The assault on the environment accompanying expanding fossil fuel extraction is nothing new for the corporate elite in British Columbia. The lamentable state of the forest ranges, fish stocks and water quality in the province are a warning of the sharp threat to the entire biosphere by profit-hungry resource corporations that hangs over the entire province.
For decades, companies have plundered the forests to feed lumber and paper mills. They have left blighted landscapes in their wake. Clear cutting is still the standard practice whenever a company enters a forest to cut. Logging of rare old growth forests is still practiced, notwithstanding highly publicized campaigns that succeeded in stopping it in some areas of the province, such as Clayoquet Sound on the western coast of Vancouver Island.
“We’ve lost 90 per cent of the valley bottoms where the big trees grow,” says Ken Wu of the recently-founded Ancient Forest Alliance on Vancouver Island. “All you have to do is fly over the Island to see it. The old growth is tattered and in tiny patches on the Island.”
A 2008 study at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver showed there is typically more economic value in a forest left uncut than is derived from logging it.
The corporate argument in favour of unfettered logging says that forests are a renewable resource available to future generations. But companies and governments have steadily cut back on reforestation. An urgent call to action by three researchers published in the April 28, 2010, Vancouver Sun said, “a major reforestation crisis is underway” in British Columbia. The backlog of lands in desperate need of replanting has doubled in the past 10 years while companies and government have drastically reduced their spending. Government spending on replanting is one-sixth of what it was 20 years ago and the number of seedlings planted today is three per cent of what it was back then.
The current B.C. Liberal Party government, first elected in 2001, has also drastically cut the operations of the Ministry of Forests, which is supposed to oversee the health of the forests and the practices of lumber and paper companies. Hundreds of employees in the ministry, including frontline inspectors and compliance officers, have been laid off. An article in the April 23, 2005 Georgia Straight details repercussions of these cuts.
The replanting that does take place is wholly inadequate. It typically replaces the diversity of tree species found in nature with a monoculture favouring the most commercially lucrative species. This, along with climate warming, has been a major contribution to the disaster that has struck the vast pine forests of the province’s interior — the out of control spread of the mountain pine beetle.
The beetle is a naturally occurring pest in the B.C. pine forests. Its effects have historically been limited by the diversity of tree species in the forest and cold winter temperatures that kill its larvae. Winters are no longer cold enough to kill the larvae and the beetle has bored its way through the province’s pine forests. Vast swaths of interior B.C. are pine tree dead zones.
Several years ago, the beetle jumped its natural barrier to the east, the Rocky Mountains, and has now begun an inexorable march across the northern Canadian forests. Communities throughout the B.C. interior that depend on the forest industry for their livelihood are staring at a bleak future as the last of the trees killed by the beetle are cut and processed.
Protecting the Great Bear Rainforest
In 2006, an agreement was signed between forest companies and environmental organizations that, for some, offered hope for the future of the forests and related employment. Logging was suspended in one-third of the 6.4 million hectare Great Bear Rainforest along the central and northern B.C. coastline. A follow-up agreement in March 2009 will see the application of Ecosystem Based Management (“lighter touch” logging) to an additional 0.7 million hectares and additional measures to limit the most destructive of logging practices.
The Great Bear agreement does not protect the forest nor its inhabitants from mining, hydroelectric and tourism development. The logging suspension applies to 14 per cent of the most productive forest area.
In 2009, the three environmental organizations that spearheaded the original agreement — Greenpeace, Sierra Club B.C. and ForestEthics — voiced satisfaction with the results of the first three years. The following year, they sounded a different tone over a key part of the 2006 agreement, namely a process to identify the habitat requirements of five key bird and animal species at risk.
In a March 2010, statement, the groups said, “Although the B.C. government pledged to protect the biodiversity of the Great Bear Rainforest, it cannot confirm that it is maintaining enough habitat to prevent the extirpation of the five focal species… let alone managing them to low risk as is required to fully implement Ecosystem-Based Management.”
Saving the Northern Forest of Canada?
Another, much larger, forest agreement was recently signed between 21 member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPA) and nine major environmental organizations. It has been hailed as opening a new era in forest industry practice across Canada.
The Boreal Forest Agreement is a voluntary pact whose initial term is supposed to limit logging in the northern forests that are home to Canada’s threatened woodland caribou herds. According to the FPA, it would halt logging on 29 million hectares of land, “virtually all Boreal caribou habitat on company tenures.” There are an estimated 36,000 woodland caribou in Canada’s boreal forest (more numerous caribou species live further north).
The agreement’s potential to “open a different era of forest management” that protects the biosphere seems dubious. For one, the participation of forest companies is voluntary. In Alberta, to take one example, non-signatory companies hold cutting rights on 20 per cent of the commercially viable boreal forest in the province. In the same province, only one-quarter of the tenured lands of signatory companies are covered by the agreement. Only eight per cent of Alberta’s 50 million hectares of boreal forest will be protected from cutting or road-building by forest companies.
Stan Boutin, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, thinks the agreement may help the caribou in other parts of Canada, but not in Alberta. That’s because of the widespread activity of the oil and gas companies. (The same could be said for the northeast British Columbia range of the caribou, where oil and gas activity is rapidly expanding).
In an interview on Vancouver Co-Operative Radio’s Red Eye program on May 29, 2010, Boutin said that close study of the caribou herds in Alberta began in 1994 and has revealed a catastrophic decline in numbers, down 80 per cent. The reasons are twofold. Once the boreal forest area is cut, it degrades the food source for caribou and opens it up to competing species such as moose and deer. More seriously, the road building associated with forest cutting and other industry allows predatory wolves to gain easier access to the herds. Boutin notes that road building and clear cutting by the oil and gas industry in Alberta is widespread in the caribou ranges.
He says that revival of the caribou herds will require a halt to further road building and forest cutting, and restoration of native vegetation to the affected areas. That’s a tall order in a country that has always given free rein to forest and other resource companies.
Boutin was asked whether the forest agreement is likely to reduce the cutting of forests in Canada. “I haven’t seen all the details of the agreement,” he replied, “but I would venture to guess that the annual allowable cut has not been reduced, just moved around.” “It’s pretty rare that the forest companies would agree to a reduction in annual allowable cut.”
Rights of Indigenous Peoples Ignored
The Boreal Forest Agreement has brought sharp condemnations from Indigenous peoples across Canada. Clayton Thomas-Muller told Vancouver Media Co-Op’s Dawn Paley that the forest agreement, like the earlier one in B.C., are being signed over the heads of the affected indigenous peoples (see Paley’s very informative article, May 2010, here).
“What this means is that first nations no longer have the support of these mainstream environmental groups that have fallen into the strategy of conquer and divide deployed by industry.”
Mike Mercredi of the Fort Chipewyan Cree people is cited on OilSandsTruth.org:
“Any Environmental NGO out there who speaks on tar sands issues related to rare cancers being found in Fort Chipewyan or the boreal forest… are not speaking on behalf of any first nations in any of these regions.”
“The sovereignty of the first nations people of Canada is at risk and will be extinguished if this carries on. I will not allow it to happen. We are not allowing ENGOs to bargain with our children’s future, nor will we allow any ENGO to speak on our first nation’s behalf.”
Fort Chipewyan lies adjacent to the tar sands of Alberta and is suffering deeply from related water pollution and alarming increases in cancers among its residents.
Five Thousand Rally in Victoria to Save Wild Salmon
One of the most visible expressions of the rise of a renewed environmental movement in B.C. has been the campaign against the proliferation of salmon farms along the B.C. coast. Concerned citizens want the provincial government to revoke the licenses of the largely Norwegian companies that operate the farms. They staged a weeks-long walk along the length of Vancouver Island in April and early May that drew widespread support. Called the “GET OUT MIGRATION,” it culminated in a rally in front of the provincial legislature in Victoria on May 8 comprising as many as 5,000 people.
Wild salmon migrate up and down the coast and rivers of northwest North America. They are a vital source of food and livelihood for the people who live there, including its indigenous peoples. Salmon also feed the trees that make oxygen and over 200 species fueling a $1.6-billion wilderness tourism industry.
Last year saw a catastrophic decline in the numbers of salmon returning to spawn in the Fraser River. The river and its tributaries are the world’s largest salmon spawning ground. The salmon farms break natural laws by holding salmon stationary and intensifying the instances of disease and parasites. Most of the jobs they create are not for local residents; those that pay low wages. The farms’ contribution to local economies is exaggerated.
Salmon are under great stress due to climate change and destruction of their spawning habitat. They require clean, undisturbed creek and river beds in order to successfully reproduce. Urban development as well as mining, forestry and other industrial activity are constantly degrading this environment. The federal and provincial governments have for years denied there is a threat to the health and survival of salmon species on the west coast, but last year’s decline on the Fraser River has, finally, compelled the federal government to convene a formal inquiry into what is happening to them.
“I think there is a real sense of urgency to save the wild salmon” Fred Speck of the GwaWaenuk nation told the Vancouver Sun. He had walked the hundreds of kilometres covered by the march along with Alexandra Morton, the biologist who first alerted British Columbians to the damage caused by salmon farms many years ago.
The Save Our Salmon campaign proposes land-based, closed containment facilities as the only way in which salmon farms should be allowed to operate. In an article in the Island Tides biweekly newspaper in late May, Morton explained, “There is no reason we need to beg for low-paying jobs raising fish we cannot touch when we could have millions of salmon returning to us (every year)!”
As if forestry practices were not bad enough, one of the new threats to the rivers in British Columbia, and to the fish that live and spawn there, is the proliferation of hydro-electric projects. Permits for some 500 “run of river” projects have been granted by the provincial government or are under consideration. Touted as a “green” source of energy, “run of river” involves diverting water flow through channels and generating stations.
At the failed world climate summit conference in Copenhagen last January, mainstream environmental organizations in British Columbia presented an award to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. This bizarre gesture was motivated by the 2008 decision of the government to increase the sales tax on gasoline (a so-called “carbon tax”) by 2.3 cents per litre, to eventually rise to 10 cents. Happily, others in the environmental movement are less easily swayed by superficial policy.
By the numbers:
* In total, Alberta is home to 49,508,709 hectares of boreal forest.
* Alberta has 20,649,531 hectares of commercial forest within its boreal zone.
* 16,963,909 hectares of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) member tenure lands in Alberta fall under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.
* The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement applies to 4,421,335 hectares of caribou range within the FPAC member tenure lands in Alberta.
* The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement commits to no harvesting or road building in 4,373,171 hectares of caribou range in Alberta.
Roger Annis is a co-editor of Socialist Voice and a trade union activist in Vancouver, B.C. He can be reached at [email protected]
Three responses to “British Columbia: Corporate vandals assault rivers, oceans, forests”
Thierry Martin on 03 Jul 2010:
About the replanting, it does take place and it does not consist only of replacing the diversity by lucrative species. The author should verify his sources because it can’t be the case. First, the trees that make the diversity of tree species in the forest are the lucrative species and they are the ones that get planted unless there is a history of self-regeneration within the canopy (case of Western Hemlock on the Coast).
Second, during the 20 years I worked in Interior and Coast forests as a tree-planter, silviculture surveyor & project manager, the target species have always been what was there already.
My third argument is that you can’t hide what you’re doing on Crown lands when the size of the area is of the order of several hectares. Before you can log an area, you need an approval (at least for 83 % of the land, that is, Crown land) from the district manager for the Forest Service. You can’t have this approval if you don’t regenerate the forest the way it was before. This is the way as of now, this was the way before the Liberals and still the same during the time of the Socreds. Any other way would have met big opposition from the public as you must know.
Sure enough, there is a lot less people from the Forest Service to do the check up since the Lberals took office in 2001, but the public still goes to the wild for leisure and many of them are able to see and understand what they see and they don’t shy away from reporting a violation. Moreover, and that’s a good thing from the 2005 reform (the one that actually started in 2002, for easing out the change), that a lot of the management rests on the professionals (rpf, rp eng, rp bio, geologists, archeologists and so on) who are cc’ing their reports to the Forest Service as well.
I won’t argue much on the rest of the article since I agree on a few things, but that paragraph about the way planting is conducted is of the (very) old kind. The author may not agree with the way the planting is conducted, and although there’s stuff that is debatable, the whole of the planting in BC is not about doing monoculture or replacing actual diversity of the forest.
Roger Annis on 04 Jul 2010:
Thank you to Thierry Martin for his comment on my article. I asked a colleague more knowlegable than I on matters of forestry to comment, and here is what he wrote:
I disagree entirely with the comment of Thierry Martin. Any forest biologist would also do so. The definition of diversity, especially coming from an industry forester, is somewhat lacking. It is sometimes the case that mature forests are lacking in diversity in terms of the variety of conifer species. We know that a douglas fir forest is succeeded by cedar and hemlock, however, other conditions must also be in place–moisture soil etc.
Undergrowth, always omitted by foresters, is a valuable part of a forest, as is fungus that transfers nutrients, in a symbiotic way, to tree roots. The older growth forests which have never been logged have pockets of ‘monoculture’ in that one conifer species dominates, but that is based on soil, nutrients, moisture etc. But a forest has pockets of this type of growing patterns. As well, it is well documented in academic papers that BC’s forest soils are somewhat thin and each cut reduces the layer of soil that is vital to regeneration. I knew one graduate student at UBC who told me that the coastal forest soils, especially on slopes, is so thin that one, maybe two, cycles of clear cutting would deplete the soil layer to a point that it would not be able to provide the essential elements for tree growth, despite moisture. There is also the problem that it takes several years for a replanted area to provide the root structure and nutrient cycle to avoid erosion.
Large clearcuts, prior to the beetle kills, actually changed microclimates in an area, which meant the trees planted in the area, which were the same as the majority species taken out, did not regenerate successfully, hence the ‘breeding’ of certain species to survive warmer temperatures and drier soil conditions. It is very difficult to artificially resemble the diversity of a forest which has never been logged…actually impossible.
Merv Wilkinson, on Van Island, selectively logged his property over 13 times and still has more tree volume on his property than the day he moved onto it, over 60 years ago. The one mistake he made was removing tree detritous, limbs, needles, rotting logs, dead trees standing as well as undergrowth plants, shrubs and bushes, huckleberries, salal, ferns, elderberries, salmonberries, fireweed etc etc…These plants keep soils cool in hot summers, retain soil moisture and provide their own nutrient cycle to both themselves and larger trees adjacent. After 60 years the underbrush is still lacking…did these plants provide and aid beneficial fungal growth also? Did disturbing the undergrowth limit the growth of beneficial fungi? How long does it take for large soil fungi, some hundreds of square kms in size, to grow?
I tree-planted back in 1968-70 in the Squamish, Elaho Valleys and I don’t remember planting anything else but douglas firs! On some of the fertile benches I planted a few peace signs…I wonder if they are still visible by airplane! We were also asked to torch–slash burn–clear cut areas, which of course release nutrients quickly to the new tree seedlings we planted but removed thick ‘duff’ which again is filled with fungi and is a slow release nutrient mechanism, holds moisture and keeps soils cools. The trouble with tree planters is that they arrive in an area already logged. Some do venture into the wild and so do understand the complex diversity of a true forest, not a man-made one. One thing is true however, our forests are somewhat limited in plant diversity compared to tropical forests…we have a limited number of plant species in our temperate forests, they may be just or even more dense than a tropical forest, but still don’t even compare to tropical forest diversity.
I lived in the Bella Coola Valley for 7 years working for the fisheries there. During the winter months, the Bella Coola River was clear, free of glacial silt, the whiteish coloured waters. After 20 years of logging all the side valleys out, the river now runs dirty silt year round…this only tells me that the forest soils are eroding and if we cut the “second growth” before it has had time to build the soil back up to its former conditions then we reduce the ability of the area to grow healthy trees, plants, fungi and other beneficial soil microelements.
I have no knowledge of current forest regeneration practices but I highly doubt the province and forest companies are able to mimic a natural forest…a forest is not just trees…when foresters consider alders, birch and other local hardwoods as weeds then you know something is wrong.
Just one further comment…most of our coastal and interior lands were covered in ice not too long ago, geologically speaking. Even the Fraser Valley was non-existent 10,000 years ago. The “old growth” forests are the result of 10,000 years of geomorphology, winds, soil growth, fires, numerous plant successions…so when someone asks me how old I think a forest is, one that hasn’t been cut by humans, I say it depends on when the last glacier melted from the area…Our temporary existence living on this planet unfortunately has manifested itself throughout the natural environment…at one time even the mining industry used the slogan…”temporary use of the land”…just so we knew that the destruction mining brings to the natural environment was temporary and it is to be “reclaimed” after the mine is closed. There are areas that have been open pit mined in BC that have been “reclaimed” several unsuccessful times even with aerial fertilization and multiple plantings. Thank goodness copper and gold isn’t spread out all over our province’s mountains, lakes and valleys…BC would be a very poisoned place to live.
It is possible to log a forest and retain much of its diversity, but not by clear cutting. It is possible to create a viable forest economy for the workers and their families, but not with large transnational corporate forest companies.
If a logger or forester had his own 160 hectares of forest to log over his/her lifetime it would be sufficient to provide his/her family with a living. If the number of people employed in the forest tree-extraction industry had their own plots to care and selectively log we would need very little of BC’s forests under the current destructive practices. We would have small micro mills working like in Sweden…there they designed smaller equipment so people themselves can operate value added forest industries without too much capital investment. Even new lumber drying equipment, kilns, are available.
Hope this helps…probably a trip through UBC library online would help you gather some academic research on forest sustainability, ecosystems etc…Ben Parfitt has done some good work over the years in terms of journalistic endeavours…he has a good understanding…been some good work out of UVic also, economic ecology…Michael McGonnigle…search Merv Wilkinson and see what he has been able to accomplish with a forest sitting on top of shale…clear cutting this would have left his land bare for several human lifetimes. Merv is well into his 90?s and there is now a society which owns the land and is determined to continue his sound practices.
When the NDP Harcourt gov’t created the multi-volume Forest Practices Code, Merv was perplexed. He showed me a booklet provided by the Swedes as a guide to foresters in their country. It fits in your back pocket and if you follow it you will not destroy the true diversity of the forest. Even though we don’t respect natures diversity, we love creating it for ourselves in terms of paper complexity.
Roger Annis on 21 Aug 2010:
The following article appears in the August 19, 2010 Vancouver Sun. It describes the forest fires raging in British Columbia and hints at the decades of government and forest industry policy that have contributed to this disaster and to the pine beetle epidemic.
Pine beetles’ march across B.C. is a catastrophe in slow motion
Unemployment among forestry workers and amount of denuded timber harvest land will rise dramatically over next 20 years, a report says
By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun, August 19, 2010
It’s funny. You can read that pine beetles have denuded and killed an area of B.C. forest land equivalent to the area of California and New York combined, but it doesn’t sink in.
It seems impossible. Sheer hyperbole.
But drive the circular route through Hope, Princeton, Merritt, Cache Creek, Lillooet, Pemberton, Whistler as I did this past weekend, and you can see it.
Kilometre after kilometre of trees stripped of needles and tinder-dry.
It’s heartbreaking and frightening.
We’re in the middle of a slow-motion disaster that, unlike the Gulf oil spill, Hurricane Katrina or the floods in Pakistan, is unfolding in years, not minutes and hours, weeks and months.
If you can’t go and see it for yourself, look at the forest ministry’s series of maps ( http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hre/bcmpb/cumulative/1999.htm)that show the beetles’ 15-year march east across the province, munching everything in their path.
This catastrophe is happening so slowly that for many of us the only tangible evidence of it are the two architectural centrepieces of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Yet the blue-stained beams of the Richmond oval and the showcase walls in Vancouver’s convention centre are among the few bright spots.
Over the years, there have been lots of stories chronicling the beetles’ massive destruction, changes to allowable annual cuts, mill closure and layoffs. The most recent reported that in the next 20 years, an estimated 28,700 forestry-related jobs will be lost, 68 per cent of the mature pine stock dead, 20 per cent of the total timber harvest land base denuded.
Fast-track harvesting of blue-stained beetle-infested wood has fuelled mills and brought workers back. With as much as 75 per cent of B.C.’s lodgepole pine needing to be cut before 2024 when the beetle-inflicted damage will make it useless, innovative new products are being made from the dry, cracking timber.
The end of the pine-beetle epidemic was heralded last September by Pat Bell even as he admitted that he’s likely the first B.C. forest minister in the province’s 130-year history to worry about running out of trees.
In retrospect, Bell may have been optimistic. More recent reports have suggested that damage in the Okanagan, Cranbrook and Boundary regions is not expected to peak until 2014. The problem is that there’s nothing we can do. We are not defeating the beetles. They are simply running out of food and moving on.
Like all disasters — man-made or natural — this one is fundamentally reshaping the economy. Left in the beetles’ wake are unemployed forestry workers, their worried families and allied businesses on the brink. Some communities may not survive.
Tourism, which has rescued some resource towns in the past, may not be a saviour this time. What happens when people begin to realize that a billion trees are dead and that “Super, Natural B.C.” is no longer a lush forest, punctuated with mountains, ranchlands, lakes and urban areas?
And with a billion trees dead and tinder-dry, it’s small wonder that 70 per cent of the province is rated at an extreme fire risk and even Vancouverites can see the smoke.
At the beginning of this week with 282 fires burning, B.C. had already spent $107 million. The only wonder is that the B.C. government chopped the firefighting budget to a decade-low of $51.7 million in what can only have been an act of political window dressing aimed at keeping the projected deficit at $2.8 billion.
It’s not just forests and humans that are affected. Grizzly bears and salmon are among the species at risk as their habitat disappears.
There remain a stubborn few who argue about the cause of climate change, but the pine-beetle devastation is one of its effects. Without the usual winter cold, the beetles flourished.
And now, whether they are burning or simply decaying, the province’s forests are net contributors to greenhouse gases.
Far from reducing our carbon footprint, the dying forests have been slowly seeping greenhouse gases since 2003.
Federal researchers recently reported that between 2003 and 2009, B.C.’s beetle-killed wood released 74 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air. That’s more than the province’s combined emissions from human activity and nearly double the 38 megatonnes from the controversial Alberta oilsands.
The beetles may be gone, but so many questions linger. What will B.C. look like at the end of this? What trees will grow in the devastated forests? Which communities will survive the migration of an estimated 11,500 forestry-dependent families?
Generations have thrived on the abundance of trees. We’ve marketed our province as Super, Natural B.C. and — more presumptuously — The Best Place on Earth. But, who will we be if there are no trees?