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The forest for the trees: The fight to change the way B.C. manages its forests

'Either we’re going to change this or we’re going to continue to down a path where Earth will change us'

Herb Hammond doesn’t quite fit the picture you probably have in mind of the typical forester.

A Dalai-Lama-quoting policy wonk, author and ecologist with 40 years experience in the industry, Hammond belies the clichéd image of forester as grizzled lumberman decked out in plaid.

But Hammond also defies the usual notion of forester in another significant way: He fervently believes B.C.’s forest management framework needs a complete overhaul—and urgently.

“Forestry causes the largest losses of biological diversity across this province, indeed virtually everywhere that it’s practised. It’s the primary cause of water degradation. It’s a major contributor to floods and droughts, and believe it or not, in B.C., it’s less than two-and-a-half per cent of the gross domestic product. That shows you the power of assumptions of convenience about what’s driving our economy. Certainly it’s not forestry,” he said. “Either we’re going to change this or we’re going to continue to down a path where Earth will change us.”

Hammond was the keynote speaker at an in-depth forestry webinar co-hosted last month by the Whistler Naturalists and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, where he picked apart B.C.’s current forestry system, and laid out his vision for a new way of managing the province’s most vital asset that puts ecological integrity over industry profitability.

Shifting the paradigm

In his 1984 book, Biophilia, E.O. Wilson, influential biologist and naturalist, popularized the biophilia hypothesis, which posits a fairly simple idea on its face: that humans are naturally predisposed to be attracted to nature.

Not a new concept by any means, Wilson, considered by many to be “the father of biodiversity,” filtered mankind’s affinity for nature through the lens of conservation, arguing that biophilia should be first priority when balancing the needs of the wild with the needs of humanity. He has also famously called for half the planet’s land and sea to be protected in order to safeguard the bulk of our biodiversity, work that carries on today through his foundation’s Half-Earth Project.

“With the biodiversity of our planet mapped carefully and soon, the bulk of the Earth’s species, including ourselves, can be saved,” Wilson wrote.

It’s through this lens that Hammond argues we should be viewing forestry; for its inherent ecological, cultural and physical benefits rather than solely its economic value.

“Forestry is not a science. Forestry is a practice. It’s an industrial definition the way it’s been done today, and we need to redefine it,” he said.

“We need to stop seeing public forests as resources and see them as a public trust held for future generations. There really is only one forest for all values, not a different forest for each value. We need to give priority to the most important values for well-being, with a hierarchy being ecosystem protection, culture and social protection, followed by economic protection.”

A philosophical shift of this magnitude requires a rethinking of the economics of forestry, and as a good a place to start as any is with B.C.’s longstanding forest tenure system, Hammond asserted.

Ninety-five per cent of the roughly 60 million hectares of forest in B.C.—covering an area the size of France and Germany combined—is owned by the public. In spite of that, the province has for years not only allowed private companies to harvest timber on public lands in order to meet B.C.’s economic objectives, but also gave them major influence over how forestry is carried out.

“That timber tenure system has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of industry. It shapes how forestry is done. It shapes the regulations, legislation and policy through a very concerted lobby, and it has huge influence over education and research,” Hammond said. “The monies needed for higher education and for research, a lot of it flows directly from the timber companies that benefit from the tenure system. That makes education and research reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Hammond points to industry’s sway over the institutions training and employing new foresters as one reason many in the sector have largely remained silent on the practice’s ecological impact, even as mills close across the province and timber jobs—about 25,000 since the turn of the century—have been lost.

“I have had the privilege to work with a lot of labour activists who are very progressive in their ideas of what to do in forests, but to a one they always remind me that they’re a real minority in their organizations, because the majority of their organizations are still focused on high wages,” he said. “Even as the employment numbers decline, the people that are left are still clinging to the timber tenures owned by the companies, because that’s where their paycheques come from.”

Old-growth not a renewable resource

One of the most common notions put forth by the timber lobby is that old-growth forest, typically defined in B.C. as trees over the age of 250 on the coast, and 140 in the Interior, as a renewable resource. Not so, says local forest ecologist and Whistler Naturalists co-founder Bob Brett.

“Logging removes old forest from the landscape, and I think for all intents and purposes, we can say forever,” he relayed. “If you take out a forest that’s 300, 500, over 1,000 years old and then plant it like it has been planted at the higher elevations up in the Soo Valley, it will never in reasonable terms recover to being the old-growth forest it used to be. It’s going to be simpler, it’s going to have fewer species that require this old-forest habitat, and it will have fewer underground fungal connections. There are many reasons why it will never be the same forest again.”

In Whistler, between 30 and 55 per cent of the Cheakamus Community Forest’s (CCF) old-growth is protected, which in the eyes of many locals, doesn’t go far enough. The first question posed to CCF administrators at a March 29 virtual open house set the tone for the rest of the evening.

“Why are we even talking about cutting any old-growth forest areas around here?” a participant asked.

“They are priceless and should not be touched. We can do better.”

Like other community forests in B.C., the CCF has an annual allowable cut, the volume of industrial roundwood that can be harvested, as set by professional foresters, that is meant to balance environmental, social and economic considerations. It’s one of the constraints most often highlighted by community forest managers as they contend with public backlash over old-growth logging. But there is at least one regional example of a public forest that has chosen to flout those requirements: the Xáxli’p Community Forest in Lillooet.

“That community forest is now … at least [10] years old, and they’ve never sold a log,” said Hammond, who helped develop the eco-cultural restoration strategy at the forest alongside the Xáxli’p First Nation and Dennis Martinez, the founding board member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network and Society for Ecological Restoration, after numerous blockades and protests over the province’s clear-cutting in the area.

“They practise eco-cultural restoration. Do they have an allowable annual cut? Yes, unfortunately, because that was part of the rules in writing the plan. Do they abide by it? No. Are they challenged by the government? Meh, a little bit, but they realize that they have a lot of political and legal cache, and power in that negotiation that they’ve used not only to the benefit of their culture and well-being, but to the well-being of their forest.  I think any community forest can do that.”

While it’s been a stretch of relatively quiet years in terms of harvesting old-growth at the CCF, thanks in part to sluggish timber markets, the recent focus has been on fuel-thinning. Whether that work has been effective is difficult to say, according to CCF manager Simon Murray, with many of the recent examples of wildfire fuel reduction treatments being concentrated in the U.S.

“Do we have an example that the wildfire reduction treatments that we have done actually work? Well, no, we don’t, because we haven’t had a big enough fire in the Whistler Valley to test our fuel breaks,” Murray said at the open house.

“So we don’t have necessarily any concrete evidence that what we’ve been doing is going to work, but it’s the best science that we have to work with.”

To that end, the Resort Municipality of Whistler has tapped UBC ecologist Dr. Lori Davies to carry out a study to determine the efficacy of wildfire treatments in Whistler.

What is clear in the recent research is that old-growth, with its ability to retain moisture and regulate the climate within a forest, is more resilient to fire than its second-growth counterpart.

““[They] have very different forest structures,” Daniels told The Tyee in a 2019 article. “The tree sizes and woody debris on the floor is not large, and therefore absorbs and releases water a lot more rapidly. It takes a shorter period of time to dry out the logs in a second-growth forest.”

For Brett, who said thinning old-growth “makes zero sense,” the Sea to Sky’s old forests hold more economic value if they remain intact.

“For our area, it’s about recreation and ecotourism,” he said. “There’s a clear case that standing trees are worth more to our local economy than trees going down the highway to Squamish.”

Beyond their tourism and recreational values, intact old-growth forest also represents the most biologically diverse phase of any forest. Locally, old-growth is essential habitat for a number of important native species, including the red-listed northern goshawk, which relies on old forest for successful breeding, nesting and hunting, as well as a variety of tree cavity excavators like the pileated woodpecker, which creates essential habitat for cavity-nesting species like owls, martens, fishers and flying squirrels.

“Please take many scientists’ word for it that thousands of species require old-forest habitat to survive,” Brett added.

There was hope last year with the release of a provincially commissioned report that outlined a four-phased approach to develop and implement an old-growth strategy. Upon its release, Victoria said it was deferring old-forest harvesting in nine areas throughout the province, totalling 352,739 ha., as a first step, before it was later revealed that the measures were actually doing little to protect B.C.’s remaining intact old forests.

In a study released in the fall, scientists Karen Price, Rachel Holt and David Daust estimated that only about 3,800 ha. of the 415,000 ha. of B.C.’s remaining productive old-growth were included in the new deferral areas. Later GIS mapping by conservation organizations revealed that much of the nearly 353,000 ha. the province had announced for protection was already under some sort of existing protection.

The pathway to change

While he acknowledges the legislation is by no means perfect. Hammond pointed to several landmark acts adopted south of the border as a potential example for B.C. to follow if we want to transform how forests are managed here.

In short, legislation like the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the National and Environmental Policy Act, which mandates ecological assessments “right down to individual cut blocks,” Hammond said, and the National Forest Management Act, which sets out clear standards for timber harvesting, as essential tools for the American public to keep industry accountable.

“I don’t think for a minute that forestry is perfect in the U.S.; trust me. But this provides a framework for accountability and communication,” he said.

“What makes me sad is, during the era that these acts were being developed, I remember that the B.C. timber industry and forest professionals actively lobbied to block these things from happening here. It’s not a great statement about our history and it kind of relegates us to a sort of third-world colonial approach to forests.”

Whatever form the legislation takes, Hammond believes it needs to be led by Indigenous communities and the wider public to redefine forestry “from forestry exploitation to forest protection and restoration.” He has also called for the Ministry of Forests to provide the necessary technical and logistical support for community forest boards that moves B.C. away from its current tenure system, something that was recommended in last year’s provincial old-growth report headed by professional foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorley.

“We need to change the tenure system. What’s the rational for that? That public land was given to corporations because it was viewed by the government of the day to provide social benefits, and it was given and done quickly,” Hammond stressed. “We need to now quickly take back that public forest based on ecological and social needs.

“We better deploy our parachute or we’re not going to like how we land. As people, we need to reassume responsibility for the forest around us in socially and culturally responsible ways, based on ecosystem protection.”