BC NDP’s misleading policy regarding the protection of old-growth forests

The provincial government protections will not mitigate the impacts of consumption and the climate crisis

PHOTO: Before and after of old-growth in Caycuse watershed. TJ Watt / The Narwhal.

Written by: Harvin Bhathal, Features Editor

One of the most significant ecological challenges in BC has been the conservation of old-growth forests — BC’s ancient forests. Their conservation is synonymous with protecting biodiversity, and the cultural practices and ways of life for many BC First Nations. However, just as important is how these forests act as reservoirs of carbon — carbon that increases global temperatures if released into the atmosphere. 

The conservation of old-growth forests is essentially to protect humans from themselves. 

In September 2020, the BC NDP government embarked on a new approach to old-growth forests with a policy that sanctioned the deferral of old-growth logging in nine areas throughout the province, equalling 352,739 hectares (approximately 260,000 hectares from the Clayoquot Sound). However, these deferrals are temporary protections and are set to expire after two years. 

The provincial government’s promises to conserve nearly 353,000 hectares of old-growth forests are factually incorrect and misleading, according to a report by The Narwhal. There are environmental, spatial, and cultural consequences to this pressing issue and the lack of a meaningful policy response by the BC NDP government.

Additionally, according to Tzeporah Berman, international program director of stand.earth, the deferrals were for areas that “weren’t even threatened by logging or made up of big trees.”

Not to mention, mapping by geographic information systems (GIS) mapper Dave Leversee and conservation organizations found that approximately 137,000 of protected hectares in the Clayoquot Sound “were already under some form of protection” and on the government’s map of protections in the area, much of approximate 260,000 acres include non-forested areas such as rocks, mountain peaks, swamps, etc.  

The reason the provincial government was able to get away with claiming their policy will conserve nearly 353,000 hectares of old-growth forest is that the definition is highly contested. Some define “old-growth” by the age of trees while others define it through physical characteristics or ecological functions. 

When The Narwhal asked the province’s Ministry of Forests to clarify their definition of old-growth, they directed the publication to a strategic review titled, “A New Future for Old Forests.” In that review, old-growth was described as “a generic term to describe forests with old trees” and more specifically (for management purposes), forests which are “250 years [old] on the coast and 140 years [old] in the interior” of BC.

The Narwhal’s report explains that of the near 353,000 conserved hectares, only approximately 196,000 hectares are actually considered old-growth forest according to this definition. The remaining approximately 157,000 hectares are considered second-growth forest, which is open to the logging industry. 

Second-growth refers to native forests that have regrown after being cleared due to human (or natural causes) but the differences between these forests and old-growth go much further than this. Old-growth forests are structurally different in that that they have multiple-layered canopies with gaps. This means that the trees are of diverse ages and heights, and that sunlight can permeate through to create understories that are richer in biodiversity than second-growth forests.

This retroactive clarification raises concerns that the current protections in place for old-growth forests are inadequate.

The 196,000 hectares of protected old-growth is even more inconsequential when the differences between high-productivity and low-productivity forests are considered. High-productivity forests are critical to the conservation of biodiversity in BC as they are much more biodiverse than low-productivity forests. The largest trees are found in high-productivity forests, and endangered species such as mountain caribou, northern goshawk, fisher, and marbled murrelet call these forests home.

Of the 196,000 hectares that the provincial government marked for protection, a team of independent scientists analyzed that only an estimated 3,800 hectares of BC’s remaining high-productivity old-growth were included. A mere 1.94% of high-productivity old-growth is included in this policy’s protections, a far cry from what the BC NDP government is presenting themselves as doing. This policy is incredibly misleading and fails to contextualize its supposed protections within the productivity of the forests they planned to conserve.

This failure by the provincial government to conserve old-growth forests in BC will have consequences that will contribute to the ongoing climate crisis. A research study comparing the carbon stocks of old-growth and second-growth forests in central BC concluded that “harvesting of old-growth forests in sub-boreal [BC] lowers total [carbon] stocks by 54–41%.” 

Through analyzing BC provincial government data, Sierra Club BC reported that while the forests of BC acted as a carbon sink between 1990–2002, they had become a net carbon source by 2003. This means they have gone from keeping in more carbon than they were releasing to storing as much carbon as they were releasing. In the years since 2003, they have been emitting more than they have sequestered (stored). The factors that have contributed to this include the increasing rate of forest fires and the mountain pine beetle outbreak that killed a large number of trees. 

Where old-growth forests come into this equation is that these trees have developed adaptations that make them more resistant to burning — they absorb water and retain moisture, essentially regulating the climate within a forest. The fire resistant capabilities of second-growth forests do not match those of old-growth, but because of widespread old-growth harvesting, it’s second-growth trees that dominate the landscape of BC today.

BC’s ongoing transition from a forest landscape comprised of old-growth forests to second-growth forests will likely continue to contribute to the rising rate of forest fires and the decreasing capabilities of their forests to sequester carbon.

Additionally, incorporating the voices of Indigenous peoples in decision making, especially regarding issues that are affecting them directly, will be paramount to BC protecting themselves from their own action (and inaction). Of the forestland in BC, 95% is Crown land, most of which has been stolen from the many First Nations in the province (198 bands, over 200,000 individuals) who are forest-dependent peoples.

When conserving old-growth forests, as well as addressing the broader issue of the climate crisis, “supporting the capacity of Indigenous governance and management is likely to have multiple benefits [ . . . ] including avoiding over-exploitation, achieving effective ecosystem-based management, and enabling local monitoring for climate impacts.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Forests told The Narwhal that engaging with Indigenous nations is a priority for the ministry. However, their policy of conserving only 1.94% of BC’s high-productivity old-growth forests is contradictory to that statement as these forests are important for how First Nations sustain themselves, as outlined on the Government of British Columbia’s website

Stating that “the diverse ecosystems of old-growth forests provide water habitat for the fish, wildlife, and ecosystems that are vital to many Indigenous communities” and that they are “important to Indigenous cultural practices that have been passed down for generations” must go along with policies that reflect those acknowledgments.

The very report the provincial government referenced for their definition of old-growth forests discussed the importance of engaging with local Indigenous leaders and creating an “entire system grounded with a Provincial-Indigenous government-to-government framework.” This would represent “a new governance approach that relies upon cooperation rather than regulation for situation-specific problems.”

For forestry management, this intergovernmental system would entail adapting to how different BC First Nations have developed their own ways to monitor forest health and climate impacts. More specific adaptations include increasing the age of rotation ages (waiting longer to harvest from one part of a forest to another) as the rate of cut for logging companies is too high to be sustainable, and selective logging instead of clearcutting to minimize soil erosion.

 However, a counterargument to this would be that not all First Nations in BC share the same ideas regarding old-growth forests. Indigenous peoples have been deprived of economic opportunities due to settler-colonial practices that still persist today. These practices include racism and discrimination in many areas, such as healthcare, the environment, and more, as well as the ongoing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

As a result, many Indigenous people seek revenue and employment opportunities where available. Since old-growth forests often overlap with First Nations territory, logging old-growth forests is one of the most accessible opportunities. 

However, First Nations who are in favour of protecting their ancient forests are working with conservation groups “on solutions that strengthen First Nations’ governance and provide financial support for sustainable economic alternatives for First Nations, such as cultural and eco-tourism, non-timber forest products harvesting (e.g. wild mushrooms and berries), sustainable seafood harvesting, renewable energy projects, and value-added second-growth forestry [that incorporates Indigenous values].” 

There is a dichotomy that exists within the different First Nations in BC regarding this issue, and it underlies the dialogue surrounding land use in the province. 

Nonetheless, it is a fact that this policy is not going to accomplish what it is being presented to accomplish.

The BC NDP government’s misleading and factually incorrect policy was either gross disingenuousness or accidental. Regardless, the 353,000 number is what first registers from headlines, not that:

  • Of the supposed 353,000 protected old-growth hectares, only approximately 196,000 of the hectares is actually old-growth
  • Only 1.94% (3,800) of that 196,000 was high-productivity old-growth
  • The deferrals areas didn’t contain big trees and hence, weren’t threatened by logging
  • 137,000 hectares of protected areas in the Clayoquot Sound were already under some form of protection
  • Of the 260,000 protected hectares in the Clayoquot Sound, much of them included non-forest area

This policy will not be effective in conserving old-growth forests and the provincial government should make the necessary changes to reflect its supposed commitment to the environment and Indigenous peoples. The necessary changes should be implemented together with Indigenous leaders, beginning with implementing Indigenous frameworks of forestry management to BC’s forestry management system. 

Regarding this specific policy, the necessary changes include increasing the number of hectares protected in high-productivity old-growth forests, which will conserve the province’s biodiversity, resistance to forest fires, and the ways of life for BC First Nations. 

It will be a step in the right direction in conserving BC’s environment.