British Columbia is dramatically overestimating the size of productive old growth forests that have all but vanished across the province, according to an independent science report that warns of serious climate impacts if remaining forests aren’t protected.
In response to the report published earlier this month, Sierra Club BC paints a dire picture of biodiversity loss in the region, concluding that little remains of the province’s once towering old growth forests.
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“This report shows that things are worse than we thought for B.C.’s ancient giants,” said Sierra BC forest and climate campaigner Jens Wieting. “These big, old, and ancient trees existed for thousands of years, and 100 years of industrial logging has cut all but 3%. Every natural system has a breaking point, and we have reached it.”
Those findings flatly contradict the B.C. government’s claim that the province’s forest management strategy operates safely “within ecosystem limits.”
Official B.C. government figures paint a rosy picture of old forest health, reporting that of the province’s 57.2 million hectares of forest, 23% consists of old growth.
But Nelson, B.C. ecologist Dr. Rachel Holt, coauthor of Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity , says that estimate is grossly inaccurate: “Only about 1% of that total forest is old growth in the way that you or I, or pretty much anybody would think of as being old forest,” she explained, adding that the province doesn’t “distinguish between all the different types of old growth,” and most of what it counts as old growth is actually small alpine or boggy forest.
“We wrote this report under our own steam, because government information was either misleading or not making it out to the public,” said Holt. After using publicly available data to construct a model of remaining old growth forest, Holt said she and her colleagues Karen Price and Dave Daust were appalled by what their report refers to as “loopholes, gaming, arithmetic errors, and simple lack of monitoring”. Those gaps made it clear that the “current management approach utterly fails to protect the ecological health of productive old growth.”
Those conclusions put the province at a crucial inflection point. “In B.C. we have these globally unique, old growth forest ecosystems, and our analysis shows they are almost at their endpoint,” Holt said. “We don’t get a second chance at maintaining these, and there is really such a tiny proportion that remains.”
In order to “stop the bleed,” the report recommends the province act decisively to “immediately place a moratorium on logging in ecosystems and landscapes with very little old forest.” It warns that missing the moment will likely produce harsh ecological repercussions for B.C. residents, as the eradication of old growth forest is expected to exacerbate climate change effects in the region.
B.C.’s 2019 Climate Risk Assessment Report predicts that water shortages, flooding, extreme rainfall, and landslides will all become more commonplace as the climate crisis escalates. Even in its diminished state, old growth forest acts as a buffer against these dangers, sequestering large amounts of carbon and playing a stabilizing role in ecosystems.
“These scientists have painted a stark picture, and the fate of these big ancient trees is in our hands,” Wieting said. But the report arrives a timely moment, with the province attempting to bounce back from the economic fallout of COVID-19.
“Investing in forest conservation and improved forestry will create long-term jobs, support the health and well-being of B.C. residents, and defend our communities from climate impacts like flooding and drought,” he said. “This can be accomplished through support for Indigenous-led conservation solutions, ecosystem restoration, investments in government stewardship, and a shift to ecoforestry.”