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B.C. counted poorly protected old-growth forests toward conservation targets, researchers say

The province counted most old-growth management areas towards its 30-by-30 conservation targets. A new report says a lot of that land isn’t actually protecting old-growth forests

In the midst of a biodiversity crisis that’s seen a dramatic decline in nature, there are concerns creative accounting could undermine B.C.’s conservation goals.

While the provincial government says it is almost two thirds of the way to meeting its goal of conserving 30 per cent of land by 2030, the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says the province inflated its progress by counting fragmented stretches of forest that may not have permanent protection.

“It is crucial that the areas that we use to count towards those protection targets are effectively protected and effectively foster biodiversity,” says Meg Bjordal, the organization’s conservation research and policy co-ordinator.

Canada and 195 other countries committed in December 2022 to the 30-by-30 conservation target under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. According to the Canadian Protected and Conserved Areas Database, B.C. is leading the way among provinces and territories, having conserved 19.6 per cent of land in the province.

Logging equipment sits idle among fallen logs
Old-growth forests store carbon, offer vital habitat for at-risk species and help reduce the risk of flooding. But they remain at risk of being logged across the province. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Most of that land, 15.5 per cent, falls within protected areas, where conservation is the primary purpose, such as in provincial parks or Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. The remaining 4.1 per cent is considered protected by “other effective area-based conservation measures,” or OECMs. 

This is where things can get tricky. In these areas, conservation is not necessarily the primary purpose, but biodiversity is meant to be protected nonetheless. Examples include areas set aside to protect drinking water sources or recreational areas, a federal website explains.

Old-growth management areas, which are intended to conserve old-growth forests from logging, are counted towards the province’s conservation targets as lands conserved by other effective measures, according to a CPAWS-BC report released today. These counted areas cover about 1.5 per cent of land in B.C.

But the researchers found less than a third of the land within all legal old-growth management areas, which cover a slightly larger area of 1.9 per cent of land in B.C., is actually old forest. Most of the land they cover is young forest, the report says. 

an aerial satellite image of logging cut blocks and forest overlaid with the boundaries of old-growth management areas that have shifted through the years
Research shows the boundaries of old-growth management areas in the Campbell River Resource District have shifted multiple times. Map: CPAWS-BC

The lack of actual old-growth in these areas is a concern Rachel Holt, an ecologist and independent consultant based in the West Kootenays, has been raising for a decade.

“I am pretty shocked by the idea that small, non-functional, non-old areas could be counted” towards B.C.’s 30-by-30 targets, Holt says. “We need to be doing honest, transparent accounting.”

In a statement to The Narwhal after publication, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests said “the province is actively improving our ecosystem stewardship practices as part of our commitment to conserve 30 per cent of B.C.’s land base by 2030.”

According to the spokesperson, the CPAWS-BC report is based on a 2021 assessment of conserved areas. The province has paused reporting of other effective conservation measures for the time being and is working on a new assessment approach in collaboration with First Nations, the spokesperson said.

Old-growth management areas don’t meet criteria for conservation targets, report says

Old-growth management areas in the Kootenay Boundary region are largely not doing what they’re meant to, Holt says: protecting old forests.

And though not always the case, she says there’s a tendency for old-growth management areas to be in places where logging is already constrained.

“What we find is a lot of small, narrow, relatively unproductive gully areas,” she says.

Other effective area-based conservation measures like these are meant to restrict activities that could harm biodiversity, offer permanent protection and conserve biodiversity.

old growth forest prince george bc
Roads carved through old-growth management areas undermine habitat used by numerous species. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Yet, logging and roadbuilding have been documented within the boundaries of old-growth management areas, the CPAWS-BC report highlights. In other cases, management area boundaries have been changed to allow for logging.

“Boundaries are frequently shifted to permit harvesting,” Bjordal, who authored the report, says. “Sometimes it’s big chunks of old-growth management areas and sometimes it’s little chips that chip away at them and then result in these heavily fragmented patches.”

Taken together, Bjordal says old-growth management areas don’t meet the criteria to be counted as other effective area-based conservation measures towards 30-by-30 targets.

Small forest patches aren’t enough to meet conservation goals, experts say

Experts and conservation groups are concerned about counting old-growth management areas as they currently exist towards B.C. conservation targets because small, fragmented patches of forests can’t protect biodiversity the way large stretches of intact forest can. 

Small patches of forest don’t offer sufficient habitat for at-risk species like the northern goshawk, which relies on old-growth forests for foraging and raising young.

The 2018 recovery strategy for northern goshawk, for instance, found habitat loss and fragmentation, largely due to logging, pose the “most imminent threats” to populations in coastal forests.

And, as climate change progresses, large areas of intact forest will also become increasingly important to allow for natural regeneration from wildfires and insect outbreaks, Michelle Connolly, a forest ecologist and director of the non-profit Conservation North, told The Narwhal.

Michelle Connolly surveys old-growth cedars in B.C.'s inland temperate rainforest
Forest ecologist Michelle Connolly surveys old-growth cedars in B.C.’s inland rainforest to estimate the amount of carbon the area holds. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Areas that are affected by wildfire or infestations of insects should not lose their protection, she added, because they still have value as old-growth forests. All the deadwood and snags that build up over generations are important structures in natural forests, she explained.

While Connolly says old-growth management areas have been effective in offering some short-term protection for old forests, she agrees “they are falling short as a tool to protect biodiversity.”

“Big trees are what’s actually in real trouble right now, so if they’re not protecting the biggest and oldest trees then [old-growth management areas] are completely useless because that’s the one thing they’re meant to do,” she says.

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But alongside those big, old trees, Connolly says she wants to see more protection for primary forests — forests that have never been logged — of all ages. That could include forests affected by wildfire that might be younger but will one day become old-growth.

The Ministry of Forests spokesperson acknowledged in a statement that “many old-growth management areas contain more mature forests than old-growth. However, mature forests were included in [old-growth management areas] to capture larger, more contiguous areas.”

“The province is reviewing and strengthening [old-growth management area] management as part of its improvement of forest management across B.C.,” the statement said. It also notes other steps to improve conservation including the signing of a $1 billion nature agreement with the federal government and a new $300-million conservation financing mechanism.

B.C. has promised major changes to prioritize biodiversity, ecosystem health

For a long time, forest conservation was constrained by policies that put industry interests ahead of biodiversity.

“There’s been an entire art to making sure that these things affect timber as little as possible,” Holt says of old growth management areas.

More recently, the B.C. government has committed to major shifts in the way the province approaches forestry to one that prioritizes the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem health rather than timber.

Early last year, for instance, the province removed a clause in forest regulations that prevented conservation measures from unduly impacting timber supply. It has also released a draft biodiversity and ecosystem health framework for public consultation, that could lay the groundwork for new legislation down the road.

“I see a lot of positive words and direction that is coming out in the province’s biodiversity and ecosystem framework,” Holt says, “but then I see real clear examples of us not heading down that path.”

In its report, CPAWS-BC recommends the province undertake a review of old-growth management areas and amend its guidelines and rules to ensure these areas not only protect old forests, but also prevent boundary changes and industrial activity from happening within them.

“It’s important that we get this right and that the conservation tools that we’re using actually protect old-growth,” Bjordal says.

In a statement, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests said “as the province initiates more forest landscape plans, we are establishing clear objectives for developing permanent approaches to managing old-growth and biodiversity, climate change and wildfire risk. This includes incorporating [old-growth management areas] into long term strategies for old-growth management.”

Updated Jan. 30, 2024 at 1:54 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to include comments from B.C.’s Ministry of Forests. The headline was also updated from is counting to counted based on the government’s response.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

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Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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