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  • Warning: Old-growth deferral areas are not what you might think they are


    David Broadland
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    A high level ministry of forests official implied that logging will be allowed in recently announced old-growth deferral areas.

     

    JUST BEFORE FORESTS MINISTER KATRINE CONROY announced 2-year deferrals on logging of old growth in 2.6 million hectares of BC forest, a virtual “technical” press briefing was held. The presenters were high-level officials of the ministry of forests. The ministry didn’t want reporters to actually report on what was said at that event, and the regular contingent of pundits and reporters who attended appear to have obediently complied with the “not for attribution” proviso. With respect, I decline to be obedient—or fooled again.

    One of the questions asked by a reporter—and the response from Assistant Deputy Minister David Muter—was so informative that I feel compelled to report what I heard (and recorded). Below is the reporter’s question followed by Muter’s response.

    Reporter: “In the past, old-growth deferral areas still allowed for logging of second growth, cutting new forestry roads, that type of thing. People saw some major activity in and around some major trees. Is that still allowed here? Is it still allowed to have activity in deferral areas, logging in and around the rare and ancient trees?”

    Assistant Deputy Minister David Muter: “I think you are asking about the deferral areas done in September 2020, and those deferral orders prevented the harvest of old growth within the identified areas. That was just under approximately 200,000 hectares of old growth identified and the order prevented the harvest of old growth in those stands. There were some specific exemptions in the minister’s order for cultural harvest to support Indigenous nations and I think there was some specific aspects that allowed the removal of hazardous trees. But these orders prevented the harvest of old growth within identified areas.”

    Muter then paused, long enough for the facilitator to think he had finished. Perhaps realizing that he hadn’t actually answered the reporter’s question, Muter went on: “The recommendations from the panel are to prevent the harvest of old growth in these identified areas of 2.6 million hectares and that’s going to be the focus of our discussions with Indigenous nations based on that recommendation.”

    In the end, Muter didn’t answer the reporter’s question directly, which was: Is logging of “second growth” trees and development of logging roads in the deferral areas going to be allowed? Muter’s response was that “harvest” of old-growth in those areas would be deferred.

    I emailed Muter asking that he clarify whether logging would be allowed in the deferral areas. He didn’t respond by my deadline. Instead, a public affairs officer sent a 136-word email that avoided addressing the question.

    My read of Muter’s response to the reporter’s very specific question is that logging will be allowed in these deferral areas. Within a deferral area, unless a tree is “old growth,” it would appear it can be logged. Muter made it clear that this is the case for the “200,000 hectares” where logging of old growth was deferred last year.

    Following Conroy’s public announcement about the deferral areas, I contacted forest scientist Rachel Holt, who was one of five people on the old-growth review panel that had recommended the 2-year logging deferrals on 2.6 million hectares. Holt had not been in attendance at the press briefing.

    I read her the reporter’s question and Muter’s response. Did the issue of whether logging would be allowed in the deferral areas even come up in the months-long discussion with the ministry? It had not, she said, but she didn’t believe that it was the intention of the ministry to allow logging of younger trees around the old-growth trees. Yet that had clearly been the intention of the ministry in its 2020 deferral areas, and it didn’t make that clear at the time, either.

    Holt, along with forest scientist Karen Price and forester Dave Dauss, authored the seminal BC’s Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity. That report, published in mid-2020, warned of the high risk of biodiversity loss BC faces as a result of over exploitation of old-growth forests. I asked Holt if leaving old trees standing but logging everything between them would provide protection for biodiversity. “No,” she said.

    To give you a picture of what loggable deferrals might look like on the ground, consider the image below. I photographed this group of 250- to 400-year-old Douglas firs in TFL 47 on Quadra Island. The largest tree in this small grove measured 22.5 feet in circumference at breast height. Every single small tree between them, save one, had been removed.

     

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    This is how old growth forest is managed for biodiversity on Quadra Island, which is a Special Management Zone under the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan (Photo by David Broadland)

     

    Old-growth forests are almost always a mix of different tree species of different ages. The younger trees are not plantation regrowth, or “second growth.” They are an essential component of an old-growth forest, which is a dynamic process that can go on for thousands of years. On Quadra Island, like elsewhere, the plants and animals that live in these forests are not found in plantations created by humans following clearcutting: The Northern Goshawk, the Marbelled Murrelet, the Northern Red-legged Frog, the Northern Pygmy Owl, the Wandering Salamander, and so on. They all need a complete old-growth forest to survive, not just the big, old trees.

    In the—let’s call it the old-growth deferral area—on Quadra Island, the ground was littered with logging slash and several unburned piles remained. The land between the trees had been heavily disturbed and machinery had been driven through a small creek; the creek passed through a culvert under a branch of the main road. The road was heavily ballasted with rock which had been obtained by blasting bedrock in the deferral area. Roads like this are unlikely to ever support trees, let alone biodiversity.

    I photographed this area on June 22, just as the “heat dome” was building over the Pacific Northwest. The temperature in the deferral area was almost unbearable, yet intact forest nearby remained cool.

     

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    Managing for old-forest retention and biodiversity in a Special Management Zone means clearcutting around old trees and leaving slash piles, permanent roads and damaged hydrological function (Photo by David Broadland)

     

    Why were these old trees left by the logging company, TimberWest? This area of Quadra Island was given rare “Special Management Zone” status under the 2004 Vancouver Island Land Use Plan. The main objective of SMZ 19 was to “sustain forest ecosystem structure and forest attributes associated with mature and old forests.” Driving that was recognition of the need to preserve “structural forest attributes and elements with important biodiversity functions.” The trees were left to protect against loss of biodiversity, in particular the species listed above.

    Most of the requirements established for SMZ 19 have been ignored by the company and ministry, and the community has lost track of what was supposed to happen.

    Given Muter’s response to the reporter’s question, this appears to be what the ministry of forests has in mind for the 2.6 million hectares of forest that has been mapped as “deferral areas.”

    I asked forester Herb Hammond what effect logging between old trees would have on those forests. Hammond is a well-known advocate for creating a new, ecologically-based relationship between humans and forests.

    Hammond replied, “Logging in old-growth forests destroys old-growth attributes, like multi-layered canopies, irregular canopy gaps, lichen populations throughout the canopy and on the ground, decayed fallen trees. All of these components of an old-growth forest play vital roles, from interception, storage, and filtration of water to provision of unique habitats for specialized species that only live in old-growth forests, like carnivorous beetles necessary to keep herbivorous beetles in check in the surrounding landscape. Simply put, logging in an old-growth deferral area eliminates old-growth protection in that area and just moves us closer to the travesty of losing the benefits of old-growth forests that are vital to maintaining forest integrity, both in the old forests and in the young forests beyond. Logging and old-growth forests is an oxymoron and the height of human-centred thinking.”

    Rachel Holt says: “I feel really positive with where we’re at.” But she also says, “the proof is in the pudding.”

    It is going to take a large, dedicated community of forest watchers to monitor the making of the pudding. The ministry itself is under immense pressure from the logging industry to permit removal of as much of the remaining old-growth forests in the timber harvesting land base as is physically possible. It’s up to the rest of us to guard the larger public interest—protection of our life support systems.

    David Broadland and others are working on a tool that will soon allow the community of vigilant mindustry watchers to up their game and monitor the making of the pudding more closely.

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