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.
In 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.”
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.
Above: Age class distribution for Crown land in the Lakes TSA. “THLB” is the Timber Harvesting Land Base. Note that 40 percent of the forest cover in the THLB is 20 years of age or younger. Source: FLNRORD.
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?
This 1-minute panoramic video shows a 240-square-kilometre (6 kilometres by 40 kilometres) section of the 2017 241,160-hectare Hanceville-Riske Creek Fire. Note the logging roads and burned over plantations and clearcuts. The lake at the bottom left corner is Tzazati Lake; movement is from south to north.
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.
Above: Age class distribution for Crown land in the Strathcona TSA (2014). “THLB” is the Timber Harvesting Land Base. Note that 64 percent of the forest cover in the THLB is 60 years of age or younger. Source: FLNRORD.
In 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.
Watts and Britneff believe the growth and yield models themselves are problematic and cite numerous ways in which the models provide inaccurate and unreliable estimates. For example, consecutive versions of the models produce different results from the same data, and the difference is significantly greater than the timber supply review process reflects in its consideration of uncertainty. As well, an FOI request showed FAIB had no record of the actual data used to calibrate one of the computer models central to estimating timber volume in natural stands. Watts and Britneff also point out that the growth and yield models lack the sophistication needed to reflect actual forest complexity.
They point out similar modelling problems in determining managed (plantation) stand yields, managed stand site productivity and expected gains from using select seed to produce planting stock.
All of those factors create a level of uncertainty about the growth and yield estimates used in ACC determinations that, Watts and Britneff say, create serious doubts about projected mid-term harvest levels.
Astonishingly, the models cannot account for climate change. On this point, Britneff says, “scientists within the forests ministry have reported and published that our Interior managed forests will most likely experience increased tree mortality, reduced growth and reduced utilization as a result of an increase in forest health issues due to climate change.”
Yet, because the models cannot accommodate climate change, none of the climate-related effects that are expected to reduce growth and yield are included in the timber supply reviews that determine AAC.
Watts and Britneff note that while current Chief Forester Diane Nicholls has been directed by Minister Donaldson to include “the best information on climate change and cumulative effects of multiple activities on the land base” in the timber supply review process, Nicholls has effectively demurred.
In a 2019 timber supply review for the Lakes TSA, she deferred consideration of cumulative effects to the land use planning process and stated “the potential rate and specific characteristics of climate change in different parts of the province are uncertain. This uncertainty means that it is not possible to confidently predict the specific, quantitative impacts on timber supply.”
The chief forester went on to state that “no responsible AAC determination can be made solely on the basis of a precautionary response to uncertainty with respect to a single value,” but provided no justification for this statement.
Britneff and Watts observe that Nicholls’ response “is in stark contrast to the federal government’s guidelines on taking a precautionary approach in the absence of full scientific certainty.”
They point out that the chief forester “uses the concept of uncertainty to exclude factors that would lower the AAC, such as climate change, while at the same time ignoring the uncertainty associated with factors that enable an increase—or simply increase the AAC—such as natural and managed stand growth estimates, genetic gain estimates for select seed, and the increased productivity assigned to managed stands.”
The end result, they say, is an “AAC determination process that clearly favours timber harvesting over integrated decision making, leading to an AAC that is too high and unsustainable, particularly in the mid-term.”
Above, we noted that the mid-term harvest level determined by Chief Forester Nicholls and her predecessors is some 14 million cubic metres lower than the current AAC. Yet Britneff and Watts make a strong argument that the process and technology used to come to that determination are actually overestimating that mid-term harvest level.
It should be clear to everyone that what’s happening to BC’s forests is not sustainable. Coupled with the widespread acceptance by governments and people around the globe that planet Earth faces a climate emergency and a collapse in biodiversity, BC’s government needs to act. The only meaningful action that can be taken is to conserve what remains of natural habitat in biologically productive forests and to reduce emissions, particularly large-scale sources of carbon like BC’s forest industry. For BC’s government to continue to hide the extent of the damage being done by what is now a minor contributor to the provincial economy is unconscionable.
In my next story, I will examine in detail the impact BC’s forest industry has had on biodiversity and ecological integrity.
David Broadland’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant who came to Canada in 1911, was the chief cook in a 200-man logging camp near Campbell River on Vancouver Island. The logging show was operated by Bloedel Stewart & Welch. At that time, the forest industry was a major factor in BC’s economic health. Times have changed.
Submission by Anthony Britneff and Martin Watts to the Forest Inventory Review Panel (2018)Britneff and Watts 2018 submission to the Forest Inventory Review Panel.pdf
Summary of above submission provided to Focus: Summary of Britneff and Watts 2018 submission to the Forest Inventory Review Panel.pdf