Recent developments in forest logging in British Columbia

June 27, 2021  |  Shu Yi Chu

Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash

Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash

Excited about building your backyard deck this summer? You might have seen long line-ups at Home Depot, Lowe’s or Rona for construction materials. Over the past year, the price of lumber has shot up. Statistics Canada reports it has climbed 68.2% from March 2020 to March 2021 while construction materials saw a 9% rise. In fact, an eight-foot two-by-four plank has tripled in cost in a year to almost $10-13 a piece! The U.S. National Association of Home Builders shows that since mid-April of 2020, lumber prices have risen by 130% which have increased the average cost of single-family homes by almost US$36,000 or CAD$43,500. However with a recent slowdown in the US housing starts, the year-long increase in price is now showing signs of reversing; the price of two-by-fours decreased by 38% in mid-June, down from record highs of about a month earlier.

Part of this price surge began last summer during COVID-19, when people stuck at home engaged in Do-It-Yourself projects and condo-dwellers upsized to houses, creating a huge demand crunch for lumber.  There has also been a severe supply shortage for a while. British Columbia, Canada’s largest softwood lumber-producing province, has been suffering from a bark-eating beetle infestation since 1999 worsened by a warming climate. The supply is further dampened by a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 also associated with climate change. The industry has looked at alternatives such as yellow pine trees in the south of U.S. that grow faster. However, Canadian western spruce, pine and fir are considered to be of a better quality for home building, thus increasing profits for the timber trade.

British Columbia’s old-growth forests

However, there is more to the lumber supply-demand imbalance than the pandemic and beetle infestation.

There is a significant difference between old-growth forests and younger, secondary forests. Much of BC’s coastal forests are considered old growth if they contain trees of over 250 years old (that is, 10 human generations!) and BC interior forests are considered old growth if they have trees older than 140 years. The older, bigger trees have greater potential to store carbon, thus helping to mitigate climate change. Older, bigger trees also provide better homes for wildlife and protect habitats which make them one of the best environmental allies. Once these old-growth trees are cut, however, they lose their potential to store more carbon. When they are burnt down or processed, the carbon stored in them goes back into the atmosphere. It takes a minimum of 70 to 100 years for BC spruce, fir and pine to regenerate for harvest again. Deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 10% of worldwide carbon emissions.

The BC government controls about 95% of the 13.7 million hectares of old-growth forest of the province and allocates an annual allowable cut for producers to chop down trees. The goal is to ensure a steady supply of timber for generations to come. But environmental and some indigenous groups are calling for more stringent and timely control, while pressure to log continues to mount. Although the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest agreement promised to protect a vast stretch of coastal forests, old growth logging continues while the final details of that agreement remain unresolved.

A government-appointed independent panel in April 2020 made a series of recommendations to prioritize the protection of old-growth forests, and urged the government to act within six months to put harvesting on hold for the highest-risk old forest ecosystem. More recently in May 2021, a group of independent experts published new results showing the province has small areas of at-risk old-growth forests—about 1.3 million hectares—and recommended the government to quickly defer logging. The government did temporarily defer logging in nine areas last fall, but some experts said these deferrals only covered low-productivity forests that were largely not at risk.

Where do we go from here?

Old-growth forests are finite and their conservation is important. The issue of logging involves not only the environment, but economics, trade, and Indigenous sovereignty as well. The forestry sector provides jobs in BC, employs members of the Indigenous communities, and is a major source of revenue for many. While it is unrealistic to stop logging, a transition to sustainable harvesting is needed. This would protect the old-growth forests, and ensure the forestry sector, ecosystem, and Indigenous communities thrive in the long term. The BC government is working with stakeholders, including the First Nations, forestry sector, and environmentalists, to develop the best strategy for sustainable harvesting.

In the meantime, logging companies continue to log. This has led to blockades and arrests at the Fairy Creek old-growth forests on southern Vancouver Island. There is also an ongoing Canada-US trade dispute on softwood lumber; BC forests account for about half of Canada’s softwood production, and BC exports more softwood lumber to the US than any other province.

BC agrees to defer logging in Fairy Creek and central Walbran areas

On June 9, 2021, the BC government approved a two-year deferral of old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek and central Walbran areas. The deferral, which can be extended, will allow time for all stakeholders to come together to work out a comprehensive forest management plan. There is potential for such a plan to contribute to the CleanBC Plan and Canada’s mitigation of carbon emissions, and to reaching the net zero goal of our country.

Stay tuned for further developments in this complex story.

Shu Yi Chu

Shu Yi is the female voice on the INZ team. When she is not working, you can find her exploring a new hiking trail or trying out a new recipe. You can connect with her in English, French or Chinese.

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