David Broadland’s “The forest-industrial complex’s Molotov clearcuts” (Focus March-April 2020) seems to argue that extensive clearcuts are largely to blame for recent huge forest fires in BC, and that the clearcuts themselves are the result of misguided, industry friendly policy. The “forest-industrial complex”, he argues, has been trying to avert blame for this “ecological apocalypse” by pointing to a history of fire suppression.
It hardly helps the argument that Broadland begins with incendiary shouting, so to speak (“forest-industrial complex”, “Molotov [cocktail] clearcuts”, “apocalypse”).
Lori Daniels, the UBC forestry scientist whom Broadland sees as a prime lackey within the “forest-industrial complex”, addresses a situation that is most common in the dry forests of the western USA and southern BC, predominantly Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-fir. These forests were subject to frequent fires, typically at about 20 year intervals. The fires were patchy and killed young trees but not older ones, whose thick bark prevented fire from cooking the cambium layer. By comparison, dry lodgepole pine forests, as in the Chilcotin, had a normal fire frequency of about 40 years, the fire killing all trees, reseeding cones opened by fire.
In the 1950’s, Smoky the Bear became an important figure. The result in the Southern Interior, as Lori Daniels notes, was the development of much denser stands in which large amounts of fuel accumulated. After many years of fire control, fuel loads in these dry forests are now so high that forest fires burn uncontrollably hot and kill all trees. The Elephant Hill fire, one of three very large fires mentioned by Broadland, happened largely in this kind of forest. Logging in this zone normally happens in small patches or even individual tree selection. Large clearcuts are rare.
The story in the dry lodgepole pine forest of the Chilcotin is different. Logging in the area started in the 60’s after new saw milling techniques allowed utilization of these small, slow growing trees. Logging was by small, well-spaced clearcuts. Serious fire control started about the same time. Then came the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB). Starting in Tweedsmuir park in the late 90’s it quickly grew to a massive outbreak.
Commonly, climatic warming and the resulting lack of sufficiently cold winters are blamed for the epidemic. It’s not so simple. Larvae, for instance, become frost hardy and can easily take -40 C if there has been a long slow cooling period, though a sudden temperature drop to -20 C early in the fall is enough kill them. On the other hand, fire control in the Chilcotin meant a slow increase in average stand age, and hence larger trees, which MPB favour.
At low population levels, the adults search for stressed trees and when they find one they emit pheromones that attract others leading to a mass attack that overwhelms the tree. MPB behaviour changes when huge populations build up. Now large, vigorous trees are favoured and succumb to simultaneous attack by large numbers of beetles overwhelming the tree’s resistance. One night a cloud descended on Kamloops and killed all the large old ponderosa pine in the city in one go. Such outbreaks only stop when the beetle runs out of food, as is now the case in BC.
Attention turned to salvage of the dead standing trees. Trees could be milled for about five years after death and be useable for pulp chips or wood pellets for burning even longer. Canfor built a large mill near Houston knowing full well that there would only be wood to feed it for seven years. The size of clearcuts was only dictated by the extent of MPB mortality. What would Broadland have changed?
Broadland asserts that “lightning is more likely to start a fire if it hits harvested areas than if it hits forested areas.” He quotes Krawchuk and Cumming (2009) of the University of Alberta, who “found that wildfires started by lightning ignition ‘increased in landscapes with more area harvested’.” Actually, they were working in boreal mixed wood forest (aspen and spruce), a very different environment than lodgepole pine, and much wetter (Ecology and Management vol 257 1613-1622). They end their abstract with “…but the areas affected by these events (increased ignition from lightning in clearcuts) amount to local peculiarities rather than broad-scale regularities”.
Along with that selective and misplaced quote, David Broadland makes another, greater error. A forest is not a carbon sink over time (unless you can keep it forever from burning and disease) but in equilibrium between absorbing and releasing CO2. Young forests, on the other hand, do absorb CO2, massively, as will those now growing in the burns. But his greatest error is to simplistically denigrate so many loggers, scientists, researchers, civil servants, industry and forestry managers as cogs in an evil cabal whose schemes have resulted in an apocalypse in BC forests. Professional foresters in particular have always counselled restraint. Broadland ends up quoting Aldo Leopold that “when we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Many of those cogs in the cabal, if at times shortsighted like the rest of us, have traipsed through BC forests with precisely that love and respect.