British Columbia Forestry Pledge: An Introduction

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To say Canada’s forests are vast is an understatement. According to the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, the nation’s forests cover 347 million hectares of land and account for nearly nine per cent of the world’s total forested area.

Canada is also the third-most forested country by area. With nearly 10 hectares per person, Canadians enjoy more forest area per person than most other countries in the world -- over 17 times the world average. And the CCFM also notes that nearly 30 million hectares (or about nine per cent) of Canada’s forests are in legally established protected areas. 

Within Canada, there’s no question that British Columbia has the largest forest cover. Of B.C.’s almost 95 million hectares – a larger area than any European country except Russia – B.C.’s forests cover an area of about 60 million hectares, about the size of France and Germany combined. Most of the remainder of the province consists of alpine or other naturally unforested areas such as wetlands and grasslands.

Only about 2 per cent of B.C. has been permanently converted to agriculture, urban areas and other forms of development. That means B.C. has almost the same amount of forest as it did before European settlement.

In a Carbon-Constrained World, Forestry and its Products are Miracles

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Canadian forest management is highly sustainable, strictly regulated, and its products are completely renewable. In fact, forests pull CO2 out of the air, convert that CO2 into sugars through photosynthesis, and create wood.

In turn, wood is the only renewable building material that uses virtually no energy in its creation other than sunlight. That CO2 then remains stored in the product until it decays or burns.

As long as new forests are planted where the timber was removed to make said products, then the carbon cycle is complete. Pulling down and sequestering CO2 in the new growth offsets the release of CO2 during the harvest.

Sustaining B.C. Forests for All

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British Columbia is widely considered a global leader in sustainable forest management, as it continues to meet the environmental, social and economic needs of current and future generations, including Indigenous communities. Forestry is also the largest manufacturing sector of the B.C. economy. In 2017, B.C. companies exported $9.7 billion in wood products and $4.4 billion in pulp and paper products. Over 90 per cent of B.C.’s forestry output is exported.

But forestry in B.C. is also extremely complex. The preamble to the B.C. Forest Act hints at some reasons why. British Columbians, it explains, “desire sustainable use of the forests they hold in trust for future generations.”

That means: “managing forests to meet present needs without compromising the needs of future generations, providing stewardship of forests based on an ethic of respect for the land, balancing economic, productive, spiritual, ecological and recreational values of forests to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of peoples and communities, including First Nations, conserving biological diversity, soil, water, fish, wildlife, scenic diversity and other forest resources, and restoring damaged ecologies.”

The Old Growth Quandary: Why Don’t We Preserve All of It?

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After decades of valley-by-valley battles which came to be known as “the War in the Woods,” B.C. responded with:

  • stronger forestry legislation
  • province-wide public zoning process that decided on forestry-related issues
  • tough new forestry practices code
  • better framework for participation in the industry by Indigenous communities.

Not surprising, the result was greater public confidence in B.C. forestry management, even as the anti-forestry campaign left the local scene where their ability to raise funds began to dry up. Instead, they took to the international markets.

Fast forward to today, and there’s a reminder of the old “valley-by-valley” approach to anti-forestry activism in Fairy Creek, a valley of about 1,200 hectares of old forest near Port Renfrew on the Southwest coast of Vancouver Island. More than 1,000 hectares are currently protected or otherwise not suitable for harvest, and less than 200 hectares is set for logging.

But why don’t we just preserve all remaining old growth forests, some might ask? First, if we could find a way to halt the aging process of a tree, then we could, in fact, preserve old growth forests. But it’s far more complicated than that.

What Is Old Growth?

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Every type of forest is different and there is no commonly accepted definition of an old-growth forest. B.C. scientists have developed a working definition that’s based on the age when the province’s different forest ecosystems typically begin to develop “old-growth characteristics.”

Characteristics of old growth can include several variables -- tree species, tree age, tree size, surrounding forest structure, ecological function, and historical disturbance to name a few. They’ll vary according to location and species, but old-growth forests tend to have more diversity of plant and animal life than do younger forests. That diversity can include standing dead trees, or snags, as well as fallen trees, important for insects and birds.

Since the 1990s, B.C. has used a definition of old growth that is based on the age of trees, biogeoclimatic zones and the frequency of natural disturbances such as wind, fire and landslides. Generally speaking, most of B.C.’s coastal forests are considered old growth if they contain trees that are more than 250 years old, while some types of Interior forests are viewed as old growth if they contain trees that are more than 140 years old.

By this definition, about 43 per cent of B.C.’s forests are old growth – that’s 25 million hectares, or about the size of the UK. In B.C.’s coastal rainforest, old growth accounts for more than half of the forest.

Where Does that Leave Workers, Families, Communities and the Economy?

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Let’s be very clear. Old-growth forests are valuable not only for economic reasons, but also for the ecosystem services they provide, whether it be habitat, clean air and water, carbon mitigation or spiritual and recreational values. This can create conflict among forest companies seeking timber, environmentalists looking for preservation, and communities seeking combinations of the two.

Returning to the Fairy Creek example, the Pacheedaht First Nation, in treaty negotiations for that area, signed a revenue-sharing agreement with B.C. in 2017, to receive revenues from logging on their territories.

According to media reports, a mill owned by the Pacheedaht First Nation processes about 10,000 cubic metres of old growth annually and employs 30 people. Revenues from logging have allowed the nation to relieve their debts and purchase a store, a campground with Parks Canada, a gas station, and a lodge for tourists.

The First Nation recently requested protesters to leave the area in order for the First Nation leadership – both elected and Hereditary –  “to determine how our forestry resources will be used.”

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Forestry is a lifeline for more than 600 communities across Canada. Particularly for Indigenous communities, forestry is a vital source of consistent, good-paying, rural employment. And with forest sector revenues at $73.6 billion for 2018, forestry feeds a lot of families!

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