, a digging stick made from the strong wood of the hawthorn was used (2). The Birch tree is a prime example of the potential multitude of uses to which one species of non-timber forest product can be put. The Birch tree provided a food source (birch syrup) and the bark for basket making (3).

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

Historical Traditional Management

In the past, First Nations actively managed a broad range of non-timber forest resources with the goal of long-term sustainability of the resources they depended on for survival. Examples abound of communal and individual ownership of these resources, and of their careful management aimed at enhancing or maintaining supplies. Important non-timber resources growing on the territory of a particular group were considered to belong to that group; others from outside the group seeking to use these resources were obliged to ask permission prior to harvesta.

On the coast, silverweed, camas, and clover were just a few of the resources often produced from plots considered to be individually owned. Plots were cleared of branches, large stones, and competing vegetation - often through controlled burning - and selective harvesting was employed to ensure good future harvestsb.

The traditional view of a mutual interdependence with nature encouraged respectful harvesting and management (4), respect for the natural world (5), and the First Nations’ connection (6) to the land. Historically, First Nations usage and management were irrevocably linked: sustainably managed resources ensured the continued use of the resource.

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

 Turner, Nancy. Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia.
b Turner, Nancy. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples.


The spread of European settlement and development created a new pattern of land ownership and use across British Columbia. These changes severely impacted the cyclical, managed use of non-timber forest resources by First Nations. First Nations integrated elements of the new economy into their traditional lifestyle by adopting some non-native foods and goods, and certain non-native livelihood strategies. At the same time, First Nations endeavored to maintain the seasonal hunting, gathering and traditional activities that supplied them with foods and materials. The collection of non-timber forest products in this context became more difficult as land was overtaken for forestry or development and as First Nations members sought employment in the new economy. Many communities that depended heavily on non-timber forest products were forced to pursue alternative livelihood strategies.

Currently, a number of First Nations are attempting to revitalize and re-establish the traditional utilization, management practices, and harvesting of non-timber forest products. First Nations Elders are educating their communities on the essential importance of re-connecting to the land base with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). First Nations are also revisiting this heritage in the search for new strategies for community development and revitalized traditions.

Current Use of Non-Timber Forest Products

Currently, some First Nations are marketing non-timber forest products based on traditional uses. The goal of these activities is to encourage economic growth within the community through the development of non-timber forest products based businesses (7). Raw materials for these businesses are normally harvested from traditional territories. A wide variety of non-timber forest products are used for a broad range of purposes, including food products, arts and crafts, and personal care products. These products are packaged and produced to meet the needs of the current consumer market (8).

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

Current Management and Community Development Possibilities

Many First Nations communities perceive current non-native resource management practices as contrary to traditionally held values. For example, there is enormous concern that many valuable non-timber forest resources are being damaged and destroyed through unsustainable forest management practices (9). Many First Nations peoples believe that an adaptation of traditional management methods (10) would be more sustainable. In some communities, revitalization of traditional management methods and cultural uses of these resources provide opportunities for Elders to educate the community about traditional resource use and cultural teachings (11). For First Nations, non-timber forest products continue to be an important part of community. Opportunities for economic and cultural revitalization exist in the enhancement and development of non-timber forest products.

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.We look at the practices of the past to develop an economic base for our future. By practicing sound ecological principles of sustainable harvest, we enhance our economic and social values through age-old cultural and spiritual values.
(Siska Traditions Product List)


Although the history of the non-timber forest products industry in British Columbia is not well known, we do know that potential commercial opportunities in these resources began to be recognized in the first part of the twentieth century. One of the first commercially developed resources was the bark of the cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) tree. “Extract of cascara sagrada” from cascara bark has been recognized as a tonic laxative and prescribed by doctors since about 1877.

Heavily exploited in Washington and Oregon at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, cascara resources south of the border were in decline by about 1915. American drug companies soon turned their attention to cascara resources in BC. By the mid-1940s, demand for the bark had reached such a level that cascara plantations were under serious consideration. In 1942, the British Columbia Government wrote what is likely the first set of recommendations for proper harvesting techniquesc for a non-timber forest product in the province. The Cascara Bark Regulation was created in 1958 to control the activities of harvesters and buyers and ensure the long-term conservation of cascara trees.

By the 1950s, in addition to cascara, markets — albeit much smaller than for cascara — existed for traditional medicinal herbs such as pipsissewa, Oregon grape root, wild ginger, and others.

The development of synthetic laxatives significantly reduced demand for cascara bark starting in the 1960s, although there is evidence that the demand for natural products has sparked a renewed interest in cascara in more recent years.

As the cascara harvest was reaching its peak, other commercial markets developed for non-timber forest products. These markets — for floral greens and wild mushrooms — soon surpassed medicinal herb markets to generate the most revenue and dominate the non-timber forest products industry in British Columbia.

  Stripping Cascara Bark

Cascara Bottles
BC Archives I-51825

Stripping Cascara Bark
BC Archives I-51827

Floral Greens

The market for native floral greenery began to develop in earnest during the 1930s. Western swordfern (Polystichum munitum) and evergreen huckleberry were the products most in demand during the first phase of industry development. In the 1950s, salal was making an appearance as a ‘florists green’, likely due to its durable, long-lasting nature. By 1972, BC exports of salal had captured one-third of the total worldwide salal market (12).

As salal grew in importance, the demand for swordfern began a long, slow decline caused in part by an inability to compete with cheaper ferns harvested in Florida, Mexico, and Guatemala (13).

Although swordfern is still harvested for the market, demand for the product is a mere fraction of what it once was, and the demand for salal has exploded into an industry worth tens of millions of dollars. The history of the development of the floral greens industry illustrates the highly dynamic nature of the non-timber forest products industry as a whole.

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

12   13  
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  Ferns & Salal
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Although a relative latecomer, the wild mushroom industry in BC is now number one or two in terms of value for the various sectors of the non-timber forest products industry. In the last half of the twentieth century people like industry pioneer Betty Shore came to recognize that a strong demand for wild-harvested mushrooms existed (14).

In British Columbia the demand came from several international markets; pioneers in the industry worked to develop this profitable commercial market (15). One of the earliest big commercial mushroom harvests in the province took place in 1978 at the site of the Canal Flats fire (16).

As the commercial business grew, the mushroom industry evolved from localized community involvement to the involvement of increasing numbers of transient harvesters (17).

The future of a sustainable mushroom industry will depend on a variety of factors not the least of which is the task of balancing the needs and wishes of communities with the demands of existing and new markets.

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

14   15   16   17  
  Developing a Commercial Market
[Video Transcript]
  Early Int’l Interest
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  Canal Flats Harvest
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  Community Involvement
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c For further information see Davidson, John. The Cascara Tree in British Columbia, Bulletin No. A108, Ministry of Agriculture, Victoria, BC, 1942.


Although slow in coming, recent years have seen more recognition by resource managers and policy makers of the importance of non-timber forest products to local and regional economies. The commercial development of non-timber forest products in BC has evolved from relatively small-scale activities to large-scale potential. Industry growth in response to market demands has led to an increase in harvesting and increased pressure on some non-timber forest resources. At the same time, advocates for sustainable communities see the potential in non-timber forest resources for the development of community-based, socially, ecologically, and environmentally sustainable businesses.

Current Floral Greenery Industry

A multitude of products can be harvested as floral greenery, but the market in BC and the US Pacific Northwest is currently dominated by one product: Salal (Gaultheria shallon). Perceived by some as a forest weed that competes for sunlight and nutrients with tree seedlings, the Salal harvest on the BC coast has an estimated value of up to 50 million dollars per year. Floral greenery businesses process these resources (18) to meet market demands (19). Although the demand for floral greenery remains strong, there is increasing concern about access and sustainable harvesting issues (20).

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

18   19   20  
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Current Mushroom Industry

Access and sustainable harvesting issues are also recurring themes in the wild mushroom industry. Communities, individuals and businesses that depend on harvesting, selling and buying mushrooms to generate income are concerned about continued access to standing forests. Some industry participants are actively working to raise awareness of the importance of these non-timber forest resources by encouraging resource managers and policy makers to include designated areas for mushroom harvesting in their management plansd (21).

Click on the bracketed number above or the image below to view the corresponding video.

  Blackwater Management Plan
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Some in the industry believe that education programs and government policies will contribute to the long-term viability of the industry. Others are opposed to government involvement of any kind. As with many of the other sectors in the non-timber forest products industry, fluctuating markets, resource access issues, and sustainability concerns are features of the wild mushroom industry.

d For further information see Olivotto Timber Forest Modeling Consultants. Timber Harvesting Plan for the Blackwater Pine Mushroom Management Area, British Columbia, Ministry of Forests, Squamish Forest District, Squamish, BC, 1994