THERE ARE FOUR MEANINGS INTENDED by the use of “plantation failure”: First, there is the failure of government to insure that clearcuts have been replanted at a rate matching that at which forests are being logged. Second, there is the failure of computer modelling to accurately predict the growth and yield of managed plantations. Third, there is the large-scale destruction of conifer plantations by fires, insects and disease. And fourthly—and perhaps most importantly: There has been a failure to recognize that widespread industrial clearcutting, followed by plantations, does not emulate any known natural disturbance; the belief that it does comes from hubris rather than knowledge or wisdom. All of the impacts of these miscalculations are increasing in size as the area logged each year grows.
According to the ministry’s own records, between 2000 and 2017, 1.2 million more hectares were logged than were planted. This number does not reflect the backlog of unplanted logged area that had accumulated previous to 2000. Just how bad this problem actually is depends on which ministry record of how much logging has occurred is used: the one made publicly available (below in black), or the one based on the ministry’s best, but still incomplete, data (red).
This fact—that the ministry is not ensuring that logged areas are being replanted—undoes the ministry’s and industry’s contention that logging in BC is not deforestation. In a recent press briefing attended by BC Chief Forester Diane Nicholls, a media reporter asked, “How will the COP 26 resolution about deforestation affect BC?” Nicholls responded that “deforestation” was not occurring in BC. But her ministry’s own data shows this is not true. There are many strong indicators that logging in BC is not sustainable and the large replanting deficit is just one of them.
Not only are clearcuts not being replanted at the rate they are being logged, but predictions of the rate of growth and yield of managed plantations, which are used to determine how much forest can be cut each year, have been shown to be based on corrupt and inaccurate data that hasn’t incorporated the likely impacts of climate change.
In 2018, Anthony Britneff and Martin Watts, both registered professional foresters, made a 134-page joint submission to a panel of forest scientists and professionals assembled to investigate concerns Britneff had expressed in writing to then forests minister Doug Donaldson.
In their submission, Watts and Britneff challenge a claim made by various chief foresters in many timber supply reviews that the “best available information” is used in coming to a determination of allowable annual cut. Britneff and Watts provided evidence in the case of the Bulkley Valley Timber Supply Area review, for example, that shows the “best available information” included data that an independent consultant had determined did not meet “Ministry Standards” on several counts.
They also note that a major source of uncertainty in computer modelling is “ineffective data management,” and recount how, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Forest Analysis and Inventory Branch (FAIB) struggled to effectively manage forest growth-and-yield data, which, as a consequence, had become “corrupted.” The result, say Watts and Britneff, is that “any studies or models using FAIB sample plot data prior to 2017 are suspect.” That would impact most existing timber supply reviews and the corresponding allowable annual cut determination (AAC).
A wildly optimistic timber supply forecast made in the 2004 State of the Forests report signed by then Chief Forester Jim Snetsinger. Using faulty growth and yield models, the ministry of forests predicted timber supply in 2020 would be about 50 percent higher than it has turned out to be. In 2004, the ministry was expecting the Mountain Pine Beetle to have a greater impact on timber supply than it actually has had, so the beetle was not the cause of the optimism bias.
Watts and Britneff believe the growth and yield models themselves are problematic and cite numerous ways in which the models provide inaccurate and unreliable estimates. For example, consecutive versions of the models produce different results from the same data, and the difference is significantly greater than the timber supply review process reflects in its consideration of uncertainty. As well, an FOI request showed FAIB had no record of the actual data used to calibrate one of the computer models central to estimating timber volume in natural stands. Watts and Britneff also point out that the growth and yield models lack the sophistication needed to reflect actual forest complexity.
All of those factors create a level of uncertainty about the growth and yield estimates for managed plantations used in ACC determinations that, Watts and Britneff say, create serious doubts about projected mid-term harvest levels.
Astonishingly, the models cannot account for climate change. On this point, Britneff says, “scientists within the forests ministry have reported and published that our Interior managed forests will most likely experience increased tree mortality, reduced growth and reduced utilization as a result of an increase in forest health issues due to climate change.”
Yet, because the models cannot accommodate climate change, none of the climate-related effects that are expected to reduce growth and yield are included in the timber supply reviews that determine AAC.
Next on our list of the ways in which plantations are failing is their growing impact on forest fires, insects and disease. Plantations on the scale they are being created in BC—about 250,000 hectares each year on public and private land—are creating a much higher risk of each of these problems occurring at large scales. Let’s start with fire.
Of the four general configurations of forest found in BC—primary forest, mature naturally-regenerated second growth, clearcut and plantation—the latter has the highest fire hazard (followed by clearcuts), especially in the first 25 years of a plantation’s life.
The higher fire hazard of clearcuts and plantations is entirely a matter of the ease with which fuels in them can be ignited and the difficulty in controlling such fires once they start.
A high level of fire hazard can be expected to persist for about 20 to 25 years following planting. When fires do occur in plantations, the damage is often severe. One group of US scientists studying fires in Douglas fir plantations found that the most severe burning occurs 12 years after planting.
The prevalence of clearcuts and plantations has been growing. The ministry of forests’ record of the extent of logging on publicly owned land shows there has been a large increase over the last 50 years. In the first five years of the 1970s, an average of 105,000 hectares of Crown land were being cut each year. In the 5-year period ending with 2018, that had risen to 240,000 hectares each year, a 230 percent increase.
It’s that growing prevalence of clearcuts and plantations that’s worrisome. Lightning strikes in those areas will be more likely to ignite and the resultant fires will be more difficult to control than in mature forest. Lightning is the most common cause of forest fires in BC. Obviously, then, if there’s more land where fires are easier to ignite, more fires will occur. If fires are initially more difficult to control, they are more likely to grow. And once a fire grows large enough to start encountering multiple areas of higher-hazard fuels—like clearcuts and plantations—the fire becomes more and more difficult to control. If the area of the province that’s subject to this higher fire hazard is growing—and it is—then larger fires will become more numerous. That’s exactly what we are seeing.
Most big fires in BC, like the 2017 Elephant Hill Fire (above), now involve thousands of hectares of highly-flammable clearcuts and plantations. Once plantations reach 25-30 years of age they have a higher chance of surviving a fire. Before that, they are the most flammable feature on BC’s highly logged landscapes.
A burned plantation is a failed plantation. But there are other factors causing widespread plantation failure. In southeastern BC, for example, forest scientists studied monoculture lodgepole pine plantations that had replaced cedar-hemlock primary forests. They found that 44 percent of the trees had unacceptable levels of damage from western gall rust, with the result that one-third of the plantations could not be considered “free growing.”
Yet ensuring that a plantation reaches a free-growing state is a legal requirement for companies who obtain permits to log public land in BC.
In northwestern BC, the choice of monoculture lodgepole pine plantations to replace primary forest has run up against Dothistroma needle blight. In primary forests, damage from dothistroma has historically been low. But replacing primary forests with monoculture lodgepole pine plantations has resulted in extensive defoliation and mortality in those plantations.
Lastly (at least until someone points out a fifth way in which plantations are failing), let’s consider the fundamental but flawed assumption underpinning plantations: After clearcutting, new forests can simply be regrown by replanting whatever species most reliably satisfies the legal but short-term requirement to reach a free growing state. In 2020, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard wrote briefly about this fallacy in a submission to the Haida Gwaii Management Council. She was commenting on a proposed determination of allowable annual cut in the Haida Gwaii Timber Supply Area.
Simard wrote: “Reforestation practices for clearcuts of Haida Gwaii, based on personal observations, have followed the industrial model of planting nursery-grown plug stock of cedar, spruce and lodgepole pine. In primary forests of Haida Gwaii, cedar naturally reproduces primarily by layering, where gap phase disturbances facilitate regeneration of cedar around parent trees. These saplings grow up in the neighbourhood of their elders, where they are protected and their growth facilitated. The industrial approach of planting cedar plugs in clearcuts does not emulate these natural processes. Moreover, the planting of lodgepole pine in the clearcuts of Haida Gwai appears to be geared at achieving early free-growing, and we should expect these trees to decline with age past free-to-grow age even more so than has been observed in the interior rainforests.
“Furthermore, the changes clearcutting brings to the hydrology of forests will cause a redistribution of water in the soil profile, likely with saturation at depth and surface drying, and this could serve to amplify drought-related die-backs among planted stock. For these reasons, the industrial approach of clearcutting and planting does not emulate natural disturbance regimes and regeneration dynamics on Haida Gwaii. With climate change, the second-growth forests will likely severely underperform relative to primary forests as measured in permanent sample plots.”
The Forest Practices Board, which is ostensibly independent from the ministry of forests, echoed Simard’s concerns about plantations in an investigation of similar issues the Board conducted for a different area of BC in September 2021. The investigation focussed on plantations in the Kamloops, Okanagan, Merritt and Lillooet TSAs, as well as the Cariboo-Chilcotin Natural Resource District.
The report was politely—but firmly—damning. The investigation into the health of plantation regrowth on cutblocks in the Interior Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone found that “ percent of the cutblocks examined were in poor and marginal condition and licensees may not be creating/regenerating resilient stands, which may have negative implications for future timber and non-timber values.”
Of this opening, the investigation noted: “A cutblock where a strip selection silviculture system was used, was not site prepared and was left to naturally regenerate, resulting in very little regeneration due to grass competition.”
Amongst other findings, the investigation found “an over-reliance on clearcutting” in the Interior Douglas-fir zone, and noted that clearcutting “is not appropriate for dry-belt-fir stands, as young trees do not regenerate well without the shade and shelter of overstory trees.”
Echoing another concern expressed by Britneff and Watts, the Board recommended to the ministry that it “re-assess the long-term reforestation objectives for the dry IDF [zone], and update them based on the likely consequences of climate change.”
The entire premise of liquidating BC’s primary forests was based on the assumption that humans could replace the natural processes that created those primary forests with their own, artificial and industrialized processes. Now the extent to which that decision was based in hubris is evident in the serial catastrophes overtaking BC’s plantation fantasy.
You, no doubt, have additional issues with plantations. We welcome your comments below or in the forum on this issue.