Comment: Old-growth trees worth more if we leave them standing

Are old-growth forests worth more standing than harvested? The tourism industry thinks so.

In October 2018, wilderness tourism businesses stood with environmental organizations on the steps of the legislature. We were there to deliver a petition bearing the names of 185,000 people from around the world calling on the B.C. government to save the province’s ancient temperate rainforest from clearcutting.

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Why does the tourism industry care? There are many reasons. Some are economic, but mostly we care about managing natural resources for the future.

The tourism industry is one of B.C.’s top economic contributors. In 2016, tourism contributed more to the provincial GDP than any other primary resource industry, with the exception of oil and gas extraction. Adventure tourism is one of the fastest growing economic sectors; it has a very low environmental footprint and contributed more than $2 billion in revenue in 2016.

It’s easy to understand why, according to Destination B.C., visitors cite the province’s stunning natural beauty and diversity and an array of outdoor recreation opportunities as the main reasons for choosing to vacation in B.C.

Tourists visit Vancouver Island and other rainforest regions to experience intact nature on a scale not available in most other places on the planet. Adventure tourism depends entirely on having access to the province’s high-quality natural environment. It’s the No. 1 reason adventure travellers come to B.C. Without it, they would spend their travel dollars in other regions.

However, opportunities to experience large unlogged forest landscapes are becoming rare in B.C., which is why these unique forests are so important to the adventure travel industry.

The bad news is, with a few exceptions, old-growth forests continue to be harvested with little regard to the other types of business that depend on them. Once the trees have been harvested, the economic opportunities for tourism operators cease for decades, if not forever.

The same is true for the forest industry. Low-elevation old-growth forests have unique characteristics. Once cut, the ecological system is destroyed and cannot be replicated. The plant and animal species that are dependent on these forests either move on or perish.

If there is no immediate action to transition forestry away from old-growth, the economic loss for the province will be long-term. In addition, there is loss of significant ecological services to the environment and surrounding communities. Unfortunately, the province focuses its return on forest resources in stumpage, not the other revenues generated by the same resource, nor the ecological services they provide, such as carbon sequestration, water and air purification, wildlife habitat, species protection and others.

The B.C. government’s approach to managing natural-resource extraction has been stuck in the past for far too long. Forestry and mining continue to have legislative preference over any other economic or environmental benefit.

It’s time to change this for the benefit of all. For the forest industry, that means focusing on second-growth stands and avoiding areas with high tourism values.

Keeping old-growth forests standing is also critically important to protect Indigenous cultural values and make possible cultural tourism opportunities as an alternative to logging.

It bears repeating: From a tourism perspective, protecting what remains of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in B.C. just makes really good economic and ecological sense. Left standing, these magnificent old-growth trees play a key role in sustaining B.C.’s “Super, Natural” image and support the growth of communities and businesses offering unparalleled tourism opportunities.

Equally important, these ancient forest ecosystems also provide critical habitat for wildlife, as well as a host of other essential ecosystem services.

A win-win for the economy and the environment is possible, but only commitment to change and strong leadership can make that happen. The Wilderness Tourism Association urges the provincial government to have the courage to embark upon modernizing land-use planning and forest-management policy.

Because time is running out for B.C.’s old-growth forests.

Scott Benton is the executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.

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