By: Ken White
Hotter and drier weather patterns, outdated forest management practices, and poor logging decisions from governments and industry are causing a commotion. A storm is brewing.
There is an “inescapable recognition that change is needed to ensure our forest industry is sustainable,” Premier Eby writes in his mandate letter for the new forests minister, Bruce Ralston. British Columbia’s forestry sector is in the throes of change, as the province embarks on plans to “modernize” how forests are managed amid ecological concerns, fluctuating lumber prices and a dwindling supply of trees for harvesting.
Since 2000, Canada has lost 20 million hectares of primary forest, according to Global Forest Watch. British Columbia experienced a decline of more than 8.5 million hectares because of wildfire, the pine beetle infestation and industries like oil and gas and logging.
British Columbia’s old-growth stands have been cut in half over the past 20 years. The industry is targeting the larger, iconic old-growth trees. This old-growth logging, especially clear-cutting, coincides with serious declines in animal species that rely on primary forests, like moose, caribou and spotted owls.
In a new report, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says that logging companies in British Columbia are quickly cutting down the province’s trees, and the supply is dwindling.
The amount of wood expected to be harvested in the coming years is half the amount logged 15 years ago. The province then dealt with the catastrophic spread of a pine beetle infestation, which had laid waste to huge swaths of forests. The goal was to harvest as many dead trees as quickly as possible before they simply rotted away.
“During the height of the beetle-kill harvest, the amount of extra wood being cut beyond normal rates at the time would have filled a line of logging trucks parked bumper-to-bumper from Vancouver to Halifax five times. An enormous amount of additional wood was being harvested in a very short amount of time, and that has deepened the current crisis.”
The boreal forest ecosystem is much more dependent on climate than many other ecosystems. Many characteristics, including tree physiology and productivity, vegetation zones, fire, and insects and diseases, are inextricably linked to climate.
Over the past decades, the warming level and lower precipitation have reflected ecological changes that are more rapid and pronounced than those our forest trees and ecosystems have experienced during the past 10,000 years. These ecological changes will continue as temperatures become hotter and drier.
These climate change effects are not beneficial. Negative impacts include insect damage and changing ecosystems, including the mix of conifers and insidious trees as they adapt and compete to a changing environment. The conifers, whose success was framed by thousands of years of cooler temperatures, more rainfall, and snow cover, are now operating in a far riskier environment.
In British Columbia, four of the most severe wildfire seasons of the last century occurred in the past 7 years: 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2023. A study by Nature.com, mapped wildfire perimeters and annual climate data from 1919–2021. Fire activity increased strongly from 2005 onwards, coinciding with a sharp reversal in the 100-year wetting trend of the 20th century.
Even as precipitation levels remained high, moisture deficits increased due to rapid warming and increased evaporative. Insect outbreaks and land-use practices are also strong drivers.
In short, climate change and wildfires associated with dry and very hot conditions are making the forests more fragile. The increase in fire intensity is changing the compositions of both plant and animal communities.
Wildfires, however, have been an integral part of the Canadian boreal forest ecosystem for centuries. The current mix of coniferous species in the boreal forest reflects the selective impact of past fires during cooler times.
The conifers must regenerate after a fire under new rules framed by these hot and dry conditions. After a major wildfire, fast-growing deciduous trees such as cottonwood, aspen and Manitoba maple may sprout up first. The conifers would be crowded out for decades until these fast-growing deciduous trees start to die out, and the conifers eventually take over.
The combination of a warmer, drier forest and the intense build-up of organic material on the forest floor, insect damage and unresponsible forest management practices have created a perfect storm of unprecedented damage to our forests and carbon emissions.
The business-as-usual forest management and logging model is now broken. Sustainability is now the number one priority.
Clear-cut logging and slash (waste) burning have been the dominant form of logging in B.C. for over a century.
Clear-cutting fragments the remaining forest and breaks up the canopy overhead, making it easier for fires to start and spread. Old-growth forests are normally fire-resistant with thick bark.
The canopy of old-growth trees prevents moisture and sunshine from hitting the ground. This canopy protection slows down the breakdown of the carbon organic soil; however, once this canopy protection is removed with clear-cut logging, this carbon organic matter breaks down, emitting high levels of methane and nitrous oxides, both highly toxic greenhouse gases.
Forest management must reflect the new reality of the Canadian forests. The business-as-usual model framed by thousands of years of cooler temperatures and high precipitation levels has become inappropriate in this new, hotter, drier reality.
For example, forest management practices cannot continue to tolerate the build-up of dead biomass, including fallen trees and dead / decaying organic matter.
Logging, especially clear-cutting old-growth trees, rapidly increases methane and nitrous oxide emissions from this organic material, which suddenly breaks down and is fully exposed to the sun.
Partnership with Indigenous Peoples
“First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities have been the guardians of the land, waters, and ice for millennia, and across the country, Indigenous Peoples are leading large-scale efforts to conserve and steward these spaces.
By supporting these initiatives, and working together on a shared path of reconciliation, (the government of Canada) will continue to protect nature, strengthen communities, and grow local economies with good jobs and opportunities for generations to come.”
The federal government is making important progress in supporting the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. See list of projects.
Indigenous peoples are better protectors of their forests than governments or industry. Important parameters include a sense of pride and responsibility for the project’s success.
This sense of pride and responsibility helps both protect the forests over time and to sustainably generate timber revenues where the forests remain vibrant.
Premier Eby is correct. There is an “inescapable recognition that change is needed to ensure the sustainability of our forest industry”
British Columbia’s forestry sector is in the throes of change as the province embarks on plans to “modernize” how forests are managed amid ecological concerns and a dwindling supply of trees for harvesting. Indigenous partnerships offer strong potential for sustainable forest management.
British Columbia forests are shrinking due to a combination of overlogging, insect damage and wildfires. The sustainability of our forests is now the number one driver.
The burden of preventing uncontrolled wildfires lies with responsible forest management. But suppression is not enough. Nature needs fire, and ecologically, it benefits from periodic burning. Understanding and appreciating the benefits of fire is the only way to truly keep our homes, population, and ecosystem safe from its dangers.
Ken White is a semi-retired economist living in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. His recent work has been modelling the economic impacts of the green economy and defence-related science and technology. Also by The Bank of Canada – Is it Broke or Broken?