An old-growth forest clearcut in Schmidt Creek on eastern Vancouver Island in May 2019. (Mark Worthing/Sierra Club BC)

COLUMN: Clearcutting B.C.’s last old-growth leaves all of us poorer, forever

Jens Wieting of Sierra Club BC responds to columns by Tom Fletcher and David Elstone

Earlier this month, hundreds of British Columbians visited MLA offices across the province demanding protection of endangered old-growth forests and improved forest management, during a day of action organized by Sierra Club BC.

In response, David Elstone, the executive director of the Truck Loggers Association, accused our organization of not acknowledging the economic importance of old-growth logging and claimed that clearcutting what little remains is sustainable (B.C. has most sustainably managed forests in the world, June 6).

He was joined by Black Press Media columnist Tom Fletcher repeating outdated claims about the climate benefit of replacing old-growth forests with young trees. Fletcher ignores modern science showing that clearcutting ancient trees results in the rapid loss of huge amounts of carbon accumulated over hundreds of years (Urban environmental “emergency” routine wearing thin, June 9).

Sierra Club BC is concerned about the economic, social and ecological impact of clearcutting endangered old-growth forests. True sustainability is leaving similar values and conditions for future generations. But B.C.’s ancient giants have been reduced to a fraction of their former extent, replaced by young, uniform forests cut in short rotation forestry, never allowed to grow old again.

Elstone claims B.C.’s forest management is the most sustainable in the world. However, satellite images show that on Vancouver Island, we are losing what little forest remains intact three times faster than Brazil’s primary rainforest in the Amazon is being destroyed.

Massive amounts of carbon have been added to the atmosphere as a result and only a tiny fraction remains stored in wood products. One study estimates the loss of carbon when comparing old-growth forest to a 60-year-old stand at more than 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare (more than 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide).

The current old-growth logging rate on Vancouver Island alone is about 10,000 hectares a year or more than 30 soccer fields a day. The inescapable conclusion is that old-growth logging there alone contributes millions of tonnes annually to provincial carbon dioxide emissions.

Elstone highlights that in recent years, close to half of the volume cut on Vancouver Island came from old-growth.

Today, the Island’s productive old-growth (forests with relatively big trees, not bonsai-sized trees that government and industry like to include to inflate numbers) has been reduced to about 20 per cent of its former extent. Only six per cent of the original productive old-growth of the Island is protected.

Elstone is in denial about old-growth logging coming to an end, one way or the other. This should be a huge concern for everyone with a job in the woods.

We will not leave anything close to what we found for future generations. Plants and animal species that depend on old-growth will vanish. Climate impacts will worsen without the shield of intact ancient forests to reduce droughts, floods and fires. Degraded landscapes will impact the quality of drinking water and allow fewer options for a diverse economy that includes tourism and recreation.

Elstone claims 55 per cent of remaining old-growth forests on Vancouver Island is protected. This is highly misleading. As the total amount of old-growth trees declines because of logging, of course the percentage that is protected goes up. B.C. could destroy 99 per cent of all old-growth, set aside one per cent, and report 100 per cent is protected. Is this the approach to conservation that British Columbians want?

His sustainability argument is particularly troubling considering B.C.’s old-growth forests were looked after by Indigenous peoples for millennia. Indigenous communities made use of forests in hundreds of different ways without destroying their ecological integrity. Instead, B.C. is exporting about 3 million cubic metres of old-growth per year as raw logs, accepting massive environmental losses for minimal economic benefits.

The good news is it is not too late to save what remains of B.C.’s old-growth, restore second-growth forests and transition to truly sustainable forest management. We can still chose to save the web of life that depends on intact forests and move to carefully planned selective logging. This would deliver “negative emissions” and wood products at the same time, capturing more carbon in our forests than is lost as a result of harvesting.

Creating more jobs with less ecosystem damage per cubic metre of wood deserves our full support. The longer we wait, the harder this change will be. The first step is for industry and government to stop the denial reflected in Elstone and Fletcher’s opinion pieces.

Jens Wieting is the senior forest and climate campaigner with Sierra Club BC

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