WHILE MANY British Columbians loathe clearcut logging—especially clearcut logging of old-growth forests, these are mere symptoms of a much bigger problem: the over-exploitation of BC forests. Over the last 20 years, industrial logging of live, healthy trees has destroyed more forest than the Mountain Pine Beetle, disease and forest fires combined. This has created a remarkable outcome. Among the ten most-forested states on Earth, BC has the highest per capita rate of forest cover loss. This is a measure of how completely BC’s logging industry has seized control of publicly-owned forests.
BC experienced an immense amount of forest loss as a result of the beetle infestation over those 20 years. It also experienced significant growth in the size and intensity of forest fires. Yes, nature has taken its toll on our forests, especially under the influence of human-created climate change. But those natural forces are at work in those other countries, too, so BC’s record can’t be excused by blaming it on nature. In fact, if we take the forest loss due to natural causes out of the numbers for BC and leave them in for all the other countries, BC still has the worst record of forest loss on planet Earth:
So why is this vast forest removal project occurring? Let’s consider the rationale offered by the proponents of primary forest liquidation and then come back to why it’s really happening.
Industry and government in BC often cite a purely economic rationale for why we should use our forests to the extent we do: We need employment, building materials, foreign currency and government revenue. But if forest removal in BC was occurring at a rate necessary to meet those needs, the rate of removal per capita would align with other countries with similar economic needs, like the USA. Instead, BC’s per capita rate of forest loss is much, much higher than the USA’s. In fact, comparison of BC’s per capita forest removal with heavily forested but economically poorer states around the planet leads to the inevitable conclusion that something in BC has gone very haywire over the past 20-30 years.
Consider Bolivia. It’s the 8th most heavily forested country in the world. It has an area of 1.099 million square kilometres, just slightly larger than BC’s 944,735. Between 2001 and 2019, Bolivia lost 5.68 million hectares of forest as a result of logging, fire, disease and insect infestation. In that same period, BC lost 7.88 million hectares to all causes. During those 20 years, Bolivia’s average population was 10.4 million, BC’s was 4.74 million.
When you do the arithmetic, Bolivia’s forest loss from all causes over those 20 years amounted to .545 hectares per capita. BC lost 1.66 hectares per capita, more than three times Bolivia’s loss. Yet Bolivia is considered an international pariah when it comes to forest loss.
While government and industry claim that the rate of forest removal in BC is as high as it is because it’s necessary to feed forestry families, there’s little evidence that this is actually the case.
Protest against forest conservation by the BC Truck Loggers Association in Victoria (Photo: Global TV)
Between BC and Bolivia, there’s no question about which country has the greatest economic need to exploit its forests. In 2010, the mid-point of the 20-year period we’re considering, Bolivia’s per capita GDP was around $1900 per person. BC’s was $41,327. In other words, Bolivia had a much greater economic need, per capita, to exploit its forest resource than BC did. Yet BC’s per capita rate of forest loss was over three times as high as Bolivia’s. Keep in mind that BC’s high per capita GDP had little to do with the forest industry, which in 2010 accounted for only about 2.5 percent of BC’s GDP, according to the BC government. By 2019, that had fallen to 1.8 percent.
So the “we need to feed our families” rationale for why BC needs to devastate its primary forests is completely bogus, a fiction used by the industry to divert the attention of BC’s TV and newsprint journalists away from the world-class clearcuts.
The employment rationale is undermined by the facts, too. Direct jobs in the forest industry were cut in half during the 20-year period we’re considering, yet the area of forest removed in a year may have fluctuated in response to market conditions but is slightly higher now than 20 years ago when there were twice as many people working in the industry. Moreover, the fraction of total employment contributed by the forest industry to BC’s economy got smaller and smaller. In other words, contrary to what they say, there is no commitment by government or industry to link the extent of forest removal with employment.
Logging industry supporters point to BC’s need for foreign currency as justification for the high level of forest removal. This is almost laughable, especially when we consider how BC is marketed to the international tourism market: Super, Natural BC. Tourism is a bigger industry in BC than the forest products industry, and international tourism brings foreign currency directly to BC. Those tourists don’t come to see clearcuts, they come for BC’s purported scenic beauty and wildlife, both of which are being threatened by the extent of logging. If BC needed more foreign currency, it would be more effective to attract more tourists, not create the conditions that will drive them away.
Government revenue? There is no net revenue for government from the forest industry. Once you include the huge hidden cost of direct public subsidies involved, there is a huge net loss to the public purse, a cost that is greater then the industry’s contribution to provincial GDP.
Finally, what about BC’s need for wood products, like dimensional lumber and toilet paper? Since 80 percent of the wood products made from forest removal in BC over the last 20 years were exported to other countries, there is no justification for the claim that forest removal is as high as it is because BC needs the wood products for its own use. And it is that very high level of exports that is the underlying cause of the over-exploitation of BC forests. Only 20 percent of the forest logged in BC is used to meet BC’s needs. The rest is exported, mainly to the USA, China and Japan.
It is noteworthy that those three countries now have much higher levels of protection for their own primary forests than BC does. China banned all logging of its primary forests in 2020. In the US Pacific Northwest, where forests are comparable to BC’s, clearcut logging in old-growth forests on public land was ended in the 1990s. The Biden administration recently ended clearcutting of old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. A survey of satellite images of Japanese forests shows little to no clearcutting is taking place in that country.
It’s also noteworthy that China and the USA are two of the world’s largest exporters of wood products. They import wood from BC, remanufacture it to a higher value and then sell it to other countries. Teal Cedar Products, for example, has a mill in Surrey that produces rough lumber. It then ships that lumber across the border to its remanufacturing facility in Sumas, Washington and adds value to it there.
While export markets are the main driver of primary forest removal in BC, it is the policies of the forests ministry—which, to put it bluntly, have been written by the logging industry—that allows such a vast over-engagement with that market. Large companies, through the Council of Forest Industries, have effectively executed a regulatory capture of the provincial forests ministry and de facto privatization of BC’s purportedly “publicly owned” forests. That story is covered elsewhere on this site.
The resulting over-exploitation of BC’s forests is now highly evident in satellite images of almost every landscape across the province. To experience this destruction on the ground can be both shocking and motivating.
Satellite image of BC above Paradise Lake near Peachland
Clearcut near Peachland. On the ground, the physical size of the clearcuts permitted by the ministry of forests is shocking. (Photo by Will Koop)
Our purpose in this section of the site is to develop an understanding of how much of BC’s allowable annual cut could be eliminated in order to conserve forests as a response to the climate and biodiversity crises, and how much of the cut would need to be given up just to bring BC in line with less extreme members of the global community, like Bolivia and Brazil.
BC has, basically, three options. The first is to ignore the fact that it is, by global standards, over-exploiting its forests and will soon be seen, in this era of climate emergency and biodiversity collapse, as an international pariah, like Brazil and Bolivia, only worse. Making sure international customers are aware of what’s happening in BC will be essential if the ministry continues to be unresponsive to the unfolding climate and biodiversity crises in BC.
The second option is to reduce the cut so that it just meets our own needs and no more. Let the USA, China and Japan figure out how to meet their own needs without using BC as a sacrifice zone.
The third option would be to make a paradigm shift to ecosystem-based forest management, where “extraction of timber” would only occur at a level that didn’t degrade ecosystems. In that case, we would need to adjust our “need” to what’s actually available without harming our life support system.
Those of us who have a conviction that all this forest destruction is unsustainable and harming humanity’s future on Earth need to act. The forest destruction that’s occurring just to feed the export market is a huge target begging for action. The current government, advised by industry and ministry of forests personnel who relate to forests in terms of “fibre” and “feedstock,” seems unaware that BC has fallen so far into industrial extremism. Our challenge will be to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.