Comment: B.C. forests’ future requires climate reality check

There are many forest policy changes the province should be making — to increase conservation, reduce carbon emissions and enable more jobs per cubic metre cut. However, science and the long-term economic and ecological health of the province appear to have taken a back seat to the short-term political crises of the day.

Only because of a massive public outcry has the B.C. government at the last minute pulled proposed changes to the Forest Act (Bill 8) which would have enabled volume-based forest licences to be shifted into area-based Tree Farm Licences.

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This move would have given private companies greater control over public forest lands without requiring better forest management, full community consultation, or recognition of aboriginal title and rights. Intentionally or not, the Bill 8 amendments risked enabling a last-ditch effort by companies stuck in the last century’s timber-first model of development to lock in their rights at the expense of the many other environmental services our forests provide.

Although proponents claimed that the legal changes would have affected only one particular geographic area, it could have easily applied to other parts of the province. Meanwhile, watchdog bodies are putting out report after report, highly critical of the lack of oversight of B.C.’s biodiversity, natural carbon sinks and natural-resource management:

n A report from the B.C. auditor general concluded that there are “significant gaps” in B.C.’s understanding of biodiversity, that the government does not know the effect of its conservation efforts and is “not adequately measuring and reporting on its progress” in maintaining biodiversity.

n A West Coast Environmental Law report found that B.C.’s laws and policies are “hardwired for failure” and that conservation efforts have been stymied by gaps and barriers such as caps on allowable protection, loopholes and exemptions in how land-use plans were legalized.

n A Forest Practices Board report warned that the province has issued 250,000 active permits authorizing resource activity throughout B.C. and that their cumulative impacts remain “unknown and unmanaged.”

n A Sierra Club B.C. report highlighted that the carbon-dioxide emissions from B.C.’s forest lands, which are not officially counted, are skyrocketing and that the province has no strategy in place to increase conservation of rare, carbon-rich, old-growth ecosystems.

Reactions by the B.C. government and industry to such reports appear to ignore the scope of the policy deficits regarding the health of our forests, biodiversity and natural carbon sinks in regard to climate change.

The role of our organizations is to protect our shared environment and highlight science-based policy options to help support our natural life-support systems for clean water, clean air, species habitat, sustainable jobs and a stable climate. Forestry should be an important sector in a low-carbon economy, so long as it is grounded in robust conservation and forest management.

However, today our province has inadequate conservation laws and no regulatory framework in place to ensure that B.C. wood products are climate-friendly and part of a green economy. According to provincial data, “uncounted” annual net emissions from B.C.’s forest lands — 82 million tonnes of CO2 — were higher than the entire official emissions of the province (62 million tonnes). Harvesting contributed almost 44 million tonnes to B.C.’s emissions. Even when we count the portion of carbon stored in wood products long-term, logging emissions are too significant to be ignored.

Scientific research shows that most old-growth stands continue to sequester carbon and that clear-cuts in old-growth forests lead to a disproportionately high loss of carbon.

By increasing protection for rare old-growth ecosystems, creating incentives for longer rotation, selective logging, and elimination of excessive wood waste and slash-burning, B.C. can produce high-quality, climate-friendly wood products. This will require strategic government policy and investments for the forest industry to speed their desired transition to second-growth logging, create more value-added products and help the forest industry to become truly sustainable.

In light of the disconcerting growth of forest carbon emissions and B.C. species at risk, continuing to neglect our forests is irresponsible. We are facing a climate crisis and must adapt. Bill 8 amendments would have undermined thoughtful planning for a sustainable economy. Instead, we need our leaders to take council from strong, credible research and science advising that we need to get on top of the issues at hand.

 

Valerie Langer is director of B.C. Forest Conservation, ForestEthics Solutions; Jessica Clogg is executive director and senior counsel with West Coast Environmental Law; and Torrance Coste is Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee. Their commentary is supported by Ancient Forest Alliance, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Canopy, Greenpeace, Pacific Wild, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Wildsight.

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