Grand Forks flooding 2018

Fires and flooding: how B.C.’s forest policies collide with climate change

The province has prioritized timber sales over all else, but right now there is a chance to change that

British Columbians have a complicated relationship with forests. Growing up, my favourite stand of old-growth trees was only accessible by a logging road. At the time, that barely seemed noteworthy: I knew forests held ecological value, and were also valued by local mills. But when the logging road became active again, and I started following empty trucks up and full trucks down, I began wondering whether those values were well balanced.

That tension still runs close to the heart of British Columbians. We promote our provincial identity as nature-lovers through old-growth forests on tourism ads. But in many ways, we never left the gold rush era of destructive, unsustainable industries that wreak havoc on the land. Meanwhile, the forest-based communities we cherish are increasingly at risk.

Forestry practices in B.C. have been criticized for a long time. Mill closures, forest fires and species extinction are all symptoms of disastrous forest policies and provincial government mismanagement. In today’s era of climate change, which is already having a measurable impact on forests, every bad policy is made worse.

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, putting us on the frontlines of global climate change. But the time to “stop” climate change has passed. Now, we’re left bracing for the worst impacts of the climate emergency by adopting strategies to make our communities more resilient to increasing wildfires and devastating floods.

One of the most obvious strategies? Protecting the old-growth forests and intact forests — meaning landscapes not fragmented and degraded by industrial activity — still standing in BC.

Older, intact forests hold tremendous value to nearby communities by offering protection from the worst impacts of climate change. But not if we continue to clearcut one of our best defences. B.C.’s outdated forestry policies have undermined these values by prioritizing timber harvest over all else. It’s time to change that.

Old-growth forestry in the Nahmint Valley. Photo: TJ Watt / Ancient Forest Alliance

Resilient forests, resilient communities

Poor logging practices and industrial infrastructure threaten rural and urban communities alike. With provincial forest policy amendments underway, now is the time to make sure our communities get the conversation — and results — we need.

Until July 15, B.C. is seeking public input on key legislation, the Forest and Range Practices Act. A joint submission by 28 organizations puts climate change and landscape resiliency front and centre, defining resiliency as the “ability of an ecosystem to cope with disturbance or stress and rebuild itself without losing its defining characteristics.”

Recent years of unprecedented megafires and evacuations, catastrophic floods and landslides, and the march toward extinction of many woodland species make our situation very clear: we have work to do to rebuild resilient forests.

The act has governed forest operations on public land in B.C. for almost two decades — more than enough time to assess its flaws. This is a critical opportunity to tell decision-makers how B.C.’s forestry policies should change to help make our communities more resilient. If the provincial government is serious about tackling climate change, it must adopt policies that recognize the integral role forests play in that fight.

This means being explicit about what is logged and what is left standing. Clearcutting old-growth forests, which are globally significant for their ability to absorb carbon and are also home to countless species, cannot be a policy for a climate-safe future.

Unfortunately, B.C.’s current laws allow old-growth forests to be clearcut at an alarming rate. A recent analysis showed about 10,000 hectares of old-growth forest was logged in just one year on Vancouver Island. B.C. Timber Sales, a publicly funded agency, is poised to log thousands more hectares of old-growth on the island in the coming years.

In much of B.C., oversight and monitoring is so abysmal that understanding the scope of the problem presents its own challenge. But forest-dependent species like mountain caribou give us insight into the state of forest health. Right now, those herds face extinction: their disappearance from B.C. mountain ranges is linked with unsustainable forestry practices, and their continued decline marks the collapse in the integrity of forest ecosystems. But the provincial government is still delaying Indigenous-led efforts to recover herds and protect their habitat.

When B.C. forest policy reflects the need for healthy forests, our communities will be more resilient as well.

B.C. government delays endangered caribou plan as herds dwindle

Climate change makes bad forest policy worse, and vice versa

Old-growth and intact forests help buffer communities against threats made worse by climate change. Hotter, drier conditions in forests increase the risk of massive fires to rural and urban communities. As we enter fire season, that immediate threat is top of mind for British Columbians. We have to be proactive and build long-term solutions.

In parts of the interior — where natural fires historically helped maintain healthy forests — prioritizing timber harvest over all else motivated the 20th century fire-suppression practices that helped create diseased and dry tinderboxes. The widespread combination of clearcut logging, inadequate restoration of cutblocks and irresponsible forest policies led to the unnatural and unhealthy forest conditions that contribute to severe wildfires today.

That perfect storm of harmful forestry practices and climate-fuelled disasters has also hit communities another way — flooding. After being hit by a devastating flood, residents in Grand Forks pointed to overharvesting in the watershed as a contributing factor. As climate uncertainty increases in the years ahead, improved forest policies have to make up the gap.

While these practices might be the most efficient way to produce vast amounts of timber, they exacerbate the impacts of climate change, degrade forest ecosystems and decrease the amount of carbon stored in our forests. And in the end, these policies have damaged long-term economic prospects for communities, with the megafires of the past few years cited as a primary reason behind rampant mill closures. What many are now saying was a foreseeable outcome for those operations has left communities to cope with sudden upheaval — all in the absence of sound policy to ensure a hopeful future.

Grand Forks residents prep for winter in sheds, RVs after catastrophic flooding

B.C. needs your input

With less than one week left to submit comments on the Forest and Range Practices Act, now is the time to take action during this critical opportunity to shape B.C.’s new forest policy. It is vital for B.C. policymakers to hear from the people impacted by climate change — people who understand why protecting old-growth and intact forests will also protect communities from devastating wildfires and floods.

Landmark agreements aimed to protect old-growth forests in the Great Bear Rainforest and on Haida Gwaii have made the world see B.C. as a leader in sustainable forest policies. While that is not yet true, we can make it a reality.

We know the integral role forests play in the fight against climate catastrophe. It’s time for decision-makers to abandon harmful forestry policies and prioritize the resilience for forests and communities alike.

Learn more about what conservation groups are recommending for the Forest and Range Practices Act changes here, and fill out the B.C. government survey here.

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