Questions and Answers about BC’s Old-Growth Forests

Most of BC—94%, in fact – is public or “Crown” lands, as well as being unceded First Nations territories, which cannot be bought to create new protected areas. Even if this were possible, it would be far too expensive for environmental groups to purchase all the land that needs protecting.

To protect public lands, the BC government must create legislation or regulations to designate new parks, protected areas, conservancies, ecological reserves, Old-Growth Management Areas, and Wildlife Habitat Areas. First Nations can also create tribal parks or other protected areas through Indigenous land use planning and treaty settlement processes. This is all done without the land being purchased, although in some cases, the province may need to pay compensation to logging companies who have licenses to log on those lands. However, this is still far less expensive than buying privately owned land. Since public lands can be protected without being purchased, conservation victories on public lands are far more extensive than those on private lands.

In order to protect old-growth forests on private land, the land must be put up for sale by the owner and purchased. Private individuals and non-profit organizations typically do not have the resources to buy large enough tracts of land relative to the short timeframe endangered forests are faced with before they are logged. In other words, it¸ falls to the various levels of government (regional, provincial, and federal) to allocate funding to help purchase and protect endangered forests on private lands.

This cannot be done in British Columbia, as anyone who owns logging rights is mandated by the government to log a specified amount of wood each year. This is known as the Allowable Annual Cut or AAC. The AAC is almost always set above environmentally sustainable harvest levels in this province and if you don’t log the specified amount, you’ll lose your licence. That is, the BC government has legally designated a specific land use activity tied to forestry licences, and that activity is logging. It is a “use it or lose it” principle based on logging.

Most of the forests in southwestern BC are now second-growth, with old-growth forests making up only a minority fraction of the land-base. On the southern coast, less than 10% of the high productivity forests (where most forestry activities occur) at low elevations are old-growth. By sustainably harvesting second-growth forests at a reduced rate of cut (i.e. implementing longer rotation ages), BC can achieve a sustainable, second-growth forest industry. At the same time, if the BC government promoted policies that support greater processing and value-added manufacturing of second-growth logs, the total number of forestry jobs in BC could be sustained and even increased while old-growth logging is quickly phased out. In terms of the broader economy, standing old-growth forests – if protected and well-managed – also support sustainable economic opportunities including commercial fisheries, tourism, carbon offset projects, and non-timber forest products, in addition to their many social, cultural, and recreational values. In fact, a 2008 study showed that standing old-growth forests in the Fraser Timber Supply Area contribute more economically than if they were logged.

Yes, but only if enough people, including diverse people from different backgrounds (such as businesses, unions, faith groups, and people of diverse cultures) are informed and speak up on a large scale. The status quo of old-growth logging is very hard to curtail unless there is significant public pressure from voters, who can choose to either keep a government in power or vote them out if they fail to fulfill the wishes of the electorate.

For the BC government to implement new laws and policies to save old-growth forests, it requires that an enormous number of people know enough and care enough to demand action. Successive BC governments under immense pressure have increased the protection of BC’s productive forest lands from about 3% in the early 1990s to about 10% today.

Despite this significant progress, there is still a long way to go to protect at-risk forest ecosystems in BC and prevent loss of biodiversity.

Trees can be a renewable resource, but old-growth forests are not.

Depending on the timing of the last major disturbance (from fire or disease, for example), coastal old-growth forests in BC are typically between 200 to 2,000 years in age. These forests are logged every 30 to 80 years, meaning that under the short rotation ages and management regimes practiced in BC, they will never become old-growth again. The issue isn’t whether the trees will grow back, but if the ensuing second-growth tree plantations adequately replicate the original old-growth forests. The fact is, they don’t. (See next question).

Old-growth forests are structurally different from the ensuing second-growth tree plantations that they are replaced with in four fundamental ways:

  1. Old-growth forests have more gaps in the canopy that let sunlight through, resulting in more luxuriant understories with more plants and wildlife. Second-growth forests tend to have closed canopies that block out most sunlight, resulting in sparser understories.
  2. Old-growth forests have trees of diverse ages and heights within the same stand, which forms “multi-layered canopies.” Over time, different species have evolved to live in different levels of the canopy. Second-growth forests have a “single-layered canopy” of trees that are all the same age class and height.
  3. Old-growth forests have more fallen and standing dead trees known as “woody debris” which provide food, shelter, and moisture for more biodiversity. Second-growth forests have less and smaller woody debris.
  4. Old-growth forests are home to large amounts of lichens, mosses, ferns, fungi, and other flora that live on tree bark and branches (known as “epiphytes”) and as a result, they support more unique species than second-growth tree plantations.

The short answer is no.

Scientific research shows that old-growth forests are not only massive storehouses for carbon, they also continue to grow and sequester vast quantities of carbon over their lives, contrary to logging industry propaganda. More importantly, in terms of the amount of carbon stored at any given point of time, old-growth forests in BC contain two to three times more carbon per hectare than the ensuing second-growth tree plantations that they are being replaced with. When an old-growth forest is logged, much of the carbon is released in the form of decomposing wood waste in clearcuts and not long afterwards as discarded paper, cardboard, crates, and other wood products in landfills, creating methane. Only a small fraction (typically about 20%) of the carbon removed from logging an old-growth forest ends up in longer-lasting wood products, such as in furniture or buildings. The rest of it is released into the atmosphere within a relatively short length of time.

In a few cases, second-growth plantations may grow faster than old-growth forests, but these smaller, fast-growing trees are simply working to “get back” or “reabsorb” the carbon lost from logging the original old-growth forests. This carbon is never fully absorbed, though, because it would take 200 or more years to re-sequester all the carbon that was released, and rotation ages are only 30 to 80 years on the coast. In addition, even if rotation ages were 200 years, the climate crisis doesn’t have 200 years to wait. Ultimately, there is a massive net release of carbon when old-growth forests are replaced with second-growth tree plantations, even if those plantations grow faster than old-growth forests.

Think of it this way: imagine that you are unemployed, but nevertheless have an inheritance of tens of millions of dollars – similar to the millions of tons of stored carbon that we’ve inherited in our old-growth forests. If you spent all your inheritance money and then got a job, would you be better off financially than when you were unemployed? Of course not. Your job would simply be a means to make back the money you lost by spending your inheritance. Similarly, fast-growing tree plantations are simply working to get back the carbon in the atmosphere lost by logging the old-growth forests we’ve inherited – except they never get all the original carbon back due to the short rotation ages.

Old-growth trees have stronger wood with tight, dense grains and are much higher in value than second-growth trees, which have wider rings and softer wood.

In general, old-growth stands also have much more timber volume per hectare than second-growth stands. As a result, old-growth forests, per site, are higher in economic value than second-growth stands for logging. However, old-growth trees are more valuable standing when factoring in the economic and intrinsic benefits for tourism, scenery, recreation, wildlife, clean water, wild salmon, endangered species, carbon storage, and First Nations cultures.

Most of the industrialized world is logging second, third, or fourth growth forests, as is most of Canada. Advances in wood engineering have also created second-growth wood products that are as strong and as durable as old-growth wood. Here in BC, we don’t have to log the last of our endangered old-growth forests in order to have a forestry economy. It’s wisest and most rational to protect the old-growth forests and to ensure a sustainable, second-growth forest industry.

The BC government’s old-growth statistics typically inflate the amount of remaining ancient forests by including stunted, marginal, and often “unloggable” old-growth forests found in low-productivity bogs; rocky landscapes; and high-altitude, subalpine, mountainous regions where growth rates are extremely slow, resulting in small trees of low to no timber value.

In BC, there is far more low-productivity, economically “unloggable” old-growth forest than productive old-growth forest with large trees of high economic value for forestry. These critical distinctions are typically not made in the BC government’s statistics.

In addition, BC government statistics tend to find ways to “ignore” vast areas of previously logged old-growth forests, to make it appear that a far larger fraction remains. For example, on Vancouver Island, there are over 600,000 hectares of private lands, the vast majority of which were previously managed by the provincial government under the same regulations as public lands until recent times, and which are currently managed by the BC government through private lands regulations. These lands constitute about one-fourth of all productive forest lands on Vancouver Island – and virtually all old-growth forests have been logged there under provincial management. By conveniently ignoring these lands in their statistics of remaining old-growth forests, it appears that the situation is not so dire – that a relatively smaller fraction of the land base has been logged.

According to mapping based on BC government data from 2012, about 74% of the original, productive old-growth forests on BC’s southern coast have been logged, while about 8% are protected in parks and Old-Growth Management Areas (OGMAs). Since then, more than 50,000 hectares of old-growth forests have been logged. For high-productivity sites at low elevations with the grandest trees, the situation is even more dire, well over 90% or more have already been logged and only about 3% of the original are under protection in parks and OGMAs.

Old-Growth (OG) Forest Statistics (2012) – SOUTHERN COAST (i.e. Vancouver Island and SW Mainland)

  • Original Total OG: 5.5 million hectares
  • Low Productivity OG: 2.2 million hectares
  • Original Productive OG: 3.3 million hectares
  • Remaining Productive OG: 860,000 hectares (26% of original)
  • In Parks – Productive OG: 200,000 hectares (6% of original)
  • In Parks and OGMAs – Productive OG: 260,000 hectares (8% of original)

Valley Bottom,* Highest Productivity Old-Growth (2012) – SOUTHERN COAST (i.e. Vancouver Island and SW Mainland)

  • Minimum Original: 360,000 hectares
  • Remaining: 31,000 hectares (9% of original)
  • In Parks: 9,400 hectares (2.6% of original)
  • In Parks and OGMAs: 11,700 hectares (3.2% or original)
  • * Low, Flat Terrain Under 300 meters elevation, under 17% slope

As a result of government PR campaigns, many people think old-growth logging and clearcutting are a thing of the past. In fact, the large-scale clearcutting of old-growth forests is still the norm on large parts of BC’s coast and in some parts of the BC interior.

The amount of old-growth logging is diminishing in most of the province, not as a result of new conservation measures (with the exception of the Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii, and Clayoquot Sound, where conservation agreements and First Nations land use plans have protected significant areas of ancient forest), but rather as a result of the depletion of our remaining productive old-growth stands. A full transition to a second-growth forest industry is inevitable when the last of the unprotected old-growth stands are logged. Conservationists are simply advocating for a full transition to a sustainable, second-growth forest industry sooner before all of the unprotected old-growth forests are cut down.

Governments typically do not change the unsustainable status quo unless there is a large citizens’ movement, calling for old-growth forests to be protected and for economic alternatives to old-growth logging.

At this point in time, most of the forests in BC are now second-growth, which can support the forest industry if used sustainably and if greater incentives and regulations are implemented to facilitate value-added manufacturing of wood products in BC.

Most people in BC now support the protection of our remaining old-growth forests and a sustainable second-growth transition. But it will take a large, diverse movement of informed and active people – including businesses, unions, faith groups, and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds – who speak up through letters, petitions, and protests to elicit meaningful change.

First Nations in BC are highly diverse. There are 34 distinctive First Nations languages in BC, 198 bands, and over 200,000 individuals. Some First Nations are logging old-growth forests, but many are also working to protect ancient forests within their territories.

Most First Nations cultures in BC historically evolved within old-growth forests and are still closely connected to and dependent on old-growth forests for food, medicines, and materials for building a vast array of items. First Nations have largely been deprived of the suite of economic opportunities available to most communities in BC. Many are therefore highly motivated to seek revenue and employment opportunities where they arise. In many remote communities, logging of old-growth forests is one of the most accessible ways to achieve this.

To protect old-growth forests and improve First Nations’ social and economic well-being, conservation groups are working on solutions that strengthen First Nations’ governance and provide financial support for sustainable economic alternatives for First Nations, such as cultural and eco-tourism, non-timber forest products harvesting (e.g. wild mushrooms and berries), sustainable seafood harvesting, renewable energy generation projects, value-added second-growth forestry, and carbon offsets, as an alternative to logging old-growth forests.

First, we must determine what we need to leave, not what we want to take. There needs to be a science-based protected areas system, made up of large protected areas, as well as a “forest reserve network”, made up of smaller protected areas in the forestry zones, that represent all the natural forest types and age classes, environmental gradations, and natural processes. Protection of old-growth forests is of course a major part of this.

Second, the total amount of logging in the province, the Annual Allowable Cut or AAC, is far too high. Logging companies are cutting too much, too fast. Another way of putting it is that rotation ages are too short: instead of cutting on a 400-year rotation (as is the natural age of many coastal old-growth forests between major forest fires or hurricanes), for example, we’re cutting on a 50-year rotation on the coast (i.e. eight times too fast for 400 year old stands). This is resulting in the conversion of the older, more structurally complex forests into younger age classes, which lack the structural features that only develop with time in older forests and that support many old-growth dependent species. For human communities, overcutting also results in the “fall-down effect”, where there is a long-term diminishment in the available wood supply as the forest age classes get younger and the timber volume per hectare correspondingly diminishes. Older forests have more wood per hectare than the ensuing second-growth forests that replace them. This results in massive layoffs in the forest industry, including on the coast over the past 20 years and now in the BC interior. A massive reduction in the rate of cut is necessary to achieve a sustainable forest industry.

Third, we need better forestry practices. This includes more selective logging instead of clearcutting to minimize soil erosion, wider riparian buffer zones to protect streams, higher road engineering standards, no logging on steep slopes, and greater set-asides for important wildlife trees, biodiversity, scenery, etc. There are many reforms that can be made.

Finally, we need to ensure the industry is structured so there are greater benefits for human communities. We need regulations and incentives for value-added manufacturing, a forest allocation system that breaks up the corporate control of our forests and that instead promotes small businesses, community, and First Nations forestry, and an end to the export of raw, unprocessed logs from BC.

The AFA is a registered charitable organization in British Columbia working to protect the province’s endangered old-growth forests and to ensure a sustainable, second-growth forest industry. We work to educate and mobilize British Columbians in order to pressure politicians to achieve our goals. We explore and photograph endangered old-growth forests; garner major news media coverage to inform the public; organize hikes, slideshows, and rallies; build support among key allies including First Nations, businesses, unions, faith groups, and others; build boardwalks and hiking trails in ancient forests; lobby politicians; and write and produce large amounts of educational materials in brochures, social media platforms, and videos.

We need volunteers to help us put up flyers, distribute brochures, staff booths at events, phone supporters for rallies and events, and help build boardwalks.

You can also help the campaign by spreading the word to family, friends, and colleagues; attending AFA events; becoming a monthly donor, and taking action at critical points in time. For example, sending a message to decision-makers or contacting your local MLA.

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