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31st August 2020
Buried in 71 ministry timber supply reviews is a huge gap in harvest sustainability that makes Forest Stewardship Council certification of BC wood products an international scam.

The hidden, but official, harvest sustainability gap

Is BC’s forest industry sustainable? The BC Council of Forest Industries claims that “BC leads the world in sustainable forestry.” What would be required for COFI’s claim to be true?

There’s a lot that could be said here. COFI’s claim could be true if its current members and their predecessors, for example, hadn’t logged 97 percent of biologically-productive old forest in BC. It could be true if there weren’t 1800-plus species of plants and animals facing extinction in BC. It could be true if clearcut logging didn’t have a detrimental impact on the temperature, flow and sediment load of salmon bearing streams and rivers. It could be true if clearcut logging didn’t cause an increase in the frequency, duration and magnitude of peak flows of rivers causing major flooding. It could be true if clearcutting an average of nearly 170,000 hectares per year for the last 20 years hadn’t created the conditions that have led to annual carbon emissions from forest management in BC that are nearly three times higher than all the Canadian oil sands projects combined. And so on. But let’s put that record of undeniable environmental harm to one side. Let’s focus on the one measure of sustainability that both the industry and government point to as evidence that logging BC forests at the current rate is “sustainable”: The Forest Stewardship Council’s stamp of approval. FSC certification is dependent on the condition that, to quote its standards for BC, “the rate of harvest of forest products shall not exceed levels which can be permanently sustained.”

An analysis of BC government data—information that COFI and its members are aware of—reveals this is not the case.

Consider the logging conducted on 28 Timber Supply Areas (TSAs) in BC’s Interior. The combined allowable annual cut (AAC) in those TSAs is currently 44 million cubic metres. That represents nearly 70 percent of BC’s total allowable annual cut of 63.9 million cubic metres. If the cut on the Interior TSAs cannot be “permanently sustained,” then BC forest products should not have FSC certification.

The Forest Act requires that, every 10 years, BC’s Chief Forester conducts a “Timber Supply Review” for each TSA. That review determines what level of harvest could be sustained in the mid-term for that TSA. The “mid-term” is the period between 10 and 50 years out from the date a timber supply review is finalized.

If the current allowable annual cut is significantly higher than the projected mid-term harvest level determined in a timber supply review, then the current AAC in that TSA is unsustainable. This also applies to the aggregate of all 28 BC Interior TSAs. If the total AAC for the TSAs is higher than the sum of their mid-term harvest levels, then the current provincial AAC is unsustainable.

That’s exactly what we find when we add together the individual gaps for all of the 28 timber supply reviews for BC’s Interior. The current allowable annual cut in these TSAs is 44 million cubic metres per year. The timber supply reviews say the mid-term level that’s sustainable is 32 million cubic metres per year. Therefore the current allowable cut in Interior TSAs is 12 million cubic metres on the wrong side of being sustainable.

n those TSAs where the current AAC is higher than the mid-term harvest level, the timber supply review generally plots a 10-year pathway to the mid-term level. Reductions in the harvest appear to be underway in a number of Interior TSAs, although only time will tell for sure. The downturn in lumber prices in 2019 may account for the drop in actual harvest that we now see. Results for 2020 are incomplete.

How much forest is being logged to produce that 12-million-cubic-metre overcut? Between 2014 and 2018, one hectare of forest yielded an average of 348 cubic metres of logs in BC. At that rate, the 12 million cubic metre overcut would require that 34,482 hectares—345 square kilometres—of forest be logged.

As mentioned above, timber supply areas account for about 70 percent of BC’s AAC. The other 30 percent is cut in areas under tree farm licences (TFLs). Province wide, the current allowable annual cut on 34 TFLs is 1.75 million cubic metres higher than the mid-term supply projected by the forests ministry.

The ministry’s own records, then, show that nearly 14 million cubic metres per year more than can be “permanently sustained” are being cut across the province. That overcut alone results in the loss of 40,000 hectares (400 square kilometres) of forest each year.

The current total provincial AAC of 63.9 million cubic metres would need to be reduced to about 50 million cubic metres just to meet the Forest Stewardship Council’s rudimentary measure of sustainability.

For many years BC’s rate of harvest has exceeded the level that the ministry of forests believed could be permanently sustained. The FSC certification has been, to put it as politely as possible, an international scam.

BC’s forest managers have been quiet about the magnitude of this sustainability gap. That could be out of a concern that if it were known BC wood products don’t meet FSC’s fundamental test, some buyers of BC wood products—like Home Depot—would stop buying. About 80 percent of BC’s manufactured wood products are exported, with 50 percent of that going to the USA. Home Depot’s wood purchasing policy is to give preference to FSC-certified sources. But BC wood doesn’t actually meet FSC’s most basic requirement for certification.

Origins of the harvest sustainability gap

How did the sustainability gap develop? If we were to confine our exploration of this question to recent history, the official gap is the result of the loss of Lodgepole Pine stands during the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation. That began in 1999 and peaked in 2005—15 years ago. Since the AAC reductions will play out over the next 10 or so years, we can see that it will have taken 25 years for BC’s government to fully implement cut controls it knew in 2005 it would have to implement.

Why wasn’t a cut in AAC imposed in 2005?

Directions to BC’s chief forester by consecutive forests ministers, Rich Coleman and Pat Bell, guided AAC determinations throughout the pine beetle infestation and subsequent salvage logging. Coleman, a close ally of the forest industry, directed the chief forester to maintain or enhance (increase) AAC. Pat Bell, who represented the Prince George district as an MLA, an area hard hit by the beetle, directed the chief forester to show “leniency” in AAC determinations for areas affected by the beetle. These written directions have been guiding AAC determinations even into the era of the current NDP government. In other words, the decision not to lower the AAC was a strictly political decision, not based on science, in spite of warnings from forest and climate scientists at the time.

By 2006, BC government forest scientists were predicting a loss of up to 80 percent of the “merchantable pine volume” in the province as a result of the beetle infestation. That would have amounted to 1.1 billion cubic metres, equivalent to 22 years of logging in the Interior at the region’s pre-beetle AAC of 50 million cubic metres per year. This estimate has lately been reduced to a 55 percent loss of merchantable pine; at the time, though, decision-makers were told it could be up to 80 percent. Faced with that momentous loss, did forest managers in 2006 question the assumptions under which they had been operating?

Recall that, by 2006, forest scientists had attributed the immense impact of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation to higher temperatures in winter and summer, a consequence of global heating and climate change. Warmer winters meant that fewer beetles were killed by cold weather, while hotter summers allowed higher rates of beetle reproduction. Hotter, drier summers also meant greater water stress for pine trees, weakening their natural defences against insect attack.

Also known to forest scientists at the time was that logging forests initiates an immense premature release of carbon to the atmosphere, and that carbon emissions are the main cause of global heating and climate change. Government scientists were aware, then, that logging forests played a significant role in amplifying natural disturbances like the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation.

Faced with evidence that logging had helped to create the conditions that led to the beetle infestation, and aware of the tremendous long-term loss to the allowable annual cut, what questions did government decision-makers ask?

Coleman and Bell, it would appear, ignored the science and made short-term political calculations completely detached from the question of whether industrial forestry was sustainable.

Their government—and industry—responded with short-term economic thinking. They focussed on cutting as many of the dead and dying trees as quickly as possible—including non-pine trees that just happened to live in the same forests. In taking that approach, they also ensured that forestry-dependent communities would become even more dependent on forestry, even though the forests they depended on were rapidly declining in health and extent.

The main element of this economic plan was increasing the allowable annual cut in the Interior from 50 million to 68 million cubic metres to facilitate salvage of dead and dying pine trees. Indeed, the harvest of pine—mainly dead—doubled compared to before the outbreak. But forests ministry records show that at the peak of the beetle outbreak in 2005, forest companies had only reduced their cut of non-pine species in the Interior by about 15 percent over the level they were cutting before the outbreak started. Let that sink in. Government and industry were told that BC was about to lose up to 40 percent of the total merchantable volume available in the Interior. Industry and government could have responded by backing off completely from cutting non-pine species. Instead they backed off 15 percent.

Vancouver Sun journalist Larry Pynn wrote about what happened next in a 2012 investigative report,“In the Wake of a Plague.” He documented the environmental damage resulting from salvage logging southwest of Prince George. Clearcuts had previously been limited to 60 hectares in the Interior, but the forests ministry removed any limit on cutblock size to facilitate salvage logging. Pynn noted that a lack of planning and coordination for the “frenzy of logging” that was occurring led to large clearcuts merging into vast clearcuts. He described a 2009 report by the Forest Practices Board that found “more than half of the harvest since 1978 is now in patches larger than 250 hectares and more than one-third in patches larger than 1,000 hectares... Incredibly, at least seven harvested patches, amalgams exceeding 10,000 hectares—25 times the size of Stanley Park—have emerged...”

Pynn noted that then BC Chief Forester Jim Snetsinger had expressed “‘significant uncertainty’ about the environmental effects of the 80-percent increase in harvesting in the Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas, particularly in regard to biological diversity and hydrologic function.”

...continued in Part Two