In the first instalment of a two-part story, James Steidle examines how the chief forester and her office shaped a study on the use of glyphosate so that it would support continued use of the controversial biocide.
This almost-pure lodgepole pine plantation, partly the result of spraying glyphosate, might look healthy, but is less resilient to the impacts of climate change and supports a lower level of biodiversity than forests that include deciduous species. But such monoculture plantations might be—if they survive the larger forest fires and pine beetle epidemics expected to come with climate change—more profitable for logging companies. If they don’t survive, at least they can be turned into wood pellets.
THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT by the BC ministry of forests that Chief Forester Diane Nicholls was leaving to join the wood pellet industry—after years of working to promote that controversial industry’s growth in BC—is not the only supporting evidence that the Chief Forester’s Office has become increasingly corrupted by BC’s logging industry.
Taxpayers spent close to $100,000 on a report commissioned by Nicholl’s office that documents reveal went out of its way to mislead the public on the consequences of forestry glyphosate spraying.
The Chief Forester’s Office released the report, titled “Review of Glyphosate Use in British Columbia Forestry,” in late 2019, in response to public outcry over the spraying of glyphosate on regenerating cutblocks to kill “competing” trees and shrubs.
The report defended the practice, and that was used by government to sway public opinion.
But it was not an independent study that considered the public interest. The Chief Forester’s Office, under the direction of Deputy Chief Forester Shane Berg, direct-awarded the $75,000 contract (later increased to $82,500) to an industry-connected think tank, FP Innovations, and appeared to require it to come up with a pre-determined conclusion: to show how glyphosate supported forest management and therefore industry.
FP Innovations is not an independent research body. It is funded by industry and government. Their board is dominated by representatives of the corporations who utilize glyphosate for their operations, including Canfor, West Fraser and JD Irving. Chief Forester Diane Nicholls also sits on the board, as an “independent” representative of government. There are no ecologists or advocates for wildlife on the board.
The official contract appeared to require an unbiased report. It required FP Innovations to analyze forestry glyphosate within the context of the “objective outcome of promoting the establishment of healthy and diverse forests.” That wording suggests FP Innovations and their researchers, Pamela Matute (who worked for West Fraser) and Jim Hunt (a forester who has worked for industry), could come down on either side of glyphosate, depending on the evidence.
But documents obtained through an FOI request reveal the behind-the-scenes direction was a little less objective. In a briefing note to Forests’ Minister Doug Donaldson, project lead Shawn Hedges, former Director of Sustainability and Forestry in the Chief Forester’s Office, characterized the contract as requiring an assessment of “How glyphosate use supports the overarching objective of promoting the establishment of healthy and diverse forests.” (Emphasis added.)
The final report did just that, failing to question the underlying raison d’être of spraying the fire-resistant deciduous forest type, which is known to sequester the most carbon and absorb the least amount of solar radiation.
Instead, it claimed glyphosate spraying has a “minimal impact on forest ecosystems” despite admitting—or perhaps boasting—“it is very effective because it is easily translocated within the target plant, and usually kills it.”
More significantly, it concluded “glyphosate remains an important tool for establishing conifer or conifer–deciduous mixed stands and ensuring future timber supply,” just as government statements appeared to request.
A record of the report’s evolution suggests that conclusion shifted as the report was reworked. A leaked draft version suggests interference from the Chief Forester’s Office’s had resulted in removal of contradictory evidence and affirmation that deciduous trees can only ever be a threat to the “timber supply.”
For example, in the leaked draft, numerous statements are made that indicate deciduous forest types can diversify landscapes in the face of climate change and reduce wildfire. This would suggest glyphosate spraying of fire-resistant deciduous forest is neither in the public interest nor in the interest of growing “healthy and diverse forests.”
These statements were deleted.
The statement that “a potential expansion of deciduous species in boreal forests, either occurring naturally or through landscape management, could offset some of the impacts of climate change on the occurrence of boreal wildfires” was removed.
Mention of a 2001 study that quantified the exponentially greater burn potential of pine forests compared with aspen, which showed pine burned 840 percent more area than aspen over a 36-year period, was removed. A detailed explanation of the Canadian Forest Service’s Fire Behaviour Prediction system, which quantifies the fire-resistance of deciduous versus various types of conifer forests, was also removed.
A forest fire burned through this pine plantation but was stopped cold by a grove of aspen. Deciduous stands make forests much more fireproof, but they have little commercial value. So logging companies want to use glyphosate spray to get rid of deciduous growth so more-profitable conifers can be planted.
These key statements would have portrayed aspen as a potential benefit to the timber supply by significantly reducing wildfire. This, however, would contradict the baseline assumption of the report, that any “increases in deciduous volume in a stand negatively affect conifer volume.” Indeed, the conclusion notes that glyphosate must be sprayed to “ensure stand productivity and sustainable timber supply.”
The final report did keep some qualified statements about deciduous fire resistance, but cast doubt on their effectiveness in the recommendations. The report concludes that “the level at which vegetation management (i.e. deciduous suppression) affects the risk of wildfire is not clearly understood,” a statement that the burn rates they had previously deleted showed to be untrue.
Key statements in the draft document that showed more deciduous could help with climate change adaptation were also deleted.
In the leaked draft, mention of the adaptation strategy of “promoting stand-scale species diversity (e.g. retain broadleaves and plant more species)”, was deleted. The admission that vegetation management, including glyphosate application, “can impact stand-scale and landscape-scale species diversity,” was deleted. A statement mentioning the “need for forested landscapes that are resilient to management actions and a range of potential future climates” addressing “the anticipated impacts of fire, insects, and disease,” was also deleted.
In fact, all the statements suggesting that more deciduous on the landscape would benefit timber supply by facilitating adaptation to climate change, reducing wildfire and mitigating pest outbreaks, were deleted. The report completely denied—despite plentiful evidence to the contrary—that deciduous species could contribute in any way whatsoever to creating “healthy and diverse” forests.
The only time the authors begrudgingly mentioned this possibility- that deciduous species are important- was to dismiss it on the dubious basis that spraying does not, in fact, suppress the deciduous! The suggestion was that enough deciduous remained on sprayed blocks to address these risks.
To make this claim, the report had to deny that glyphosate is an incredibly powerful herbicide against deciduous plant communities, especially aspen.
While on one hand the report admits glyphosate “is very effective because it is easily translocated within the target plant, and usually kills it,” the authors were careful not to quantify the immense destructive power of this herbicide. They ignored findings that treatments can kill 92 percent of aspen within 10 years of spraying. That statistic comes from a 2000 government study they were aware of—and listed in the bibliography—but which they did not quote in the actual report.
Secondly, they assumed the deciduous species that survive the glyphosate and which are counted in the free-to-grow surveys of sprayed blocks, remain viable and competitive parts of the forest. Those surveys, completed shortly after spraying, show 15 percent of the trees in sprayed BC Interior blocks are deciduous after spraying. However, the authors completely ignored, and did not measure, the potential for contamination of the remnant deciduous with sub-lethal quantities of glyphosate that affect the physiology, survival, and resilience of deciduous plants in unknown ways.
In any case, the report’s conclusion that the small amount of surviving aspen (of unknown health) is enough to mitigate wildfire or climate change impacts, is completely unsupported by the evidence. The Fire Behaviour Prediction system clearly shows pure deciduous patches are critical to fire-resistance. Forests with even 75 percent deciduous are significantly more flammable than forests with 100 percent deciduous. So, for the report to conclude that a small percentage of surviving deciduous (likely contaminated and with low prospects of competitiveness) means the concerns of landscape adaptation to climate change and more wildfire have been met, is ridiculous and contradicted by the evidence the authors deleted and the details of the Fire Behaviour Prediction system they did not mention.
The authors also claimed that “the area comprised of deciduous–mixed stands has been increasing over time as a result of forest management activities in general.”
This was an unsourced claim, but appears to rely on the misrepresentation of one of the only studies we have on this, the 2008 Forest and Range Evaluation Program Report #14. That document does show that deciduous have increased—as they do after logging in line with natural succession—but only up until 1987. Since then, more intensive deciduous-suppression practices have actually led to an increase in monoculture conifer forests, documented in this same report. Deciduous/mixed stands are no longer "increasing." We can assume this has only grown worse in the past 14 years, but unfortunately there has been no update to this report.
Modern monoculture pine plantations in the foreground and background, while a more natural distribution of deciduous and coniferous is shown in the middle, the result of logging in 1972 and natural regeneration.
We can, however, look at what the law says. The near-extermination of deciduous is, in fact, legally required. The authors of the report do mention the obscure regulation that requires it, section 46.11 of the Forest Planning and Practices Regulations. But the extreme logic of timber supply maximization that underpins it, goes unmentioned. The end effect of 46.11(2)(b)(ii) is the requirement of 95 percent conifer domination of cutblocks under almost every major Forest Stewardship Plan in BC. There is no minimum deciduous requirement. Companies have an incentive to exceed the 95 percent threshold to ensure compliance. So 100 percent of pure deciduous patches are, in fact, regularly sprayed and brushed, to ensure 95 percent conifer domination, lest some deciduous grow back.
The report completely denies the fact that current regulations and practices are responsible for forests of less diversity than the natural regeneration of the 1970s and ’80s, a troubling trend that is maladapting our forests to climate change and making them more vulnerable to pests and fire.
Which individual was responsible for this selective parsing of logic and fact is uncertain, as evidence of who made the edits of subsequent versions of this report were withheld by government. But the Chief Forester’s Office would be responsible for ensuring the final report was indeed objective. It is apparent that this did not happen, not only with respect to the role of aspen in mitigating climate change effects and wildfire, and how current practice undermines this, but also in maintaining biodiversity.
The section on wildlife, biodiversity and glyphosate is particularly troubling. It quotes literature saying biodiversity on sprayed blocks is unaffected by glyphosate and makes the dubious claim that moose benefit from it.
A close analysis reveals that not one of these studies considers potential contamination or the long-term effects on biodiversity and moose food subsequent to crown closure. The fundamental forest-type conversion from deciduous to conifer has massive and long-lasting impacts on associated biodiversity and forest function. Deciduous forests are widely recognized to have the highest biodiversity values in the boreal forest, with the highest carrying capacity for species like moose and beaver, with exponentially more insects, birds and plant species.
Recent government moose-collar research in Central BC shows that moose select for deciduous forests in all study areas and all seasons. The claim that moose benefit from spraying ignores the big picture; the entire purpose of glyphosate spraying is to shift the long-term forest structure away from preferred deciduous forest types to less-productive conifer plantation forest types. The possibility there may be more forage opportunities that recover in years 4-11 on a sprayed block prior to crown closure, which is itself a doubtful conclusion, does not alter this fact.
A recent study based on radio-collar tracking shows moose prefer foraging in deciduous stands, contrary to the report’s claims.
Finally, the report falsified and downplayed watershed protections. Quoting 73(1) of the Integrated Pest Management Regulation the report claims that the laws “require the maintenance of pesticide-free zones around water features, dry streams, and classified wetlands.”
This is not true. Section 74 of the regulations authorizes numerous exceptions to 73(1) allowing the direct spraying of the vast majority of dry streams. So, in fact, there are no pesticide-free zones for the vast majority of dry streams.
Nor did the report mention that section 75 (5)(d) authorizes direct over-spraying of open water smaller than 25 square meters in late summer, which are typically much larger and more productive the rest of the year. They also failed to mention the pesticide-free zone is only 10 meters to any fish-bearing waterway for helicopters spraying from an elevation of several hundred feet, with drift documented as far as 800 meters away. Any objective analysis would have recognized these pesticide free zones are inadequate.
Photo of helicopter spraying
It is doubtful such misleading statements and analyses were made due to unprofessionalism and incompetence. This report was reviewed by Chief Forester Diane Nicholls, Deputy Chief Forester Shane Berg and senior ministry staff. We should hope they know how to read regulations. Assuming they do, this misinformation is a violation of the public trust.
In short, taxpayers spent close to $100,000 on a report that intentionally edited and omitted information to mislead the public on the realities of glyphosate spraying of BC forests and its consequences.
We will never know whether or not senior staff in the Chief Forester’s Office orchestrated the biased outcome of this report. But they did select an organization with industry links and funding who hired industry researchers to write the report, and we know senior staff on at least one occasion characterized the directive given to them as showing how glyphosate “supports” forestry.
We also know the Chief Forester’s Office accepted this flawed report as an acceptable use of taxpayer money. They oversaw and witnessed, and were perhaps directly responsible for, the suppression of key information that would challenge the underlying belief that glyphosate use supports “healthy and diverse” forests. They approved a report where any role deciduous could play in protecting timber supply—by reducing landscape wildfire and disease outbreaks—was either systematically suppressed or misrepresented by the false assumptions of deciduous survival.
There is little doubt that in the writing and re-writing of this report the power of a critical institution—the Chief Forester’s Office—was intentionally abused. The public interest was undermined. The report was designed to allow a key practice of modern forestry to continue: The maximization of coniferous timber supply by eliminating deciduous species. The risks that glyphosate spraying and conifer-dominated monocrop plantations pose to the future resilience of the landscape, the timber supply, and to public health and safety don’t—evidently—measure up to what’s most important to the current Chief Forester’s Office: the health of forestry company profits.
Read part 2 here.
James Steidle grew up south of Prince George in the bush and worked as a treeplanter for 3 years and in Clear Lake Sawmills for 4 years. He currently runs a woodworking company and works with aspen wherever he can. He is a founder of Stop the Spray B.C.