Note to the ministry of forests: Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the current sustained yield timber supply is below 50 million cubic metres per year, right?
Logging in the Prince George Timber Supply Area (Photo by Sean O’Rourke/Conservation North)
THERE WERE A NUMBER OF DRAMATIC LOGGING-RELATED EVENTS in 2021 that riveted public attention on the state of BC forests. Canada’s largest act of mass civil disobedience at Fairy Creek. Devastating forest fires and pervasive smoke in June, July and August. Flooding of communities and washouts of transportation infrastructure in November. But there was one critical, year-long event that didn’t get any attention at all, and this one event lies at the core of all the catastrophes that did capture our attention.
According to the ministry of forests’ harvest record for 2021, logging companies hauled 50.2 million cubic metres of logs out of publicly-owned forests. Given the record high prices for logs and lumber in 2021, we can reasonably infer that number—50.2 million cubic metres—now approximates the upper limit of annual timber supply in BC. If so, that’s a much lower level of supply than indicated by any previous projection by the ministry of forests. For example, it is 38 percent below the ministry’s prediction of timber supply for 2021 that was made in 2004. That’s an astonishing decline in expectation.
The difference between the ministry’s 2004 prediction of timber supply and 2021’s actual supply was equivalent to approximately 20,000 direct jobs—or 40,000 “direct, indirect and induced jobs” as the industry might put it.
We can expect that over the next few years a raging debate will develop over why this decline has occurred. At the moment, the ministry appears unwilling to publicly acknowledge how far timber supply has fallen; mainstream media seem stuck in the past and misreport the actual case; and industry-friendly reporters seem intent on blaming conservationists for the decline, whatever it is.
We will come back to these barriers to public understanding later in the story, but first let’s consider some basic facts about timber supply and how, in practice, it differs from what the ministry of forests refers to as “AAC,” or allowable annual cut.
Although the ministry of forests establishes a provincial AAC each year (see graph below), over the last 20 years that level has almost always been well above the actual cut each year. That’s because the official AAC doesn’t reflect just the physical limits of sustained yield. The Forest Act requires that AAC for publicly owned forest be based on sustained yield—the physical limitations to forest growth—but it allows the AAC to be fudged upward for “the economic and social objectives of the government.” That should be read as “for political reasons.”
By fudging the official AAC well above the actual cut, the ministry has been able to claim that the actual cut is lower than the allowable annual cut, creating the appearance that the ministry is carefully stewarding BC’s forests.
Doesn’t that graph reassure you that the ministry of forests has a conservative approach to managing publicly owned forests? Every year, the industry cuts less than it could.
Sadly, that is not the case. The official AAC bears little resemblance to what the ministry has determined could be cut on a sustained yield basis. That disconnect becomes evident when we consider the ministry’s record of timber supply forecasts since 1994, and compare those with its record of allowable annual cuts and its record of actual cuts.
The ministry defines “timber supply” as: “The amount of timber that is forecast to be available for harvesting over a specified time period, under a particular management regime.” That definition covers a lot of possible ground, but the Forest Act does stipulate that “sustained yield” needs to be the basis for a determination of timber supply. The ministry defines “sustained yield” as: “A policy, method, or plan of forest management that aims to achieve an approximate balance between net growth and amount harvested.”
In other words, a determination of the timber supply available from those BC forests that can be logged involves a determination of the area available for logging and analysis of the factors affecting the growth of trees in that area.
From time to time, usually about every 10 years, the ministry publishes a new province-wide forecast of timber supply that generally looks forward at least 50 years. The last published forecast was in 2010.
Over the past 35 years, four major factors affecting future timber supply have been acknowledged by the ministry of forests. They are the falldown effect, conservation for non-timber values, the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic and increased plantation growth above what had been predicted. The first three factors lowered ministry projections of future timber supply. The last factor increased it. The ministry has not yet attributed any substantial influence on timber supply to either forest fires or climate change.
To understand why timber supply has fallen as far as it has in the last 35 years, we need to examine each of the four factors that the ministry has said have changed it.
In 1994, the ministry’s decadal Forest, Range and Recreation Resource Analysis recorded that “the current harvest level” was 71.6 million cubic metres per year “but would then decline gradually over the next 50 years” to 50-60 million cubic metres. The ministry credited the expected decline to “shifting from old-growth forests to second-growth forests precipitating a falldown to long-term sustainable harvest levels.”
“Falldown,” as you may recall, refers to the inevitable decrease in timber supply that would occur as a result of converting BC’s older, higher-volume primary forests to younger, lower-volume plantations through logging. In its current (2021) promotional material, the BC Truck Loggers Association notes that “typical old growth” contains 1500-1800 cubic metres per hectare, while “typical second growth” contains 400-600 cubic metres per hectare.
The ministry’s 1994 report also noted that “interest in non-timber resources and values has increased and managing for those values is now emphasized.” In 1994, the expected decline in timber supply out to 2044 as a result of those factors is shown in the graph below:
The most conservative estimate of timber supply, from the ministry of forests’ 1994 projection.
Note that the most conservative 1994 projection of timber supply estimated there would be 60 million cubic metres available for cutting in 2021. Yet only 50.2 million cubic metres were cut that year, and that followed cuts of 49.6 and 47.9 million cubic metres in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Ten years after that 1994 report, in 2004, with a very different government now steering the ministry of forests, ideas about future timber supply also changed. In The State of British Columbia’s Forests 2004, a report signed by then-Chief Forester Jim Snetsinger, the ministry’s new view of timber supply was made clear: “Recent research shows that many second-growth forests grow faster than previously estimated.”
The newly discovered higher growth rate of plantations was so phenomenal, the report implied, that, in effect, it cancelled out the falldown effect. The ministry’s new forecast showed timber supply, then at 76 million cubic metres per year, would fall to 70 million cubic metres over the following 60 years. The graph below appeared in the ministry of forests’ 2004 report, which was approved by Snetsinger.
BC Ministry of Forests’ 2004 prediction of future timber supply. The “• Actual cut in 2021” has been added.
There are three pertinent observations to make about the claims in that 2004 report.
First, the ministry never published any physical research showing that growth in plantations was higher than expected.
Second, the “research” was subsequently questioned by professional foresters Anthony Britneff and Martin Watts. (See their 2018 study, attached at the end of this story.)
Britneff, a 40-year veteran of the BC Forest Service, says: “The report referred to ‘research’ but I suspect it was actually referring to unvalidated assumptions about the growth of managed stands and meaningless statistical analysis of monitoring data.”
The third reason to doubt the 2004 forecast is that it didn’t include the impact of the Mountain Pine Beetle. At the time, the province was in the sixth year of the epidemic, only a year from its peak in 2005. The ministry of forests was well aware of the impact that disaster would have on future timber supply, but it was trying to encourage investment in the industry. Not including the beetle’s impact suggests the ministry was given instructions to maximize timber supply—at least on paper—rather than accurately reflect all the influences that were, in reality, pushing it downward.
Thus the ministry, then operating under the influence of Premier Gordon Campbell, predicted that timber supply in 2044 could be as much as 42 percent higher than the Forest Service had expected in 1994.
This sudden and fantastical increase occurred at precisely the same political moment that, at the behest of the logging industry, Campbell was gutting the Forest Service and allowing the logging industry to draft new legislation that would effectively privatize BC’s public forests.
In our tally of the factors actually affecting future timber supply, “second-growth forests grow faster than previously estimated” jumps out at us like a flashing yellow light.
This was confirmed, indirectly, in the 2010 report The State of British Columbia’s Forests, Third Edition. That document included this forecast: “Recent analysis projects a decrease in timber supply to 50–60 million cubic metres per year by 2025, due to mortality caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.”
In other words, the ministry was now predicting timber supply to decline from 76 million cubic metres to 50-60 million cubic metres. That’s a loss of as much as 26 million cubic metres. But that’s a far greater loss than could be accounted for by the Mountain Pine Beetle.
Of the total volume of merchantable timber in BC in 2010, 12 percent was lodgepole pine. Less than 60 percent of that would eventually be lost to the beetle. So the beetle caused the loss of about 7 percent of BC’s merchantable volume. That would have impacted about 7 percent of timber supply, or 5.3 million cubic metres.
What accounted for the other 20 million cubic metres the ministry was now forecasting would be lost? Certainly not the higher-than-expected growth in plantations.
That 2010 forecast was illustrated by the graph below, from the report.
If we take the ministry’s last public estimate of provincial timber supply at face value, it would now be somewhere in the “50-60 million cubic metres” range.
Taking a conservative view of timber supply—and why wouldn’t government take a conservative view, given the profound physical, economic and social impacts caused by an unsustainable rate of logging—we might estimate the current timber supply to be at the low end of that range, or 50 million cubic metres.
The graph below shows where a conservative consideration of the impacts listed above would put timber supply for the years 2000 through to 2021 (orange line). Note how the actual cut—the light grey line—was considerably higher than the conservative projection of timber supply, for most of that time. The area above the orange line and below the grey line gives a measure of the extent to which BC forests may have been overcut since 2004. Only the world financial crisis in 2008-09 provided a respite.
As mentioned above, the ministry has not yet provided an assessment of how timber supply will be affected in the mid-term by either forest fires or climate change. The numerous large forest fires in each of 2017, 2018 and 2021 impacted a far larger area of BC than any other year in the province’s recorded fire history and the upward trend is clear. The increase in fire hazard created by logging, coupled with the hotter, drier, windier and more lightning-prone weather expected with climate change, will certainly impact timber supply. A 2020 Forest Practices Board investigation into the health of plantations in the southern Interior called on the ministry to start including the “likely consequences of climate change” in its assessments of growth in those plantations. The investigation found that 64 percent of the plantations it examined were in poor or marginal condition. When the impact of fires and climate change are included, how much lower will timber supply fall?
The rate of cut since 2004, then, was based on a belief that timber supply was much higher than it actually was, and that belief has resulted in a significant overcut above the sustained yield level.
All of 2021’s other major forest-related events in BC—the civil strife at Fairy Creek, the large forest fires in the Interior, the flooding and washouts last November—have been made worse by the over-exploitation that flowed from the Campbell’s government’s decision back in 2004 to ignore the falldown effect and accept unproven computer modelling of growth and yield to determine how much could be cut.
Unfortunately, part of the reason such an unsustainable rate of logging has occurred in BC since 2004 has been the absence of accurate, in-depth coverage of the logging industry and its impacts by an informed mainstream media. At least part of the blame for that lies with the ministry of forests.
Mainstream media are being misled by ministry officials
This epic failure in resource management is hard to sweep under the rug, but the current ministry of forests is trying to do just that. Its reluctance to address questions directed to it at a press briefing last June made that clear.
The briefing was held just before the Horgan government released its forest policy intentions paper, intentions that have since led to the recent adoption of Bill 23.
In the time allotted for questions at the briefing, Globe and Mail reporter Justine Hunter asked this question: “In terms of the annual allowable cut [sic]—initially there was a 70 million cubic metres estimate, I think that’s down now—where do you get to in the year 2025? How big is the annual allowable cut[sic]?”
Notably, none of the ministry officials attending the briefing, which included BC’s Chief Forester Diane Nicholls, answered Hunter’s question. Nicholls hummed and hawed and said how difficult it was to make such a prediction. There was, in fact, an estimate for the AAC for the year 2026 in the intentions paper that was released half an hour later, but either Nicholls wasn’t aware of that number or she didn’t want to use it in front of reporters.
Following Hunter’s unanswered question, the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer took a crack at the same issue: “Correct me on the numbers if I’m wrong,” Palmer requested. “You’re talking about going from 10 percent of the AAC, which is in the ballpark of 70 million cubic metres per year. You’re talking about going from 10 percent of that to 20 percent. So, in all, you would be transferring 7 million cubic metres to First Nations—that’s the target. Have you a ballpark estimate of what it will cost in terms of compensation to take that much tenure away from tenure holders and give it to First Nations?”
Palmer had asked the assembled experts to correct him if he was wrong on the numbers, but they didn’t. Presumably, he left the press briefing thinking exactly what he thought before the briefing, which was that the provincial AAC was “in the ballpark of 70 million cubic metres per year.” And since his question was related to the issue of how much compensation would be given to companies from which “tenure” was going to be taken, he didn’t have the most basic information required to report the issue accurately to his readers. The ministry officials present did nothing to relieve Palmer of his misunderstanding about the AAC, or what level of compensation was in play.
By not understanding how far the available supply of logs has fallen—and why—Palmer is unintentionally misinforming the public. Remarkably, the forests ministry appears to be okay with reporters not having a clear idea of what’s going on with timber supply.
Notably, Palmer and Hunter have never reported on the concerns expressed by Watts and Britneff.
We begin to see why, then, the ministry has—officially—kept the AAC much higher than what could actually be cut and, when given the opportunity to clarify this in public, doesn’t bother to correct reporters when they incorrectly refer to the AAC as being “in the ball park of 70 million cubic metres.” The official AAC has become meaningless, and the timber supply reviews conducted by various chief foresters now appear to be besides the point. The ministry has become a facilitator of logging, not a regulator of the industry.
To publicly acknowledge how far timber supply has fallen would bring into question how much of the damage done by fires and floods has stemmed from the vast overcut that has occurred since 2004. That overcut has created a far greater area of clearcuts and plantations, both of which create conditions that increase the risk of floods and forest fires. For ministry officials to admit that the ministry badly over-estimated timber supply—and thus amplified the risk of fires and flooding—would leave the officials who made this blunder liable for responsibility for damage caused by both.
So—of course—a request to “correct me if I’m wrong” would be ignored by the officials who are currently responsible for over-estimating timber supply.
Meanwhile, other media are actively providing disinformation about timber supply
The over-estimation of timber supply by a forests ministry acting in lock-step with the short-term interests of the logging industry is not how the industry would like the public to understand the decline that has occurred in BC’s forests and forestry-dependent communities. The industry would rather have the reduced timber supply be blamed on some other group, like conservationists.
That framing of the issue by BC media outlets who partner in the forest-industrial complex was evident in 2019 as the uplift in available timber supply—made possible by beetle salvage logging—ran out.
In “Why the province’s working forests aren’t working,” a story written by Nelson Bennett for Business in Vancouver in December 2019, an explanation for the numerous mill closures in 2019 focussed mainly on the impact of conservation.
Bennett wrote, “One of the biggest problems has become a lack of economically harvestable timber. In a province with 55 million hectares of forest—an area roughly three times the size of the UK—how is that possible? The most visible answer is the toll taken by the mountain pine beetle, and by forest fires. But it’s not just pests and natural disasters that have eaten up BC’s timber supply. Pressure to preserve forests for conservation or yield them to recreation and increased urbanization have resulted in a significant shrinkage of the working-forest land base.”
That has been the basic message of industry operatives for many, many years. Note that there is no mention by Bennett that logging itself has been the biggest cause of disappearing timber supply in BC. Over the 20 years between 2000 and 2019, inclusive, logging caused 59 percent of the loss of merchantable volume. The pine beetle accounted for 32 percent and forest fires 9 percent. That inescapable fact can be seen in the graph below of ministry of forests’ data on the relative extent to which the beetle, forest fires and logging have gone through BC’s merchantable timber supply since 2000.
To elaborate on the impact of conservation on BC’s timber supply, Bennett reached out to an industry forester. He wrote: “Jim Girvan, an independent forestry consultant, points to the Prince George timber supply area (TSA) as an example. At eight million hectares, it is the single largest TSA in BC. But once all the exclusions for recreation, wildlife habitat conservation, old-growth preservation and other measures are accounted for, it leaves just three million hectares that can be logged, Girvan said.”
If I am reading that correctly (please correct me if I’m wrong), of 8 million hectares, there are only 3 million that can be logged and the rest has been set aside for recreation, wildlife habitat conservation, old-growth preservation and other measures. That sounds a lot like 5 million hectares of conservation measures, doesn’t it? Wow, 5/8ths of the area has been conserved? That’s 62 percent!
However, if one were to actually read the ministry’s account of how it determines the area of land that’s used to establish the level of timber supply from the Prince George TSA, one would find that the total area of all land that has some conservation-related objective is 1.8 million hectares, or 22.8 percent of the gross area of the Prince George Timber Supply Area—not the 5 million hectares that Girvan and Bennett seem to claim.
Moreover, of that 1.8 million hectares, only a part of that is forested land, and only a fraction of that forested land is feasible and economical to log. Once those considerations are applied (the ministry calls this “netting down”), we find that only 860,000 hectares of forest have been set aside for parks, ecological reserves, protected areas, conservancies, ungulate winter range, recreation, old growth management areas, wildlife tree patches, and riparian retention areas. That amounts to 10.8 percent of the gross area of the Prince George Timber Supply Area, not the 62 percent implied by Bennett and Girvan.
Even that number, though, overstates the impact these “conservation” areas have on timber supply since nearly all of these conservation areas in the Prince George TSA had a significant portion of the forested area within them logged before the conservation objectives were established.
All of the information needed to determine that no more than 10.8 percent of the total area of the TSA has been set aside for conservation or recreation purposes is publicly available.
Bennett and Girvan then went on to elaborate on how the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement has deeply impacted timber supply.
Bennett wrote, apparently using information supplied by Girvan: “The coastal cut has shrunk by 8.5 million cubic metres since the 1990s. That is enough to supply 10 coastal sawmills, Girvan said. The Great Bear Rainforest alone took 6.4 million hectares. Only 295,000 hectares were preserved for logging.”
Bennett then quoted Girvan: “In that 295,000 hectares, now you’re very restricted on what you can log.”
According to the ministry of forests, however, the “295,000 hectares” is actually the new area (made up of 8 separate smaller areas) that “will be off-limits to logging,” not the area “preserved for logging.” Girvan and Bennett got this particular fact inverted.
They could have determined the expected impact of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement on the provincial AAC by comparing the AAC for the area before the agreement (2,543,018 cubic metres per year) and after (1,633,000 cubic metres). They didn’t, but the ministry’s figures indicate the agreement was expected to create a drop in timber supply of about 900,000 cubic metres per year, or roughly 1.4 percent of the provincial AAC. All of those numbers, of course, are subject to the warnings outlined above.
In the end, Bennett’s and Girvan’s analysis didn’t provide any insight into why timber supply is so much lower than was predicted in 2004, but provided cover for the most serious cause of the decline. How is that going to help forest-dependent communities understand what they are facing?
The good news
The best evidence suggests that even 2021’s cut is well above the new, lower level of sustained yield. Unless the public comes into possession of that evidence more broadly through mainstream media, public opinion will continue to think of logging as “sustainable” and overcutting will continue. With continued over-exploitation will come even more serious negative consequences: bigger, more destructive forest fires, larger, more catastrophic floods, worse degradation of ecosystems and increased civil strife.
There is an odd twist to this story, which some may see as “good news.” Because of 2021’s extremely high log and lumber prices, the ministry of forests collected a much higher average rate of stumpage than ever before. For the first time in many, many years, the $1.8 billion collected in stumpage will likely cover more than the cost to the public of managing BC’s forests so the industry can cut ‘em down.
However, the higher stumpage will definitely not cover the physical damage done by 2021’s forest fires and flooding, or the economic disruption that accompanied that. Nor can it heal the civil strife that is erupting in BC over the over-exploitation of our forests and the consequential degradation of our life support systems.
David Broadland writes about forest-related issues.