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No going back – A paradigm shift in forest management

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart


Special to the News

The effects of climate change on the forests, landscapes, jobs and communities of British Columbia are increasingly evident across the province, including infestation by insects such as the pine beetle (which has killed millions of hectares of Interior pine forest), severe wildfires, drought, flooding, and other problems.  The pine beetle epidemic alone has resulted in the loss of thousands of forestry jobs and the closure of dozens of mills, and climate change is having other negative effects on both the forests and economy.

Responding to these threats, the provincial government released a “Strategic Climate Risk Assessment” in July 2019 that identified 15 climate risks, several of which “have the potential to create catastrophic impacts for B.C.’s communities” (1).

However, the government’s Risk Assessment had one gaping hole.  Despite an abundance of evidence, it did not consider the impact that clearcutting of forests and other current forest management practices have on the severity and frequency of at least 9 of the 15 climate risks identified.  To address this gap, the Sierra Club BC commissioned a report by forest scientist Dr. Peter Wood titled “Intact Forests, Safe Communities” and which has the aim of examining “the role that forest management can play in either mitigating or exacerbating these risks” (2).

The Sierra Club BC report begins by noting that over the last century “forests in BC have been logged at an unsustainable rate” and that, as a result, “only three percent of B.C.’s high-productivity old-growth forests remain intact.”  These old-growth forests “create their own cool, moist microclimate as they age and this helps prevent forest fires.”  High, complex canopies of trees create shade and capture coastal mist, “allowing the creation of deep moss beds and lush understory vegetation with rotting biomass,” all of which can lower Spring temperatures in these forests by as much as 2.5 degrees.

In effect, old growth forests act as giant sponges, “readily absorbing and retaining water, sheltering snow from melting, then slowly releasing the water over a long period of time.”  This has resulted in some temperate rain forests not experiencing forest fires for several thousand years.  Even in the dryer, more forest fire prone forests of BC’s Interior, microclimates are created which retain moisture longer.  A U.S. study has found that “higher levels of forest protection were associated with lower fire severity values, even though this was also associated with higher levels of biomass and fuel loading.”  Besides being more fire resistant, older, intact forests are less subject to drought than younger forests and, as a result, the ecosystems “contain high levels of biodiversity, structural complexity, and soil development.”

The report argues that clearcut logging destroys the existing forest microclimate and exposes the forest floor to increased direct sunlight resulting in more extreme temperatures and the drying out of woody debris.  As much as 40 to 60 per cent of a forest’s biomass gets left behind in the form of slash and even whole trees.  Despite regulation, this material can often sit on the ground for years.  All of this dry flammable waste seriously exacerbates forest fire risk as does wind speed which is known to increase after clearcutting.

Second growth forests also pose a risk as they are more flammable than old ones and these younger trees are more closely spaced together.  To add to the risk, forest regulations require that, after clearcutting, forest companies must spray cutblocks with herbicides such as glyphosate which kill hard wood species like aspen and birch.  These hardwoods are less flammable than softwood species and, if left standing, can serve as effective forest fire “blocks” (3). 

Prior to colonization, Indigenous people frequently used fire as a tool to reduce forest fire risk and maintain biodiversity, as well as to grow medicinal and food plants.  The report points out that, although fire regimes can play an important role “in maintaining ecosystem health for many types of forests,” they should happen in collaboration with Indigenous decision-makers and benefit from the incorporation of their traditional knowledge in forest fire management.

Clearcut logging, especially on steep slopes, also impacts the ability of a watershed to moderate the flow of water, and can result in severe erosion, flooding, and landslides.  The massive flooding of the community of Grand Forks in 2018 is a recent example.  The degradation of community water supply is another result of clearcutting, as happened to the southern Interior town of Peachland.  Erosion and landslides muddied and degraded Peachland’s water for months which previously was provided by natural filtration.  As a result, the town was forced to pay $24 million for a water treatment plant.  Under Canadian law, communities do not have a right to clean water and “logging companies aren’t legally required to consider downstream impacts such as flooding when they harvest trees in watersheds.”  This legal exemption remains in effect when logging on slopes and near community watersheds is increasing.  In that regard, to see the full extent of logging across the province go to: the “Seeing Red” maps on the Conservation North website (4).  

Among its recommended actions, the Sierra Club BC report calls for engagement with Indigenous decision-makers in a government-to-government process as well as revising all legislation using the lens of the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. It also recommends a “cumulative impacts approach” that takes into account the impact of forestry operations, as well as mining, agriculture and other industrial sectors.  It calls for the immediate protection of the small amount of intact old-growth forest still remaining and that second-growth forests be managed to restore resilience and recover through selective logging, thinning, brush removal and new silviculture systems as alternatives to clearcutting.  All of this will “enhance the total carbon carrying capacity of these forests and their role in fighting climate change.”

Above all, the report recommends moving away from a timber-centric paradigm and towards a prioritization of ecosystem health and biodiversity (with timber as one of the many benefits), and that this prioritization be enshrined in legislation. 

In reviewing the report, one thing is clear. We need healthy forests for there to be secure jobs and stable communities, as well as realizing the many uses and values of the forest resource.  Achieving these aims is possible but it requires a new direction.

Peter Ewart is a writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at:

  1. BC Ministry of environment and climate change strategy. “Preliminary strategic climate risk assessment for British Columbia – summary of results”. July 2019.
  2. Wood, Peter. “Intact forests, safe communities.” Sierra Club BC, February 2021.
  3. Stop the Spray BC.
  4. Conservation North.

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