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British Columbia poised to lose ‘white rhino of old growth forests’

  • In the public imagination, British Columbia is swathed in green and famous for its towering old growth forests. But while the provincial government says 23% of BC’s forests are old growth, a new study finds that a mere 1% remains with tall trees.
  • Intense pressure is now being put on the remaining trees by a forestry industry eager to capitalize on nations desperate for new “carbon neutral” sources of energy, including the revamping of coal-fired power plants to burn wood pellets.
  • But while the UN says burning biomass in the form of wood pellets is carbon neutral, ten years-worth of new data says that burning trees to make electricity could help put the world on a glide path to climate catastrophe — exceeding the maximum 2 degree Celsius temperature increase target set by the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • A recently elected progressive government in BC is weighing its policy options as it negotiates a new provincial forest plan, trying to satisfy the dire need for forestry jobs and a growing economy, while conserving old growth forests which store large amounts of carbon as a hedge against climate disaster. The outcome is uncertain.

The lush, green interior of British Columbia, Canada, is renowned as the home of one of the last-remaining inland temperate rainforests on earth. BC’s towering, centuries-old red cedar, western hemlock, spruce and subalpine fir make up a wet, complex ecosystem brimming with wildlife, ranging from endangered woodland caribou, grizzlies, diverse birdlife and tiny lichens.

But the province’s rare old-growth forests are shrinking dramatically due to encroaching timber harvesting, especially for wood-pellets used to fuel the industrial biomass-burning industry, now fast replacing coal-fired electrical power plants around the globe.

British Columbia’s old-growth is in desperate need of protection, according to the stark findings of two recent studies prepared for the Victoria-based provincial government, which for the first time in a generation is considering a new old-growth forest management plan that could permanently save what’s left from chainsaws, sawmills and wood pelletizing plants.

“Almost every productive ecosystem across BC has very low levels of old forest remaining, and in many areas of BC, this remaining productive old growth is at risk of being logged in the next five years,” said Rachel Holt, a forest ecologist and co-author of one of the studies. “Current provincial policies are inadequate to protect old-growth ecosystems. And without immediate change to both the policy and how it is implemented, BC is on a path to losing these irreplaceable forests forever.”

“We want to stop the harvesting of primary forests here, and we think the forest industry should start focusing on second-growth forests,” said Michelle Connolly, a forest ecologist with the environmental advocacy group Conservation North, which provided research for a second study. “With the advent of bioenergy [wood pellets for export], we have to extend our area of immediate concern to all primary forests. None of it is safe now.”

Clearcut logging in the Anzac Valley, part of the boreal rainforest near Prince George, British Columbia. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

Dual reports deliver alarming news

Analyzing a range of forest-related data not publicly available until recently, Holt and two colleagues, forest ecologists Karen Price and Dave Daust, produced “BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity.” A key finding: British Columbia claims that of its 57.2 million hectares (220,850 square miles) of forest, some 23% (13.2 million hectares, or 50,965 square miles) is old growth.

But the authors’ research tells a far different story. Their findings show that less than 1% of old growth with tall trees* remains in BC today, or roughly 400,000 hectares (1,544 square miles) scattered scattered in ecosystems along the coast and interior of the province, and that’s according to an analysis of the province’s own data.

“These ecosystems are effectively the white rhino of old growth forests,” the authors write. “They are almost extinguished, and will not recover from logging.”

In April, the environmental group Stand.earth released a new report titled “Canada’s growing wood pellet export industry threatens forests, wildlife and our climate.” It points out that Canada is the world’s third-largest wood pellet producer, behind only China and the U.S., with British Columbia generating 80% of Canadian wood pellet exports — fuel headed to converted coal-fired power plants, and then into the skies above the United Kingdom, European Union and Asia.

The forestry industry, knowing a lucrative business when it sees it, has launched an aggressive PR campaign to convince the world that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral — an outdated assumption and policy built into the Kyoto Protocol, then grandfathered into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. But leading scientists say, and myriad studies demonstrate, that carbon neutrality is a false hypothesis. Burning trees to produce electrical energy actually produces more carbon emissions than coal because more wood is needed to generate the same amount of energy, research shows.

The BC pellet industry, including Pacific BioEnergy, claims it uses only dead trees killed by the mountain pine beetle or by wildfire, forest wood residue and sawmill waste for pellet making. But Stand.earth documented the industry harvesting truckloads of healthy, whole trees, including red cedars, for pellets. The environmental NGO says Pacific BioEnergy is now eyeing old growth forests as foreign demand for pellets rises and sawmill waste grows scarce due to mill closures.

“This threat from wood pellets is relatively new,” Connolly explains. “I would argue that both the industry and government are testing the water on this; they want to see what the community reaction is. Most people don’t know that whole trees are being taken. They think it’s only waste and residue. But the industry wants to log primary forests.”

Attempts to reach Pacific BioEnergy for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Productive, old growth forests are complex ecosystems. From the report: “Old forests meld light and dark; their structural complexity can include large old living trees, large standing dead snags, long downed logs, a multi-layered canopy, horizontal patchiness with canopy gaps that allow understory growth, and hummocky micro-topography.” Image by Jakob Dulisse.

The Stand.earth report notes how the popularity of wood pellet biomass burning overseas today hinges on a United Nations carbon accounting loophole approved in Kyoto in 1992: Because biomass was then, and is still, considered a renewable resource on par with wind and solar energy, carbon emissions produced when pellets are burned — replacing coal — are not counted against carbon reduction targets.

This enables countries to claim significant carbon emissions cuts, which for civilization and the planet, only exist on paper. It is estimated, for example, that the UK gets 12 percent of its energy from burning wood; Denmark is estimated to get 30 percent. None of those emissions is officially reported.

The loophole assumes that new trees planted where and when old trees are cut immediately offset wood pellet emissions. But a decade’s worth of research has established that this so-called carbon neutrality, if trees are actually replanted at all, takes 50-100 years. The UN itself has stressed that fossil fuel emissions must be dramatically reduced within just 10 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Preserving standing forests is seen as vital to achieving timely climate mitigation.

A cedar grove in the inland rainforest near Prince George, BC. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.Earth.

Government’s role and response

In 2019, British Columbia created a two-person panel to gather data and public opinion for an Old Growth Strategic Review. Foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel head the panel and confirmed to Mongabay that they received both of the aforementioned reports, along with 370 written submissions from the public and interested parties for their own report which has now been submitted to BC’s Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. In an email, Merkel said he and Gorley are not authorized to publicly discuss their findings for six months.

Meanwhile, BC Provincial Forest Minister Doug Donaldson told the CBC news outlet that he was not surprised to learn that the provinces old growth forests are in steep decline. He added that he has a high regard for the trio of authors who are demanding immediate protective action.

“We want to make sure that [old growth] is being managed properly,” Donaldson told CBC, “and we recognize the importance old forests have for biodiversity in the province. We also recognize the importance that it provides for communities and workers who depend on harvesting.”

Donaldson’s comment sums up the common hedging required of government officials the world over as they try to balance the dual priorities of mandated forest conservation and maintaining forestry jobs.

Forestry has been BC’s dominant industry for generations, and logging for lumber and paper has proceeded for decades as if the supply of trees in a province four times the size of California was infinite. It’s not. Aggressive logging of low-elevation coastal and interior forests has led to rural communities seeing a declining timber supply, sawmill closures and lost jobs. Unlike the US Southeast, where softwood tree farms can be harvested in 20 years or so, new trees planted in BC take at least 80 years before they can be harvested, forestry experts say.

At the same time, legislation that emphasizes the importance of forest protection for biodiversity, water quality and recreation carries an ominous caveat – as long as those protections do not unduly affect effect timber harvesting, a variety of sources confirmed. They also said that caveat may be reconsidered in future policy.

Climate change suffuses the entire debate in BC, though it’s often unstated. The province has lost thousands of hectares of trees to mountain pine beetle infestations because winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the pest.

This puts even more pressure to protect what’s left. Old growth forests sequester 30-50 times more carbon than secondary forests, according to ecologists, providing planetary ecosystem services as global warming continues to accelerate.

Low productivity forests like this one don’t have anywhere near the same capacity for sequestering carbon as do old growth forests. Image by TJ Watt for Ancient Forest Alliance.

A new BC government weighs its options

A relatively progressive ruling government, the New Democratic Party (NDP) took over in BC in  2017. Now, two of its major constituencies — a green arm and a labor arm — are struggling to meet the challenge, and find common ground, balancing environmental and economic concerns. An old-growth management plan is expected by year end.

Forestry expert Kevin Kriese, a political appointee who chairs the province’s Forest Practices Board, told Mongabay the environmental issues the NDP have identified are urgent and timely after years of minimal restraints on the timber industry.

“What’s missing in BC in many senses is updated land-use plans that really get at the right approach of old growth and other issues on the ground,” Kriese said. “BC is a really big, complicated place, and there has been very little land-use planning over the last 15-20 years. This government is committed to a new program of updating plans. Where can we feasibly operate? What must be protected? What about species at risk and climate? It all has to be addressed.”

He added that BC policy currently protects forests throughout the province, but asked: “Are we protecting the right areas? The province knew [for economic reasons] it could not protect the best of the best quality forests. So we overprotected poorer quality forests.”

Kriese is circumspect when asked if he is hopeful the NDP, led by Premier John Horgan, will make decisions now to protect old growth forests and biodiversity, particularly in the face of climate change: “Our province and public have not caught up yet with the pressures of a changing climate and what it means for conservation.”

With elections coming up in fall 2021, sources told Mongabay the NDP will be eager to strike a careful balance when it comes to old growth management, knowing that rural communities are already struggling economically with the decline in timber harvesting and sawmill closures, and with wood pellet production seen by many as offering possible financial salvation.

British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests aren’t only valuable for the carbon storage they provide; they should also be cherished for their uniqueness, the biodiversity they harbor, and the awe they inspire. Image by Jakob Dulisse.

Rare habitat at stake

A lot is riding ecologically on whatever policy decisions are eventually enacted in BC.

Dominick DellaSala is president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Oregon. He specializes in studying rare ecosystems globally and says of BC’s temperate, old growth forests: “From my research, there are only two other regions on earth like it — southeast Russia and Siberia. These forests are important and rare. They have the highest richness of lichens of any place in the world, a main food source for the mountain caribou, which is circling the extinction drain. Some trees are estimated to be 1,600 years old. And they are being wasted by logging.”

DellaSala underlined the fact that old growth forests are a large, stable source of carbon: “If we are going to fight climate change, we need to get off fossil fuels and hang onto on our remaining primary forests.”

Karen Price, co-author of the old-growth study with her partner Dave Daust, lives among the ancient trees of southern British Columbia. Their recommendations to the NDP are uncompromising, among them: “Immediately place a moratorium on logging ecosystems and landscapes with very little old growth forests,” to preserve what’s left.

“The world sees Canada, I think, as pretty enlightened on these matters,” Price said. “But if we have an enlightened government and are unable to protect our last old growth forests, what does that tell you about systemic failure?

“Because of past policies, job losses and mill closings are inevitable. We’ve known this for decades. No government has prepared for it. We’re running toward the iceberg and we’re going to hit it. Our argument to government is you can let this play out and have no old growth left and lose all the values — the clean water, the salmon, the grizzlies, the mountain caribou, the carbon storage, the protection from flooding.

“Or, you can try and do something now. Protect whatever old growth we have left. And protect those values that will buffer the climate affects that are coming. But it’s a helluva difficult challenge for any government.”

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor journalism at Wake Forest University. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.

Banner image: A person dwarfed by an ancient cedar stand in the Incomappleux Valley of the Inland Temperate Rainforest, near Revelstoke, British Columbia. The Inland Temperate Rainforest is unique, stretching from northern Idaho to near Prince George, BC. It has been heavily fragmented by logging. Image by Jakob Dulisse.

Correction: The following paragraph was revised on the same day as publication to include the phrases in bold: “But the authors’ research tells a far different story. Their findings show that less than 1% of old growth with tall trees remains in BC today, or roughly 400,000 hectares (1,544 square miles) scattered in ecosystems along the coast and interior of the province, and that’s according to an analysis of the province’s own data.”

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