Sorting fact from fiction: BC forest conservation

British Columbia has suffered from division and radicalism fueled by misinformation. But when it comes to caring for our environment and respecting workers, sensationalism fails where facts succeed.

On May 20th, Resource Works released Forestry in BC: Setting the Record Straight. The following article is an excerpt from that report, which was first introduced here.

Is BC in a “forest management crisis”?

A number of environmental non-profit organizations like the Sierra Club, Stand Earth, and the David Suzuki Foundation are sounding the alarm that BC’s forests are facing a crisis demanding radical solutions.

“Premier Horgan’s government is likely the last one with a chance to save the last old-growth forests as a legacy for future generations,” the Sierra Club says.

Similarly, Stand Earth says: “BC used to have long intact stretches of these giant trees, but now the sad reality is they are incredibly fragmented – teetering on the brink of extinction.”

The David Suzuki Foundation, meanwhile, sympathized with blockaders and spoke of the “severity of the crisis and the ongoing regulatory delays while some of the last ancient forests are logged”, calling for an end to old-growth logging.

But are BC forests really facing a forest management crisis?

A recent global comparison (2020) of the state of British Columbia’s forests, conducted as a study by UBC researchers, concluded that “British Columbia ranks high among other jurisdictions [Australia, China, Japan, the European Union, New Zealand, the Russian Federation and the USA] on several key sustainable forest management parameters with legislation and forest management regimes aiming to meet the environmental, social and economic needs of current and future generations.”

  • Another study from 2016 found British Columbia “to be recognized as having very demanding legislation and enforcement related to elements of sustainable forest management, including requirements for wildlife habitat, water quality and public and First Nations involvement.”
  • Under the Forest Act, it is a legal requirement to reforest every hectare that is harvested on public lands. In addition, reforestation must use tree species that are native and ecologically suitable for the sites to be reforested, unlike most other countries, including New Zealand or the United States.
  • Most of British Columbia’s forests have been third-party certified for sustainable forest management with one or more of the certification programs by the Forest Stewardship Council, Canadian Standard Association or Sustainable Forestry Initiative. 
  • Just like doctors and lawyers, forests in British Columbia are managed by highly trained registered professionals that are legally accountable for their decisions, prepare plans and oversee all timber harvesting operations in British Columbia. 

The fact is, forest management in BC is not in crisis; far from it. Rather, there is a “crisis” of misinformation.

Do forests have an impact on climate?

It has been claimed that forests are our best ally in fighting the climate crisis and provide essential habitat to species at risk of extinction. This statement is true – forests are indeed one of the best tools to be used in fighting climate change.

The forest carbon cycle plays an integral role in combating climate change. Older forests store immense amounts of carbon. Younger, growing forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere at a fast rate. And when harvested, carbon in trees continues to be stored within the forest products that are made, especially for lumber and panel products used to construct long-lasting buildings. When harvested areas are reforested, they are soon brought back to absorbing carbon again. 

As a form of recognition of how British Columbia’s forests and forest management are capable of fighting the climate crisis, major carbon emitters are starting to look to British Columbia to invest millions of dollars into carbon credits to help offset their own unavoidable emissions.

Do forests provide essential habitat to species at risk of extinction?

Yes, they do. That’s why at least 15% of the province’s land base is in parks and protected areas and the province is continuously expanding this amount, with 16 new parks and two protected areas just added earlier this year. 

At the operational level, forest managers in British Columba employ numerous forest management strategies specific to the biology and habitat needs of various species at risk. Examples include timing of operations near nesting northern goshawks (in addition to substantive buffer reserves), forest reserves for marbled murrelets, reduction in timber harvesting for woodland caribou, and preservation of rare and endangered ecosystems, etc.

In addition to provincial legislation related to the management of wildlife and wildlife habitat, British Columbia follows relevant federal legislation; notably, British Columbia provides special consideration for species at risk under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and for fish and fish habitat under Canada’s Fisheries Act.

Is logging responsible for an ecological emergency?

It has been stated that coastal temperate rainforests face a state of ecological emergency due to accelerated high rates of logging and climate impacts from droughts and storms. This statement is a false claim. Coastal temperate rainforests are not in a state of ecological emergency. What’s important to understand is that:

  • Harvest rates on Crown or public forest lands in British Columbia are determined by the province’s chief forester. In establishing a maximum harvest rate (otherwise known as the allowable annual cut or “AAC”) for forest-management units across the province, the chief forester conducts extensive analysis. The chief forester considers environmental, social, and economic factors, gathers public input, as well as consulting with industry and First Nations in determining the appropriate AAC.
  • The coastal forests (on Crown land) generally are projected to have a relatively stable AAC over the next 100 years at a sustainable rate of ~15 million cubic metres.

BC’s coastal temperate rainforests are not in a state of continuous drought and nor are they experiencing widespread effects from storms.

Is old-growth forest in British Columbia on the brink of vanishing?

A recent report states that only 35,000 hectares of old-growth forests with very big old trees remain across BC; that in less than 100 years of logging, all but 3% of BC’s original big old-growth trees remain. It also stated that large old-growth trees have an essential evolutionary role as reservoirs of genetic diversity and maintain the adaptive potential of tree species, which will be essential as our forests adapt to climate change.

This claim comes from the BC’s Old Growth Forest, A Last Stand for Biodiversity report, published in April 2020 in order to influence the Old Growth Forest Strategic Review being conducted by BC at that time.

Expecting any forest to remain in a preserved state forever is false thinking. Forest ecosystems are not static but in constant flux. Landscape factors influence the shape and composition of stands constantly, with examples of such being natural wildfires, or insects such as hemlock looper or mountain pine beetles that can alter forest cover across extensive areas. 

The study should be regarded as just a start for growing the understanding of old-growth forests in British Columbia given the following points, and should not be used as a stand-alone basis for guiding future policy decisions on old-growth forest management:

  • As noted in the study, it did not use complete data from all Tree Farm Licences, which can vary across the landscape in terms of old-growth and productivity. Also not used in the study’s projections were the millions of protected hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest. 
  • The study used site-productivity and forest age class and assumes that higher productive sites (better growing conditions) with older forests are the only sites with large trees. However, there are many younger forests that have very large trees, some so large that the general public regards them as “old growth.” A great example is the forests along the north shore mountains of Metro Vancouver. While most likely not older than 250 years, these forests offer old growth-like characteristics with wide diameters and very tall heights. 
  • The claim that there are only 35,000 hectares remaining for large old-growth trees does not make sense. For instance, the Walbran Carmanah Provincial Park, well known for large old-growth trees, covers an area of 16,365 hectares. Furthermore, the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, where no industrial logging can take place and has intact old-growth forests, consists of a terrestrial land base of 148,489 hectares (core areas plus buffer zones). While these aforementioned areas likely do not entirely consist of stands of large trees, further investigation is warranted into the accounting of how much area really exists of large old-growth trees, as the study may be creating the impression that the amount of old-growth is less than there actually is.

Is it true that nothing has been done to protect old-growth forests?

For those basing their thinking about old-growth only on sources that are dogmatically opposed to scientific forest management in general, it’s important to be aware of policies, regulations and initiatives that contribute to fulfilling the objective of managing old-growth forests and specifically, protecting very large tree specimens. Here are some:

  • BC Timber Sales – Best Management Practices for Coastal Legacy Trees, effective June 1, 2019 – guides harvest area planning for timber sales to manage for retention of individual trees of a certain diameter. For western red cedar, retention will be required for trees with a diameter greater than 3-metres.
  • Special Tree Protection Regulation, Forest and Range Practices Act, effective September 11, 2020 – protects trees of a certain diameter and greater. Western red cedar greater than 3.85 metres in diameter will require a protection zone 56 metres in circumference. Failure to identify and protect such trees could result in a fine of up to $100,000.
  • There are even more restrictive management considerations associated with western red cedar and yellow cedar when identified as monumental trees within the traditional territories of some coastal First Nations:
    • The Haida Gwaii Land Use Order and Objectives specifically lists harvesting limitations and protection of cedar trees identified as “monumental trees” – trees greater than one metre in diameter and seven metres in height, that meet certain quality specifications. These protection measures apply to all Crown lands within the Haida Nation’s traditional territory on Haida Gwaii (which is in addition to cedar stewardship areas and extensive Protected Areas on Haida Gwaii).
    • The Nanawakolas Tribal Council has a protocol of a similar nature to the Haida for their territory, situated along the mid-coast areas, with regard to identification and management of monumental cedar trees. Recently Western Forest Products and Interfor committed to following this protocol when operating within the Nanawakolas traditional territory.

What is the actual amount of protected old-growth forest today?

If you believe some claims, you might think that we are on the brink of losing all the remaining old-growth forests in the province. And that parts of the province lack conservation-area plans, or for that matter, any effort to manage old-growth forests.

But on Vancouver Island alone, 860,000 hectares is considered old forest (>250 years old), of which 520,000 hectares or 62% is protected (as of 2017). This is a far cry from the recurrent claim that the share of old-growth is down to a single-digit percentage.

There is some truth to the claim that the southern coastal rainforests of BC would have less old-growth, given that over a century of accelerated urban development has permanently removed these areas from ever-growing forests again. 

Concerns about preserving intact old-growth forests are hardly new. Recognizing their growing scarcity, the NDP government of the 1990s took the initiative to protect the Nitinat, Walbran and Carmanah valleys as parks in the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. 

Coastal Douglas fir (CDF) ecosystems found along the southeast coast of Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland are some of the rarest in the world. In recognition of that, some 11,000 hectares have been protected with 1,125 hectares recently added by the NDP government in 2017.

The Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island is largely protected (as much as two-thirds) with the establishment of old-growth management areas and wildlife habitat areas. As of March 2021, the province of BC struck an agreement with the Squamish First Nation to protect 70 hectares of old-growth in Dakota Bowl on the Sunshine Coast. And then of course there is the Great Bear Rainforest, upon the creation of, was heralded as a crown jewel for the conservation of old-growth ecosystems.  

What might come as a surprise is the vast amount of old-growth forest that remains in British Columbia. At the provincial level, there are 13.2 million hectares of old-growth forests in the province – that’s four times the entire size of Vancouver Island and represents 14% of the entire land base of BC. Of that, 4.4 million hectares are protected (33%) in formally protected areas such as provincial and national parks, ecological reserves, wildlife habitat ranges, old-growth management areas and so on. No timber harvesting can occur in these areas.

Because of wildfires, are British Columbia’s forests now a net source of carbon emissions, rather than a carbon sink?

The claim being made is that BC has faced unprecedented wildfires over recent years due to drought, rising temperatures, loss of biodiversity, pest infestations, and mono-crop tree-planting practices, leading to BC’s forests no longer being a carbon sink but a massive carbon source, releasing 82 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually through wildfires and poor forest management, more than our “official” total provincial emissions of 62 million tonnes.

Wildfires in 2017 and 2018 were particularly widespread due to drier than normal conditions and indeed were unprecedented for area burned. Some of these wildfires in the Interior were in stands killed by mountain pine beetle, although many fires did occur in coastal forests as well. 

The increasing intensity of wildfires in British Columbia has largely been associated with climate change and a century of land-management decisions to fight natural forest fires within the Interior’s fire-oriented ecosystems, which has led to the build-up of organic materials that contributed to the intensity of individual fires. 

British Columbia is well known for its high-quality forest management. Practices are always evolving as understanding and respect of different forest values shift. Wildfire mitigation efforts are being conducted around communities. Also, utilizing traditional First Nations knowledge to conduct prescribed burns has been done to reduce biomass in stands and enhance wildlife habitat for certain species such as moose and culturally desirable plant species. 

The mountain pine beetle epidemic lasted for some 15 years and killed over 55% of the pine in the Interior. With that much dead forest, there are bound to be wildfires in these stands, although the fire hazard declines over time as the killed trees eventually drop their needles and finer branch material decomposes. Unfortunately, the risk of wildfire will always persist.  

The severe wildfires of 2017 and 2018 were not in any way a result of “loss of biodiversity.” This claim does not make sense. In 2017, the wildfires were largely concentrated to the Southern Interior and Coast, while the Northern Interior experienced abnormally wet conditions. In 2018, wildfires were largely in the Northern Interior and coast. 

While some wildfires in 2017 and 2018 did burn some regenerated harvested areas, the vast majority occurred in over-mature natural forests. The association of wildfires occurring because of mono-crop tree planting practices is absurd, as species composition has nothing to due to with dry climatic conditions. Reforestation of harvested areas typically uses tree species similar to what was harvested and what is appropriate for the ecosystems that were identified in pre-harvest fieldwork by forest professionals. Ingress of natural seedlings from adjacent forests also contributes to the diversity of every reforested area. Unlike the US South or other parts of the world, plantation forestry is not practiced in the province. 

Undoubtedly, wildfires do cause the release of carbon stored in plant material and soils. Wildfires in 2017 and 2018 burned at an unprecedented level of 1,200,000 hectares and 1,354,284 hectares respectively. While these were horrible back-to-back years for wildfires in British Columbia, we were not the only jurisdiction with wildfires. Russia, the US Pacific Northwest, and Australia also experienced increased wildfires. However, 2019 and 2020 for British Columbia were quite the opposite, with some 21,183 hectares and 15,000 hectares burned respectively in those years. 

In response to the threat of wildfires around communities, the province has been working to reduce biomass loading, including stand thinning in forests proximal to communities, although much more needs to be done.

It is incorrect to compare individual years when attempting to understand carbon sinks/sources. Obviously, for 2017 and 2018 carbon emissions were very high. Conversely, 2019 and 2020 were very well below the decade average of 347,104 hectares burned. Rapid salvage and reforestation help to mitigate the negative effects of carbon emissions and transition the land base back to becoming a sink for absorbing carbon. 

Do old-growth forests differ from other forests in mitigating climate change?

It has been stated that BC’s old-growth temperate rainforests are extremely rare on Earth and have a larger carbon-storage capacity than other types of forests, storing over 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare, while deforestation has released 120 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, reducing total forest cover from 50% to 30%, while every year deforestation and degradation contribute about 20% to our global greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, it is also claimed that “stopping old-growth logging is one of the most immediately effective ways of reducing GHG emissions”, and that intact old-growth forests are more resilient in mitigating wildfires and protecting communities from climate impacts.

It is true that old-growth temperate rainforests are relatively less abundant than other forest types found on Earth. It’s also true that they have the capacity to store large amounts of carbon (depending, though, on a number of variables as not all old-growth forests are the same).

Often overlooked is that forest products made from old-growth timber also continue to store carbon, while allowing younger stands of trees to be planted that rapidly sequester more carbon. 

The frontiers of knowledge are continually advancing in this area. According to a 2021 study: “The claim that old-growth forests play a significant role in climate mitigation, based upon the argument that even the oldest forests keep sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, is being refuted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen. The researchers document that this argument is based upon incorrectly analyzed data and that the climate-mitigation effect of old and unmanaged forests has been greatly overestimated.”

Carbon modelling is not an exact science, with ongoing research continuously changing our perspectives on the subject. 

Reducing the realm of forest science to the simplistic pursuit of banning one thing or another is not the way to make sound forest policy. The province and federal government have committed $290 million under the Forest Carbon Initiative to manage forest carbon, through projects relating to reforestation, fertilization, road rehabilitation, tree genetics, and fibre utilization.

The absolute best way to reduce GHG emissions is to reduce the source of these emissions, which is most effectively achieved through investment in new technologies. 

Do large old-growth trees have a special role in climate action?

It has been stated that large old-growth trees have “an essential evolutionary role as reservoirs of genetic diversity and maintain the adaptive potential of tree species, which will be essential as our forests adapt to climate change.”

It’s definitely true that large old-growth trees and associated ecosystems are already recognized as key aspects of sustainable forest management in British Columbia. Acknowledging the importance of old-growth trees, there are several policies, regulations and initiatives that contribute to fulfilling the objective of managing old-growth forests and specifically, protecting very large tree specimens. 

  • BC Timber Sales – Best Management Practices for Coastal Legacy Trees, effective June 1, 2019 – guides harvest-area planning for timber sales to manage for retention of individual trees of a certain diameter. For western red cedar, retention will be required for trees with a diameter greater than three metres.
  • Special Tree Protection Regulation, Forest and Range Practices Act, effective September 11, 2020 – protects trees of a certain diameter and greater. Western red cedar greater than 3.85 metres will require a protection zone 56metres in circumference. Failure to identify and protect such trees could result in a fine of up to $100,000.
  • The BC government recently completed an Old Growth Strategic Review in response to political pressure. The government has committed to implementing the Review’s recommendations, including the immediate temporary deferral of harvesting in 353,000 hectares of ecosystems of very high risk.

“Climate change and excessive logging” are said to be causing the vanishing of the iconic western red cedar species. 

In terms of the coastal rainforest, where Western red cedar grows, one such hallmark example of conservation is the Great Bear Rainforest. Within this internationally recognized area, industrial forestry is dramatically limited in recognition of the extensive old-growth forests that are of ecological and social significance to the local Indigenous First Nations communities. Approximately 85% of this forested area is off-limits from timber harvesting (3.1 million hectares) and only 15% (550,000 hectares) are available for ecosystem-based forest management (EBM) to provide economic sustenance to the local communities. 

As a reflection of the importance of British Columbia’s forests and its associated forest products that it generates, in 2020 there were 47 million hectares of independently (third-party) certified sustainably managed forests in the province. The province has the most certified hectares of all the provinces and territories in Canada.

British Columbia is not only the most biologically diverse of Canada’s provinces but also one of the most diverse places in the world.

Provisions for future cultural use of large western red cedar trees have been incorporated into several First Nations strategic management plans within their traditional territories, some of which have been incorporated into provincial legislation.

Is stopping old-growth forestry the way to protect forest communities and forest jobs?

That is the claim made by some who argue that harvesting old-growth, and exporting raw logs out of the province, is “bad economics”. It is further claimed that second-growth harvesting and local, value-added processing and manufacturing create a higher number of jobs for British Columbians per cubic metre and can sustain healthy forest-based communities and local forestry jobs into the future.

In fact, Western red cedar, yellow cedar and large higher quality Douglas-fir logs harvested from public lands (no matter if old growth or second growth) cannot ever be exported as raw logs – by regulation.

Value-added processing often relies on producing fine-grain and clear (knot-free) wood products that come from old-growth forests. Those calling on the government to increase the amount of local, value-added processing must be honest and acknowledge that they are, themselves, in doing so calling for a continuation of old-growth harvesting. 

Claiming to care about forest-based communities and local forestry jobs while advocating a ban on old-growth forestry is naïve or dishonest. In fact, a ban on harvesting of BC coastal old-growth would result in the immediate closure of at least four sawmills, one pulp mill and the entire shake and shingle industry – damaging the very communities and jobs that old-growth campaigners claim to hold dear. 

Is there a groundswell of support for bans on old-growth harvesting?

One of the arguments being used to persuade local government elected councils to pass motions to ban old-growth forestry is that others are doing it so they might as well. 

It is stated that: “Resolutions to protect BC’s old-growth forest have been sent to the provincial government by the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), representing the mayors, city and town councils, and regional districts across BC. . . .”

British Columbia has 162 municipalities. As of May 2021, only eleven of them (6.7%) had passed motions opposing old-growth forestry. This cannot be portrayed as a groundswell movement of any kind. 

By contrast, more than 20 municipal councils in November 2020 wrote to Premier John Horgan asking for a balanced approach to the general issue of natural resources, stating: “British Columbia relies on its natural-resource product exports as a central pillar of sustaining — and improving — the economic well-being of our five million residents. Through the sale of goods and services to our provincial neighbours, and to other countries throughout the world, the natural-resource sector both grows and diversifies the provincial economy. Early evidence strongly supports the view that enabling resource industries to succeed will be equally central in pandemic recovery.”

Opponents of old-growth forestry have pointed to the support of a pulp and paper workers’ labour union for banning old-growth harvesting. This is quite ironic because if there was a ban on harvesting old-growth, such a pulp mill closure could be the one that this union’s members work at, demonstrating the lack of understanding of the subject.

Do provincial forest management costs exceed revenues?

It has been claimed that the cost of managing BC’s publicly-owned forests “has exceeded all direct revenue collected from the forest industry by $3.65 billion over the past ten years, costing British Columbians $365 million each year in subsidies to forest companies.” 

The province of British Columbia does not provide subsidies to forest companies. In the 2020/2021 provincial budget, the “Forests” line item is forecast to generate $1.2 billion in revenue. Based on that forecast, the forests will be the single largest source of non-tax, non-fee related form of income for the province. The Ministry of Forests, Range, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is forecast to have an expense of $0.9 billion – meaning the province will operate British Columbia’s forests with a surplus for the budget year.

The facts are in.

Managed forests have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the climate and make an outsized contribution to fighting climate change. BC protects a range of rare and at-risk species within its forests, with 15% of forest land bases in parks and protected areas and conservation plans and training for foresters. Further, coastal temperate rainforests do not face an ecological emergency due to logging; they are projected to have a stable and sustainable AAC over the next 100 years. Sensationalist “studies” saying old-growth forests are on the verge of disappearing appear to be based on half-truths and faulty accounting. The province already has plans and regulations protecting old-growth forests. On just Vancouver Island, 62% of old-growth is already protected. Despite claims that banning old-growth logging need not result in disaster for forest-based communities, it would result in the immediate closure of at least five mills and the entire shake and shingle industry in coastal BC alone. Forest communities and their workers and families deserve more than disingenuous concern; they deserve the right to work.

There is no forest management crisis in British Columbia. But if half-truths and pseudo-scientific studies continue to be taken seriously, British Columbians may face a crisis of understanding.

This article is taken from chapter one of Forestry in BC: Setting the Record Straight, authored by Executive Director of Resource Works, Stewart Muir.

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