Forest legislation in BC protects logging from pressure to conserve nature. The legislation needs to be changed so that nature is protected from logging. But such a change would only be effective if forest product exports, which are responsible for 85-90 percent of the current forest loss, are halted.
YOU HAVE LIKELY HEARD of the “30 x 30” initiative of the “High Ambition Coalition” of over 100 countries, which includes Canada. In an effort to protect global biodiversity, the Coalition’s goal is to protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. What’s the big hurry? Scientists estimate the rate at which species are currently being lost is 1000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.
Historically, the idea of protecting land from any kind of development—human habitation, mining, logging, energy infrastructure, agriculture and so on—has been regarded as a luxury that society just couldn’t afford. By the early 1990s in BC, for example, only 6 percent of the province had been formally protected from such development. Under pressure from conservationists, that has risen to 15.4 percent in 2022.
Only 9 percent of BC’s forested land is permanently protected, according to the ministry of forests. In this province, protection of forests for any purpose—including the long-term conservation of nature—is conditional on that protection “not unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.” That clause is used over and over again in legislation that ostensibly regulates BC’s logging industry. In fact, in BC, logging is protected from the conservation of nature.
Yet scientists have assessed that Earth is losing 200 to 2000 species every year. Much of that loss is due to logging of forested habitat, including clearcutting in BC. BC’s ministry of forests acknowledges about 180,000 hectares of habitat are lost to logging on publicly-owned land each year (independent analyses show this is closer to 250,000 hectares each year).
Proposals like “30 x 30” attempt to address loss of biodiversity by increasing the amount of land given “protected” status. But a careful consideration of the pervasive physical impacts logging is having in BC would inevitably lead a reasonable person to the conclusion that merely shifting the status of land from “unprotected” to “protected” might very well provide no protection benefit at all. Unless other steps are taken to protect that newly protected land from the transferable impacts of nearby clearcut logging, little progress toward true protection will be made.
Clearcut logging on the scale that has been occurring in BC—which is unparalleled anywhere else on Earth on a per capita basis—is contributing significantly to global heating and climate instability. Those mega-impacts are, in turn, contributing to further, widespread loss of BC forests—whether they are “protected” or not—as a result of drought, fires, wind and insect infestations. All of those impacts are occurring with greater frequency and severity than in the past. That added loss, in turn, further worsens global heating and climate instability. So the scale of logging in BC is contributing to a dangerous global feedback loop that, on a per capita basis, British Columbians have been more responsible for than any other population of humans on the planet.
Moreover, BC is now beginning to experience unpredicted, complex and serious side effects from that feedback loop between growing climate instability and forest loss. Recall the unprecedented flooding that occurred after an “atmospheric river” swept over southwestern BC in mid-November 2021. The flooding occurred downstream from areas that had been heavily logged and were later burned by forest fires. The amount of rain that fell was not unprecedented, but the flooding was. Climate scientists say such atmospheric rivers will occur with greater frequency due to global heating. But the unprecedented magnitude of the flooding was attributable to both the loss of forest cover from clearcut logging and the way that forest fires make soil less able to absorb water. The large area of the forest fires was attributable, at least in part, to the widespread extent of clearcut logging and tree plantations and the unfortunate fact that clearcuts and plantations make forest fires easier to ignite and harder to control.
The higher flammability of clearcuts and plantations compared to mature forest is illustrated in the satellite image below. This shows Fire #C10966 (upper centre of image), which started on July 7, 2017 when lightning struck a clearcut on the southern boundary of Kluskoil Lake Provincial Park. The subsequent fire burned logging slash and regrowth across almost the entire area of the clearcut out to its edges (click the image to enlarge), leaving the area blackened. But the fire was stopped by mature forest around the clearcut. The 207-hectare clearcut had been logged in 2015 by Quesnel Investments Corp.
The aftermath of Fire #C10966 (a designation of the BC Wildfire Service). Click image to enlarge.
This clearcut fire was ignited by the same lighting storm that started more than 20 fires, which eventually joined and burned over 545,000 hectares of the Chilcotin Plateau in July and August of 2017. The area burned by those fires contained large areas of clearcuts and plantations—and protected areas. Many other protected areas throughout BC were burned in 2017, 2018 and 2021.
Forest fires, drought, insect infestations and wind pay no attention to whether an area has been designated as either “protected” or “available for logging.” But there’s a growing body of evidence that each of those physical impacts is made worse by clearcut logging.
The fundamental rationale used by government to justify all this damage is that the economic value of the logging industry in BC is just so great that its actual costs must be ignored.
In a 2003 report by the BC Ministry of Forests titled “British Columbia’s Forests And Their Management,” the authors stated: “Forestry is the most important industry, representing 8 percent of provincial Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or 15 percent or more of GDP when indirect and induced economic activity is included. Forestry is the principal source of income for 41 percent of BC’s regional economic areas. About 87,000 British Columbians (or 4 percent of total jobs) are directly employed in forestry, with about half of those in mills and other wood product manufacturing operations. When direct and induced economic activity is included, forestry accounts for an estimated 14 percent of BC employment, or about one in seven jobs. Direct forest industry payments, including fees for logging on public lands, provide about 10 percent of provincial government revenues.”
This was the official government view of logging’s economic importance at the time forest legislation was re-written so that protection of other essential forest values—like biodiversity, water, wildlife, fish, soil, recreation, visual quality, and so on—was conditional on the protection “not unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.”
Now, according to the BC government, logging and support services along with all wood-product manufacturing account for just 2.9 percent of provincial GDP (2018). There are now several industries that are more economically “important” than forestry, including tourism. In 2021, 56,000 British Columbians were directly employed in forestry, only 2.1 percent of total employment. When the cost of public forest management is included in a consideration of government revenues, there was an average net loss of about $1 million per day between 2010 and 2019.
The economic importance of the logging industry didn’t justify the damage it was doing in 2003, and since then the industry has shrunk to less than half its former economic importance while the damage it is doing has grown immeasurably.
Another much-touted justification for the vast extent of clearcut logging in BC is that logging can’t be reduced because it provides wood products that are essential for growing and maintaining BC’s own stock of buildings and infrastructure. But that line of reasoning is only 10 to 15 percent true.
According to Sheng Xie, a postdoctoral research fellow with UBC’s Department of Forest Resources Management, about 85 to 90 percent of the volume of wood logged in BC is exported. In 2016, for example, 88 percent of the volume logged was exported.
If logging on publicly-owned land was limited to supplying BC’s own needs for forest products, the area cut each year could be reduced by 80 to 90 percent. Instead of cutting 180,000 hectares (the Ministry of Forests’ number), that could be reduced to 18,000-36,000 hectares each year.
At that rate, how much land would need to be set aside for logging? It would depend on the rotation period between cuts, but certainly no more than 1.8 to 3.6 million hectares. That’s just 3 to 6 percent of BC’s forested land. That’s all that’s needed to meet BC’s own requirements for wood products.
Currently, BC is trapped in a paradigm where the amount of logging that is allowed is determined almost entirely by the market for wood products in the USA, China and Japan. Even though the high cost of the industry’s negative physical impacts are being swept out of sight, the industry is still only marginally economic in BC. That’s why many of the companies that are profiting the most from over-exploitation of BC forests—Canfor, Tolko, Conifex, Teal-Jones, West Fraser, Interfor—are all plowing the profits derived from BC exports into investments in other countries where the cost of doing business is even lower. A classic race to the bottom.
Before all of BC’s primary forest is gone, citizens need to rise up and demand an end to exports. First the export of raw logs and then all wood-product exports. Let other countries figure out how to meet their own needs.
Unless there is a large reduction in logging, none of the existential threats to BC’s remaining forests posed by the current scale of logging—such as more aggressive forest fires—will be diminished. Any newly protected areas, including temporary logging deferrals of old-growth forest, will be just as likely to become burned forest as they would if they were unprotected.