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  • On the Subject of Old Growth Forests

    John Innes

    Comment from the former Dean of the UBC Faculty of Forestry, published on UBC's website.


    MUCH HAS BEEN MADE about the future of old-growth forests in British Columbia. Global media interest is intense, partly because of the coverage of protestors being arrested while demonstrating against the logging of old-growth on southern Vancouver Island. These arrests were made not for demonstrating, which in British Columbia is generally a lawful activity, but for violating an injunction issued by the British Columbia legal system.

    I have been asked by those on one side of the argument why I have not added my voice to those demanding an immediate stop to old-growth logging. Conversely, I’ve also been asked by those on the other side why I don’t condemn the people who are making those demands. Here, I will express my opinion as Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at UBC. This is not the Faculty’s opinion – there is no such thing, as we are a community of individuals, each with their own opinion. While very occasionally we all agree on something, the more normal situation is for a variety of views to be held on any particular subject. As I indicate below, what I can and cannot say is influenced by my position as Dean, and if I was writing this as a faculty member and researcher, I would express myself differently.

    As with many issues and causes reported in the media, the situation with old-growth conservation in British Columbia is a lot more complex than most people suppose. There has been a great deal of obfuscation, to the extent that the facts are quite difficult to ascertain. For example, it has been stated that that there is only 3% of old-growth left in the province of British Columbia. This is untrue. As defined by the provincial government (and there should be questions being asked about the scientific validity of this definition), there is somewhere between 13 and 14 million hectares of old-growth left in British Columbia. About 10 million ha of this is either protected or excluded from the Timber Harvesting Land Base (THLB) because it is not considered to be economically feasible to harvest. Much of this forest (an estimated 80%) consists of relatively small, low-productivity forest, but which nevertheless provides many environmental benefits, including important habitat for many species and a significant carbon store.

    Many concerns centre on the remaining areas of so-called “productive old-growth forest”. This is a misnomer, since virtually all forests are productive, but some are more productive than others. The area of this that is left is subject to dispute, and it very much depends on how it is calculated. The truth is, there has been no complete survey of old-growth in British Columbia, and all estimates are ultimately based on models, developed from several forms of sometimes conflicting inventory data. The claims that there are only 3% left are based on estimates calculated using methods based on the Vegetation Resources Inventory site index. However, this has long been known to underestimate the productive area in mature and old stands. More reliable estimates of the area of mature and old stands can be gained from the Provincial Site Productivity Layer, but this also has serious shortcomings. On 24 June, the provincial government announced the creation of Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel. “The purpose of the Panel is to provide maps, analysis, and detailed status of old-growth ecosystems in British Columbia in order to improve public information, consistent with recommendation #5 from the Old Growth Strategic Review. The Panel will also provide recommendations on priority areas for implementation of deferrals, consistent with recommendation #6 from the Old Growth Strategic Review.” This is a critical step, and I am pleased that it has finally been taken. However, it will not be able to address the problem of the poor state of forest inventory in British Columbia.

    It is clear, especially on Vancouver Island, that many of the magnificent stands of valley-bottom old growth have been logged. The surviving forest in the valley bottom at Carmanah provides an indication of what these forests were once like. These stands were not only some of the most valuable in British Columbia, but also some of the most readily accessible. These were generally located in Coastal Western Hemlock forests. In drier areas, Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems predominated, and many of these have been lost due to land-use change and fires. Already the smallest and rarest of the ecological zones in BC, old-growth CDF forests are believed to have been reduced to less than 1% of their former extent, and any unprotected remaining stand warrant immediate protection. 

    Should this protection be extended to all old-growth forests in British Columbia? I am reminded of a report produced by the Joint Australian and New Zealand Conservation Council and the Ministerial Council on Forestry, Fisheries and Aquaculture National Forest Policy Statement Implementation Sub-Committee (JANIS for short) back in 1997. This argued for the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate, and representative reserve system for old-growth forests. Their recommendations were quite specific:

    • 15% of the pre-1750 distribution of each forest type

    • 60% of existing distributions of each forest type, if vulnerable

    • 60% of existing old-growth forest

    • 90% or more of high-quality wilderness forest

    • All remaining occurrences of rare and endangered forest ecosystems

    They were dealing with very different types of forests to those found in British Columbia, but something similar could be imagined for prioritizing the conservation of old-growth forests in BC. We would also want to make sure that any conservation policy addressed the vexed question of “how much is enough?”

    So why won’t I specifically attempt to discredit some of the claims that are being made by either side? The Faculty of Forestry is a community of researchers with a broad diversity of opinions, something that we both value and encourage. Every person is entitled to their opinion, and is entitled to express it. As Dean, it is my role to protect those rights. That is what academic freedom is all about. As a scientist myself, I could question some of what is being said, but I have to be extremely careful in doing so because of my position as Dean. Ultimately, I have to maintain impartiality, as there is a significant power imbalance between myself and the people who work in my Faculty, and university discussions are increasingly being viewed through such a lens. Faculty members are becoming increasingly astute at using the media to convey their opinions. Some have crossed an invisible line between science and advocacy, but that is both their choice, and their right. If they are wrong, it may affect their credibility in the future, but that again is their choice. When they have had a major success in their efforts, we can, and should, congratulate individuals for their achievements, even if we don’t agree with what they are saying.

    I have been misquoted in the media as being critical of the Old Growth Strategy Review produced by Garry Merkel and Al Gorley. I have never been critical of this report, and I am pleased that the provincial government has agreed to follow through on its recommendations. However, I have read these recommendations very carefully, and I believe that they are more thoughtful than many people realize. The report recommends a way forward that takes into account the requirement to meet the needs of truth and reconciliation. The BC Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act has not simply shifted the goalposts. It has changed everything. Everyone is going to have to get used to that. The report does not recommend the immediate implementation of all recommendations, but instead indicates that they will take time, as all paradigm shifts do. They do, however, recommend that as an immediate strategy, the province should: “Until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss”. This is not a recommendation to immediately defer all old-growth logging in BC.

    The management of old-growth in British Columbia is inadequate, as pointed out by the Forest Practices Board in their 2012 investigation. In their submission to the Old Growth Review Panel, they pointed out that little has changed since their 2012 report. The designation, enforcement, and subsequent monitoring of Old Growth Management Areas in BC is deeply deficient. This needs to change.

    However, this is not the only area of forest management policy in need of substantial change. The provincial government’s recent Intentions paper signals a willingness to address some of the issues, including a much-needed overhaul of the outdated BC Forests Act. The question remains as to how much the government will actually be able to achieve, especially given the lack of capacity in the relevant Ministries. Garry Merkel, one of the authors of the Old Growth Strategy Review, and a member of the new Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, has repeatedly emphasized in the media that British Columbia must go through a paradigm change in the way that we manage our forests, and this is the area that is least well-reflected in the Intentions paper.

    Getting more involved with some issues is problematic. For example, I have been criticized for not showing more “leadership” during the Fairy Creek protests. That was an interesting statement and made me think. Should I have been supporting Teal Jones, who have a license issued by the provincial government to log in the area and the agreement of the First Nation leadership whose traditional territory it lies within? Should I have been supporting the RCMP in their efforts to enforce the law? Should I have been supporting the Pacheedaht First Nation? If so, should I have been supporting those in agreement with the logging, or those standing against it? Should I have been supporting the protestors, convinced of the justice of their cause, but acting in defiance of an injunction and against the expressed wishes of the elected leadership of the Pacheedaht? Maybe I should have been trying to broker a solution, but that was already happening behind closed doors on a government-to-government basis.

    Rather than jumping in uninvited, there are other ways to show leadership, and I think we are doing that. For the past seven years, we have been building a proposal for an Indigenous Land Stewardship Centre. We’re still working on this; although the proposal is complete, permission to start has not been granted. In developing this, we have faced indifference, intransigence, and the occasional outburst of outright racism, but this concept, co-developed between the Faculty and Indigenous partners, and with a similarly co-designed undergraduate program, is exactly what is needed today. It is no coincidence that the Squamish Nation have listed lack of capacity as one of the difficulties facing the resource management planning that is needed to resolve some of the old-growth questions.

    What about the forest industry, and the people dependent on it? 27% of British Columbia’s annual cut consists of old-growth. That rises to more than 50% on Vancouver Island. Stopping that harvest immediately would cause major hardship for many individuals, communities, and companies. Many working in the forest sector are highly leveraged, and even a temporary loss of income could have disastrous consequences for their ability to service debt. For others, it would mean job losses, and all the problems and distress that that entails. This is why Garry Merkel and Al Gorley talked about a transition period, giving time to adjust to the new reality. Of course, that would mean continued cutting of old-growth, but this could be directed away from the areas most in need of conservation, potentially reducing (but not eliminating) the impacts.

    Just before Easter this year, we submitted a report to the BC Premier’s Office and several BC Ministries recommending major changes to the BC forest sector, including changes in the way forestry is planned, practiced, and regulated, changes to the tenure system, involvement of carbon conservation, and changes towards a future bioeconomy. While receipt of the report was not acknowledged, and there has been no discussion of its contents with government, I was pleased that many of the recommendations we made were the same as appeared in the recent Intentions paper. I, and I hope the rest of the Faculty, remain open to working with government to help design some of the much-needed change that is so clearly needed.


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