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11th September 2018
Communities need more say in forest practices to reduce fire risk

August 27, 2018
August 27, 2018 6:00 PM PDT

Filed Under:
The Province Opinion Op-Ed

Many experts agree that the forest fires devastating the west are due in part to poor forest management, from logging the largest, most fire-resistant trees and leaving susceptible young trees, to fire suppression and our unnatural monoculture of planted conifer forests.

“Much of the focus in B.C. has been on reintroducing coniferous, or needle-leaf trees after harvest to maximize timber production,” says University of B.C. forestry and conservation sciences professor Lori Daniels. “But that has narrowed the diversity of trees and made our ecosystem more vulnerable to fires.”

According to the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, “The vast majority of western dry forests are at risk of large, high-intensity fire because of the effects of poor forest management over the past century.”

One critical step that most experts agree would be to end the expansion of monoculture tree plantations. These are generally more susceptible to the spread of fire than mixed or old-growth forests that hold more water. Research has shown that the risk of forest fires is more than 20 times greater in forests that are pure conifers compared to deciduous forests.

In the Okanagan, the only risk-reduction option given communities is to clearcut and replant with a mono-crop of conifers. The privilege of being able to benefit financially from the harvesting of public forests should include the responsibility to work with wildfire experts accountable to local communities to develop and implement sustainable wildfire-risk reduction strategies that reflects community needs and values.

Some communities may focus on minimizing the risk at all costs while others may accept higher risk in order to protect other values of a forest, such as a watershed, aesthetics or tourism. Community interests should take precedence over forest industry profits.

Not undertaking a wildfire reduction strategy guarantees these fires will return.

“The primary factors that lead to current forest conditions include logging large trees, fire suppression, and livestock grazing,” say Center for Biological Diversity researchers. “Logging operations have historically removed the largest and most fire-resistant trees. The young trees that replace cut trees are highly susceptible to fire and serve as fire ladders, allowing the fire to reach up into the canopy of the forest.”

“Because fire-suppression efforts have been intensive and have effectively removed fire as a thinning agent from most forests, many small trees that would have been killed by fire have been allowed to survive. Besides being prone to fire, these small trees are present at such high densities that their growth is slowed by intense competition.”

Even union head Arnold Bercov of the Public and Private Workers of Canada (formerly the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada) wrote recently that “B.C.’s forests have changed dramatically. There’s far fewer old trees, many more younger trees, and a whole lot more trees that are in real trouble thanks to climate change and mismanagement.

He says the province need “coherent policies to end log exports and ensure that ‘waste’ wood isn’t burned by the drove as it is now and brought to market instead.”

A recent study from the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Exeter in the U.K. finds that “protecting and expanding forests could be more effective options” in meeting the Paris climate change agreement.

Growing new forests and restoring existing ones, combined with land-management and conservation practices “could remove around one to two billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere per year,” the study says”

Today, we have a limited opportunity to change forestry legislation, specifically the self-governance model that lets resource companies hire consultants to approve their plans rather than government foresters. The provincial government’s recent independent review of self-governance contains extensive criticism of forestry regulations and resulting harvest practices employed by the industry. We call on our legislators to implement the recommended changes to forestry regulation and governance.

If the forestry industry’s leadership won’t improve its practices, we must inspire them to do so. Business as usual is the modern equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

Patricia Dunn is an Okanagan journalist and a member of the Peachland Watershed Protection Alliance and the B.C. Coalition for Forestry Reform, a grassroots alliance of B.C. communities that advocates for watershed preservation and sustainable forestry practices.