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  • The economic costs of converting forests into sawdust and wood chips


    David Broadland
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    The logging industry—and its government facilitators—don’t want the BC public to know how wasteful the industry is, but it’s hard to hide. The economic costs of that waste are enormous.

     

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    Teal Cedar Products Ltds cedar shake and shingle mill beside the Fraser River in Surrey. About half of the cedar logs that go through the mill end up in the pile on the right.

     

    TEAL CEDAR PRODUCTS LTD, the company in the news over its logging of old-growth forests on southern Vancouver Island, knows something that it doesn’t want you to know: About one-half of the ancient forest Teal cuts in TFL 46, trucks to its log sort at Duke Point, and then booms across the Salish Sea and up the Fraser River to its mill in Surrey, spends time as a pile of sawdust and wood chips on its way to a pulp mill or a bag of garden mulch or some other low value product. About half.

    According to data published by the BC ministry of forests, approximately 52 percent of the logs removed from BC forests become wood chips or sawdust. Teal’s mill is no different. The image above shows its shake and shingle mill on the Fraser River. That big pile of sawdust on the right? That’s the destination of approximately half of the old-growth cedar logs it removed from TFL 46 near Port Renfrew.

    Like the wood waste from any other mill in BC, the sawdust and wood chips are then transported to a pulp or pellet mill and turned into short-lived products like newsprint, toilet paper, burnable pellets or garden mulch. But the extent to which the forest is wasted when it’s logged is actually much worse than this, whether it’s old growth or second growth.

    What can’t be seen in the mill image is the slash left behind in the clearcuts after logging: The stumps and roots, the non-merchantable tops, the branches, parts of the tree that were broken during felling, the rotten parts of the trees, smaller unmerchantable trees, standing dead snags, and woody debris on the forest floor. Oh, and the understory plants and the underground mycorrhizal network. Approximately one-half of the total biomass of a forest that is killed by logging stays in the clearcut until it burns or decomposes and then passes into the atmosphere. Yes, this would all happen over time, naturally. But logging unnaturally shrinks the time frame within which that occurs, and, in the developing climate emergency, accelerating the process of returning forest carbon to the atmosphere could be suicidal.

     

    KlanawaValleyclearcutandslashpilesTJWatt.jpg.c53bf75bc7833a3b256d2b776300c46d.jpg

    Logging slash left after clearcut logging of old-growth forest in the Klanawa River Valley on southern Vancouver Island (Photo by TJ Watt)

     

    The wasted biomass left in the clearcut, along with the piles of sawdust and wood chips at the mill, account for 75 percent of the original biomass that was in an old-growth stand before it was logged. That’s not a typo. Seventy-five percent.

    In BC, of the remaining 25 percent that gets turned into lumber, plywood, veneer, panels, shakes, shingles and poles, about 80 percent of that is exported, mostly to the USA, China and Japan. That means that only about 5 percent of the total forest biomass that is killed in BC each year by logging is actually used here as a product that could store carbon for more than a couple of years. Five percent. The other 95 percent is the forest industry’s big, dirty secret.

     

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    This matters because there is a climate emergency. Killing forests means killing the most effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and safely store it for hundreds of years. Over the past 20 years in BC, mainly as a result of logging, the province’s forests have lost over 90 percent of their annual capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon.

     

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    It also matters because killing forests means killing the wildlife that lived in those forests. As a consequence of logging, BC is experiencing an unprecedented decline in wildlife populations. The greatest cause of biodiversity collapse is loss of habitat.

    And it also matters because British Columbians are subsidizing this colossal forest-wasting exercise: By paying for the forest management necessary for the gargantuan scale of logging involved to meet export market demand, by subsidizing the industry’s electrical energy usage, and by failing to tax the immense carbon emissions and loss of carbon sequestration capacity caused by the forest industry.

    As awareness of these facts grows, both the ministry of forests and industry are desperately trying to create counter arguments about the damage the industry is doing to climate stability and wildlife.

    On the government side, provincial and federal forest mandarins are scrambling to promote initiatives that make it appear they are on the verge of mitigating the harms to climate and biodiversity. “Innovations” like “collecting harvest residuals” to make “bioenergy” and “mass timber construction” to store carbon are being promoted as climate friendly reasons why forest conservation is unnecessary. These initiatives—eviscerated by serious scientists—only address the symptoms, not the disease itself, which is too much logging. Worse, these unproven initiatives likely will have no impact at actually reducing the harm, and instead provide only the appearance of “We’ve got this.”

    The forests ministry’s own account of “fibre flows” shows (diagram below) how little of  what they call “harvest residuals” is actually being collected. In 2019, approximately 800,000 cubic metres of  residuals were collected of the approximately 50 to 60 million cubic metres of biomass left in clearcuts—just over 1 percent.

     

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