Favourable biogeoclimatic conditions on the Discovery Islands make this area well-suited for sequestration of atmospheric carbon and long-term safe storage of forest carbon, an important strategy in mitigating climate change.
Douglas fir veterans on the peninsula at Hummingbird Lake, Quadra Island
THERE ARE TWO MAIN WAYS in which clearcut logging on the Discovery Islands is resulting in increased concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change.
First, when a forest stand is converted to a clearcut, the process of carbon sequestration—the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the subsequent long-term storage of carbon in the forest—is brought to a sudden halt. Modern agroforestry, which liquidates natural forests and turns them into short-rotation plantations, results in a profound decline in the level of carbon sequestration capacity, the magnitude of which is described below.
Secondly, logging a forest initiates a premature return to the atmosphere of most of the carbon sequestered by that forest. This occurs both rapidly (intentional slash pile burning and combustion of the residual biomass by forest fires) and more gradually (decomposition of the dead biomass left in the clearcut). It also occurs through decomposition of manufactured wood products over time, which BC’s forests ministry has shown occurs much more rapidly than if the forest had been left to store the carbon.
To understand why we need to conserve more forests just to reduce logging’s considerable impact on climate change, we need to understand why modern forestry practices cause such a large loss of carbon sequestration capacity. We also need to comprehend the vast quantity of carbon that’s being prematurely returned to the atmosphere as a consequence of logging. Let’s start with modern forestry’s plan to limit the maximum age of forests to around 60 years and the impact that has on carbon sequestration capacity.
Through photosynthesis, trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their trunk, branches, roots and foliage. On the Discovery Islands, forests are able to continue this process of sequestering and storing carbon for hundreds of years. The widespread presence of large stumps on these islands—and a few remaining primary forests with large trees in them (we have found trees greater than 500 years of age on Quadra)—are proof that the islands’ forests have great potential for safe, long-term carbon sequestration and storage.
When the idea of managing BC’s forests on the basis of “sustained yield” was first promoted in the middle of the 20th century, forest managers were promising that the period of time between consecutive cuts would be 100 to 120 years. Now, though, it is not uncommon in BC for plantations of only 45 to 60 years of age to be logged. That rotation period will result in a much lower level of carbon sequestration than would have occurred naturally. How much lower?
This project’s analysis of ministry of forests’ growth and yield data shows that allowing forests to grow to 300 years of age would result in approximately 3.7 times as much tonne-years of carbon storage as would be the case if those forests were cut every 60 years over that 300-year period.
It’s necessary to understand that the dimension of time—how many years a tonne of carbon is kept out of the atmosphere—must be taken into consideration when comparing the long-term climate impact of a tonne of sequestered carbon. If it is kept out of the atmosphere for 10 years, the impact will be 10 times greater than if it is only sequestered for 1 year.
The four graphs below are based on ministry of forests’ yield curves for Douglas fir stands of various growing conditions (site index). The first illustration shows a typical yield curve used by the ministry to project expected growth in cubic metres per hectare. The exact numbers and units don’t really matter in this exercise; we are simply going to give you a sense of how the impact of carbon sequestered by forests that will be logged every 60 years compares with the impact of carbon sequestered in a forest that is left to grow for at least 300 years. So we start with a typical yield curve:
The solid green area in the graph below illustrates the tonne-years that would be sequestered on a hectare of forest over 300 years where the site index is 30. This is what would happen if a hectare of newly planted Douglas fir was left to grow. It’s also a rough approximation of what happens naturally in areas that have low levels of natural disturbance, such as forest fires.
The graph below illustrates the tonne-years of carbon that would be sequestered on that same hectare, but logged 5 times over those 300 years, with each cut 60 years apart.
The graph below compares the tonne-years of carbon sequestered over 300 years without logging and the tonne-years of carbon sequestered over 300 years with logging every 60 years.
As mentioned above, logging every 60 years results in only about one-quarter of the tonne-years of carbon that would be sequestered by a given area of forest if it was left to grow. Over millions of hectares, this is a very large loss in carbon sequestration capacity, and a significant threat to climate stability. A caveat about this comparison: It assumes there would be no loss in soil productivity as a result of removing much of the biomass from the hectare of forest every 60 years. More likely, there would be a loss in site productivity and so the loss in carbon sequestration capacity would likely be greater than 80 percent.
This same degree of loss occurs over the full range of site index.
One argument offered by the logging industry to temper this loss is the idea that manufactured wood products would result in the safe storage of carbon. But BC ministry of forests’ own research, as illustrated by the graph below, has shown that only 20 percent of the carbon “stored” in manufactured forest products is still “stored” after 100 years. The rest has been released to the atmosphere.
In the future, if trees are harvested at a much younger age than in the past, as is planned, a much smaller volume of the tree will be suitable for long-lived products and a greater volume will be used for ephemeral uses such as wood pellets for burning in thermal electricity generating plants.
The Discovery Islands Forest Conservation Project is tracking the volume of logging on the islands and its impact on the carbon sequestration capacity of island forests.
Now let’s consider the second way that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is increased by logging.
When forests are logged, not only is there a sudden halt to carbon sequestration, but almost all the carbon that was stored in the biomass of that forest begins to be released to the atmosphere. Although this decomposition occurs over an extended period of time, by international convention the date on which emissions are considered to have been released is on the date the forest was logged.
The image below illustrates the problem in a nutshell. These piles of wasted biomass, created by TimberWest on Quadra Island, were burned soon after this photo was taken. If the piles had been left unburned, they would have constituted an even higher fire hazard than does the fuel-laden clearcut and plantation that exists there now.
Logging slash piles on TimberWest-Mosaic clearcut on Quadra Island in 2020. These piles were later burned.
As mentioned above, the shorter the period of time between successive cuts, the smaller the trees and the greater the percentage of each tree that is wasted because it is too small and uneconomic to be removed from the clearcut and processed into something other than short-lived pellets.
The Discovery Islands Forest Conservation Project is tracking the volume of forest logged on publicly-owned land on the Discovery Islands each year and is calculating the forest carbon emissions and loss of carbon sequestration associated with that logging. We are using the methodology developed by the Evergreen Alliance.
June 22, 2020
Canada’s plan to include emissions from logging in carbon calculations points towards a new economic model whereby communities manage (and save) their forests for carbon storage.
BRITISH COLUMBIA’S DIRTIEST SECRET—destruction of one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and releasing more emissions than any other province or sector through logging, slashburning and exacerbating fire through failed management—is about to enter the national public record. The logging industry and complicit governments will still continue their polite fiction that depositing pennies, i.e., planting trees, will compensate for robbing the carbon bank of billions, i.e., clearcutting our high carbon storage temperate rainforests, but they can’t sing that song forever.
This January with the release of Canada’s 4th Biennial Report on Climate Change, Canada announced its change in approach to accounting for emissions from the forestry sector (included in the category Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) towards its 2030 emission reduction target.
This means that when we see those bar charts with emissions from different sectors—like oil and gas, transportation, buildings, electricity, heavy industry—forestry will be there too. And you’ll notice it because it will be the red bar that rises above everything else.
As expected, industries’ hand is still evident in the writing of the report: they don’t have to report emissions of harvested wood immediately; they don’t have to report fire in industrial clearcuts/plantations as one of their human-caused emissions; they buried the burning of wood pellets in the energy sector in the hopes that they can chip and burn the last of the old growth.
Still, it won’t take long for the bright young minds who will inherit this planet to see that even though they are still buried and scattered, the numbers can be pulled together. And when you add up all the emissions, logging in BC is the worst polluting industry in the nation.
Schmidt Creek June 2020.m4v
Above, part of a 30-hectare clearcut in Vancouver Island’s Schmidt Creek Valley. Each year, approximately 180,000 hectares of Crown forest in BC are clearcut. That’s equivalent to 6000 clearcuts the size of that pictured above. The carbon released to the atmosphere is far greater than Alberta’s oilsands projects. (Photo by Mark Worthing)
Logging hits twice in the climate equation—once with the release of huge emissions and again with the removing of the mature forests that pull the CO2 out of the atmosphere. It takes a plantation of seedlings two human generations to catch up to a mature forest in pulling the same amount of carbon out of the air; it will be over a century or two (depending on the forest) to replenish the overall storage of carbon. The forest industry likes to deceive the public by saying that forests are renewable, but they forget to add “one day.”
One of these bright minds is Joseph Pallant, who with his organization Ecotrust Canada, is proposing a system that would fund local communities across Canada to conserve and restore their forests.
This is not a Trudeau stop-gap plan to just plant trees, but a real plan for meaningful ongoing livelihoods to restore damaged forests, conserve existing forests and manage forests with the climate in mind. It prioritizes good ecosystem planning, assesses climate impact, and establishes tools to monitor progress. Polluters pay for rural communities to reduce emissions and increase sinks while upholding international conventions on biodiversity, indigenous rights and climate. To get these projects up and running, we need three reforms in federal government policy: First, a methodology (or defensible way) to estimate, quantify and report on the climate, community and biodiversity aspects of a proposed project. There are lots of examples elsewhere, including California. Second, a national fund to invest in improved forest carbon, community and ecosystem outcomes. And third, a way to register these emissions reductions and improvements in carbon storage as part of Canada’s progress toward the Paris Agreement.
Having a Forest Carbon Economy Fund would draw its inspiration from innovations in the low carbon economy such as carbon offsets, community-controlled forests and Indigenous Guardian programs. Ecotrust Canada has been innovating in this space over the last 25 years and has worked on a variety of projects that are feeding into this new approach.
The Cheakamus Community Forest Offset Project, developed by Brinkman Climate and Ecotrust Canada, is managed in partnership by Whistler, the Squamish Nation and Lil’wat Nation. The project earns significant revenue from sales of carbon offsets, allowing the Community Forest to implement an Ecosystem-Based Management Plan, reduce harvest by 50 percent and double riparian buffers. It protects more old growth, wildlife management areas, and keeps more carbon on the ground. Their carbon revenue funds work to tackle the interrelated risks of fire, drought and flooding, stops clearcutting, and increases resilience in the forest and around the community.
The Cheakamus project, like many of the high-quality offset projects in BC, is developed to the provincial carbon offset standard built to supply the Province’s “Carbon Neutral Government” commitment. Implemented under the Campbell government and continued today, all schools, hospitals, universities and core government operations must be carbon neutral. Some funding was given in the early days to implement energy efficiency at these facilities, and they all track and report their emissions annually. Any emissions that are not reduced (currently around 700,000tCO2e/year) must be offset by BC offsets from projects like the Cheakamus project, the Great Bear Rainforest project and others.
This system was set to be a trial run, and test for a larger cap-and-trade program that Gordon Campbell had legislated to begin in 2012 for large polluters. Alas, Christie Clark struck that law off the books, and John Horgan’s NDP never brought it back.
A second governmental market for offsets in BC exists at the local government level. It is a polluter-pay model and comes from Gordon Campbell’s surprising legacy of legislating local governments into carbon neutrality. While full carbon neutrality was originally the commitment, it got watered down to “make progress to carbon neutrality.” A few local governments have continued to achieve neutrality through organizational emissions reductions and offsets, such as Whistler and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. As Pallant states: “Local governments across the country are aware of the climate emergency, but many haven’t taken the opportunity to reduce their footprint in line with the science. Development of regional carbon offset projects like Cheakamus offer a compelling way for local governments to bolster their climate action, along with emissions reductions achieved in their operations.”
After a flurry of innovation, action and successful project development a decade ago, there are still startlingly few offset projects in Canada. Ecotrust Canada has a project under way in the Northeast Superior region of Ontario supporting “improved forest management” a fancy name for ecosystem management on a newly established, 1.5 million hectare “Enhanced Sustainable Forest License” with six Indigenous communities. This project was being developed to issue offsets under the Ontario cap and trade program, but a combination of slow offset protocol development by the government, and the Conservative government’s scrapping of cap and trade was a real setback.
There is now hope for change, with the federal government currently developing a national offset system as part of their Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change. Ecotrust Canada and many other organizations hope that this can drive resources into the important work of community-led emissions reductions projects throughout the country.
Since Christie Clark’s slashburn of progressive carbon policy, the only other way to generate revenue to finance the higher costs of ecosystem forestry and conservation has been voluntary offset markets or donations through the traditional non-profit sector. According to Pallant, “It’s very difficult to raise the capital and take the risk to develop a truly additional, high quality offset project without an expectation of being able to sell the outcomes, only issued years down the road, into a stable market. It’s exciting that the Canadian government has indicated its strong support in its Pan Canadian climate framework.”
Pallant acknowledges that there has been lots of international criticism—some warranted—around offsets in the first 25 years of their use as a transition tool to a new climate economy. He also recognizes the advancements that have been made to ensure that cultural and social equity issues are addressed. He states: “The federal move to create payment-for-performance carbon projects, but basing them on true carbon accounting with goals of lowering the national emissions, will have huge implications for First Nations and other land rights and title holders.”
“How will it look?” is the big question that Pallant is hoping to help answer at the federal level. We know there are models out there that promise rural economic development based on longterm nurturing of the forests—rather than mancamps bent on destruction. This begins to look like the future we are all waiting for.
For more on Ecotrust’s proposal, see https://ecotrust.ca/latest/blog/forest-carbon-economy-fund-a-new-pathway-for-funding-forest-carbon-and-biodiversity-outcomes/
Briony Penn is the award-winning author of non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side, and, most recently, Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
May 14, 2020
A new tool allows citizens to measure the carbon storage and health of their local forests—before they are cut down.
FOREST SCIENTIST Dr. Nicholas Coops from UBC and his two colleagues, Dr. Joseph Landsburg (Australia) and Dr. Richard Waring (Oregon), recently won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in forestry—the Marcus Wallenberg Prize—for their work on an open-source model that allows anyone to predict how their forests are growing in real time.
The tool, called 3PG (Physiological Principles Predicting Growth), can be set up on most computers and will tell you how your local forest is doing and predict what the future might be as climate conditions change. Using available data sets from weather stations that measure temperature, moisture and tree level information from long-term forest plots, coupled with remote sensing data from satellites or LIDAR, we can now answer questions like: How much carbon is being sequestered by this patch of trees? How much carbon was released by that clearcut? How will biodiversity hot spots do in the future? How can we prevent insect outbreaks? How are certain species doing through spring and summer droughts? What if we increase the number of nurse logs in this patch? Is it helping the stressed trees?
The model can be scaled from my tiny patch of forest of 60-year-old Douglas-fir to diverse tracts of forest across the planet. Any student or planner with an interest in forests and climate can adapt the model to local forest data.
It was a tool originally devised for forestry managers to manage plantations, but has much wider applications, according to Coops, including understanding what our Douglas fir forests are going to look like in the future.
To understand why this is hopeful, it is important to start with a refresher on forests and climate change. Currently the only things on the planet that remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere are plants—either on land, in water or sea. CO2 is sequestered by the forest through everything that photosynthesizes: trees, shrubs, moss, etc and is then processed into carbon which the forest stores in what we call carbon pools: trunks, branches, bark, roots, leaves, shrubs, soil, litter and coarse woody debris (nurse logs, wildlife trees). The plants pull out the carbon and release the oxygen (O2) to the atmosphere. The rate at which they they do that and how they store it, is the complicated part.
Storing carbon depends on complex ecological relationships between species of trees, other plants, lichens and fungi, the soil, the forest litter and detritus, aspect, moisture, temperature and nutrients. It is a big dynamic system and taken at a provincial, national or international level has a great many complexities. At the forest stand level, however, it becomes far more understandable and relevant.
Using the new 3PG tool on my acreage, we assess how each of the different tree species are doing, their height, age and diameter and how much carbon they pull out of the atmosphere on a daily to annual basis and have stored over the last 60 years, and where it is stored.
My forest stores about 1,468 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per hectare (it is actually stored as just carbon but it is expressed as CO2e so we can understand the implications if it is released back into the atmosphere). Two hundred tonnes of that is in the soil, another 200 tonnes in the detritus, about 500 in the trunks/stems and the rest in the branches, bark and shrub layers. Every hectare of my forest is pulling about 14 tonnes of CO2e out of the atmosphere a year.
There is always some natural decaying going on, where the carbon isn’t stored but released back into the atmosphere. This relationship between decay and sequestering is expressed in a figure called “forest growth minus decay.” In a healthy forest like mine, forest growth far exceeds forest decay. In an unhealthy forest where drought decreases the moisture retained in the soil and increases the respiration of carbon back into the atmosphere, that figure can reverse. There are die-offs already starting in my western red cedars on south-facing, dryer slopes so I’m anticipating that these figures will change.
The model works by using key measurements of certain species acquired from long-term research plots, like the ones around southeastern Vancouver Island of coastal Douglas fir forests from old growth to young ones.
Provincial forest ecologist Andy Mackinnon and federal forester Tony Trofymow set up forest plots in 1992 in response to concerns about the effects of clearcutting and the conversion of coastal old-growth to managed forests. The plots provide information about the growth, structure, diversity and carbon storage of forests at different ages, on different aspects, terrains and microclimates. In 2002, research towers were added to fine tune our understanding of fluxes of carbon and water from different pools based on temperature and precipitation. Fluxnet Canada has three forest plots of different aged coastal Douglas fir, one of which is very similar in age and composition to mine, at Oyster River. Pulses of carbon dioxide are measured from processes like soil respiration, decomposition, litterfall and microclimate changes in soil which change with the time of day, the season, and the year. It allows us to attribute specific events and features to fluxes of ecosystem carbon.
The 3PG model is able to apply this information to whichever forest an enquiry directs it to (small to large) by using remote sensing, like satellite and LIDAR.
Finally, it uses climate forecasts to let you ask questions about what it will look like in the future.
Coastal Douglas fir is uniquely suited to these kinds of tools because it is such a wide-ranging tree, from California to Vancouver Island. If I want to know what my forest will look like in a warmer world, the benchmark data from California forests is there to draw from.
The reason this is important is because if you go to the latest (2017) BC Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory you will discover that over the last 27 years, more than half of all CO2e emissions come from the “Forest Management” sector. Because of a historic federal decision at Kyoto to not include forest management emissions in our inventory, these figures are only included in an appendix. This raises a critical question about how we should respond to these huge emissions and better understand the complex interplay of warming temperatures, greater insect predation, changes in traditional burning practices by First Nations, and modern industrial approaches of salvage clearcut logging. The immensity of the problem requires better tools that can peer right into the different patches of forest and then go back up to 30,000 feet and see the patterns.
To further appreciate the magnitude of the climate crisis as it relates to forestry, remember there are two sides of a carbon equation: on one side is our need to reduce our emissions; on the other is our need to protect and increase our sinks. Ignoring emissions from forestry is a double hit to climate change as we send our emissions skyrocketing while removing our sinks.
And I haven’t even added in another sector that is included in our official inventory called “deforestation,” when sinks are converted permanently to non-forest use. Deforestation emissions take the overall number up another 2.5 million tonnes.
But before we unpack these numbers, remember this story started as good news.
I have been writing about climate change and the problematic forest industry for over 30 years and it has mostly been bad news for climate, wildlife, water, fire and flood risk, and cultural survival. No amount of science seems able to shift governing parties away from the status quo and corporate exceptionalism so what will get us to a different future?
Coops’ colleague, Dr. Gary Bull, head of the Forest Resources Management Department at UBC who has equal international standing in his field of forest policy and sustainable economic models that integrate climate change, indigenous rights and ecosystem services, suggests that 3PG gets us one step closer. Putting a forester’s tool in the hands of local people who love their forests and want to improve their resilience to drought, fire and loss of wildlife is a key part of the solution.
It used to be that only forest carbon scientists hired by companies could calculate these complex carbon equations. This led to a lot of carbon myths, myths that provincial forest ecologist Jim Pojar has done a great job of refuting. (https://sierraclub.bc.ca/7-myths-about-forests-carbon-and-climate-change/ )
If you don’t want to take his word for it, though, now you can see for yourself. With this tool, anyone should be able to figure out that if I clearcut even a hectare of my forest, I will immediately release at least half a thousand tonnes of CO2e from the different carbon pools into the atmosphere through various processes: slashpile burning, increased respiration, and decomposition as the forest floor dries.
In the carbon pool called “trunks,” a good proportion would end up as my firewood, and also go up with the smoke. Some might make it as timber for construction, but the emissions from cutting, trucking and processing it would offset the carbon stored in the few pieces of timber that made it into house beams. Within 15 years, most of the carbon in that hectare of forest would be back in the atmosphere.
I would also have shrunk the world’s carbon sink by a hectare and made adjacent forests more vulnerable to rising soil temperature, wind throw, and fire through loss of moisture in the forest.
Replanting my forest is not mitigation. It will be 17 years before the clearcut is not still emitting carbon. And it will be 105 years before I have even caught up with the storage that I had before I cut it down, if ever.
I could have travelled 250 times to Baja in a jet and still not exceeded those emissions, so why are we not taking these actions into our carbon accounting?
Once you get your head around your own local forests, it is much easier to scale up and make sense of the provincial numbers. In the BC inventory, decomposition from clearcutting accounts for 42,034,000 tonnes (this is probably conservative). Slashburn piles account for another 3,990,000 tonnes. Then there is the big whammy for 2017 of wildfire—176,550,000 tonnes. (Spread over the last 27 years, emissions from fires average out to 20,000,000 tonnes a year.) Wildfire is a bit of misnomer because within this category there is no distinction between fires that burn in unlogged forests and fires that burn through clearcuts, but are not technically accounted for under slashburns. An Oregon State University study found that the 2013 Douglas Fire took off when it “hit a sea of clearcuts.” It makes sense, as the driest tinder for any fire is in a clearcut. They are now called “clearcut firebombs” in the research parlance. (See David Broadland’s The Forest-Industrial Complex’s Molotov Cocktails)
Having a fine-tuned tool that can operate with local data is critical to discern exactly what’s going on.
This forest on Quadra Island is slated to be logged, but its carbon sequestration capacity, critical to global efforts to reduce emissions, has not been taken into consideration by government when it determined the area could be logged. Now local citizens will have a tool that allows them to do the carbon calculation and add another science-based argument for conservation.
Bull points out that these new tools and forest research typically take at least a decade to translate into policy, “but,” he adds, “we could adapt pretty damn quickly if we had the political support, legislation and resources to devolve more power and tools to local communities and First Nations.” He has long believed that the path to climate change mitigation and reconciliation of First Nations land issues is through ensuring the economic benefits flow to those that tend the forests. He is working on innovative economic streams from forest stewardship.
The development of open source tools such as 3PG brings down the biggest obstacle in the past: the costs of planning, management and inventory. For communities and regions to assess alternative economic models for rural communities, the right set of tools in the toolbox is critical. Bull states, “Dr. Coops’ tools are essential.”
Coops is enthusiastic about the potential for the model as it puts a free tool into the hands of local people which is the scale that forest management is best done at. Because it is open source, it can be adapted and developed to reflect the amazing research that has gone on already.
One of the improvements Coops hopes to see in the tool, is a way to improve measuring the below-ground carbon and fuel loads across clearcut landscapes. Coops believes this is possible using drones and satellite imagery. He and Trofymow also examined and compared methods for estimating the amounts of woody residues left after harvest of one of the long term forest plots. In 2017, Trofymow remeasured (after 25 years) the carbon in aboveground forest and woody debris on the four east Vancouver Island sites; soils were remeasured in 2019 and are currently being analyzed. The results will be ready in a year or two.
3PG is currently the most widely-used forest growth model of this type in the world, but not here in BC. Asked what his ultimate dream for the model is, Coops responded: “I want to alert citizens about how they can take care of their forests/carbon sinks.”
See https://3pg.forestry.ubc.ca/software/ for the 3PG software tools.
Briony Penn is the award-winning author of non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side, and, most recently, Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa’xaid, a biography of Cecil Paul (Rocky Mountain Books).
The recent fires in southern Australia were unprecedented in scale and severity. Much commentary has rightly focused on the role of climate change in exacerbating the risk of fire. Here, we contend that policy makers must recognize that historical and contemporary logging of forests has had profound effects on these fires' severity and frequency.
David B. Lindenmayer, Robert M. Kooyman, Chris Taylor, Michelle Ward and James E. M. Watson
Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution
The authors found that logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height. Watson has been quoted as saying, "[Logging] can leave up to 450 tonnes of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground—by any measure that's an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes.
"By allowing these practices to increase fire severity and flammability, we undermine the safety of some of our rural communities.
"[Logging] affects wildlife too by creating habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance for many species, with major negative effects on forest wildlife."
You can read the full report here.
There's no reason to believe the impact of logging on the increasing severity of fires in BC, particularly in BC's dry Interior, would be any different from Australia's situation. The BC government has published no scientific analysis of the role clearcut logging has played in increasing fire size and severity in BC.
Wildfires in BC are getting bigger. Much bigger. The forest-industrial complex blames fire suppression. The evidence suggests large areas of fuel-laden clearcuts are changing fire behaviour.
A RECORD COMPILED BY BC GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS since 1990 captures in cold, hard numbers the scale of the ecological apocalypse underway in BC’s Interior forests. The record shows that since 1990, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by wildfires in BC has doubled every nine years.
For the nine years from 1990 to 1998, scientists estimated 52.3 million tonnes (megatonnes) of greenhouse gas emissions were released to the atmosphere by forest fires. From 1999 to 2007, that more than doubled to 120.9 megatonnes. Over the next 9-year period, ending with 2016, the total released doubled again, to 249.8 megatonnes.
In 2017, 1,353 fires burned 1.22 million hectares, including some very large fires, all in BC’s Interior: the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the 545,151-hectare Chilcotin Plateau Fire—which was actually the merging of 20 separate fires—and the 241,160-hectare Hanceville Fire, another merging of smaller fires into a mega-fire.
BC scientists estimated 176.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere by those 2017 fires.
The next year was even worse: 2,117 fires burned 1.36-million hectares. Scientists haven’t yet made public their estimate of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere for that year, but it will likely be close to 200 megatonnes.
Greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires in BC have doubled every nine years since 1990. The last 3 years suggest that rate of increase will continue.
Last year—2019—saw a cooler, wetter summer and a relief for wildfire fighters. Yet the first three years of the current 9-year interval have already released 75 percent of the 500 megatonnes needed to maintain the doubling of the carbon released every nine years.
All of the biggest fires, in both 2017 and 2018, occurred in areas where the impact of Mountain Pine Beetle infestation over the past 20 years has been most intense. The beetles have affected 16 million hectares of BC forests—an area more than five times that of Vancouver Island.
Large areas of the 2017 fires overlapped salvage clearcuts of beetle-killed trees. In a report on the impact of the 2017 fires, the Ministry of Forests noted that about 80 percent of the fires’ area occurred in forests “significantly impacted” by Mountain Pine Beetle. The four largest fires of 2018 also burned in areas damaged by beetle infestation.
The magnitude of the release makes provincial and municipal plans for reducing carbon emissions in BC appear functionally pointless—like trying to drain the Fraser River with a garden hose.
Can anything be done to slow or reverse the trend toward bigger wildfires? That would depend on what’s causing wildfires to be bigger and whether or not humans can reverse the cause.
Recently, the Vancouver Sun reported that two BC forestry scientists, Werner Kurz and Lori Daniels, are representing Canada in “a $1-million partnership between Canadian researchers and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to ‘de-escalate the devastating forest wildfires that are increasingly occurring due to climate change.’”
The Sun reporter, Randy Shore, interviewed Daniels, a professor of forestry at UBC, who told him: “We are paying a huge cost in carbon today because we were so good at putting out fires in the past.”
Daniels believes wildfires are getting bigger because of the build-up of fuel in forests, which Shore described as “fallen needles and dead branches.” If fire hadn’t been suppressed, those needles and dead branches would have been burned off by natural fire.
Daniels offered a solution: “What happens if we thin out the forest and reduce the stress on those trees competing for a limiting resource like soil moisture?...Will the trees left behind grow faster and sequester more carbon? There is lots of evidence that under some circumstances, that is the case.”
For such thinning to be effective at reducing fuel in the forest it would have to be removed. Daniels suggested the possible development of a new biomass economy: “If it is going to be burned, we should do that at high efficiency and displace fossil fuel with a form of sustainable energy. Lots of small communities are still reliant on fossil fuels, so these are linkages that we can make.”
The idea sounds eminently reasonable, doesn’t it? But what if it’s wrong? What if “fire suppression” is not at the heart of escalating wildfires? Do forest scientists ever get things wrong?
The forest-industrial complex—the forest-interested government agencies, industry, universities and media—that has led BC into the black-box carbon trap of exponentially-increasing emissions outlined above, is unable to hold itself accountable for the environmentally disastrous forestry practices it devised that have contributed disproportionately to a warmer climate. Its miscalculation of what was sustainable created giant clearcuts that shrivelled the forests’ ability to sequester carbon. That played a significant role in making winters too warm to kill the Mountain Pine Beetle, and that change was followed by widespread pine mortality, immense areas of salvage clearcuts, and now giant wildfires roaring through those same clearcuts.
Now, it appears, the forest-industrial complex is diverting our attention away from what’s actually happening on the ground. The accumulation of giant clearcuts has altered microclimates and left hundreds of millions of tonnes of fuel on the ground. And now it’s burning, easily ignited by lightning, and affecting fire behaviour.
A BC Wildfire Service air tanker tackles an aggressive wildfire in a clearcut
An August 2018 “incident update” by the BC Wildfire Service describes the “behaviour prediction” for a fire near the Baezaeko River west of Quesnel: “Fire activity will have the potential to challenge control lines; don’t let your guard down. Be aware of gusty winds and the effect on fire behaviour, if only for a short time. The slash blocks have more fuel loading than the standard slash fuel type, expect higher intensity. This higher intensity can cause fire whirls to develop; this would cause rapid fire growth and increased spotting potential.”
“Fire whirls” are like small tornados, formed by the rapid uplift of air in an intense fire. “Spotting” is the ability of fires to send out embers far ahead of a fire and start new fires. Wildfire Service incident updates commonly note the impact of logging slash in clearcuts that makes fires burn more intensely and dangerously.
Yet nowhere to be seen in the forest-industrial complex’s description of what needs to happen now is an examination of the ways in which a landscape increasingly dominated by very large clearcuts has changed the behaviour of fire in BC’s forests. Nowhere to be seen is the option of reducing the volume of timber cut in BC to allow the provincial forests’ carbon sequestration capacity to recover.
Unless you are delusionally optimistic, there’s no reason to believe that feeding tree parts to industrial burners will reduce the acceleration in the thermal destruction of BC’s forests. Once jobs are created to feed the burners, those bio-jobs will become the thing that must be protected at all costs. That way of thinking is what gave BC the beetle infestation in the first place.
The stated belief that the acceleration in wildfire emissions is due to past fire suppression appears destined to become one of the great, all-time dead-end ideas in BC’s short but dramatic history of ecosystem disruption.
Unless there is some real change in the fundamental factor driving this acceleration—the loss of BC forests’ carbon sequestration capacity—then between 2026 and 2034, the fifth nine-year interval in this exponential increase, BC forest fires will produce a total of 1,000 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, or an average of 110 megatonnes per year. The Mountain Pine Beetle infestation affected 16 million hectares of BC forests. Only a small fraction of these have burned, so there’s a high risk of more and bigger fires in the coming years.
An aside to those folks who might think the scientists are purposely overestimating emissions from wildfires in order to justify amping up industrialization of forests: the estimate for 2017 works out to about 50 tonnes of forest carbon per hectare, which is less than what would be left on the ground after an Interior clearcut.
Let’s put the magnitude of the wildfire emissions problem in perspective. BC’s carbon emissions—from all sources except forest-related emissions—totalled 64 megatonnes in 2017. CleanBC, the provincial government’s emissions reduction plan, has so far been able to identify, on paper, just 19 megatonnes of annual reductions it hopes will happen by 2030. LNG Canada at Kitimat will trigger 9 megatonnes. Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands project was going to produce 4 megatonnes. The City of Victoria is targetting about 0.390 megatonnes through its climate action plan.
Compare those drops in the bucket to the 110 megatonnes of annual emissions from forest fires alone that now seem certain to be in our near future. Other net emissions—the loss of forest carbon sequestration capacity and the premature decay of forest carbon initiated by harvesting—caused by BC’s forest industry and tallied in Defusing BC’s big, bad carbon bomb in our last edition—are upwards of 190 megatonnes each year.
It’s the Province’s official position that it can’t do anything about any of these forest-industry-caused emissions. Although the exponential growth in emissions from wildfires outlined above appears in the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, as do other emissions related to BC’s forest industry, they are not counted in BC like your car’s tailpipe emissions. Is that because they don’t impact climate stability? No, it’s because the Province claims nothing can be done about these net emissions.
In the Province’s Methodology Book for the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the authors state that emissions from forest fires “are more volatile and subject to natural factors outside of direct human control and so are not reported as part of BC GHG emissions totals…”
Yet it has become an article of faith of the forest-industrial complex that historical fire suppression by humans is the primary cause of big fires, and big fires mean higher emissions. This official confusion is disconcerting and demands a ground-truthing expedition.
FOLLOWING THE FIRES OF 2017, which included the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the Ministry of Forests’ Pat Byrne, district manager of the 100-Mile House Natural Resource District, told the 100-Mile Free Press in July 2018: “Much of the area that was burned by both the Gustafsen and Elephant Hill fires, they burned over fire-dependent ecosystems…These ecosystems rely on fires as much as the soil and the air and the water they get. It’s how they evolve…The forest relies on a 10 to 15 year fire cycle to thin out the vegetation and create a more open forest…Removing fire from the landscape resulted in a dense forest and created conditions where fire could burn hotter and more aggressively than a natural setting would have ever allowed.”
Byrne told the Free Press: “You’ve got a fire-dependent ecosystem and you exclude fire from it. What do you expect is going to happen?”
The usual refutation of the “fire suppression causes big fires” belief is that “The Big Burn” of 1910 in Idaho, Montana, Washington and BC, occurred before the era of fire suppression had begun. The Big Burn, also known as “The Great Fire,” “The Devil’s Broom,” and “The Big Blow-up,” burned through 1.2 million hectares, which just happens to be about what was burned in BC in 2017.
The Ministry of Forests’ own records show that four of the ten largest fires (in area) in BC’s recorded history occurred before the era of fire suppression began.
If big, aggressive fires occurred before aircraft were able to bomb fires with water and fire retardant, how valid is the forest-industrial complex’s claim that “fire suppression” is the main cause for today’s big fires?
There’s even more-convincing evidence that the fire-suppression-causes-big-fires narrative may be a big smoke screen blown into the talkosphere so the forest industry can cut more trees.
One of the tools that’s available today that allows us to ground-truth the claims of the forest-industrial complex—to actually see what wildfires are burning—is satellite photography. We can compare aerial images taken before a fire with images taken afterward to see what was burned, and how completely it burned.
Satellite photography of the area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire north of Arrowrock Provincial Park shows that much of the area had been severely modified in the last 20 years (below). At the time of the fire, it was mostly regrowth in clearcuts and unplanted clearcuts. In this area there was little “dense forest” left to burn. On Ministry of Forests maps of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, this area is shown as having a 71 to 100 percent rate of “kill” of lodgepole pine, hence the widespread clearcuts left by salvage logging.
(Click image to enlarge) This part of the Elephant Hill Fire, according to Ministry of Forests’ mapping of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, had been heavily impacted by beetle kill. Earlier satellite images, taken after the salvage logging but before the fire, show some areas with regrowth and other areas with none. Only the oldest regrowth survived the 2017 fire. Many thousands of square kilometers of former lodgepole pine forest, killed by beetles and salvaged, were burned in 2017 and 2018. The beetle infestation has affected 16,000,000 hectares of BC forest, only a small fraction of which has been burned by 2020.
The area shown above is typical of the juxtaposition of giant fires and massive clearcuts that are transforming BC’s interior forests into a wasteland. The density of mature forest has been reduced to thin ribbons of dark green separating seemingly endless burned-over clearcuts. Only the roads and wetlands are fireproof.
Satellite imagery allows us to see, close-up, the fate of specific features engulfed by the fires. The images below show one such area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire. The first image below was taken about 2010. It shows clearcuts that have been partially replanted. Note the light green regrowth, the unplanted areas and the extent of more mature trees (dark green). Note the large piles of slash piled close to the roads. After this image was taken, more logging took place before the Elephant Hill Fire burned this area in 2017.
Click image to enlarge
Compare that image with the photo below. This satellite image was made in 2019, about two years after the Elephant Hill Fire. Note that most of the regrowth in the clearcut has been killed or damaged. Much of the unplanted area of the clearcut has burned (light gray areas). Some of the mature trees that were left around the clearcuts have survived while others were killed by the fire. The slash piles are now ash piles. These features are typical of BC’s biggest wildfires in the Interior.
Click image to enlarge
The satellite photography also shows that areas where extensive mechanical thinning had taken place survived the fire in some places but were incinerated in others. Corridor thinning mimics, to some extent, natural fire’s ability to open up a forest stand, but it’s an interim stage that will lead to a clearcut in the not-too-distant future. An extensive east-west belt of such thinning running across the entire pathway of the Elephant Hill Fire north of Loon Lake did not prevent the fire from moving northwards.
The same mixed fire-survival performance of extensive thinning efforts can be found in satellite photography of the Hanceville Fire.
(The most current satellite photography can be found at inaturalist.org.)
The satellite photography shows that slash, left in logged-over areas, was an important factor in the eventual size of the Elephant Hill Fire. Equally evident from the satellite photography is that any plantation regrowth younger than about 20 years has been largely wiped out.
Satellite photography of the huge areas burned by the Hanceville and Plateau fires of 2017 shows the same general outcomes: vast areas of clearcuts burned clean with the small patches of adjacent, mature forest that had been left between clearcuts moderately to severely damaged.
The 16 million hectares of BC forest that have been impacted by the beetle infestation, combined with decades of extensive clearcutting of live conifer forests, has created an apocalyptic landscape in BC’s interior forests. Ministry of Forests’ reports on the 2017 and 2018 fires show large areas of the Interior—entire forest districts—where the “cumulative percentage of merchantable forest volume killed since 1999” is “greater than 45 percent.” This description, of course, doesn’t include the loss before 1999.
The “killing” is the result of the logging of live trees, beetle infestation and wildfires. The result is a vast open area in the Interior that is littered with hundreds of millions of tonnes of tree parts in various stages of decay, all of it potential fuel for wildfires, just waiting for ignition. Although much of this area hasn’t been replanted, that which has been is also, under the right conditions, potent fuel requiring only ignition.
Flames fuelled by clearcut slash flare outward from the Chutanli Lake Fire, July 30, 2018
IN BC, THE CAUSE OF IGNITION for every wildfire is determined and recorded by the BC Wildfire Service, and so is each fire’s physical size. These records end up in the National Forestry Database. They show us that between 1990 and 1998, 59 percent of the area burned by wildfires in BC was attributed to fires ignited by lightning. Over the next nine-year period that rose to 81 percent. In the nine-year period ending with 2016, it rose to 85 percent. So lightning has become the overwhelming source of ignition of large wildfires in BC.
The records also show that while the total area burned as a result of lightning ignition has risen, the actual number of forest fires started by lightning has fallen. Between 1990 and 1998, there were 12,158 fires ignited by lightning. During the next 9-year interval, that fell to 8,837 fires. That was followed by 9,339 fires ignited by lightning in the 9-year interval ending with 2016.
The growth in the area burned by wildfires ignited by lightning isn’t the result of more lightning strikes hitting the forest—a factor that would be beyond human control.
Now here’s the most critically important point in this story: Scientific research shows lightning is more likely to start a fire if it hits a harvested area than if it hits a forested area.
Back in 2009, forest research scientists Meg Krawchuk and Steve Cumming published the results of an 8-year study of lightning ignition in 60,000 square kilometers of boreal forest in Alberta. They found that wildfires started by lightning ignition “increased in landscapes with more area harvested.” Because of the physical nature of the fuel in a “harvested area”—its dryness, smaller size, etc—it is more readily ignited by lightning than the fuel in an undisturbed stand of trees.
Krawchuk and Cumming also noted: “In addition to the fine fuels and slash remaining after forest harvest, post-disturbance regeneration might also contribute to flammability.”
The forest-industrial complex has, it would seem, created an immense area in the Interior of BC that is a crude incendiary device—like a Molotov cocktail—that only needs the right conditions of temperature, humidity and a bolt of lightning to burst into flames.
The satellite imagery of BC’s recent big fires certainly confirms Krawchuk’s and Cumming’s speculation about the flammability of regrowth in clearcuts. In BC’s dry Interior forests, those plantations act like kindling and, in areas where fires burned in 2017, there’s now little remaining of 20 to 25 years of a build-up of kindling—or, as the forest-industrial complex calls it: “The Forests for Tomorrow.”
Let me summarize.
First, we know from National Forestry Database records that lightning strikes are igniting fewer fires, but the fires ignited by lightning are becoming larger.
Second, we know from Ministry of Forests records and satellite photography that the cumulative area of harvested forest in BC’s Interior has grown very significantly in the last 20 years, and in many areas exceeds the amount of forested land.
Third, we know that the big fires in BC’s Interior in 2017 all involved heavily harvested areas where either beetle-killed or live trees had been removed.
Last, scientists have found that the more a landscape is harvested, the more lighting ignition occurs, and that’s because harvested areas have fuel on the ground that is more ignitable than standing forest.
These facts strongly suggest that it’s the growing expanse of fuel-laden clearcuts that are producing larger fires.
Climate change is no doubt making the fuel drier and more ignitable, and perhaps adding a little strength to winds that fan the fires. But it’s also possible that vast areas of clearcuts are creating those same effects all by themselves. Removal of the tree canopy allows the sun to heat the forest floor more readily, which reduces humidity and raises temperature. Removal of trees allows wind speed at forest-floor level to be higher in clearcuts than would be the case in an expanse of mature forest. Leaving 40 to 60 percent of the biomass of the forest in a clearcut creates a huge fuel load that is apparently readily ignitable by lightning and easily fanned by wind.
Focus has obtained numerous photographs taken from fire-spotter aircraft, including those used in this story, that depict fires that apparently started in clearcuts, or clearcuts engulfed in flames. So there’s good evidence on the ground that this is happening. But this version of what’s happening is definitely not the narrative that is coming from the scientists whose role it is to keep timber flowing from the forests to the mills.
The forest-industrial complex is pointing its collective finger at drier conditions created by climate change, and too dense fuel in the forest as a result of fire suppression. Its favoured solution appears to be to go into the forest and remove more trees.
It’s possible that the forest-industrial complex is suffering from the cognitive bias known as the law of the instrument: Give a man a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
CONSIDER THE MAGNITUDE OF THE PROBLEM: In 1997, BC’s 60 million hectares of forests were able to sequester the equivalent of 103 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Wildfires were emitting an average of 6 megatonnes each year.
Twenty-three years latter, BC still has 60 million hectares of potential forestland, but has lost those 103 megatonnes of sequestration capacity. Wildfires are now emitting, on average, 58 megatonnes per year.
Those two changes amount to a net increase of 155 megatonnes per year in emissions related to our provincial forests. That doesn’t include the 88 megatonnes of emissions that we must attribute to the premature decay of wood that will result from harvesting trees for wood products each year.
The prognosis is bad. Going in the same direction, a further increase in the industrial use of forests by mining them for bio-energy will, if the past is any predictor of the future, just make things worse.
As I pointed out last edition, the lowest-hanging fruit for BC in mitigating the damage being done to climate stability by its forestry practices is to end the export of raw logs, most of which are cut from coastal forests. If the Province banned raw log exports and reduced the annual allowable cut by 6.5 million cubic metres, 11 megatonnes of annual carbon emissions would be eliminated.
We previously estimated that would impact 1,650 jobs. In a future low-carbon economy (assuming that’s where we are going), there would be no possible justification for allowing 1,650 jobs to produce 11 megatonnes of net emissions. Instead, the forest-industrial complex needs to start redirecting resources to jobs that don’t destroy forests. It needs to reinvent itself into an agency that can bring the forest back to its former health and capabilities.
As it ponders its future, perhaps the forest-industrial complex ought to take to heart the words of Aldo Leopold, the American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential. He welcomes your feedback.
Over the past 20 years, BC forests were so heavily logged that net carbon emissions caused by the industry are now twice as large as Alberta’s oil sands.
AT THE HEIGHT OF LAST SUMMER'S ECONOMIC MELTDOWN in the BC interior’s forest industry, Marty Gibbons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-417, based in Kamloops, told the Canadian Press: “Something needs to change immediately or these small communities that don’t have other employers are going to wither and die.” Gibbons concluded that “the largest driving factor is the Province’s complex stumpage system that results in high fees.”
The average stumpage rate in BC—the price the Province charges forestry companies for harvesting a cubic metre of tree on Crown land—was around $23 for both the interior and the coast in 2019 (1). But the average stumpage paid for timber harvested from Crown land by major raw log exporters like TimberWest and Western Forest Products in the Campbell River Natural Resource District was much lower, ranging between $8 and $11 per cubic metre. Smaller companies paid even less—as little as $5 per cubic metre. Yet raw logs for export were selling at an average price of $128 per cubic metre through 2019 (2).
Raw logs worth $4.146 billion were exported from BC to other countries for processing over the past five years (3). This huge overcut—unnecessary to meet domestic and international demand for BC’s finished wood products—has averaged 6.5 million cubic metres per year over those five years, equal to 41 percent of the total cut on Crown and private land on the coast (4). So claims that high stumpage rates in BC are the problem that needs to be solved seem out of touch with reality.
But Gibbons is still right: something “needs to change immediately.” The required change, however, might be more than what he’s thinking. The interior’s forest industry has been destabilized by two climate-change-related phenomena—devastating wildfire and explosive mountain pine beetle infestation—that have been amplified by the immense extent of BC’s clearcut logging. Gibbons wants to knock a few bucks off the forest companies’ costs so they can run more shifts at the mills. What’s really needed, though, is a much deeper kind of change, one that would quickly transform BC’s forest industry. To start, we need to end the export of raw logs and shift that same volume to a new class of forest: protected forest-carbon reserves.
There’s an urgent need to remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce emissions at the same time. The only way to remove carbon on a large scale and then store it safely for a long time is to not harvest healthy, mature forests of long-lived species.
The next 10 years need to be full of bold ideas as we look for and find solutions to the climate crisis. Initiatives like the Carbon Tax in Canada are necessary to disincentivize the use of fossil fuels, but planet Earth isn’t going to give us time to tax our emissions into submission. We need some quick shifts that will cut 10 megatonnes with a few strokes of the Premier’s pen. In BC, protecting the forest instead of destroying it is our only realistic option. If we don’t do this, we’ll run the risk that the rest of the world will start counting the emissions we are releasing from our forests and begin to think of us—and our manufactured wood products industry—as the Brazil of the North.
Perhaps what’s required most at this critical moment is recognition by the BC government that an international market for sequestered forest-carbon is coming soon, and that forest companies need to start switching from destroying publicly-owned forests to protecting them. Not just old-growth forests, but mature second-growth stands of long-lived species, too.
Forest loss (yellow) on Vancouver Island and the south coast mainland between 2000 and 2018 Source: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA
Our government leaders don’t seem to be thinking straight yet. Instead, deforestation on the BC coast is accelerating. Over the past six years, the area of coastal Crown land that was clearcut increased 16 percent over the previous six-year period. Our provincial forest’s capacity to serve as a carbon sink has vanished. Its catastrophic collapse is recorded in a 20-year segment of the Province’s annual inventory of provincial greenhouse gas emissions. In 1997, BC forests could sequester the equivalent of 103 megatonnes of CO2 annually. By 2017 that had fallen to 19.6 megatonnes (5). From 2020 on, our forests will be a net source of emissions—even without including those from wildfires. The image above shows—in yellow—the physical area of Vancouver Island, and the adjacent mainland coast, that was clearcut between 2000 and 2018. Vancouver Island has become an ecological war zone. But a different economic role for the forest is emerging, one that doesn’t destroy it.
That new purpose is highlighted by a gaping hole in Canada’s plan to meet its emissions reduction commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Canada’s 2018 progress report to the UNadmits there’s a nearly 100-megatonne gap in the plan to 2030 (and this assumes the rest of the plan will actually work). How will Canada live up to its promise over the next 10 years? The progress report puts it this way: “Potential increases in stored carbon (carbon sequestration) in forests, soils and wetlands will also contribute to reductions which, for a country such as Canada, could also play an important role in achieving the 2030 target.”
The report offers no other possibility for filling that gap.
Canada, then, will likely depend on using the carbon sequestration capacity of its forests to meet its Paris Agreement commitments.
Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, through its reference to a commitment in Article 4 of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, encourages all countries to “…promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, including biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems.”
Depending on how Article 6 of the Paris Agreement is eventually detailed (its development was stymied at the Madrid COP), it’s possible that an international market mechanism for forest carbon is coming, and it can’t come soon enough.
The over-exploitation of BC’s forests has added to an explosion in net carbon emissions, delivered to the atmosphere each year by the forest industry’s endless road building and progressive clearcuts. Below, I’ll show why this now amounts to over 190 megatonnes every year (and possibly much more), a far more powerful carbon bomb than is being dropped by Canada’s oil sands industry (6). It’s long past time for us to understand the inner workings of the bomb and to defuse it.
There are two separate parts to BC’s bomb, and I will take you through each of these in some detail below.
First, when a mature or old forest stand is logged, assuming it’s healthy, the living biomass that’s killed and cut up into small pieces begins a premature process of decay, often hundreds of years before that decay would occur naturally.
Secondly, when that mature or old, healthy stand is clearcut, its potential to sequester carbon in the future is lost and it could then take anywhere from 60 years to several hundred years before a new replacement forest could sequester as much carbon as was being stored in the previous stand.
Let me take you through the inner workings of each of these parts of BC’s carbon bomb. First, let’s consider the magnitude of the carbon emissions released when wood prematurely decays.
Biomass left behind after clearcut logging on Crown land on Quadra Island (Photo by David Broadland)
WHEN AN AREA OF FOREST IS CLEARCUT, three decay processes are initiated that result in emissions of carbon to the atmosphere.
First, the removal of the trees allows the sun to warm the forest soil to a higher temperature than was possible when it was shaded by trees. That additional warmth speeds up decay processes and the release of greenhouse gases, a process somewhat akin to the melting of permafrost in the Arctic. Soil scientists tell us that forest soil contains even more carbon than all the trees and other biomass that grow in it. Recent studies have reported that as much as 20 percent of the carbon in the layer of soil at the forest floor is released to the atmosphere after an area of forest has been clearcut. This release is a wild card in our emerging understanding of the impact of clearcut logging on carbon emissions. For now it remains unquantified, but it’s definitely not zero.
The second decay process begins after an area of forest is clearcut and the unused parts of trees left on the forest floor begin to decay. In his 2019 report Forestry and Carbon in BC (document at end of story), BC forest ecologist Jim Pojar estimated that 40 to 60 percent of the biomass of a forest is left in a clearcut. That includes the branches, stumps, roots, pieces of the stems that shattered when felled, the unutilizable tops of the trees, and unmerchantable trees that are killed in the mayhem of clearcut logging.
For our purpose, we will use the mid-point of Pojar’s 40 to 60 percent estimate: half of the biomass is removed, and half remains on the forest floor. The Ministry of Forests’ log scaling system tells us what volume of wood is removed from the forest as merchantable logs. We then assume that an equal volume of wood is left in the clearcut.
In 2018, the total volume of wood removed from BC’s forests, as reported in the ministry’s Harvest Billing System, was 54.1 million cubic metres. As per above, we are using the same number for the volume of wood that was left in clearcuts all over the province. So the total volume of wood in play is 108.2 million cubic metres. Both pools of wood—the wood left behind and the wood trucked away—begin to decay after a relatively short period of time following harvest. Each cubic metre of wood will eventually produce about 0.82 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions (7). So the wood left behind will produce 44 megatonnes and the wood trucked away will also produce 44 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions—eventually.
The average 6.5-million-cubic-metre cut for raw log exports accounts for 11 megatonnes of that 88-megatonne carbon bomb.
You might have heard that the carbon in the logs that are harvested and turned into finished wood products will be safely stored in those products indefinitely. But the Ministry of Forests’ own research shows that after 28 years, half of the carbon in the wood products is no longer being safely stored; at 100 years, only 33 percent of the wood is still in safe storage (graph below). The rest will have returned to the atmosphere or is headed in that direction.
This BC Ministry of Forests graph shows how the carbon stored in wood products declines over time. After 28 years, half of the carbon stored has been lost to the atmosphere. At 100 years, 33 percent remains.
BC’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory quantifies the magnitude of the currently acknowledged deterioration of wood products. For 2017 it noted that “Emissions from Decomposition of Harvested Wood Products” contributed 42 megatonnes annually to the provincial greenhouse gas inventory, which is close to our estimate of 44 megatonnes for 2018 (8).
For ethical reasons, we ought to attribute all of those future emissions to the year in which the wood was harvested.
Note that the period of safe storage of carbon in wood products is much shorter than the expected life of most of the tree species that grow in coastal BC. A Sitka spruce is capable of attaining 700 years of age. Douglas fir commonly reach 600 to 800 years of age, and have been known to survive to 1000 years. Red cedar can reach even greater longevity. The Cheewat Lake Cedar near Clo-oose has been estimated to be as old as 2,500 years.
The coastal forest’s longevity—compared with BC’s interior forests—arises, in part, because the coast’s wetter climate lowers the incidence of drought and wildfires that could kill the forest. As well, there are no mountain pine beetles in coastal BC.
By eliminating the export of raw logs and instead protecting an equivalent volume of long-lived coastal stands each year, 11 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions could be avoided. That would be a much more substantial reduction in provincial emissions than, for example, the BC Carbon Tax has produced after 10 years.
The author measures the circumference (27 feet) of an apparently healthy 700-800-year-old Douglas fir on Quadra Island. Douglas fir are known to live for as long as 1000 years.
THE SECOND PART OF THE BOMB—the loss of sequestration capacity—is a measure of the net growth, per year, of the carbon stored by our forests. Provincial data shows that sequestration capacity held steady at about 103 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year between 1990 and 1999, and then began to decline through to 2017, the last year for which data is available. But the rate of decline suggests that our forests are now a net source of emissions, even without including the emissions released as a result of natural disturbances such as wildfires.
The impact on climate stability of BC’s forests losing the ability to absorb 103 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year is no different than the impact of releasing 103 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions every year. Let me give you just a glimpse of how unbridled logging has reduced sequestration capacity. Consider the impact of logging roads.
Logging in BC has required the construction of a vast and very expensive network of industrial-duty roads that have gouged out an equally vast area of previously productive forest and covered it over with blasted rock and gravel. The public has paid for these roads through reduced stumpage payments. They’re poor, if not impossible places for trees to grow.
In BC, logging roads and landings are allowed to occupy up to seven percent of the area of a cutblock. As well, to avoid slash burning, the unmarketable wood left in a clearcut is increasingly consolidated in semi-permanent piles that, like the roads and landings, reduce the space available for a new forest to grow.
A recent report at The Narwhal by Sarah Cox described a study in Ontario that examined the extent of such forest loss in that province. Cox reported that researchers there found “logging scars created by roads and landings…occupied an average of 14.2 percent of the area logged.” So our province’s seven percent restriction could well be an underestimation of the forest base that’s being lost. But let’s use seven percent and calculate how much forest has been lost.
Sierra BC’s recent report, Clearcut Carbon (document at end of story), put the total area logged in BC between 2005 and 2017 at 3,597,291 hectares, which included private land on Vancouver Island.
If seven percent of that area was covered with roads and landings, the area of forest lost over that 13-year period would be 251,810 hectares. That’s larger than Vancouver Island’s largest protected area, Strathcona Park.
In this randomly selected, typical aerial view of Crown forest on Quadra Island, the permanent, ballasted logging roads occupy 8.2 percent of the area of the recent clearcuts.
Sierra BC chose a 13-year period for its report because it takes at least 13 years after a clearcut has been replanted for the area to shift from being a source of carbon emissions to a carbon sink. The report grimly observed: “For at least 13 years, these areas are ‘sequestration dead zones’: clearcut lands that emit more carbon than they absorb.”
In the case of roads, though, the forest land they now occupy has become a permanent just-plain-dead zone, and another one the size of Strathcona Park is being created every 13 years.
While the blame for BC’s forests becoming a net source of carbon emissions has been directed at non-human causes like the mountain pine beetle and wildfires, the forest industry’s production of 251, 810 hectares of just-plain-dead zones and 3.6 million hectares of sequestration dead zones every 13 years is pushing ecological stability to the brink.
Once upon a time, management of BC’s forests was based on the concept of “sustained yield.” It was a commonly held belief of residents of this province that this meant the annual allowable cut was restricted to no more than the amount of new forest growth each year. Many of us, including myself, have mistakenly believed that approach to managing the public forests was how the Forest Service still operated. This is clearly not the case.
The Forest Service has turned the resource into an annual carbon bomb that has become one of the largest carbon emitters/carbon-sink killers in Canada. At more than 190 megatonnes a year (88 from premature decay emissions and 103 from loss of the forest-carbon sink), it’s well over twice the size of emissions from Canadian oil sands operations and three times the rest of BC’s emissions. Yet we cut far more than we need for our own use. That’s just plain nuts.
The most obvious starting point for repairing BC’s broken forest-carbon sink would be to ban the export of raw logs. That would make it possible to put the 6.5 million cubic metres of trees that weren’t harvested into a protected carbon reserve each year until the provincial forest-carbon sink has been rebuilt to at least 1997’s level: 103 megatonnes per year.
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT THE GREATEST CHALLENGE to eliminating raw log exports and putting that uncut volume into protected carbon reserves would be the huge loss in employment that would result. You’d be wrong.
There were 17,800 people employed in “forestry and logging with support activities” in all of BC in 2018, according to BC Stats (9). This figure doesn’t include BC’s wood products manufacturing jobs, but eliminating log exports wouldn’t affect those jobs since raw log exports create zero manufacturing jobs in BC.
2018 was a very good year for employment in the forest industry. The total volume cut in BC forests, including on both public and private land, was 54.1 million cubic metres. Of that, 30 percent was cut on the coast and 70 percent in the interior. Based on that split, about 30 percent of the employment in “forestry and logging with support activities” was on the coast, or about 5340 jobs. In 2018, raw log exports were at a five-year low of 5.03 million cubic metres, equivalent to 31 percent of the coastal cut. So eliminating log exports that year would have eliminated about 31 percent of those 5340 coastal logging jobs, or 1650 jobs. It would have also eliminated, or at least greatly delayed, 8.3 megatonnes of emissions.
To put those 1650 jobs in perspective, they represented less than one-tenth of one percent of BC’s total workforce in 2018. They are amongst the most carbon-emission-intensive jobs on Earth. In the approaching low-carbon economy, employment will need to shift from carbon-emission-intensive to carbon-absorption-intensive. Any job that is part of a low-cost process for removing carbon from the atmosphere is going to be in demand. Allowing trees to grow is currently the lowest-cost process for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. This is unlikely to change.
When BC starts to put thousands of hectares of forest land into carbon sequestration reserves each year, optimizing the amount of carbon stored will require scientists, surveyors, mappers, planners, foresters, tree planters, thinners, pruners, salvagers and fire suppressors. It’s likely to include some selection logging. If anything, optimizing the forests’ capacity for sequestration is likely to require more workers than are provided by road building and the mechanized form of clearcutting widely practiced on the coast. Where would the money for all this employment come from?
The Carbon Tax is slated to rise to $50 per tonne in 2021. If the 5-year-average export cut was ended and the trees left standing, a net reduction in emissions of 11 megatonnes would have an annual value of $550 million. That’s a lot more than necessary to keep 1650-2000 jobs in a transformative BC Forest-Carbon Service. Do the arithmetic yourself.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential. He welcomes your feedback.
Forestry and Carbon In BC by Dr. Jim Pojar: Forestry and Carbon in BC Dr. Jim Pojar.pdf3.51 MB · 75 downloads
Clearcut Carbon by Sierra BC: 2019-Clearcut-Carbon-report.pdf2.14 MB · 71 downloads
If history repeats itself, local plans to reduce GHG emissions will come up far short of targets. Shouldn’t there be a Plan B?
IS THE APPROACH TAKEN BY Victoria and Saanich to reduce GHG emissions within their jurisdictions flawed in some fundamental way that guarantees little or no reduction?
This is a vital question to consider. Almost all local governments in the CRD have recently declared a “Climate Emergency,” yet the best local example of a well-considered climate action plan—put in place ten years ago by Saanich—has produced only a small reduction in emissions. If the action plans local governments are creating are just more of the same approach Saanich has already tried—and they are—why would the result be any different?
In 2008, during a previous peak in public interest and concern about global climate change, the BC government introduced North America’s first broad-based carbon tax. At the same time, the municipality of Saanich began drafting a plan to reduce territorial sector-based GHG emissions. By 2010, Saanich had launched its forward-thinking “Climate Action Plan.” One of the plan’s primary goals was an “at least 33 percent” reduction in territorial emissions from 2007 levels by 2020. Ten years later, how did that go?
Back in 2010, Saanich’s Climate Action Plan put the municipality’s 2007 sector-based territorial GHG emissions at 521,000 tonnes per year. What are they now? In 2019, after declaring a Climate Emergency, the municipality quickly developed the outline (see document 1 at end of this story) of a new climate action plan that plotted a pathway to reduce sector-based territorial emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Saanich’s new starting point, according to that outline, would be 512,900 tonnes. So nearly 10 years after launching its 2010 action plan, Saanich’s sector-based territorial emissions are only 8,100 tonnes below 2007 levels. That works out to a 1.6 percent reduction, well within the uncertainty associated with the accuracy of the 2007 estimate of emissions. Why does Saanich now expect a different result on its second try using the same approach? Victoria is using the same methodology in its Climate Leadership Plan (see document 2).
"Pathways to 2050 GHG Reduction Targets" from the City of Victoria's Climate Leadership Plan. Plotting points on a graph has been tried before.
According to the climate action plans for both communities, all that residents need to do is summed up in three initiatives: First, property owners need to get rid of their oil and natural gas heating and hot water systems and buy electric heat pumps. Second, car drivers need to switch to a bicycle, an electric bus, or an electric car. Third, Victoria and Saanich foresee the availability of “renewable natural gas,” although it’s uncertain where that will come from and how much such facilities would cost, both in dollars and embodied emissions. But residents should get ready to pay for it.
All of these provisions require new consumption: of electric cars and bicycles, new heating systems, new infrastructure to create biogas, and probably new offices to house a growing contingent of Climate Emergency managers. We just need to buy our way to lower emissions.
While the experience of Saanich’s 10-year-long unsuccessful attempt at lowering emissions should provide local governments with ample warning that it’s far easier to plot reductions on paper than to achieve them in the real world, there are other reasons to doubt substantial reductions will ever materialize.
One example: neither community has any intention of constraining population growth or the gentrification of existing neighbourhoods. Thus, we will continue to see, as long as the Canadian economy is growing, new buildings and infrastructure created to service a growing population, and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly affluent and filled with bigger, more luxurious homes. Such growth comes with immense embodied emissions, and some of what’s being created right now is surprisingly energy-inefficient.
In the City of Victoria, much of the growth is in the form of concrete and glass condominium highrises in the Downtown core. While emissions reduction planners might think that such modern buildings will be energy efficient, BC Hydro doesn’t. In High-Powered Highrise, a report released earlier this year, Hydro noted: “Despite the suites in newer high-rise buildings often being marketed as energy-efficient and including things like LED lighting and Energy Star® appliances, the combined electricity usage of the overall building is approximately two times more than high-rises built in the 1980s, and almost four times more than low-rise buildings built that same decade.”
Why? According to BC Hydro, “This increase can largely be attributed to these newer, high-rise condo buildings (those with five stories or more) being equipped with high consuming luxury amenities, including pools, hot tubs, party rooms and fitness centres.”
The strong desire for a luxurious home is also evident in many new low-rise multi-unit buildings in Victoria and Saanich. The market for luxury, it turns out, is a far more powerful determinant of what gets built than concerns about energy efficiency or carbon emissions, even in the midst of a Climate Emergency.
The relentless demolition of perfectly useable smaller, older homes, which are then replaced with high-end single-family homes two or three times the size, doesn’t support the Climate Emergency managers’ expectation, which underpins their emission-reduction targets, that consumers of housing are seriously concerned about either energy or material conservation.
The absence of any measures in their climate action plans to constrain population increase and physical growth in Victoria and Saanich isn’t the only reason to doubt real reductions in carbon emissions will be achieved.
The most serious problem with both action plans is that they only address a small fraction of the emissions that Victoria and Saanich create, or cause to be released somewhere else.
Civic governments count their emissions using what is known as “sector-based territorial emissions accounting.” In developing their climate action plans, both Saanich and Victoria have identified emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels, or the release of methane, within their boundaries using four sector-based GHG inventories: transportation (automobiles and buses), stationary energy (which includes, for example, all energy related to buildings), industrial products and processes (for example the City’s asphalt plant) and waste (solid waste, sewage, composting). Both Saanich and Victoria are acting in accordance with what is known as the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC) and their methodology aligns with the guidelines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Using this protocol, Victoria identified 387,694 tonnes of territorial carbon emissions; as mentioned above, Saanich estimated 512,900 tonnes. The two communities’ analyses of territorial emissions yield similar per capita levels: 4.52 tonnes per person in Victoria and 4.8 tonnes per person in Saanich.
Both these numbers, though, are far lower than the known per capita emissions of Canadians, which were 19.6 tonnes per person in 2017.
Saanich and Victoria, then, have set their sights on addressing less than 25 percent of our known per capita emissions. Where do the other 75 percent of Canada’s per capita emissions come from?
About 26 percent of emissions come from the oil and gas industries, releases that occur before their end-products reach consumers. Another 10 percent comes from heavy industry (fertilizers, iron and steel, cement, aluminum, and pulp and paper). The vast majority of the remaining 64 percent of emissions are created by the production and use of housing, transportation, and goods and services consumed by Canadians in their daily lives. Because 85 percent of Canadians live in cities, most of this consumption occurs in urban centres like Victoria. So cities, and how their governments approach emissions reduction, will have a large impact on whether Canada’s response to the Climate Emergency is effective or not.
It’s only been in the last couple of years that comprehensive attempts have been made to quantify all the carbon emissions that human activity in cities creates directly or causes to be released elsewhere. Research done by the international organization C40 Cities provides some valuable insight. C40 Cities describes itself as “a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change.” Its board includes such climate luminaries as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Vancouver is participating in the initiative.
C40 Cities has developed an alternative emissions accounting approach that focuses on the consumption of goods and services by residents of a city. In this approach, GHG emissions are reported by consumption category rather than GHG emission source category.
The 12 categories of consumption C40 Cities uses (and the percentage each category adds to emissions in a North American city) are: capital (15.3 percent); utilities and housing (26 percent); food, beverage and tobacco (7 percent); public transport (10.2 percent); private transport (7.3 percent); government (9.5 percent); clothing, furnishing and household equipment (8.8 percent); restaurants, hotels, recreation and culture (7.2 percent); communications (2.7 percent); education and health (3 percent); miscellaneous goods and services (1 percent); and “other” (2 percent).
A C40 Cities study (see document 3), released in March 2018, noted that “consumption-based GHG emissions of C40 cities are significant, and significantly larger than sector-based GHG emissions established using the GPC.”
How much larger? The C40 study found that “16 cities, mostly in Europe and North America, have consumption-based GHG emissions at least three times the size of their sector-based GHG emissions.”
Although Victoria and Saanich weren’t part of this study, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that consumption-based emissions here are also “at least three times the size” of the sector-based emissions used by Victoria and Saanich in their climate action plans. It should be noted that Saanich commissioned a study of its 2015 consumption-based emissions. That report was released in 2018. It concluded that consumption-based emissions were two times higher than emissions based on sector-based accounting. The study did not include several of the categories C40 Cities uses, including “government services.”
Let me give you just a few examples of emissions not counted by Victoria or Saanich in their sector-based territorial accounting that would be counted in consumption-based accounting.
Emissions associated with the cement used in concrete for constructing buildings, foundations, sidewalks, retaining walls, overpasses, etc, are not counted because the cement is manufactured elsewhere. So, too, is the steel rebar used to reinforce this concrete. Saanich has an aggregate mine that provides the sand and gravel used in concrete, but Victoria doesn’t. Thus no emissions related to producing and transporting the ingredients of the concrete in Victoria’s downtown highrise boom are included in its territorial accounting of emissions.
Another example is “government services.” While both Victoria and Saanich do count GHG emissions caused directly by the burning of fuels resulting from their own operations, they don’t include the carbon emissions embodied in the more than $500 million in funding the two governments collect each year from residential, institutional and business taxpayers.
There are no lumber or plywood mills in Victoria or Saanich, so none of the emissions or loss of forest carbon sinks associated with the forest industry and its products are included in municipal accounts of emissions, even though these products are essential for the physical growth and maintenance of our homes, hospitals, schools, and places of business.
Nor do Saanich or Victoria count the emissions created when their residents fly, for business or pleasure, to Vancouver, Paris—or wherever.
Although a small amount of the food we consume is grown here, most is grown elsewhere and transported to the island. Virtually none of the emissions embodied in our food is counted by Victoria or Saanich. Missing from their tallies, too, are the emissions embodied in the cellphones, computers, flat-screen TVs and other electronic devices manufactured elsewhere but consumed widely by Victoria businesses, institutions and households.
I won’t go on. You get the idea. In Saanich and Victoria, Climate Emergency managers are counting only a small fraction of the GHG emissions that households, businesses, institutions and governments here are actually causing, directly or indirectly, to be released into the atmosphere. Using C40 Cities’ “at least three times” multiplier, a more realistic estimate of the City of Victoria’s emissions would be 1.2 megatonnes per year. Let’s put Saanich down for 1.5 megatonnes.
Obviously, local climate action plans will have no success at reducing emissions that they’re not even acknowledging or targetting.
Focus editor Leslie Campbell admires a carbon sequestration facility on Quadra Island (Photo by David Broadland
IS THERE A DIFFERENT COURSE OF ACTION that municipal governments could take to mitigate their emissions? Yes, there is. In a written response (document 1) to Saanich council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, Manager of Sustainability Ting Pan noted there were two ways to achieve carbon neutrality. The first was to eliminate carbon emissions completely. The second was to “balance carbon emissions with carbon removal.”
By “carbon removal,” Pan meant the sequestration of carbon by trees. The simplest form of this approach to mitigate emissions, known as “offsets,” is available to a person making a trip by airplane. Payment of an additional small fee—which, the offsetting company promises, will go towards planting a seedling somewhere on the planet—helps to expunge feelings of guilt and shame that some people experience when boarding an airplane. But this form of offsetting has been widely criticized, and rightly so. Forest scientists tell us (document 4), for example, that it takes about 17 years after a coastal BC clearcut has been replanted (which is often delayed several years after harvesting) to switch from being a source of carbon emissions to being a carbon sink. So offsetters that promise to plant a tree to mitigate emissions from, say, your flight to Stuttgart or Calgary, have no immediate effect on reducing atmospheric carbon. Moreover, if trees planted for offsets are cut down in 30 or 40 years, and that low-quality juvenile wood is then used for some short-lived product like shipping pallets or pulp for paper or biofuel, most of the carbon that tree stored is quickly released to the atmosphere. But there’s another possibility for using carbon removal, and this would be similar to that developed for the Great Bear Rainforest, which protects mainly old-growth forest.
If second-growth trees on the south coast of British Columbia that are slated to be logged (and all Crown land currently under forestry tenures is slated to be logged, eventually) were left to grow, they would sequester more and more carbon each year for a few hundred years. If they were left until they get very old—a Douglas-fir tree, for example, can reach 1000 years of age or more—they would sequester large amounts of carbon over long periods of time.
Saanich’s Ting Pan put the current cost of offsets at $25 per tonne. At that rate, to offset Saanich’s estimated 1.5 megatonnes of consumption-based emissions for a year would cost about $38 million, and Victoria’s 1.2 megatonnes would cost $30 million a year.
Ting Pan noted that, while “carbon removal” was “theoretically possible,” there is “no known precedence of any Canadian municipalities taking this approach to become a carbon neutral community.” She added that such offsets “will have to be generated outside of Saanich’s municipal boundary…and would likely contribute to global emissions reduction. However, purchasing offsets have limited direct benefits to local residents, businesses or the local environments.”
That last statement is ironic, and I’ll explain the irony later. But the only alternative to a “carbon removal” approach is to repeat the actions Saanich took starting in 2010—an approach that hasn’t proven effective and addresses only a third or less of the actual emissions it should. It seems doomed to fail. In a Climate Emergency, shouldn’t our governments be trying out different options to see what works best?
THE RISK THAT CIVIC CLIMATE ACTION PLANS WILL FAIL to deliver significant reductions in community-based emissions demands a Plan B for insurance.
Certain species of trees, like Douglas fir, Western red cedar and Sitka spruce, can store atmospheric carbon for several hundred, even thousands of years. Forest scientists tell us that coastal old-growth forests store from 750 to 1130 tonnes of carbon per hectare, all absorbed from the atmosphere over the centuries. Our coastal rainforests can contain twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests like those in the Amazon jungle.
While old-growth forests around the Salish Sea are becoming increasingly rare, second-growth forests that have a high percentage of Douglas fir, with trees up to 80 years old, are, by comparison, widespread. Select areas of the coast that measure high for biodiversity, tourism and recreation potential, and have the capacity for growing large Douglas fir, cedar or Sitka spruce, could be set aside and managed for optimal carbon sequestration. This wouldn’t mean an end to forestry jobs in these selected areas, but clear-cut logging would end. This approach is already being employed with old growth in the Great Bear Rainforest by the First-Nations-operated Great Bear Carbon Credit Corporation.
Second-growth forests on Crown land like those on Sonora Island (left) and Maurelle Island (right) are slated for clear-cutting. Municipal governments could conserve these areas’ biodiversity, tourism potential, and carbon sequestration capacity by paying fees to offset their own communities’ GHG emissions. (Photograph by David Broadland)
The Crown-owned second-growth forests around the Salish Sea could absorb many millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere and store that carbon for several hundred years. But they are being clear-cut at an unsustainably high rate, and their potential for storing carbon is rapidly being lost. Tragically, these second-growth forests are being harvested at an age when they are just beginning to absorb carbon at the highest rate per year, a pace that would continue for another 100 to 200 years if left to grow. Through a combination of government shortsightedness and mechanized-forestry corporate greed, BC is losing one of the most effective tools available on the planet for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Some of the loss is justifiable to the extent that lumber is necessary for building housing in BC. A substantial portion of that loss, however, is being exported as raw logs, which provides minimal economic benefit for coastal residents.
Ironically, most of the rapid liquidation of both old-growth and second-growth forests on Vancouver Island and the northern Gulf Islands is being carried out by TimberWest and Island Timberlands, both of which are owned, to a large extent, by public service pension funds that provide many former government (federal, provincial and municipal) employees with good pensions. Many of these former civil servants have retired to the Victoria area. The community benefits greatly by their presence here, but some of that economic benefit has come at the cost of widespread environmental damage caused by logging of both old-growth and second-growth forests. The south coast is not just losing the potential for carbon sequestration; logging-road construction and clearcutting are blasting, filling and shredding wildlife habitat, diminishing biodiversity and the land’s ability to store water.
Can municipal governments step forward and preserve carbon sinks as an insurance policy against the potential failure of their climate action plans to perform as needed?
Saanich’s Ting Pan, as noted above, wrote that, “purchasing offsets have limited direct benefits to local residents, businesses or the local environments.” The irony in that assessment is that local residents and businesses have already benefitted—through money that has flowed into this community from those public service pension plans and increased government revenues—from the destruction of forest-based carbon sinks that is occurring all around the Salish Sea.
HOW MIGHT THE COST of protecting the remaining old growth and selected areas of second growth be charged against consumption-based emissions in communities like Victoria and Saanich? Households would pay a fee, based on household income, to municipal governments. Municipalities would transfer that money to the Province. The Province would then allocate funds to those affected resource communities selected for carbon sequestration projects to transition them away from timber extraction on Crown land and towards carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and development of tourism/recreation/research infrastructure.
Why should Saanich and Victoria collect carbon sequestration fees based on household income? A new scientific study (see document 5) on consumption-based household GHG emissions provides evidence for what most people already know: The greater the household income, the higher its consumption-based emissions. This peer-reviewed research quantifies the substantial difference in emissions between low-income and high-income households in the US. Canadians and Americans have very similar per capita GHG emissions, so the data from this new study is useful in Canada. The numbers suggest that Canadian households with incomes of $150,000 have consumption-based annual emissions of about 56 tonnes; a household income of $100,000 produces 50 tonnes; $60,000 in household income produces 33 tonnes; and $30,000 in income produces 22 tonnes. At Tang’s estimate of $25 per tonne to offset emissions, a household with $60,000 in income would pay an annual emissions offset fee of $825. A household with $150,000 in income would pay $1400.
If Victoria’s or Saanich’s Climate Emergency managers could prove that their action plans had reduced community emissions by, say, five percent, then their residents’ fees could be reduced by five percent, or whatever reduction had been achieved. If emissions go up, the fees go up, and more forest land is converted to carbon reserve.
As Saanich’s Ting Pan noted, “there is no known precedence of any Canadian municipalities taking this approach to become a carbon neutral community.” There’s also no known example in Canada of a municipal climate action plan producing significant emission reductions. Such plans are often branded to include the word “leadership.” Victoria has called its plan the “Climate Leadership Plan.” But can following a path that’s known to badly underestimate actual emissions, and which uses an approach that has already proven itself to be ineffective, be regarded as “leadership”?
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential.
Documents referred to:
1. Saanich Manager of Sustainability's response to Climate Emergency Declaration.pdf
2. City of Victoria Climate Leadership Plan.pdf
3. C40 cities consumption-based-emissions.pdf
4. PICS Carbon Sequestration in British Columbia's Forests.pdf
5. Scale, distribution and variations of global greenhouse gas emissions driven by U.S. households.pdf
The road to climate hell is paved with good intentions
“CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOW REACHING THE END GAME, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.” These are the recent words of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a leading German climate scientist and senior advisor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union.
The reason for his warning: new research highlighting that the world might be closer to dangerous thresholds of uncontrollable climate change than previous studies have suggested.
One of the starkest examples of worsening climate impacts that speed up global warming are BC’s wildfires. Both the 2017 and 2018 wildfires have now burned more than 1.2 million hectares of the province, eight times more than the 10-year-average. BC’s 2017 fires caused an estimated 190 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, essentially quadrupling BC’s official annual emissions. This year will be similar.
One of hundreds of wildfires in BC in 2017 that produced an estimated 190 million tonnes of emissions.
“BC is just 4.5 million people sharing a planet with seven billion others. We have to be realistic about what our impacts would be.” These are the words of BC Premier John Horgan on August 21 when asked how the province can justify supporting the LNG Canada project, which will enable a massive increase in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning gas and leaking methane in BC and abroad.
This statement is a huge letdown for British Columbians. All parts of the international community consist of nations or regions with a few million people. What if all of them followed the same argument?
All heads of governments should understand the term “tragedy of the commons.” This describes a situation in which individual users act according to their own self interest—contrary to the common good—and destroy their own life support systems (such as a stable climate and a healthy environment) through their collective action.
The only path to break through the problem is leadership, particularly from those who fully grasp the threat for the entire planet, who bear most of the responsibility, and who have the freedom to choose an alternative path.
Climate action must correspond to the scope and scale of the threat. Being so close to dangerous thresholds means insufficient actions in the fight against climate change will lead to similarly devastating outcome as no action.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing so far from the relatively new BC government in terms of climate action.
This is reflected in the three provincial intentions papers shared by the government in July for public comment on the topics of transportation, buildings, and industry. Although they generally describe steps in the right direction, the intentions papers are seriously lacking in detail when it comes to expected reductions, timelines, and an overall path toward meeting targets (see Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Pembina Institute, Guy Dauncey and Eric Doherty1for more analysis).
Even more concerning is that the first set of intentions papers (and by the look of their titles, the next set too) are ignoring three elephants in the room. These elephants will completely overshadow the potential of solutions in the areas discussed in the papers, if left unaddressed. A meaningful climate action plan requires that the province addresses them.
First elephant: Insufficient BC emissions reduction target
The first elephant in the room is that the new proposed target (40 percent reduction by 2030 compared to 2007 levels) is a roadmap to climate hell, not climate stabilization.
All realistic remaining global emissions trajectories with the goal of preventing warming higher than 1.5 or 2 degrees require rapid movement toward zero emissions by 2040, and successfully reaching halfway to this goal by 2030 (see illustration below). Richer countries with higher emissions per capita must move faster than poorer nations with lower emissions per capita.
Illustration from Nature's"Three Year's to Safeguard our Climate"
Second elephant: New fossil fuel projects are incompatible with meaningful climate action
The lack of a meaningful emissions reduction target leads directly to the second elephant in the room: the NDP government continues to pursue new LNG terminals, ignoring that new fossil fuel export projects are incompatible with coherent climate action and renewable energy progress that shows that truly clean, affordable and job-creating alternatives exist. In early August, Bloomberg reported that producers of renewable energy have installed their first trillion watts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects the next trillion watts will cost $1.2 trillion by 2023, only half the price of the first trillion watts.
Both the LNG Canada project and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would massively increase provincial and national emissions and make it impossible to meet even our current, insufficient and weak targets. Both projects have a very similar overall GHG footprint over their lifetimes (100 millionin the case of LNG Canada and 120 millionper year in the case of Trans Mountain when considering extraction, transportation, processing and burning in other nations after export).
True leadership requires following the example of France and banning all new fossil fuel extraction projects, combined with a phase out of existing projects by no later than 2040. The rationale for this urgently needed step is summarized in the Lofoten Declaration signed by more than 800 civil society organizations. It calls for a “managed decline of the fossil fuel sector in line with the Paris climate goals. The Declaration demands a just transition, it demands leadership in this phase-out from the countries that can afford it first, and it confirms that the movement to stand up to dangerous fossil fuel development must be led by those on the frontlines.”
Both BC and Canada belong to those parts of the world that remain among the most polluting on a per capita basis (British Columbians emit close to three times and Canadians more than four times more than the global average).
We live in a relatively rich part of the world, we happen to control resource extraction across vast lands with a relatively small population, and we have many clean alternatives to continued extraction and export of fossil fuels.
A number of countries have already committed to net zero emissions targets by 2040 or 2050. They include France, Iceland, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Bhutan. Driven by an alliance including Sweden and the UK, the European Union is heading in the same direction. In response to the wildifires, California just revised its targets for renewable energy to meet 50 percent in 2026 and 100 percent by 2045.
Without BC and Canada joining other nations in leading in the fight against global warming, there will be little hope of inspiring others to follow and an increasing danger that those nations who have led the fight will give up and abandon hope.
Third elephant: Forest emissions
The third elephant in the room is the increasing amount of emissions from destructive logging, slash burning and wildfires. These emissions are often ignored because forest emissions are not counted as part of our official emissions—instead they are somewhat hidden as a memo item in provincial inventory reports.
This is a grave concern. For more than ten years, instead of functioning as a carbon sink that helps fight global warming, BC’s forests have now lost more carbon than what they absorb. This means they are now a source of emissions. These emissions have grown even further in the past two years as a result of BC’s record breaking fires.
A 2015 analysis of BC government data by Sierra Club BC showed net emissions of a quarter billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2003 and 2012 (equivalent to more than four times BC’s official annual emissions). This is in contrast to the 441 million tonnes of carbon dioxide they still absorbed between 1993 and 2002.
The shift from carbon sink to carbon source is caused by a number of climate related factors including the mountain pine beetle outbreak and an increasing number of forest fires. However, during the period 2003 to 2012 the largest contributing factor was poor forest management.
Destructive logging practices like clearcutting of old-growth rainforest and slash burning are huge contributors to the carbon emissions from BC forests. Between 2003 and 2012, emissions from logging were a whopping 520 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (after accounting for carbon stored in wood products). Logging of old-growth on Vancouver Island alone causes millions of tonnes of additional annual CO2 emissions. Emissions from logging carbon rich old-growth could be reduced quickly by using some of the solutions developed in the Great Bear Rainforest as promised by the NDP in their 2017 election platform, combined with support for First Nations land use planning and a rapid transition to improved management of second-growth forests.
The province should also end the large-scale spraying of thousands of hectares of deciduous stands (e.g. aspen, alder and birch) with glyphosate, to promote the growth of purely coniferous forests. This step can help reduce the risk of wildfires, reduce emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and provide benefits to wildlife and several environmental services hit by climate impacts.
The government must also ramp up the Fire Smart program, which promotes preventative measures such as forest thinning and fire-resistant building materials to reduce the impact of fire and modernize all warning systems firefighters and governments depend on to control dangerous fires.
BC forest management is making climate change worse—an alarming situation when our forests should instead be our best ally in the fight against climate change. Unless the BC government wakes up and takes far-reaching action to strengthen conservation and improve forest management, our provincial forests will continue to contribute to climate change instead of slowing it down. Despite the outstanding role of forests in the fight against climate change, there is no intentions paper on forests.
It’s time for real, coherent climate action
These three elephants in the room do not cover all of the areas of climate action the BC government must take to become a true climate leader. This will require setting aside the majority of our fossil fuel reserves as unburnable carbon and regularly updating carbon budgets by sector based based on science, ramping up the price on carbon faster than currently planned and including a climate test in environmental assessments. It also require a paradigm shift to preserve biodiversity, natural carbon banks and ecosystem services on which our economy and human health depend and a all hands on deck to speed up the transition to an equitable post-carbon economy that leaves no one behind.
The policies are outlined in Sierra Club BC report The Future Is Here, that provides a reality check on the climate challenges BC faces and a coherent set of recommendations the BC government should use to inform the next provincial climate action plan.
The BC government should review the full set of recommendations from The Future is Here to revise existing intentions papers and develop additional ones, in order to promptly implement climate policies that correspond to the true extent of the challenge. There are few jurisdictions in the world with a greater opportunity to lead and inspire others than British Columbia. We need Premier Horgan and his government to act with courage and speed.
Jens Wieting is Senior Forest and Climate Campaigner, Sierra Club BC.
The extraordinary potential of Vancouver Island forests to sequester carbon is being lost due to government inaction.
(Originally published in Focus Magazine)
VICKY HUSBAND, one of BC's best-known environmentalists and a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of BC, states the situation in her typical forthright fashion: “Our forests are being completely plundered. It’s a cut-and-run approach that isn’t providing local jobs, isn’t going into value-added products, and certainly isn’t seeing money coming back into the pockets of the people of BC. Forest management in BC, as it is practised today, is none of those things.”
It also isn’t helping preserve the capacity of BC’s unique coastal forests, world-famous for their huge and ancient spruce, fir and cedar, to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequester that carbon in those giant trees.
In the mid-1950s, as Husband points out, old-growth forests (more than 140 years old) once painted Vancouver Island and the south coast of BC a rich dark green. By 2014, as shown on the map below by David Leversee, green has been almost completely replaced by the purple of second-growth trees, some still in their infancy. Even second-growth forests are now at risk, as logging companies turn their eyes towards trees as young as 40 years old in the quest to meet their bottom lines.
Why does it matter? The Sierra Club calculates that remaining high-quality old-growth forests on Vancouver Island and the South Coast are still currently storing at least 225 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to more than 13 times BC’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. But that clearly can’t be taken for granted. With a business-as-usual rate of logging, those remaining old trees—along with their remarkable ability to capture and store massive amounts of carbon—could vanish in our lifetimes. With the way things are going in Canada’s efforts to reach greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, it’s a loss we can ill afford.
BY NO LATER THAN the end of March, Canada is required to submit a preliminary long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan to the United Nations in anticipation of the annual UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris in December 2015.
Given the federal government’s track record to date (Canada perennially wins the Climate Action Network’s Fossil of the Year Award), it’s difficult to imagine the plan will commit to any significant transition away from fossil fuel exploitation. That’s despite the fact that by 2020, Canada’s oil and gas sector is expected to have increased its annual emissions from 2005 levels by 45 megatonnes.
It’s also despite the fact that 2020 is the year by which Canada is supposed to reduce its annual emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels of 731 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to a target of 611 megatonnes. We already know that we’re not going to get even close. Environment Canada estimates that Canada’s annual emissions will still be as high as 727 megatonnes by 2020.
In BC, emissions reduction targets are considerably more ambitious—and equally tenuous. The Province has committed to reduce its emissions to 33 percent below 2007 levels (64.3 megatonnes) by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. In its 2014 Progress Report on Climate Action, the provincial Ministry of Environment (MoE) reported that it had achieved an interim target of 6 percent by 2012. The next interim target is a significantly higher 18 percent reduction in emissions by next year.
Yet the provincial government continues to frantically promote massive high-emissions LNG development. It has also done little to stand in the way of oil infrastructure proposals (i.e. pipelines). BC’s carbon tax, though lauded by some, is viewed by many economists as too low to effectively discourage fossil fuel use. Falling oil prices aren’t helping. MoE openly admits: “More action will be needed to move from each target to the next. With current policies remaining as they are, BC greenhouse gas emissions may begin to increase.”
Meanwhile, the temperature keeps going up. Climate scientists recently announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record. They said the same thing about 2013. According to the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned against the drastic consequences of a global average temperature increase of two degrees Celsius. At current rates of emissions, that may well occur before the end of this century, with consequences typically described in biblical terms: extreme storms, lengthy droughts, flooding, famine, and pestilence.
The IPCC also states: “Forestry can make a very significant contribution…to mitigation. In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks…will generate the largest sustained [contribution].”
GIVEN CANADA'S FAILURE TO REDUCE fossil fuel exploitation in the last decade, could forest carbon sequestration offer the solution to achieving our emissions reduction targets? Victoria-based Natural Resources Canada senior research scientist Dr Werner Kurz is unequivocal in his response: “Forests can definitely make a meaningful and significant contribution.”
Global forests currently remove up to one-third of the world’s carbon emissions from the atmosphere and sequester or store them in their wood, leaves and roots and in the surrounding soil.
They also emit carbon in a variety of ways, including through decay and wildfire.
Forests are carbon sinks if they absorb more carbon than they emit, or carbon sources if they emit more than they absorb.
How forest resources are used also affects whether forests are carbon sinks or sources. When cut timber is stored in long-lived wood products, like construction lumber and high-end value-added products, it continues to store carbon for a long time. Emissions are also reduced if those products are used in construction to replace emissions-intensive products like steel and concrete.
Converting wastewood to biofuel may also reduce emissions if the biofuel replaces fossil fuel energy. Conversely, burning wood or using it for shorter-lived products like pulp and paper will result in the tree’s carbon being released to the atmosphere in the short term, thus adding to emissions totals.
With 310 million hectares of forests, 55 million of them in BC, Canada has the potential to contribute significantly to global carbon sequestration. Since 2002, however, Canada’s forests—including BC’s—have been a carbon source, not a sink. The reasons include wildfires and unprecedented insect outbreaks (both of which can result from warming temperatures). However, it's the rate at which our trees are being cut down that is the biggest contributor.
Environment Canada openly acknowledges in Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014: “The human activity that has the most impact on Canada’s forest emissions/removals is harvesting.” In BC’s 2010 State of the Forests report, the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations includes a graph that clearly shows that the emissions from continued harvesting in BC far exceed those from fire and slashburning, and outweigh emissions sequestered in growing trees by a factor of two to one. In its 2013 publication Growing Carbon Sinks, Ministry of Forests also admits that increased harvest rates are a problem.
Despite both admissions, neither Canada nor BC has moved to limit harvesting towards reducing overall carbon emissions.
WERNER KURZ BEGAN WORKING WITH the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in mid-2014 to research the ways in which BC’s forests can contribute to climate change mitigation. Kurz says that BC’s coastal forests are key in the carbon sequestration equation: “On Vancouver Island and the coast, trees can grow for hundreds of years. They may be taking up carbon at fairly high rates for two or three centuries. The risk of loss due to natural forces is also probably lower than elsewhere in Canada, so [this is where] we likely have the greatest opportunity to grow long-lived forests storing a lot of carbon for a long time.”
The provincial government appears to agree: “Some of [BC’s] forests,” boasts its Ministry of Forests, “contain the most carbon storage per hectare of any forest type in the world.” Ministry of Forests states that a 100-year-old coastal Sitka spruce will store about 1.84 tonnes of carbon (compared to an interior spruce the same age, at 0.47 tonnes). Coastal red cedar and Douglas fir aren’t far behind their spruce cousins, storing 1.47 and 1.32 tonnes of carbon respectively by the time they hit a century (an interior Douglas fir, by comparison, stores about one-third that amount).
An assumption oft-quoted by the forest industry is that the rate at which mature trees sequester carbon slows down and becomes negligible after about 100 years. It’s used as a justification to cut down relatively young trees: If they’ve become “decadent” and they’re not continuing to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, why leave them standing?
But in 2008, a scientific study in the US established that forests as old as eight centuries in fact do continue to accumulate carbon, and at a significant rate. In 2014 another group of US scientists built on that finding, concluding not only that old trees continue to accumulate carbon but that the larger a tree gets, the more carbon it accumulates each year. In just one West Coast forest plot that the scientists studied, trees larger than one metre in diameter comprised just 6 percent of the trees, but accounted for 33 percent of the growth. Lead scientist Stephen Sillett concluded: “The idea that older forests are decadent—it’s really just a myth.”
Kurz believes there’s no time to waste in implenting forestry-related mitigation measures aimed at meaningful long-term reductions in provincial emissions.
“Ecosystems are slow-moving,” he explains. “At the rate trees grow in Canada, it could take several decades to see the full benefit of changes to forest management. We have to start making those changes now so they are having an impact by 2050, when we need our forests to be making the biggest contribution to emissions reductions.”
Unfortunately, there’s little sign of anything actually happening on the ground. When Kurz was asked about the timeline for implementation of his research results, he responded candidly: “I honestly don’t know.”
In the meantime, as usual, the economy continues to drive the federal government’s agenda. Canada’s Action on Climate Change “Reducing Greenhouse Gases” webpage contains no reference to forest management. Moreover, Natural Resources Canada suggests that reducing harvesting would have a negligible impact on emissions. That’s despite their own admission that “[It is clear] that where deforestation is reduced, the immediate outcome is reduced GHG emissions.” NRC also admits that the rate at which net deforestation is occurring is only expected to drop by a fraction from 2005 levels by 2020, “due to the expansion of the oil and gas industry.”
NRC says that it would simply cost too much to engage in afforestation, or the creation of new forests where none exist now: “One problem identified is that many of the costs of afforestation must be paid for upfront, but the carbon sink benefits develop slowly over time. This means that afforestation is not always economically attractive to the private sector.” Heaven forbid companies profiting from resource extraction should have to pay for mitigation of the impacts of their activities.
BC at least promotes forest carbon management as “an immediate imperative.” But as usual, talk is one thing, action another. In 2013’s Growing Carbon Sinks, the Ministry of Forests admits “no official strategy exists currently.” The Ministry has committed to developing a climate action plan by March 31 of this year. A request for an update on the status and likely contents of the plan received no response, however.
In 2010, the provincial government did enact a net-zero-deforestation policy for BC. As Kurz points out, however, while that may mean there have been no further reductions in forest land area in BC, that doesn’t mean a net-zero impact on carbon emissions: “You’re typically cutting down mature trees but replacing them with small ones, so you likely still have a net reduction in carbon stocks.”
To the Province, age doesn’t seem to matter, despite the science pointing to the carbon storage efficiency of older trees. The Ministry of Forests states: “[The] minimum harvestable age is an estimate of the earliest age at which a stand has reached a harvestable condition—i.e., has met minimum merchantable criteria.” In other words, if there’s a market for it, you can chop it down. For Douglas fir, admits the Ministry of Forests, that can be as young as 40 years.
Then there’s the issue of private forest land, comprising 20 percent of Vancouver Island’s forest cover. The provincial government doesn’t regulate harvesting on private land. The Ministry of Forests confirms that: “The determination of minimum harvest age on private-managed forest land is at the discretion of the landowner.” Commons BC geographic information system mapper Dave Leversee estimates that from 2012 to 2014, of the more than 40 million cubic metres of timber logged on Vancouver Island, one-third of it came from private lands. That’s a lot of unregulated wood.
Here are some more depressing statistics. Unprocessed logs, more than 40 percent of which come from private forest land, comprise more than 30 percent of coastal forest exports. Forty-six percent of the Coast-Douglas Fir Zone—southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands—had been lost to non-forest use by 2010. Seventy-five mills have closed permanently in BC since 2000, 17 of them on Vancouver Island and another 33 on the rest of the coast. In the two decades to 2011, forest sector jobs had declined by 52 percent to just over 46,000.
In other words, strategies to support the forest economy on the BC coast—let alone promote carbon sequestration or the local wood product industry—seem to be thin on the ground. There is an upside to all this, according to the Ministry of Forests: mill closures and a reduction in industrial activity in recent years “have contributed to a decrease in emissions.”
THE SIERRA CLUB ADVOCATES that from a carbon storage perspective, logging of old-growth forests needs to stop today. Their 2013 report Carbon at Risk: BC’s Unprotected Old-growth Rainforest, concluded, “Avoided logging of old-growth rainforest is one of the most immediately effective actions to reduce emissions.” It argued that from a carbon perspective, “converting old-growth rainforest to second growth is like giving away a safe, hefty bank account with a decent interest rate in exchange for a start-up bank account with almost zero money and the promise of spectacular growth based on unreliable forecasts.”
Vicky Husband believes that given how little old-growth remains, it is now just as necessary to provide similar protection to mature second-growth forests: “It’s absolutely critical,” she declares emphatically, “to preserve all these big trees.”
Given how important a role BC’s coastal forest could play in terms of carbon emissions reductions, preserving mature trees—on both Crown and private land—would seem logical as a simple matter of precaution.
Katherine Palmer Gordon has written six books of non-fiction, including several BC Bestsellers and a Haig-Brown prize-winner. Her most recent book is We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia.
The combination of a gutted Forest Service, vast areas of not sufficiently restocked forestlands, a quirky loophole in the Kyoto Protocol and a provincial government ideologically driven to sell off public assets has created the perfect opportunity for forest industrialists to burn down the last barriers to privatization of BC’s Crown forests.
This story originally appeared in the August 2010 edition of FOCUS Magazine.
ON AUGUST 20, 1910, a strong wind blew down off the Cascades and whipped hundreds of forest blazes into an inferno that extinguished towns and three million hectares of forests from Washington to Montana.
The fires came at a critical time in United States history, when the timber barons, including Weyerhaeuser, were swaying public opinion towards privatizing the country’s public forests. The timber barons had attacked Teddy Roosevelt’s new forest service and its backbone—the forest rangers. The mandate Roosevelt gave the US Forest Service, that “the forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the short-sighted greed of a few,” was undermined by claims that Roosevelt’s “green rangers” (led by chief forester Gifford Pinchot) were “google-eyed, bandy-legged dudes, sad-eyed, absent-minded professors and bugologists.”
But when the big fires came, Teddy’s forest rangers fought against all odds, saved thousands of lives, and turned the tide of public sentiment against privatization. That led to the strengthening of the US Forest Service and its duty of stewardship.
It was called the year of the Big Burn, and out of its ashes came the creation of the British Columbia Forest Service, with a similar mission and structure.
A century later, history seems to be in a kind of rhythmic regression in BC. The Forest Service has suffered through a decade of cuts, rendering it unable to do its job. And now the pressure for privatization is coming—from some of the same companies that Roosevelt beat back 100 years ago, like Weyerhaeuser—to meet 21st century demands for cheap, so-called “green” biofuel. And this time round, the champions for keeping our forests public—the latest generation of “green rangers”—are a cohort of influential and well-respected professional foresters from the Forest Service (hardly “absent-minded professors”) led by Anthony Britneff, who recently retired after 39 years as a senior professional in the forest inventory, silviculture and forest health programs of the service. These green rangers are blowing the whistle on an overly industry-friendly government and are poised to put out what threatens to become BC’s own Big Burn.
In June, after the latest in a long series of drastic cuts to the Forest Service, Britneff wrote in an op ed in Victoria’s Times Colonist: “This government might think that by rendering the Forest Service dysfunctional and by not investing in the renewal of forestlands, it will eventually rationalize the privatization of provincial forests at fire-sale prices. Enclose the commons? Wake up BC!”
Besides the emasculating cutbacks, there’s another threat that our green rangers are battling: “tenure reform” that puts “investor security” before the public interest. Some argue it amounts to de facto privatization of public lands. And not just any public lands, but the most abundant valley bottoms that will meet the needs of a growing international demand for biofuel.
All this is playing out against a backdrop of unprecedented forest-health impacts due to climate change and a growing international call to conserve standing forests as carbon sinks for both mitigation of, and adaptation to, global warming.
Massive cuts to the Forest Service
How deeply is the provincial government cutting the Forest Service? From the 42 district offices that used to exist before the Liberals took office in 2001, only 22 remain. According to the BC Government Employees Union, 1004 employees have been cut since 2002—well over half of these among the district staff that were providing on-the-ground stewardship, forest management, recreation, monitoring, enforcement and compliance services. The ministry has been unable to provide the total number of staff remaining. Insiders speculate that staffing levels are now at record lows, possibly below half the staffing level in 1981 at the bottom of the last major recession in BC.
Each district office, with only a handful of field staff, is now responsible for over two million hectares—1000 times more forest per forester than in Sweden. As Roosevelt observed, without a corps of rangers, the land goes unprotected and the laws that set the land aside become meaningless.
Since 2002, in addition to staff cuts, most forest management programs have had budgets slashed by over 50 percent. The Forest Stewardship Division has been gutted and, in a sign of the times, its remnants have been absorbed by the new Competitiveness and Innovation Division, which is being led by an assistant deputy minister with no previous experience in forestry matters—a political appointment made directly by the Premier’s office.
Harry Drage, a green ranger with 32 years in the forest service in the Southern Interior as district manager, provincial recreation officer and certification inspector, observes, “If you take it one step further and look at the staffing in both the ministries that are charged with stewardship—forest and environment—it is down by well over a half of what it was. This creates a lack of public oversight and so the checks and balances are not there anymore. We aren’t protecting the public interest. Is the public comfortable with that?”
This question was put to the Minister of Forests and Range, Pat Bell, an ex-salvage logger from Prince George. He makes no apologies for the cuts or change in institutional culture. With a 35 percent reduction in harvest levels and dropping government revenues from forestry, he feels a nine percent reduction in staff (referring to only the June round of cuts) is not unreasonable. “The public expects us to manage our fiscal resources, and that is what we are doing.” He points to the Forests for Tomorrow program at $40 million dollars for 2010-2011 as making a significant contribution “by any measure” to reforestation.
Anthony Britneff argues that government cannot justify these cuts by the need for fiscal restraint alone because the bulk of the budget cuts were made in 2002, before the recession. He thinks the Forests for Tomorrow program is a tiny drop in a dangerously empty bucket. The amount of public spending on reforestation dropped by 93 percent in 2002 and has only recovered to about 40 percent of what was being budgeted in the ’90s. Meanwhile the amount of land that needs reforestation has increased more than 50-fold.
Minister Bell finds these kind of comments “disappointing,” and he maintains that core services to the ministry have been protected and that it’s easy for critics to manipulate numbers.
Fact-checking the numbers is challenging. The political decision to strip out a requirement for resource analysis reporting from the Ministry of Forests and Range Act has left the public with limited and confusing facts. After 2002, the ministry’s annual reports shrink to half their previous length, and reporting on forest management activities takes a downward dive. John Betts, head of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association, observes that the last time there was such a slim annual report was when the forest rangers were fighting on the Western Front during World War II.
Anthony Britneff argues that it is precisely such lack of reporting that prevents even a coherent discussion about the numbers because they aren’t available. “How can you reliably determine timber supply for annual allowable http://focusonline.ca/sites/default/files/unplanted clearcut for web.jpgA clearcut on Vancouver Island awaiting replantingcuts if you don’t have a good inventory of what is there and what isn’t?” he asks. He points out that no one knows anymore how much land is not stocked or requires replanting. Britneff estimates that nine million hectares, an area three times the size of Vancouver Island, is not stocked adequately with trees—lands that are outside of licensee responsibilities and therefore the responsibility of the province.
The critics are not confined to internal Forest Service “bugologists.” In Williams Lake, forest contractor Jane Perry, past president of the Association of BC Forest Professionals, describes the impact of the recent cutbacks on beetle-affected areas as a huge loss to the much-needed research and expertise required to deal with the immense problem. “Morale in Williams Lake,” she sighs, “couldn’t be lower.”
John Betts confirms Perry’s portrayal of what’s happening. “People come up to me and say, ‘Boy, you guys must be really busy with all the burned lands and mountain pine beetle.’ Well, actually, we aren’t. We have lost 30 percent of our work and guys are losing their jobs. The lumber market has collapsed so there is no work with the companies. But the point is we should be busier than ever from government because we have a major restoration project that is being neglected.”
Change of mission
Our publicly-owned forests are a provincial icon and the envy of the world. Since the passing of the Forest Act in 1912, a public role in managing our forests has been enshrined in legislation to defend against what was then characterized as “destructive lumbering.” Some might argue that record is blemished, but British Columbians still enjoy a public asset that is unequalled in the world. Native forests with a tremendous diversity of ecosystems, large, still-intact watersheds, and a public freedom to enjoy them are a part of every British Columbian’s identity. This is very different than the experience of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where native forests have long been converted to plantations of commercial exotic species with a corresponding loss of biodiversity and a limiting of public access.
Since 1978, the Forest Service’s mission statement has stressed integrated management of the many values we ascribe to our forests, with a commitment “to manage, conserve and protect the province’s forest, range and outdoor recreation resources to ensure their sustainable use for the economic, cultural, physical and spiritual well-being of British Columbians, who hold those same resources in trust for future generations. In respecting and caring for public forest and range lands, the ministry is guided by the ethics of stewardship and public service.”
Apparently, that’s now all history.
A recent internal Ministry of Forests and Range document titled “Response to the Changing Business Environment” lays out the new mission for the ministry as “To provide a superior service to resource stakeholders by supporting competitive business conditions” and gives priority to “Enhancing industry competitiveness” and “Identifying clear outcomes for investors.” An earlier internal memo dated June 9, 2009 from Jim Gowriluk, regional executive director, to his district managers, titled “Re: Advocating for the Forest Industry in the Coast Forest Region,” clearly articulates the new single-function mandate of the Forest Service of “fulfilling our role as advocates for the forest industry.”
Protecting the public interest has disappeared.
In Smithers, another retired green ranger, forest ecologist Jim Pojar, an internationally-regarded specialist on BC’s ecosystems with 25 years in the Forest Service under his belt, refuses to become a “stooge of industry.” He believes the Liberal government wants to deregulate and effectively privatize our public forests, presenting “hard times” with forest die-off and declining revenue from forestry as a convenient rationale to impose their ideology. “Their vision seems to be to maximize the net present value of forest resources, liquidate as much wood as quickly as possible, manage only for fibre or biomass, sell off forest land to industry and let them deal with the hassle—and maybe make some extra money in real estate. If that is your vision, you don’t need a Forest Service and you don’t need a regulatory and management regime.”
Del Meidinger was the chief provincial forest ecologist for 30 years. His work with forest classification systems led the world as a management tool and won him the Premier’s Legacy Award. Meidinger points to the axing of the field ecologists who implement this tool. “Why are they de-emphasizing forest stewardship? The forests support so many ecosystem services. Really what is at stake is the protection of the public interest in our forests.”
Alan Vyse, adjunct professor of forestry with an Emeritus position in the Forest Service, speaking from his office at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, affirms the concerns of the green rangers: “The facts stand for themselves. There are lots of concerns out there about the change in culture surrounding our public forests and I share them. What we need now with all the challenges of increased pests, fire and other climate change issues is an informed and proactive Forest Service to identify and solve the problems.”
The problems are as big as all outdoors. While the political winds were changing at the turn of the millennium, the climatic winds were blowing in profound effects on our forests. Interior forests have experienced huge hits from record wildfires, mountain pine beetle, other large-scale insect infestations like western spruce budworm, and diseases like Dothistroma. The mountain pine beetle alone damaged 15 million hectares, 30 to 60 percent of which staff estimate is not satisfactorily restocked (referred to as NSR lands). Fires burned over a million hectares. A third of a million hectares have been left unstocked from small-scale salvage logging carried out without any obligation to reforest.
As Vyse asks, “How do you meet these challenges when you reduce your staff and researchers? In the various cuts, including the latest one, they have eliminated 1500 years of accumulated expertise in technical issues. How can you be proactive…?”
Jim Pojar, in his recent peer-reviewed scientific report, New Climate for Conservation, highlights the challenges facing our forests: “Climate change is already significantly impacting healthy ecosystems in British Columbia and will likely cause more dire consequences for fragmented or degraded ecosystems.” He notes that future projections for forest health and supply of timber require analysis by people who are arms-length to industry.
This is not the direction the BC government seems headed.
Biofuels and tenure reform
BC’s forest industry is in the process of diversifying from producing softwood pulp and paper and dimensional lumber for the United States housing market to a new range of products—most notably feedstock for the bioenergy sector. The main requirement of the bioenergy industry is secure, long-term tenures on productive lands close to markets, ostensibly to provide assurance to investors that there will be a long-term return on capital.
To provide that security, BC’s Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell has called for a new form of tenure called “commercial forest reserves.” Bell maintains there are no plans to privatize Crown forests, but it’s no secret that http://focusonline.ca/sites/default/files/poplar plantation for web.jpgA hybrid poplar plantation in Oregon that supplies feedstock for production of cellulosic ethanol.the commercial forest reserve concept involves setting aside certain areas, likely the most productive ones, for a single use: intensive silviculture aimed at producing biofuels. Britneff and other green rangers argue that the granting of long term leases that preclude any other uses amounts to at least de facto privatization. The public would lose control of those lands.
What would Bell’s commercial forest reserves look like? “That is difficult to answer at the moment,” Bell says. “We are in discussion with various stakeholders, industry, ENGOs and First Nations. We envision them as smaller geographical areas where you don’t have complications of species at risk, traditional-use areas, and other values.” That the most productive forestlands are valley bottoms where, in fact, all those “complications” are present is not addressed, nor is the process by which these areas are to be selected.
Industry is definitely pushing for tenure reform. Last October, headlines in the Vancouver Sun—“Get government out of forests”—accompanied the release of the Woodbridge Report that was presented in a BC Business Council of BC 2020 Summit co-chaired by David Emerson and past finance minister for the Liberal government, Carole Taylor. Written by Peter Woodbridge, the central recommendation is to reform tenure and put investment interests as the top priority.
The recommendations of the Woodbridge Report echo exactly those of the Working Roundtable on Forestry, set up by Bell, which published its report the year before. These recommendations are a reflection of the membership of the Roundtable, which, as one of their press releases states, is “not intended to represent forest sector interest groups [or the public] because it would be impossible to have a Working Roundtable of a reasonable size and at the same time represent all forest sector interests.” Of the 15 members, 12 were industry representatives, two were First Nations and there was a lone academic, Derek Thompson.
Thompson, also a long-time civil servant and a former deputy minister of Water, Land and Air Protection, was candid: “Tenure reform dominated the discussions, but we couldn’t even get consensus with just industry folk at the table.” He also notes, “There was a great deal of trepidation from government about taking the discourse into the public realm because of the potential for uncontrollable controversy.”
Fear of “uncontrollable controversy” seems to be at the heart of why the provincial Liberals have steered away from open talk about privatization. For very good reasons, British Columbians aren’t comfortable with changes to Crown lands without a full public debate.
Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, John Rustad, is parliamentary secretary to the provincial Committee on Silviculture. He runs a consulting firm for the forest industry and, like Bell, was also born and raised in Prince George. Rustad acknowledges that “Engaging in all those topics with a broad sector of society would elicit a broad response and is a good idea.” But his more immediate concerns are creating opportunities for the industry’s recovery, and he believes the province needs to move in a new direction: “What I have been asked to do is figure out how to maximize and support the fibre needs of industry today and tomorrow, including for bioenergy and biofuels. I need to find the next regime for silviculture to look at the province differently.”
And what would that recovery look like on the ground? Rustad sketches out a model that would utilize one-third of the province’s land base as intensive commercial forests. “We are not trying to do something on every square inch of the land base. Even if we have intensive silviculture values, that doesn’t restrict other values. Having said that, you would have it on a subset of the land base and it would happen over a 10- or 20-year period and the rest of the land base would be managed as it is today.”
He identifies new intensive silviculture technologies as playing a central role because they increase fibre yield by 20 percent on productive sites, and points to pilot projects, such as the hybrid poplar plantations in the Fraser Valley area by Kruger (Scott Paper), on private lands as the future direction of the forest industry.
There are other examples of this shift in focus among forestry companies. Woodbridge highlights the recent Weyerhauser-Chevron venture company called Catchlight Energy. Catchlight is “combining Weyerhaeuser’s expertise in innovative land stewardship, resource management and capacity to deliver sustainable cellulose-based feedstocks at scale with Chevron’s technology capabilities in molecular conversion, product engineering, advanced fuel manufacturing and fuels distribution.”
Clark Binkley, the ex-Dean of the Faculty of Forests at UBC who proselytized privatization of Crown forests before returning to the USA and setting up his own investment company, is touting GreenWood Resources, a Portland-based company that develops intensively-managed hybrid poplar plantations for biofuels.
Industry forest geneticist Dr Jean Brouard labels the land management strategy that partitions the land base into thirds, “Triad.” “Investors are most interested in concentrating on the most productive growing sites, typically about a third of any land base, that are close to mills with high existing roading density and low emissions on haulage. On these productive growing sites—with more intensive site preparation and genetics—you can meet the 20 percent increase in yield. On the average growing sites, you might have a business-as-usual or with more focus on ecosystems-based management, and then the least productive third is left for conservation. Triad is currently being used on a pilot basis in Quebec by the government as forestry was almost at a standstill.”
Does this kind of land management strategy take into account climate change, forest health, biodiversity and other public interests? Brouard doesn’t seem to think that’s possible: “Essentially these go on in the less-intensively managed areas. But you can only grow trees like poplars profitably in moist bottom valley lands and that might coincide with species at risk or fish habitat values. There are also big concerns with pathogens [diseases like Septoria musiva] in hybrid poplar plantations that could jump to native cottonwoods and create a problem for our native forests. Conservation needs to be in all ecosystems and at all scales and that might not coincide with industry’s needs for the most productive lands.”
Woodbridge admits, “Plantations are a dirty word for some Canadians.” But he argues there is no alternative; BC has to follow the more competitive suppliers of fibre and biofuel feedstock—the intensive plantations in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. “To remain competitive, BC has to lower wood costs and this is not done through selling indigenous timber cheaper. Because our labour and transport costs are going up, we have to farm fibre and feedstock for biofuels more intensively. We need to find a secure tenure system to do this.”
The delusion of biofuels
To fully understand where the pressure for tenure reform is coming from, you have to follow the money. Bell and Rustad are clearly putting their money on biofuels, which are being promoted as one of the next great alternative energy sources, a cure for what ails the planet’s warming atmosphere.
You might wonder how burning forests—a fuel high in carbon—can possibly be good for the atmosphere. And that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. In fact, promoting the use of biofuels as part of the solution to global warming seems a bit delusional.
The biofuel idea goes back to a strange loophole in the Kyoto Protocol rules that enables a tree to be cut down, turned into wood pellets, shipped overseas and then burned as fuel without having to account for any of the carbon that is released through all these activities.
If that loophole is plugged, BC would be forced to account for emissions from logging and burning, which, according to the 2007 BC Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, creates the single largest source of emissions in the province, larger even than the energy sector. If the loophole disappears, the dream of rescuing BC’s forest industry by developing the biofuels sector would go up in a puff of wood smoke.
But right now, that loophole remains and is proving to be a powerful impetus for revamping the forest industry.
Ontario is already taking the lead on exploiting this loophole with its proposals to revitalize ailing pulp mills and send wood pellets to its coal-fired power plants, which have been legislated to stop using coal by 2014. It’s one way to keep traditional forestry jobs in economically-depressed forestry-dependent towns. But it’s risky, and it’s exacerbating climate change.
Growing biofuels in an intensive way would degrade the health of the air, water and soil quality. Biodiversity would be severely compromised. Recreation and public access would be denied. The use of forests as needed carbon sinks and repositories of cultural values would go out the window. These rich, valley-bottom lands are what everyone wants—from wildlife to the international real estate companies, as witnessed in the sell-off in the last decade of Crown parcels along eastern Vancouver Island.
Conversion of these lands to intensive plantations would increase our emissions and decrease our ability to adapt to climate change. And, ironically, it would be done under the guise of mitigating climate change.
If the province does go forward with tenure reform to support the biofuel industry and the Kyoto loophole is closed, what then? That would depend on exactly what the new form of tenure was. Bell has likened it to being something like the Agricultural Land Reserve. But the ALR has proven itself susceptible to the predations of the real estate industry and one can easily imagine the Kyoto loophole closing and real estate developments moving into the failed plantations.
Public interest and consultation
With potentially a third of the province being considered for a form of tenure that might well be seen as de facto privatization, “uncontrollable controversy” seems inevitable—but only if the public becomes fully informed. So far, though, the government has managed to keep a pretty tight lid on its plans.
Minister Bell says his focus is the decline of revenue in forest communities like Prince George, and the need for the ministry to take a “new direction.” “We are changing the way we are doing business. It is in the public’s interest to have a strong forest industry, and I’ve been very clear in the direction we need to go: better utilization of the resource, including bioenergy; intensive silviculture; growing the Chinese market; and promoting wood first.” In response to suggestions by his critics that the public expects government to manage not just fiscal resources but the physical values of a forest as well, Bell simply says: “With workforce adjustments, it is always difficult.”
Bell’s counterpart sitting on the other side of the legislature disagrees with him on how to regain economic health in forest communities and what kind of Forest Service is needed to get there. Norm Macdonald, NDP MLA for Columbia River/Revelstoke and Opposition Forest Critic says, “This is the most valuable asset that the people of BC have—just the timber value of the forest alone is a third of a trillion dollars—and, if we don’t maintain that investment with regard to reforestation and research, matters will become progressively worse. [Our Forest Service] has been gutted to the point that the work that is needed to be done isn’t getting done.”
Macdonald sees the change in direction as the thin end of the wedge toward privatization of public forests. “This is cronyism at its worst. The memorandum sent out to all the forest managers to only focus on industry interests has had no public discussion. Has the public interest been considered? Is access going to be denied? To have that agenda without public discussion is deeply disturbing. After nine years on this file, you would think there would be a public plan. At best it is incompetence; at worst there is something more nefarious, like a privatization agenda for our public lands.”
It seems obvious that the public does need to be consulted about the shift in direction and about what could be lost by converting natural forests to intensive plantations and potentially to real estate.
Forest geneticist Brouard says the real lesson from Quebec is that for the Triad process to succeed, it must take place with public consultation. Short-circuiting public consultation leads to more wars in the woods or to industry negotiating their own agreements with ENGOS and First Nations “leaving government [and therefore the public] to play catchup.” The public, like industry, won’t invest in something it has no say over. Brouard also notes another “must have” before the Triad system can work: “The first thing you need, of course, is good inventory of all your lands.” Precisely what we don’t have because of all the cutbacks.
Even investors are nervous about the lack of consultation and oversight. Peter Woodbridge notes, “I am recommending that government also beef up the Forest Service oversight. Let companies have their own sand box and manage their fibre as they see fit, but they have to stay within the confines and rules set by government. I am an advocate for good planning and strong government oversight, and in this regard I have some criticisms of government.”
Bell’s ministry seems to be ignoring the potential for conservation-type carbon offsets. Some First Nations are developing these through reduced harvesting, hoping to sell the offsets on international carbon markets—exactly the opposite of industry’s drift to intensification. These types of carbon offsets do have climatic and biodiversity benefits, unlike the biofuel offsets proposed by Bell in his vision. In order to sell these credits and meet international standards, there have to be tenures that guarantee the conservation of carbon in these forest sinks for 100 years. That means tenure reform, and First Nations are pioneering some of the ideas for how this could be done.
Unfortunately, no one in the ministry is talking about it. Derek Thompson, who is now negotiating carbon conservation projects in the tropics for World Wildlife Fund and indigenous groups, says that what amazes him about the government is the sheer lack of public discussion about the potentially huge revenue source of conservation carbon projects for rural communities.
With no legislated commitment to planning, no budget to do so, and a new mandate to respond to only industry demands, the government has left the public out of the discussion. Only “the google eyed, bandy-legged dudes” once on the inside, seem to know what’s happening. What they are saying is that we can anticipate losing control over our choicest Crown lands—sacrificing them to single, intensive industrial uses with an accompanying loss of access, watershed and biodiversity protection.
Regardless of the type of future business interests—from biofuels to ecosystem services—all roads lead back to the basic message of the green rangers. Says Alan Vyse, “Sure these market forces might build into them some public interest, but where is the discussion about what those public interests are? It is way past time for some fairly significant discussions on the future of our public forests.” Will it create an “uncontrollable controversy”? It is hard to imagine anything more controversial than not consulting with the people.
A good place for the government to start that consultation would be with the green rangers and their 1500 years of experience. To manage healthy forests, Britneff’s first step would be to get forest rangers back into the bush and decentralize services away from city offices to forest-dependent communities.
His second step would be to restore adequate funding for forest management and for research, including exploring international market opportunities that build on environmental stewardship, resiliency and sustainability.
Finally, his third step would be to grant the province’s chief forester independent statutory powers for auditing forest management in 100 local Forest Service offices by the holders of community forest tenures and First Nations tenures, thereby restoring a stewardship ethic to local forest models.
Without such measures, a Big Burn of BC’s public forests seems imminent.
Briony Penn is a writer, artist and award-winning environmental educator.