Old Growth Forests in British Columbia: A citizen's guide

As anarchists, actors and pressure groups descend on the B.C. Coast to create a high-emotion summer drama they hope will affect our laws and way of life, let's pause for a moment to think and reflect. 

What is old growth? Is news of its demise greatly exaggerated? What's the right way to push back against misinformation? What can a person who understands the facts do in this case?

By Stewart Muir

In recent days, I have been inundated with calls from people who are looking for information they can trust about old-growth forestry on the coast of British Columbia. They have rightly observed that the pool of information has been tainted by the politics of protest and disinformation currently centred around Fairy Creek.

Their concerns are entirely justified.

Public decision-making is at risk of being driven by selfish, wily agenda-setters whose goals have nothing to do with the public interest and will not improve how we approach environmental matters.

Naive teenagers are being directed into the woods near Port Renfrew for the purpose of telling First Nations who have been in the area for tens of thousands of years that they, the Indigenous land stewards, have no authority and are not welcome in their own territory. Yet this is precisely what has been happening.

And I know from my candid conversations with all kinds of civic, business, and First Nations leaders – good people with lifetimes of devoted public service – that my reaction to the orchestrations of Fairy Creek is hardly isolated or unique.

Every day, another dubious claim

Every day it seems like there is a new advertising campaign with high-pitched claims about "the last of the remaining old-growth trees." Once you get to the end of this article, you will undoubtedly share my realization that, in fact, our old forests are actually in way better shape than claimed.

For those like myself who already have extensive knowledge about the true operations of forestry, it's disappointing to see the ways that knowledge holders (including professional foresters and provincial bureaucrats) feel constrained for one reason or another from speaking their truths more publicly.

However, I don't mind being the one to stand up as a vanguard expresser of important ideas. I've done it before. 

Back in 2006, I proposed to my colleagues at The Vancouver Sun that we invite David Suzuki to take the reins of the paper for a day. Not just any day: a Saturday, which in those quaint days of ink on paper was a big thing because we knew that half a million people saw our fat weekend edition. I wanted to bring climate change to a wider audience. There were skeptics around the table and I got questions that flabbergasted me like, "do you believe in climate change" like it was Santa Claus. However, everyone did come around to it and the resulting Suzuki guest editor project was one of the most widely read editions in the paper's history – not quite a moon landing, 9/11 or princess tragedy, but significant. We had tapped into something.

In the case of old growth, I can tell you impartially that the Fairy Creek demands about the imminent loss of old growth forest are not honest or credible. Implementing them would benefit neither the forests nor the people of British Columbia.

While some Fairy Creek activists insist they are only concerned about what they think of as old growth, in fact British Columbia's entire forest industry is at risk of being permanently harmed by unwarranted pressure group campaigns.

This is not speculation. Yes, I know that forest activists continually insist that their target is only old growth. But we have plenty of evidence to show that only a complete shutdown of forestry activity will satisfy the most extreme voices.

Just look at what was stated by the American anarchists who started the whole Fairy Creek blockade in the first place, back in mid-2020 when they felled trees across an area road, erecting tripods and impeding lawful access by the local First Nation to its own territory.

"We are happy to obstruct old-growth logging," the Puget Sound Anarchists wrote in their anonymous blog, "but we’d just as soon have done the same thing to prevent 2nd or 3rd growth forests from being clearcut, as there is nothing remotely sustainable about the way forests in so-called British Columbia are being industrially destroyed."


So many questions come out of this, as to why these shadowy forces of havoc think that British Columbia is a place where they can be allowed to operate.

Yet, from these dubious origins has sprung the whole fanatical circus act around Fairy Creek. 

There is obviously something much larger than Fairy Creek going on here. Fairy Creek has become a symbol and we could spend all sorts of time going down technical rabbit holes and it will contribute nothing to dealing with the protest and its increasingly provincial consequences. We now know that the real campaign is about a moratorium on all forestry in British Columbia. This is deeply disturbing for those who care about forest health, about First Nations, and about the many communities that depend on responsible, sustainable forestry.

An enormous amount has already been done to protect the forests of British Columbia. We do not need anarchists in our policy processes. We do not need the tools of psychological warfare to be deployed into our governance processes. Sadly, the situation right now is that both of those things are happening, and much more.

It's time to draw a line between citizenship and chaos.

What is old growth?

The words "old growth" are increasingly being used as a general description for trees that seem aged. While your grandmother living to 100 would certainly qualify as a human "old growth" specimen, the century benchmark doesn't make a tree old. When it comes to trees on the lush coast of British Columbia, old growth is a term used by forest professionals with technical precision.

Here on the coast, only trees greater than 250 years of age fall into the category of old growth. 

Yet we have seen pressure groups deliberately distort the meaning of old growth for their own purposes. I can't say I was surprised to see the Wilderness Committee telling its followers in a new map that a tree is old growth when it reaches the century mark. Pretty much par for the course for this particular organization.

One wonders how much public sentiment on forestry today is being driven by this kind of misinformation. I've previously shown how the same organization has used deceptive advertisements to create baseless public concern about the Fairy Creek watershed.

Here's a map that came to my attention in mid-June 2021:


Drawn from public mapping data and dated June 10, 2021, the map at first glance is a credible visual description showing actual forested areas as well as roads, boundaries etc. Look closer at the legend, bottom right, and you can see where confusion is being sown:


As is evident, the Wilderness Committee map falsely states that old-growth forest is "> 100 years old".

I'm a journalistic badgerer by instinct, so my inclination here would be to ask: "If your arguments about old growth forests are so watertight, why do you feel the need to misstate such a basic fact?"

The only possible answer that a reasonable person could arrive at is that these campaigners have to lie about this fundamental fact because their case is actually a fundamentally weak one. 

Getting at the truth

Let's try to understand this better.

Old-growth forests are complex places. Those who identify them using mapping techniques can spot an old-growth forest by its canopy cover as seen using aerial imagery. In a young forest, whether it has been replanted by people or is recovering from natural disturbance like from fire, wind or disease, initially the tress are around the same height. An old-growth forest has a mixture of tree ages resulting in irregular gaps in the canopy. (I found this source written in plain English free of technical jargon to be quite helpful.) When we talk about the amount of old-growth inventory, studying the canopy from above is the fundamental method of determining the status of a patch of forest. 

However, old-growth determination can often be more art than science. Political pressure groups like the Sierra Club have been adept at occupying the resulting ambiguous spaces. Last year, Sierra hired some academics to produce the report most often cited as why we need to hit the panic button on old growth. Entitled BC's Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity, to a great extent this report employs a thin veneer of convenient numbers spread to support magical thinking about forest management. It starts with a word game on the very first page:

“We have written this report because old growth cannot be portrayed by a single number or map. Old forest comes in many forms." 

To make the case that old growth is virtually extinct in B.C., the report authors substituted “old growth” as old forest and then distorted the representation to confirm their bias. If you search for any estimate of the margin of error in their work, it is not to be found. The work is also rife with other errors and gives rise to generalizations that actually do not stand up to fine-grained scrutiny. The result is mapping that seems to "show" an old-growth crisis where there is none. 

To manufacture the sense of old-growth crisis, the authors employed the colour red to show the areas they contend are at risk. And when you glance at the maps, they are sure are alarming!


The problem here is that those alarming expanses of red are based on speculation, not hard data. The method of computer data aggregation employed for these visual generalizations creates errors that are further compounded as the work progresses. These errors in estimation may easily be as high as 30%. For the Coast areas in particular, the use of site information is skewed so badly as to be meaningless. Other aspects of the report's methodology lack detail or are ambiguous. 

As our work here has previously shown, the dubious nature of such efforts becomes vivid when you start to look closer and compare the obvious evidence from satellite imagery to the speculative mapping. This recent post by the Resource Works team got a lot of people talking because it revealed just how easy it is to manipulate public understanding in this domain. 

Take the example of the distorted impression created for Vancouver Island. Below is the actual situation, drawn from provincial forest mapping data. The green colour represents coniferous tree cover:


That is healthy forest of all age categories. Now here is old growth alone, in the next map. You know, the 250 years plus that is “about to disappear”?


Quite clearly, there is a vast amount of old growth forest on Vancouver Island. The map above is from the provincial government and is dated April 2021, so it is the latest and most up to date information as indicated in its legend here:



Be cautious around maps?

Mapmaking can be as much about art as it is about science when you consider that digital cartographers like those producing the falsely labelled Wilderness Committee map can choose from 259 different mapping attributes as they conjure up their maps. Without rigorous practice these maps can be subjective – the product of somebody's selection of inputs. This is why any map from a political pressure group should be treated with extreme caution. 

What was really said about Old Growth

Although it has become commonplace now to cite the Old Growth Review Panel report of April 2020 as an authoritative statement that any old growth logging is bad, that is not remotely what its authors Gorley and Merkel said.

In fact, these respected foresters make it quite clear that misinformation matching the description of the Sierra Club report should be treated with caution: "One of the challenges we found early in the engagement process was how information about these statistics is communicated. We consistently heard concerns about the information available to the public. The issues were not so much about data, which has become much more widely available in recent years, but about how it is interpreted and communicated, and by whom. We have seen numerous examples of information put into the public realm that is fact-based but lacking in context or explanation of assumptions or scale."

Nevertheless, as UBC's Dean of Forestry pointed out several days ago, a recent provincial government intentions paper for some reason chose deliberately to leave forestry science out of its analysis. Stated John Innes writing in The Vancouver Sun, "While it is noteworthy all the groups the government talked to in preparing the paper are listed, B.C.’s world-class forest science sector was not among them. In fact, the word “science” does not appear in the paper. As we move forward to implementing these intentions, it is crucial that policy decisions and actions at least take into account the extensive science that is available."

Surely we need not be afraid of using science-based methods to settle scientific issues and make policy?

Thus, it should not be too surprising that the whole debate about old growth is dominated not by science-based dialogue, but rather by who can raise the most money through Go Fund Me etc to tell the biggest and most damaging whoppers about our forest industry, which is actually doing a pretty good job of conserving the land.

There are other issues too. When we think about old growth, it's hard to get an idea of scale. How much forest is protected? How much old growth is left? 

Q. How big are our protected and old-growth reserves? A. They are huge

The first thing I want to show is the extent of protected areas, but with as little talk as I can manage about percentages, hectares, square kilometres etc.

In the map below, the green circle represents all of the parkland in British Columbia, including various other types of protected area including conservation corridors, ecological reserves, protected areas, and recreation areas. All told we have 16,784,548 hectares of such areas in B.C.

We never notice this through conventional mapping because normally it's all spread out. So with my mapmaker we have devised a clever way to show you the truth. We have taken all of those protected park areas and swept them up with absolute mathematical precision into that green circle which figuratively but accurately represents all the parkland of British Columbia, something that is going to be there for the generations to come:


I know there are probably those who say "that's too much" or "that's not enough" parkland. That's a debate we can have. What I will say about the current state of reality is that the green circle is not merely a quantity of land. It represents the rarest, most special, most biodiverse and protection-worthy land in the province – not random mountainsides. This is super important because due to its mountainous topography, most of our rich biodiversity is to be found in the 6% of the provincial land area located in valley bottoms and river estuaries - the areas that are heavily represented inside the green circle.

There can be no logging inside this circle (I mean that in a figurative sense, of course). Offhand, I don't know how much of the green areas are old growth forest (definition of old growth: 250 years or more on the Coast, 140 years or more in the Interior). However, it's bound to be a significant share and I'll try to bring this number forward later.

Whatever that figure, the green-circle park areas are not the only places sequestered from forest harvesting. In fact, there is also an entirely different category known as the Old Growth Management Area (OGMA).

This is where the provincial government's scientific experts have identified specific forest stands that have special values that are deemed to be worthy of sequestration.

The Fairy Creek area is full of OGMAs. In fact, the entire province has OGMAs all over the place, because we have old growth all over the place. At last count, British Columbia had over 37,000 OGMAs. That is not a typo. Each one is an area that has been specifically studied and specifically exempted from harvesting. Each one has special values. In most cases, these are in place to protect creek bottoms and particularly special stands of old growth trees – the very thing that the Sierra Club report discussed above claims are so endangered that they are on the verge of elimination. In many cases, these OGMAs exist because of some form of conservationist advocacy, and that's how the system should work.

When you use a digital broom to sweep together all of these 37,000 little pockets, what you get is the red circle shown here:


Again, that red circle does not represent randomly selected forest. It is the creme de la creme of British Columbia's most precious old growth forest. The red circle is equal to 3.1 million hectares of protected, primo old-growth forest, or equivalent to the area of one Rogers Arena for every person who lives in B.C.

That is Never. Going. To. Be. Logged.


Here's another way to look at it. That personal Rogers Arena of stunningly beautiful, preserved ancient forest that is held in trust via OGMAs for each B.C. resident is also an impressive carbon sink. By my estimate, each one of us, thanks to the biomass stored in today's OGMAs alone, can say that we are personally sequestering as much CO2 as one person would produce simply by being a modern consumer over a 65-year period. 

Staggering, right? Funny how that isn't in the Sierra Club talking points. Maybe because it doing so might affect the flow of donations to support anarchist activities in the woods near Port Renfrew?

Let's keep going. In the map below, I've combined the parks and the OGMAs:


Together, parks and OGMA cover about 21% of the land base of BC, or a combined area roughly equivalent to New England or Washington State: 


The role of growth

Here's another point that needs to be addressed. For some reason, the pressure groups are in the habit of overlooking a fundamental fact observable any sort of forests: that they grow and change over time.

In fact B.C.'s forests are not museums and yes, they do change over time.

Why would radical policy activists want to obscure such a basic fact? Because it's the Achilles heel of their argument.

Here's what I mean. 

Let's take just the OGMAs, which occupy an area of 3.1 million hectares. In the course of one year each hectare grows in volume by about 1 cubic metre, or 3.1 million cubic metres. Over 14 years, the volume added by OGMA tree growth is equivalent to the entire provincial AAC for a year.

Most "old growth" trees aren't all that old

Every day (if not every minute), trees cross the age threshold into old growth status. In the specific case of Fairy Creek, public data show that in the surrounding tree forest licence area over the past 20 years, more tree stands have aged into the old growth classification (>250 years) than exist in all of the older age categories. 

Fairy Creek's abundant "young old growth" is not the image that the public forms from all of the anti-forestry propaganda where it is claimed that old growth equals 2,000 year old trees being knocked over by heartless loggers. That is pure fiction - which of course is not to say there aren't some handsome specimens of large, ancient trees out there which, by the way, are actually protected by provincial regulation.

Another reason that the pressure groups don't like to talk about age movement is that old trees die. The way the issue is talked about would be like saying, "We've had nursing homes for 50 years and now they are full of 150-year-olds." Except they're not, because people do die just as trees pass on. No, our forests are not museums that are full only of ancient specimens. It's Forestry 101 to understand the phenomenon of ecological succession, and when we do it starts to become obvious there is something very wrong with too much of the forest information being circulated.

Is the status of forest preservation fine as is? What we see is a clear consensus that changes and improvements are needed. I'm not arguing with that. Nevertheless, it's vitally important that the sense of alarm and panic around old growth, which is not justified by the facts, be replaced with a calm, reasoned and collaborative approach.

Does British Columbia's largest single industry deserve to be annihilated? No it does not. Is it possible that it will be? Yes it is. Forestry is a “keystone” resource development industry. Forestry builds the resource road infrastructure and other rural and remote infrastructure that are then often capitalized on by other resource industries and tourism. The pressure groups who want to eliminate old growth forestry admit that they are going after all forms of the industry – and other dependent industries too.

What's going on in Fairy Creek today is the direct result of a toxic and anti-democratic movement that threatens a way of life. It is not about compromise, the goal is capitulation. We need our elected leaders to absorb the knowledge that educated people know to be true, and take the actions that will protect the rights of First Nations and all citizens, protect our freedoms, and secure our way of life. For the time being, this brief Citizen's Guide at least offers a bracing dose of truth and logic that might find some practical applications, particularly by those who examine it honestly and realize that I am right.  

For the longer term, I look forward to continuing this work. Like others who see the benefits of a globally relevant, renewable forest industry in B.C., I'm going to be thinking about how to set a consistent standard for communicating these issues. 

Stewart Muir is British Columbia's most experienced commentator at the intersection of environment, natural resources and society.

Are you tired of bad information driving public policy? Are you a forestry knowledge holder who wants to do more to inform the public? Are you a First Nations rightsholder concerned about attempts by pressure groups to deprive you of your constitutional and UNDRIP rights? Are you a public representative interested in an Old Growth Citizens Guide presentation to your governing body? Drop author Stewart Muir a line at [email protected]

Washington State and New England overlay maps: www.mapfight.xyz

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