A new report on old-growth forest in BC says only 415,000 hectares remain. The BC Ministry of Forests has claimed there's 13 million hectares.
A “very large” old-growth Western Red Cedar, felled in the Nahmint Valley on Vancouver Island in 2019. (Photo by TJ Watt)
THE DEGREE TO WHICH the BC Ministry of Forests has become the public relations arm of BC’s forest-industrial complex is measured precisely, if not intentionally, in a report by three former BC government forest ecologists. In their evaluation of the old-growth forest remaining in the province, the scientists characterized the ministry’s simplistic approach to estimating old growth forest as “very misleading.”
The report, “BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity,” was authored by Karen Price, Rachel Holt and Dave Daust.
When they say “very misleading” we need to ask: How much is “very?” Publicly, the ministry estimates there are 13 million hectares of old-growth forest remaining in BC.
Advocates of protecting the remaining large, old trees have long argued that most of what the Province calls “old growth” is indeed old, but includes short, small-diameter trees, many growing in bogs, at high elevation or on rock, sites that don’t support the level of biological productivity and biodiversity found in forests with large old trees.
Along come Price, Holt and Daust. Their report provides a more detailed breakdown than we’ve seen before of the nature of the remaining unprotected old growth. They differentiate, for example, between “very large old trees,” “large old trees,” and “small old trees.”
They estimate there are only 35,000 hectares on which “very large old trees” still grow in BC. That’s an area smaller than BC Premier John Horgan’s home municipality of Langford (41,000 hectares). The scientists report that under circumstances in which forest growth is in equilibrium with natural disturbances like fire and insect infestation, there would be 1.5 million hectares of forest in BC that would contain old trees that are “very large.” Today, only 2.3 percent of that remains.
Price, Holt and Daust estimate that in all of BC there are an additional 380,000 hectares of forest that contain “large” old trees. That’s an area 1.6 times larger than the Capital Regional District. They estimate that—under natural circumstances—there would be 3.5 million hectares of forests with large, old trees in BC. That’s an area larger than Vancouver Island. Today, only 11 percent of that remains.
A 336-year-old Douglas fir felled recently on Quadra Island. This is an example of a “large” old-growth tree. (Photo by David Broadland)
Combined, the scientists say, the area of BC covered with unprotected forests containing “large” and “very large” trees is 415,000 hectares. If you drew a line on a map of Vancouver Island from Duncan to Bamfield, the area of land south of that line is about 415,000 hectares (see map below). Price, Holt and Daust note that’s less than 1 percent of BC’s 50 million hectares of forested area. (By “forested area” the scientists mean land in BC that could support forests, including the millions of hectares that are currently bare clearcuts or young regrowth.)
Let’s summarize all those numbers: On one hand we have the Ministry of Forests claiming there’s still 13 million hectares of old-growth forest and, on the other, these three scientists estimate there are 415,000 hectares remaining of the forests needed by endangered and threatened plant and animal species, including the Northern Spotted Owl, the Woodland Caribou, the Marbled Murrelet, the Wandering Salamander, the Northern Red-legged Frog and so on.
When you put these two estimates side-by-side, one appears to be supported by data, arithmetic and logic, and the other is revealed as a public relations gimmick designed to maintain the illusion that old forests are plentiful.
Price, Holt and Daust estimate there are 415,000 hectares of unprotected old-growth forest remaining in BC that contain “large” and “very large” trees. That’s equivalent to the area of Vancouver Island shaded in dark grey in the map above.
Does it matter if there’s less and less forest containing large and very large old trees? The scientists say it does. In their report, they link the loss of large and very large trees to higher ecological risk. This occurs as a result of the loss of ecological function when large and very large trees are removed from a forest. You’re not a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Red-legged Frog, so such loss is hard to comprehend, and understandably so. Most of us spend so little time in an old-growth forest that we have little knowledge of what lives there, what it needs to live, and what happens when its habitat is logged. But think of what your life would be like if aliens from another world suddenly arrived in your town, physically removed all of the houses, and then left a 2x4 in everyone’s front yard. The loss of your habitat would put you and everyone else in the community at greater risk of harm or death. Could you move to a nearby city? No, the aliens took that, too. The food system has disappeared and there’s far less water available.
The end result? The forest scientists noted, “Conservation science agrees that habitat loss leads to declines in populations and ultimately loss of species.” They observed that shifts in a forest’s ecological function “mean that forest ecosystems can pass a point whereby a particular species may not be able to recover to former abundance even if habitat is subsequently increased, and/or that ecosystems are less able to withstand disturbance and they become less resilient.”
While we might think the scientists are talking about Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-legged Frogs, the same principles apply to humans.
The scientists connect the magnitude of ecological risk directly to the extent of forest removed: “Studies of habitat change suggest that risk to biodiversity and ecological function is low when more than 70 percent of natural forest remains, high when less than 30 percent remains, and moderate between.”
What happens to plant and animal communities that live in forest stands of old and very old trees when less than one percent of the natural forest remains? The plants and animals already know. The human community is slowly becoming aware of the enormous loss in biodiversity that is underway.
Price, Holt and Daust call for an immediate end to logging old-growth forests. In response, Forests Minister Donaldson told CBC reporter Rafferty Baker, “We want to make sure that [old growth] is being managed properly, and we recognize the importance old forests have for biodiversity in the province…We also recognize the importance that [old growth] provides for communities and workers who depend on harvesting.”
Donaldson’s ministry has recently conducted a review of its old-growth policies. Given his comment to the CBC, it doesn’t appear he’s going to impose the moratorium Price, Holt, Daust and many others are recommending. What will that mean?
Sierra BC has put the rate at which old-growth forest is being logged in Coastal BC at 15,200 hectares per year. For the Interior they estimate 126,000 hectares are logged annually. Added together that amounts to 141,200 hectares being lost each year. At that rate, the 415,000 hectares that Price, Holt and Daust have identified would be gone in three years. What Sierra BC calls “old growth” may not correspond exactly with the analysis of Price, Holt and Daust, but it’s in the same forest.
Imagine for a moment, though, that both the scientists’ and Sierra BC’s estimates are essentially correct, and that there is only a three-year supply of old forest “for communities and workers who depend on harvesting,” as Donaldson put it. If the Province’s new strategy were to cut the rate of old-growth logging in half—which Donaldson implies would impose significant hardship on communities and workers—all the large and very large old growth would be gone in six years instead of just three. Old-growth-related forestry jobs would still be gone forever, the end coming just a few years later. Plant and animal communities dependent on old forests would be gone, too, perhaps permanently.
Whether this ecological catastrophe unfolds in three, six or even twenty years isn’t clear, and it shouldn’t matter. Why would a small difference in the timing of the endpoint of a catastrophe make any difference to decision-makers who have a responsibility to avoid such catastrophes altogether?
Surely the correct course of action for a government to take is to ensure that our economic activities do not put the planet’s life support systems at risk. Given the hard numbers provided by Price, Holt and Dauss—which were derived from the Province’s own records—the only reasonable course of action for the Province to take is to permanently protect the remaining 415,000 hectares identified by the scientists.
That shouldn’t be difficult. If the Province has been truthful about there being 13 million hectares of old-growth forest, protecting the 415,000 hectares identified by the scientists will mean a loss of just 3 percent of the old-growth forest the government claims is still there.
David Broadland has been writing about BC’s forest industry since 1990.
BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity: bcs-old-growth-forest-report-web.pdf