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23rd June 2022
Think of old-growth as better than air conditioning / Canada's National Observer

By Rob Miller Opinion June 15th 2022

It’s 7:30 on a warm summer morning. The air smells fantastic. After days of lingering smoke, the wind brings freshness and scents full of life. You ask Alexa for the forecast and she/it tells you that today’s high will be 42 C. Your partner laments, “When is this heat wave going to end!?” You shrug and say, “Just be thankful we still have air conditioning!”

The doorbell rings and two men in overalls announce they’re here to remove your air-conditioning system. You protest loudly, but they show you their licence for removal. Further resistance is a bad idea. The news has been running stories of people being arrested for refusing to give up their ACs, sometimes getting injured in the process.

As the workers haul the precious cooling system out of your house, you remind them that people are dying from the latest heat waves.

“Sorry buddy, I’ve got a family and this job puts food on my table,” is the reply.

“Besides, we’ll be back next week to start building you a new AC unit. It will only take 10 or 15 years for it to be back up and running.” You hold your tongue, but you’re well aware that these new units are of much poorer quality than the one that is being removed and they provide no help in the short term when you need it desperately.

The old-growth forests of B.C. are the cooling systems for Vancouver Island and the mainland. They’re also the air filters, the oxygen supply, the water management system and a massive carbon storage unit. In spite of the importance of these ecosystem services in a time of global heating, governments are still allowing ancient trees to be felled. The Wilderness Committee’s Charlotte Dawe writes, “In the last decade on Vancouver Island alone, industry has logged the equivalent of more than thirty-four soccer fields of old-growth forest every single day.”

By the numbers, the B.C. government and forestry industry make a strong case that they are engaged in sustainable forestry. A Ministry of Forests report from 2003 estimated that British Columbia was blessed with nearly 60 million hectares of forest and 95 per cent of that was publicly owned.

Today, the B.C. government says there are 56.2 million hectares of publicly managed forest in the province, nearly the same amount as in 2003. That seems sustainable! The problem is that old-growth forest is being substituted for tree farms and recovering new growth. Creative accounting isn’t just for financial reports.

The 2003 forest report estimated 43 per cent of the publicly owned forest, or 25 million hectares, was old-growth. The B.C. government is now stating that old-growth makes up 20 per cent of the forest, or 10 million hectares. This means more than half of B.C.’s old-growth forests have been wiped out in the last two decades. If that were to continue, all the currently unprotected old-growth will be gone within the next 20 years.

Much of the lost old-growth is replaced with mono-crop tree plantations that have significantly less biodiversity. On a tree farm, natural vegetation like birch trees are considered competitors. Seedlings are planted on clearcuts and the area is sprayed with herbicides like glyphosate in massive quantities. This eliminates any naturally competing trees, shrubs and grasses while also damaging important microorganisms in the soil. This practice has many of the same problems as unsustainable agriculture.

B.C. old-growth forests are the cooling systems, air filters & oxygen for Vancouver Island & the mainland. Why are governments still allowing ancient trees to be felled? asks Rob Miller winexus. #fridaysforfuture #oldgrowth #ancientforest #forests
There is something unsettling in the simple arithmetic behind the amount of old-growth that has been lost in the last 20 years. The B.C. government reports that an average of 500,000 hectares of forest was lost each year over the last decade due to harvesting and forest fires.

That only accounts for two-thirds of the missing old-growth. The B.C. government states that only 27 per cent of the annual harvest is old-growth forest and wildfires don’t target stands of ancient trees. There are millions of hectares of precious forest that are unaccounted for. As the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

In November, the B.C. government announced two-year logging deferrals on 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest. This is not permanent protection. John Horgan’s NDP government has said there are 13.7 million hectares of old-growth forest remaining in B.C., a number also used by forestry industry representatives such as the Truck Loggers Association. Curiously, the difference between the industry estimate and the number reported on the BC Ministry of Forests website is exactly 2.6 million hectares.

Are the people of B.C., and all Canadians, being misled about the management practices and sustainability of our forestry industry?

Are current and future generations being cheated out of the natural asset value and ecosystem services that are being provided by these forests?

Indigenous people walked these forests thousands of years before mechanization allowed people to profit from their removal. For millennia, the forest ecosystem provided communities with food for their tables, materials for their homes, clean air and fresh water.

The people were mindful to only take what they needed and leave plenty for future generations. Today, we aren’t paying attention. We allow politicians and industries to make false claims about being good stewards when they continue to exceed the boundaries and limits of nature.

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer formerly with General Dynamics Canada who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. As a climate activist, he works to stop old-growth logging in B.C., to reject coal mining on Alberta’s eastern slopes, to facilitate community involvement in urban afforestation and to advocate for renewable energy. Miller uses a “systems thinking” approach to learn, understand and defend the ecosystems that are under threat by climate change and unrestrained resource development. He lives in Calgary.