Vancouver Sun Op-Ed (Sept.16, 2019)
What will it take to save BC’s old-growth forests?
By Ken Wu
The recent fires raging in the Amazon have begun to focus the world’s attention on the destruction of forests in general — including the logging of B.C.’s magnificent, old-growth, temperate rainforests — the grandest forests on earth next to the U.S. redwoods.
The towering ancient trees in Cathedral Grove, Avatar Grove, Clayoquot Sound, the West Coast Trail, the Carmanah and Walbran valleys and the inland rainforest are among the largest and oldest living organisms that have ever existed. These forests hold, per hectare, more carbon than even the Amazon rainforest. They are also vital for many unique and endangered species, First Nations cultures, B.C.’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry and to provide clean water for communities and wild salmon.
The unique features of old-growth forests take centuries to develop — in a province where the forests are re-logged every 60 years on the Coast. As a result, old-growth forests are not a renewable resource under B.C.’s system of forestry and are not replicated by tree-planting.
With just 20 per cent of the productive old-growth forests left on Vancouver Island, including less than 10 per cent of the biggest trees in the valley bottoms, to continue logging the last giants is akin to slaughtering the last herds of elephants or harpooning the last great whales. It’s unnecessary and unethical, given that second-growth forests dominate more than 80 per cent of B.C.’s productive forest lands and can be sustainably logged.
Indeed, the rest of the western world is focused on logging 50- to 100-year-old second- or third-growth trees. B.C. is one of the very last jurisdictions on earth that still supports the large-scale logging of 500-year-old trees. On Vancouver Island alone, about 10,000 hectares of productive old-growth forests are logged each year, while only eight per cent of the original is protected in parks and old-growth management areas.
This will not last.
The transition to an exclusively second-growth forest industry in B.C. is inevitable, when the last of the unprotected old-growth stands are logged. Conservationists are just advocating that this transition happen now, rather than after the last endangered old-growth stands are gone.
Unfortunately, several obstacles stand in the way of saving them.
One obstacle is the provincial government’s public relations spin, which insinuates that plenty of old-growth forests still stand and are protected. In their stats, they remove the context of how much once stood, and then combine vast tracts of stunted “bonsai” trees growing in bogs, on steep rock faces and in the subalpine “snow forests,” together with the productive stands where the large, valuable trees grow. It’s like saying that because there are still lots of sardines left, it’s fine to catch the last of the giant bluefin tuna. It’s a disingenuous conflation of critical distinctions.
Another obstacle is the belief that we must log these last old-growth stands to sustain the economy and jobs. This belies the fact that B.C.’s old-growth forests and forestry jobs have both drastically declined as a result of the high-grade overcutting of the biggest, best old-growth trees in the valley bottoms and lower elevations, leaving behind smaller, hard-to-access trees on steep slopes near the mountain tops and resulting in diminishing returns.
Along with mechanization, vastly expanded raw log exports and a lack of B.C. government incentives and regulations to ensure investment in second-growth manufacturing facilities, this has resulted in a massive decline in forestry employment over decades. Since 1993, more than 250,000 hectares of old-growth forests have been logged on Vancouver Island — more than 20 times the size of the city of Vancouver. Meanwhile, direct employment in B.C.’s forest industry has halved, to 50,000 workers today from almost 100,000 in 1997. The high-grade resource depletion model of development not only leads to the increasing collapse of ecosystems but of rural employment as well.
Instead, by employing more people with the trees that we cut by fostering a value-added, second-growth forest industry, we could create more jobs while protecting our remaining old-growth forests. In addition, research shows that standing old-growth forests are economically more valuable than logging them when factoring in tourism, recreation, clean water for recreational and commercial fisheries, carbon offsets and non-timber forest products (eg. wild mushrooms). Hence, numerous chambers of commerce, municipalities, unions, and First Nations have been calling on the B.C. government to expand old-growth protections in recent years; it’s not just tree-huggers these days.
To save B.C.’s old-growth forests, we fundamentally need comprehensive legislation where the latest science sets increased protection targets for old-growth in each ecosystem.
The election of an NDP government backed by the Greens is the greatest opportunity to finally protect our old-growth forests and establish a sustainable, second-growth forest industry — at least in theory.
After two years of heel-dragging and defending the status quo, the NDP government has stated that it is finally developing a new policy to manage B.C.’s old-growth forests, convening a two-person panel chaired by foresters Gary Merkel and Al Gorley this fall to gather “community” input.
We insist that this process must be open to public input rather than just to selected “stakeholders,” otherwise it will be largely an attempt to reinforce the status quo of old-growth liquidation. The panel’s findings must also be timed to feed into amendments to B.C.’s main forest practices regulations, the Forest and Range Practices Act, before the amendments are introduced in the Legislature next spring. Public feedback has already overwhelmingly favoured old-growth protection in the public input process on revising act last spring.
If combined with logging moratoria on the most intact old-growth “hot spots” and lands managed by the B.C. government’s own logging agency, B.C. Timber Sales, as well as financing First Nations’ protected areas and sustainable development, modernizing the old 1990s land-use plans, implementing a land acquisition fund to purchase and protect old-growth on private lands and incentivizing a value-added, second-growth forest industry, the NDP may finally resolve B.C.’s War in the Woods. If they don’t, all their processes will ultimately be just more government charades to buy time to continue liquidating old-growth as long as possible, to take us over the brink.
Let’s hope the current expansion of environmental concern finally wakes up the dinosaurs in the provincial government after decades.
Ken Wu is executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance. He has worked to protect B.C.’s old-growth forests for 28 years.