Worlds Apart

There’s a believability gap between B.C.’s new Coastal Forest Action Plan and climate change


2007 may go down in history as an entire year of “inconvenient truth.” A series of gloomy reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Al Gore’s rise to fame and premier Gordon Campbell’s keen interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions have brought home the fact climate change is already here and we have little time to meet the challenge. Yet that message has apparently not been heard by forests and range minister Rich Coleman, who presented B.C.’s new Coastal Forest Action Plan at the end of October. Back in May, Coleman raised hopes the plan might lead to a significant reduction in logging coastal old-growth forests, home to endangered species and some of the best carbon storage on earth.

That bubble quickly burst with the release of the plan, in which climate change appears to be only a minor consideration. In fact the word “climate” appears only twice in the document—once as “business climate” and a second time as “investment climate.” The government press release included one notable spin: the claim that the proportion of old-growth harvested has declined to 71 percent, “reflecting the increase in the amount of old-growth being protected.” After decades of rapidly logging some of the biggest trees on earth, the B.C. government is still not ready to acknowledge the south coast’s last remaining productive old-growth stands are greatly depleted. On Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland, more than 70 percent of productive old-growth forests have been logged (resulting in the near-extinction of B.C.’s last spotted owls in the Lower Mainland).

The Coastal Forest Action Plan lacks any numbers when it comes to targets and protection for old-growth and suggests that second-growth stands could be ready for harvest 20 years sooner, at 50-55 years of age. Together, this signifies ever more shrinking islands of old-growth forests and, simultaneously, the regenerating second-growth forest being cut in shorter rotation. Intensively managed plantations offer less carbon storage, are more vulnerable to pests, windfalls and other calamities and don’t offer much habitat for endangered species. They are the equivalent of an inhospitable desert for old-growth dependent species like the Marbled murrelet that rely on structures only big trees can provide. In contrast, allowing old-growth to return in the most hammered landscapes would help ensure the survival of some of these species and absorb part of our excessive carbon dioxide emissions.

The new plan doesn’t take into account the new threats to our coastal forests. Next door to the Legislature, the Royal B.C. Museum already exhibits maps showing how Western Red cedar is likely to disappear along the outer strip of our coast by 2080 due to climate change. The sad truth is cedar must now be considered a non-renewable resource on parts of the coast. Once cut, monumental cedar will not come back, even in a millennium. Scientists estimate that 15 to 37 percent of the world’s species could become extinct as a result of the changes in climate that are likely to occur between now and 2050. Apart from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the only meaningful way to keep this number low is to protect natural habitat and corridors that allow species to migrate into any remaining regions with suitable climate.

The world’s forests store about 50 percent of the earth’s terrestrial carbon. Canada’s forests store the equivalent of twice the total global annual carbon emissions. With up to 375 tonnes of stored carbon per hectare, B.C.’s coastal forests sustain some of the highest levels of biomass and ecosystem carbon on the planet. Converting old-growth to managed forest reduces carbon storage by up to 50 percent, whereas reduced logging significantly contributes to emission reductions, both maintaining the carbon storage of old-growth and enhancing the sink function of second-growth. One Oregon study showed that state forests, where the harvest rate has fallen dramatically, absorbed the equivalent of more than half of the state’s annual fossil fuel carbon emissions. Clearly, to achieve the target cuts in our emissions we have to employ all options. A new B.C. forest plan which doesn’t take climate change and carbon storage into account is simply not a good plan.

The international community will soon negotiate a follow-up agreement for the Kyoto Protocol. In December, a key United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Bali, Indonesia. Emissions from deforestation and logging—20 percent of the global total—will play an increasingly important role in slowing climate change. Indonesia, for instance, places third after the U.S. and China in total carbon emissions when the country’s quickly disappearing rainforest is taken into account. In order to encourage developing countries like Indonesia to protect their rainforests, Canada, as one the world’s richest forest nations, should become a global role model when it comes to protecting biodiversity and the ability of the world’s ancient forests to store carbon. Other smaller countries are already showing the way. Costa Rica, just five percent the size of B.C. but with a similar population, has already protected 20 percent of its land base, mostly rainforest—six percent more than B.C.

The B.C. government has one more chance to present a concrete plan on how to reduce logging of ancient coastal forests. The still-to-be-released Coastal Old Growth Strategy must contain concrete mechanisms to protect scant remaining old-growth. It should define a strict phase-out period for old growth logging on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, and direct the Chief Forester to set separate allowable logging rates for old-growth and second-growth forests. That would be a strong signal from B.C. to the rest of the world, hopefully in time for the conference in December, when the international community will discuss how to save the world’s climate and rainforests. M

Jens Wieting is a coastal forest campaigner with the Sierra Club of B.C.