Historically, societies have collapsed because they cling to business as usual when a vital resource is becoming scarce. From Easter Island to the Mayans, history tells us what happens when societies ignore the signs they have stretched finite resources beyond their limits.
Here in British Columbia, we are seeing the same ominous pattern when it comes to our forests. Even in regions that are running out of trees, government acts as if finding more trees to cut is the only priority, no matter what the cost in the longer term.
To this short-sighted end, the provincial government is inviting comments until the end of May on a tenure change proposal that offers logging companies a change from “volume-based” to “secure area-based” tenures in the form of tree farm licences.
This would give greater corporate control over more public forest land. It would mean unsustainable harvest levels would continue. And it would mean the consequences of years of poor forest management would be made far worse. The government attempted similar changes before the 2013 election, but withdrew them after being roundly rejected by diverse community, environmental, and economic interests.
How did we get to this point? It is no secret that this redressed proposal is especially aimed at companies operating in the Interior. After the mountain pine beetle epidemic, the province allowed a significant increase to the annual cut to deal with massive quantities of dead or dying trees in this region. But that process has almost run its course: dead wood is running out and forest companies are cutting down more and more living trees, also known as green timber. In a headline-making case, West Fraser and Canfor took one million cubic metres of green timber over and above the allocated cut, without penalty by the B.C. government.
Making this challenge even greater, the value of our remaining healthy forests is increasing by the day because of climate change. Forests are indispensable for clean air, clean water, carbon stored in trees and soils, wildlife, recreation, and many other environmental services. We cannot survive without them. But global warming impacts like shifting ecosystems, droughts, more insect infestations, more wildfires, and more landslides are already here. Global warming means that we can no longer take these key functions of our forests for granted, without doubling our efforts to maintain them healthy.
Forest-dependent communities in the Interior have already been hit with the double whammy of years of overharvesting compounded by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The consequences have been devastating for many communities.
But the answer is not to continue cutting at unsustainable levels. That’s business as usual.
Unless the government acts to reduce the cut and begin forest restoration today, forest-dependent communities will not only lose even more jobs, but will be exposed to increased flooding and landslides as our forests lose their ability to provide essential environmental services.
B.C. needs a broader conversation about the future of our forests, one that is honest about the current state of our forests and how that limits our options for the future. One thing we know: business as usual has got to stop.
We need to develop a comprehensive forest action plan to manage our forests today and for future generations. Such a plan would include better inventory and research, sustainable logging rates, better government oversight, protection of critical species habitat, and an effective approach to reforestation. It would also include support for communities impacted by reduced logging activity, more First Nations and non-native community control over forest lands, and the creation of value-added forestry jobs. In the light of the climate crisis it is absolutely critical to reduce the massive forest carbon emissions from provincial forest lands to ensure that that our forests help slow down global warming instead of marking it worse (in 2011 uncounted net carbon dioxide emissions from B.C. forests due to logging, pests, and fire were 35 million tonnes, equivalent to more than half of B.C.’s total official emissions).
There is one bright spot on the provincial map, in one of the most spectacular forest regions of the planet. Full implementation of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements endorsed by the B.C. government, First Nations, a group of major logging companies, and a group of environmental organizations is scheduled for this year and will result in increasing conservation and a long-term timber supply based on ecosystem-based management. We need a similar coherent approach for sound, sustainable forest management for the entire province.
In the past, societies have collapsed because they did not understand the consequences of their actions. Today, we have overwhelming scientific evidence about the decline of our forests and its potential impacts on our lives. We can ignore that evidence and stick to business as usual. Or we can build a better future for our forests and the communities that depend on them by developing a comprehensive action plan for our forests. If you believe in the latter course, let the provincial government know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org before noon on May 30.