To protect wildlife habitat and biodiversity, reduce the cut and transition away from large clearcuts
A large clearcut near Prince George. Photo by Sean O'Rourke, Conservation North
Introduction by Briony Penn
WHILE THE SLOW ROLLING OUT of indigenous rights, responsibilities and title continues over Crown-managed forests, our existing laws—or lack of them—are rapidly pushing these ecosystems past the point of no return. The last 20 years has proved that industrial forestry will find a way to incrementally push all rules and regulations to favour one thing: maximizing the cut. Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of how regulations meant to protect wildlife—and other non-timber values—have been stripped to the point where they became meaningless.
The Forest Practices Code Act was replaced in 2002 by the Forest and Range Practices Act. The latter enshrined one forest value—timber. Overnight, government relinquished oversight and management of Crown-managed forests to industry. Although nine non-timber values were listed in the 2004 Forest Planning and Practices Regulation, their protection was conditional on “not unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.”
There was no disguising the objective to ensure timber trumped all other values—soils, biodiversity, cultural heritage, fish/riparian and watershed, forage, recreation, resource features, visual quality, water, and wildlife. That last afterthought—wildlife—has been so badly abused that BC scientists now say 1800 species of plants and animals are endangered or threatened.
The old Forest Practices Code designations of Wildlife Habitat Areas (WHAs), Old Growth Management Areas (OGMAs) and Riparian Zones (RZs) have lingered in name only, conditional on “not unduly reducing the supply of timber.”
This legislation—written by the forest industry—allowed a thin sheen of “protection” that has been a disaster for wildlife.
The ministry capped WHAs at one percent of what is called the “Mature Timber Harvest Land Base” (trees over 60 years old in BC’s coastal forests) where all the old growth and valuable trees are. Government scientists knew that this isn’t sufficient for protecting the habitat for a list of species for the whole of BC. Protecting habitat for a single species at risk, like marbled murrelets on the coast or mountain caribou in the interior, could use up the entire one percent of the MTHLB alone.
There was an additional mathematical problem, too. When mature forest is logged, the pool of mature forest shrinks. One percent of that shrinking pool, in areal extent, gets smaller and smaller as more and more mature forest is logged. How small is “one percent” now? We don’t really know because no one is actually keeping track.
WHAs only applied to certain “identified” wildlife and determining which species were on that list became the job of politicians, not the scientists. Lots of plants and animals never made it on to the list and that list hasn’t been updated for 15 years. Under the new regulations, with its high-level orders, only 10 percent of a WHA was actually protected. The rest could be logged as long as a certain percentage of mature forest was retained at any one time, and the road blasting stayed away from the nesting site. What still looks on a map like a protected wildlife area is now, on the ground, mostly a clearcut with a few clumps of trees.
Originally, OGMAs were also fixed, spatial, geographic areas. Up to 13 percent of a specific area, determined by land use planning, was supposed to be reserved to capture the old growth characteristics of different types of forests. As the industry began to reassert itself, however, high level plan orders came into effect that ate away at the areal extent of OGMAs. For example, the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan included this paragraph: “To avoid severe social and economic consequences, as determined by the district manager and the designated environment official, the full target of 13 per cent for old growth retention in CWHvm1 may be reduced by up to one third provided that ecologically suitable second growth forest is identified to recruit the shortfall.”
This created new categories of ‘non-spatial’ and ‘non-legal’ OGMAs. Companies just shifted their OGMA boundaries around in their Forest Stewardship Plans (FSP) until they’d logged all the old growth because they knew they could draw some circles around second growth that might be old growth one day. District managers issued them permits because they only had one mandate—to not unduly reduce the timber supply. Their tasks did not include monitoring what was left of old growth on the ground—that fell to citizens and independent scientists.
Other ministerial orders eroded the designation of the legal OGMAs by allowing intrusions up to ten percent of the OGMA for road building, removal of danger trees, rock quarries and salvage harvesting to prevent the spread of insect infestations.
Co-location is another method of shrinking the area where habitat needs to be retained that has been employed to make more forest available for cutting. An OGMA could be moved to an existing WHA, UWR or RZ. In fact companies can co-locate all the designations in one place if the vague rules for each line up in the companies’ favour. One of the identified wildlife habitats on the West Coast is nesting sites for marbled murrelets (MAMU), an endangered seabird that is dependent on old-growth forests, especially in riparian areas. Co-location has occurred throughout the South Island district, including TFL 46 where Fairy Creek resides. OGMAs were co-located with MAMU WHAs, UWRs and RZs to maintain the MTHLB. (Yes, that’s a mouthful of indigestible acronyms. Government has been hoping the public will lose its appetite for monitoring forest policy by dumping endless opaque acronyms and bafflegab on the subject.)
As for bear dens, wildlife tree retention, salamander habitat, bat roosts and every other plant and animal, well they are just sheer out of luck unless someone is spending their entire life fighting these companies—usually with no legal tools at their disposal. The monitoring of all these non-timber-supply values were to be rolled into what was called the Cumulative Effects Framework (CEF). For the coast, ten non-timber values were identified including old growth, MAMUs and forest biodiversity etc. But, not surprisingly, the assessments are only “underway” and not one report has been produced. It’s as though wildlife habitat might still exist, but if it does, it’s been swept under a rug.
Monitoring for the public interest has been pushed under another rug, administered by a “Multiple Resource Value Assessment” (MRVA) team to “provide resource professionals and decision makers with information about the environmental component of this ‘balance’ so that they can assess the consistency of actual outcomes with their expectations.” For south Vancouver Island, there is one 16-page document dating back to 2013. It illustrates high impacts to riparian areas, stand level biodiversity, water and visual quality. ‘Balance’ is parenthesized by the authors, which speaks to their hesitancy in using that term to describe—not half—but what amounts to maybe six percent of the area of prime timber in the MTHLB—once you account for the area of all the co-located RZs, UWR and WHAs and non-legal OGMAs.
Finally, there is the annual Assistant Deputy Minister Stewardship Report (ADMSR) based on the results of the Forest and Range Evaluation Program (FREP) and the MRVA. This is the “cornerstone” of monitoring that gets delivered to the Minister’s desk. In this document, the coast—from Bella Bella and Haida Gwaii to Vancouver Island—is covered in ten pages. The only directives are in a box called “Opportunities for Improvement.” For the category of stand-level biodiversity, the opportunities are “retain some large diameter trees on the site; look for opportunities to leave large snags as anchors; and retain a full representation of pre-harvest tree species.” None of these documents are rooted in any kind of reality—the things we actually see when we walk around the forests of Vancouver Island. We are all watching the last of these ancient forests falling, wildlife plummeting and the only word getting to the minister’s desk is to “look for an opportunity to leave a few snags as anchors.”
High profile species at risk, requiring recovery plans that were swept under some other rug, are starting to trigger federal reviews for failure to act under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA). Then the 2018 enquiry into the shambles of professional reliance found that government had no authority to hand monitoring over de facto to members of the public who became unofficial, unpaid and unsuccessful watchdogs. The one independent arm, the Forest Practices Board, which recently investigated logging in the Nahmint Valley, found BC Timber Sales was “not in compliance” with virtually any of their guidelines for biodiversity. The investigation found the Compliance and Enforcement Branch were “not investigating these concerns and not taking appropriate action.” It doesn’t get much worse for wildlife or the future when our own provincial logging company can’t even follow or enforce its own vague and non-legally-binding guidelines.
Over the past 20 years we have witnessed the utter failure to legislate and enforce rules and regulations that would protect wildlife. Enough. The sweeping 1950s-era experiment of replacing nature in BC with a giant, man-made, largely unregulated wood-fibre plantation, managed by and for the benefit of forestry companies should—on the basis of the ecological collapse it has precipitated—be ended. The People of BC need to rise up and take back the forest from the industrial clearcutters. But enough about what I think. What do you think?
Briony Penn is a naturalist, artist and award-winning author of several books.