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30th August 2020
...continued from Part One

The result of that “frenzy” is now evident in age class distribution data included in timber supply reviews for the TSAs most heavily impacted by the beetle and subsequent salvage logging. For example, in the Lakes TSA, centred on the forestry-dependent community of Burns Lake, 40 percent of the net Timber Harvesting Land Base (THLB) now has trees between zero and 20 years old, with over half of that between zero and ten years. In the 100-Mile House TSA, 33 percent of the net THLB has forest cover between zero and 20 years of age. By “zero” we mean a bare, unplanted clearcut or burned over plantation. The Quesnel, Kamloops and Prince George TSAs each have 26 percent of their net working forest lying as bare clearcuts or young, fire-vulnerable plantations up to 20 years of age.

A common perception that the “frenzy” of logging was largely a result of the response to the pine beetle is, according to the forests ministry’s record of harvesting in the beetle-affected areas, not accurate. Although the AAC in the affected areas was increased, the harvest records show that there were only two years—2005 and 2006—in which the actual harvest was more than 10 percent higher than the pre-beetle AAC. What the beetle did change was the mid-term supply of harvestable forest and the size of the clearcuts that were allowed, seven of which, as Larry Pynn observed, had grown into 10,000-hectare monsters.

The cumulative impacts of unsustainable logging

Starting in 2000, following close behind the increasing area of deforestation, a new phenomenon began to emerge in the Interior: forest fires began to get larger. Much larger. Carbon emissions released by forest fires are estimated by the BC government as part of its emissions reporting obligations. Those estimates show emissions from forest fires have doubled every nine years since 2000. Is the inexorable growth in the size of forest fires related to the growing extent of clearcuts in the Interior?

A group of Australian forest scientists believe that country’s historically large fires in late 2019 were made worse by logging. In a comment piece in the science journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, they wrote, “…there is compelling evidence that Australia’s historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability. This occurs because logging leaves debris at ground level that increases the fuel load in logged forests. It also changes forest composition and leaves these areas of forest both hotter and drier…”

In BC, the vast majority of forest fires are started by lightning. In 2009, forest research scientists Meg Krawchuk and Steve Cumming published the results of an 8-year study of lightning ignition in 60,000 square kilometers of boreal forest in Alberta. They found that wildfires started by lightning ignition “increased in landscapes with more area harvested.” Because of the physical nature of the fuel in a “harvested area”—its dryness, smaller size, etc—it is more readily ignited by lightning than the fuel in an undisturbed stand of trees.

Krawchuk and Cumming also noted: “In addition to the fine fuels and slash remaining after forest harvest, post-disturbance regeneration might also contribute to flammability.”

Several science-based studies have shown—in other jurisdictions—that land that has been clearcut burns more severely than intact forest. The relative abundance of fine-grained fuel at ground level in clearcuts, along with higher temperatures, lower humidity and open exposure to winds, all factor into their higher flammability compared with intact forest. As well, clearcuts adjacent to intact forest stands cause those stands to be drier and more flammable, too.

Clearcut logging changes the hydrologic and thermal functioning of adjacent forests, and on the scale at which clearcut logging has taken place in BC, the practice has changed fire behaviour. Remarkably, no BC forest scientist has undertaken to study the connection between clearcut logging and changes in fire behaviour and size. Or, if they have, their work hasn’t been made public.

By the way, those Australian scientists came forward because, they said, “much of the conversation in the aftermath of the spring and summer bushfires had rightly focused on climate change, but the impact of land management and forestry on fire risk was often neglected in these discussions.”

The scientists highlighted this as a concern because land management policy was “well within the control of Australians” and the fires had been used by some sectors of the forest industry in Australia “to call for increased logging in some areas.”

The “call for increased logging” is already occurring in BC and is coming from the same line of economically-motivated reasoning employed by industry and government that gave BC the “uplift” in AAC in response to the Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak. Like claims of “sustainable forestry,” expression of such views appears to be part of the human-powered feedback loop that has amplified the catastrophic impact of forest removal on global heating and climate change in BC and elsewhere.

Coastal clearcuts are growing in size, too

In the description of the sustainability gap above, I focussed on forests ministry data from 28 TSAs in the Interior. The Mountain Pine Beetle did not directly impact coastal BC, but 150 years of relentless logging has left just as big an impact on coastal forests. However, it’s harder to quantify the impact using ministry records. Data for the nine TSAs in coastal BC is in a state of flux as the ministry completes timber supply reviews following the physical rearrangement of TSA boundaries that arose from the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement.

The sustainability gap on the coast is most clearly indicated by ministry data on forest cover age class distribution. For example, the 2014 Timber Supply Review for the now-defunct Strathcona Timber Supply Area is revealing. This TSA included a large area of Vancouver Island in the vicinity of Courtenay, Campbell River, Gold River, Tahsis and Zeballos, as well as the adjacent mainland coast and the Discovery Islands.

The ministry’s 2014 data shows an astounding 64 percent of the area on which logging could occur had trees younger than 60 years old. Thirty-six percent of Strathcona TSA’s area had trees 20 years of age or younger—similar to the Interior TSAs devastated by the beetle. Only 24 percent of the TSA was covered with stands between 70 and 230 years of age—old enough to be logged, and not so old as to cause great controversy. Remaining old-growth forest—240 years and older—occupied only 12 percent of the TSA’s area available for logging, according to the ministry’s data. This was in 2014, and extensive logging since then could only have pushed the average age of trees lower.

n the Strathcona TSA, most of those trees younger than 60 years are plantation Douglas fir, which has a culmination age of about 80 years. Logging before that age would be an extraordinary waste of a publicly-owned asset, even by the standards of BC’s forest industry. Logging the remaining old growth is increasingly controversial in the midst of a climate emergency and a collapse in biodiversity. That leaves just 23 percent of the area that’s available for logging with trees old enough to log but not so old as to invite blockades of logging roads.

A review of recent satellite imagery of land that was in the Strathcona TSA in 2014 shows that clearcuts are becoming larger as younger trees become a higher percentage of what’s cut. This trend is in play all across the province.

Ministry data that covers all of BC show that in the five years between 2002 and 2006, inclusive, an average of 448.6 cubic metres per hectare were harvested. For the five years between 2014 and 2018, inclusive, the harvest per hectare had dropped to an average of 348 cubic metres. The implications of this direction are clear. As time goes on and all old-growth forests in the Timber Harvesting Land Base are liquidated—which has been the implicit policy of the ministry—the area needed to be logged each year in order to achieve the mid-term harvest level will grow even larger. The actual extent of clearcut logging in the province can best be understood by viewing the most recent satellite imagery. Please take a moment to click through the slides at the top of this page that show the vast transformation from primary forests to plantations that’s almost complete.

The regularly expanding area that gets logged each year means the area of fuel-laden clearcuts and fire-vulnerable plantations younger than 20 years of age will cover an increasingly higher percentage of BC’s land base. As average global temperature increases and the frequency, duration and severity of drought and periods of extreme summer heat increases, it’s difficult to imagine that having a higher percentage of highly-flammable land in BC is going to work out well. Forest fire management in 2017 and 2018 cost BC taxpayers $1.28 billion.

Other cumulative effects on non-timber values such as the integrity of watersheds and the level of biodiversity will also become increasingly serious as the average age of forests falls and the area of logging grows. The forest-industrial complex is leading BC into an inherently unsustainable future.

An uncertain future

The numbers I used above to quantify the gap between the current AAC and the mid-term harvest level all come from timber supply reviews. Those reviews are conducted by BC’s chief forester or deputy chief forester. The estimates developed by the reviews rely heavily on computer modelling of future tree growth and stand yield. Processes that depend on such modelling are only as good as the data that goes into the models—we all know the expression “garbage in, garbage out”—and in BC, that data is known to be, well, uncertain.

In 2018, Anthony Britneff and Martin Watts, both registered professional foresters, made a 134-page joint submission to a panel of forest scientists and professionals assembled to investigate concerns Britneff had expressed in writing to forests minister Doug Donaldson (there’s a link to the report at the end of this story).

Britneff and Watts recently summarized their concerns in a 20-page report prepared for Focus, outlining numerous problems associated with the data used to inform the timber supply reviews we analysed for this story (link to report at end of story).

Watts and Britneff challenge a claim made by various chief foresters in many of the timber supply reviews, that the “best available information” is used in coming to a determination of allowable annual cut. Britneff and Watts provided us with evidence in the case of the Bulkley Valley TSA review, for example, that shows the “best available information” included data that an independent consultant had determined did not meet “Ministry Standards” on several counts.

They also note that a major source of uncertainty in computer modelling is “ineffective data management,” and recount how, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Forest Analysis and Inventory Branch (FAIB) struggled to effectively manage forest growth-and-yield data, which, as a consequence, had become “corrupted.” The result, say Watts and Britneff, is that “any studies or models using FAIB sample plot data prior to 2017 are suspect.” That would impact most existing Timber Supply Reviews and the corresponding AAC determination.

...continued in Part Three