What is BC's forestry legacy?

Myths abound on old growth and forestry's economic contributions to BC. Explore how the province found a balance in this fact check from Josiah Haynes.

In British Columbia, forestry is not just an industry; it's a way of life, deeply interwoven with our communities and environment. But misconceptions and misinformation often overshadow this crucial aspect of our province. Logging and forest product manufacturing support British Columbians' quality of life, and debates about the future of the sector require a clear and factual look at forestry management.

Science is at the core of BC's forestry approach, ensuring a balanced and effective management system. BC's heritage includes world-class forestry science, which guides our policies and makes us a global leader in conservation and biodiversity stewardship. Ignoring this well-crafted system risks compromising a heritage built on fact and expertise.

The protection of old growth forests has been a significant concern for many. Almost everyday, articles show up on social media feeds raising the alarm that BC is at risk of deforestation or that the province is quickly running out of its oldest forests. But how do we define old growth, and how much is actually out there?

According to the BC government, old growth is defined as trees of 250 years or older on the coast or in wet climates or 140 years and older in the more dry interior. It may surprise some people to learn that many old growth forests are not necessarily full of ancient, remarkably tall trees that would take half a school bus full of kids to wrap their arms around. Younger trees grow into old growth status every year. So when hearing about old growth logging, British Columbians should ask themselves if workers are harvesting truly ancient and unique trees like those found in Cathedral Grove, or simply fairly old, thick trees found all over the province.

Of course, all old forests have special biodiversity value, even if many aren't as picturesque or rare as some might think at first. Even if there is also significant economic value to harvesting mature forests, it's still worth conserving old forests. Fortunately, millions of hectares of old growth forests in BC are already being cared for. These vast reserves are protected not just in quantity but quality, emphasizing the most biodiverse and unique areas.

According to the BC government, "There are about 11.1 million hectares of old growth forest in BC which make up about 20% of BC’s publicly managed forest areas. Most of the old growth in BC - 10 million hectares – is protected or not economical to harvest."

That's a statistic worth recalling when hearing doomsday prophesies about old growth in BC: 20% of BC's publicly managed forests are old growth, and (if 10 million hectares out of 11.1 are already protected or not economical to harvest) 90% of old growth in BC at no risk of being harvested.

Environmental conservation is championed by BC's forest industry. By balancing economic and environmental values, forestry actively mitigates climate change, protects BC's unique natural heritage and provides thousands of jobs. That's a commitment that stands against attempts to belittle these very real achievements.

Despite its balanced approach, it's not uncommon to hear some voices online call for a shutdown of part or all of the forest industry. In fact, some say the sector is a drain on BC's economy. And if that was truly the case, it would make sense to place a higher priority on conservation than economic activity. But the truth is, forestry is the lifeline for many of BC's rural communities and small cities, especially in the interior. Not only that, but it also underpins other sectors and plays a role in cities far removed from logging, like Surrey.

Let's go back to the government data. Not only is forestry the main employer in much of the province, it directly employs almost 50,000 people. That's a workforce half the size of all of White Rock, or as big as Parksville and Tsawwassen combined. Forestry also directly supports over 6,700 businesses. That's a lot of people, and it makes you wonder how many more experience an indirect run-off economic lift from them. After all, how much does your household spend on businesses in your community? Multiply that by 50,000, and you begin to see how one sector not only provides for those it directly employs but also for how those who work in forestry support those in other sectors around them.

Forestry is also important in terms of trade. In 2020, the forest sector was responsible for $11.5 billion of BC’s total exports, according to the government. Forest products represent 29% of BC’s commodity exports, making it one of the largest industries in the province.

Forestry in BC is also a cash cow for the government, helping to pay for the ballooning costs of healthcare and other important services. Let's hear it from the mouth of the government itself:

"In fiscal year 2020/21, the BC government reported that $1.3 billion in government revenue was attributable to the forest sector, primarily from timber sales. Forest sector companies and their employees also pay income tax and commodity taxes, generating more revenue on top of the $1.3 billion. This revenue funds infrastructure and government services that British Columbians depend on."

British Columbians value our environment, and we also value our communities and workers. That's why policy discussions about forestry must be rational, collaborative, and factual. Too often, alarmist views have dominated the conversation and shifted the dialogue away from balance. It's time for us to come together as a province, involving all stakeholders, including First Nations, and replace misleading narratives with the proven facts that have guided BC's forestry to success and can continue to do so in an era increasingly defined by environmental stewardship.

The truth about forestry in British Columbia is a nuanced and complex story, one that merits a balanced view free from extremes. By embracing the science-led approach that has served us so well, and by acknowledging the many positive aspects of our forestry industry, we can continue to support a future that benefits all of BC's residents. This is the path to truly sustainable forestry, and one that we would be wise to follow.

Josiah Haynes is the content director at the Vancouver-based Resource Works Society, an educational and advocacy group championing the public interest in responsible natural resource development. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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