Canadian Reforestation: The Climate Saviour That it Claims to be?
Ruairi is an undergraduate at University of British Columbia. In this piece, he questions the integrity of reforestation as a sustainable form of forestry based on his own experience within the industry.
Most of the forests in Ireland, where I am from, were cut down in the 16th century. If you asked an Irish person on the street what they thought of “forestry,” they would probably barely know what you were talking about. Like anybody, then, growing up in Dublin, I would consume my FSC-guaranteed paper products and take it for granted that this label essentially negates the environmental impact of my consumption. I would have put myself in the same boat. Forests existed only in distant news articles about the Amazon. Likewise, when the term “reforestation” was deployed in discussions about sustainability, I would rarely think about how complex restoring a forest can be in practice. When I moved to Canada and began working in the forestry sector, I began to question some of the assumptions that underlie our devotion to this catchy idea.
In 2019, I left Dublin and came to Vancouver to attend university. Given that I was a Canadian citizen (and thus, was entitled to domestic tuition fees), coming here seemed to be an easy route to a more international university experience. That April, I had seen a Facebook ad promising “buckets of money” and a summer job deep in the Canadian woods on a page for University of British Columbia students. I thought this would be a good way to make some money and explore Canada before I started university here. When I was hired, my new boss warned that I would spend long days outdoors in a hard, physically-demanding job. I knew that I would be planting trees on logged land deep in Northern Canada. Beyond that, I barely thought about the work I would be doing, and quickly accepted the job. If I was making money, and outside all day, how bad could it be? I bought a flight to Vancouver and headed off, eager for some adventure.
I hitchhiked the ten-hour journey from Vancouver to meet my employers at Prince George, the biggest town and centre in Northern British Columbia. I had never really ridden in anything other than a four-seater family hatchback. The switch to an enormous Ford F150 truck, designed to tow trailers and survive on dirt roads, seemed symbolic of the new world into which I was about to enter. We drove about two hours down these logging roads to a work camp in what felt like, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. This feeling, of profoundly disconnecting from society, is mainly what has kept me returning to this summer job. In May, I will head back up to plant trees for the third summer in a row. Despite my issues with the nature of the reforestation projects I work on, tree-planting remains worthwhile as a summer job and a contrast to the leafy, socially-sheltered confines of the university where I spend the rest of my year.
My work as a tree-planter also exposed me to some of the logistical challenges and scientific debates surrounding large-scale reforestation efforts. Ever since my first summer as a planter, three years ago, I found it increasingly hard to reconcile my criticisms of the industry with my employment in it. Canadians are proud of their record as world-leaders in sustainable forest management, but what I have generally learned is that reforestation and supposed “sustainable management” of forests is far from enough to limit the ecological impact of logging.
Ever since my first summer as a planter, three years ago, I found it increasingly hard to reconcile my criticisms of the industry with my employment in it.
Little of the reforestation that goes on here is carried out with the honest intention of conserving ecological value. Instead, forests are replaced to replenish the economic value that they contain. Huge areas of Northern and Interior British Columbia are dependent on the continued availability of a supply of softwood lumber for processing and export. Certain types of wood are, obviously, far more suitable than others for timber products. Pine and spruce, in particular, grow quickly and are easily processed into 2x4 inch planks and cheap Ikea furniture. Other wood, aspen for example, is much less easily processed. Trees that are too small to fit into machinery at the nearest sawmill are, more often than not, simply left where they have been cut down. Sometimes an entire area will be sprayed with pesticide to kill off non-useful tree species and make it easier to harvest the useful wood. Likewise, shrubs or smaller trees that are destroyed when harvesting an area will not be replaced when this supposed “regeneration” takes place. None of this is conjecture - I see the aftermath of these wasteful practices every day, all summer, as I work in areas of cut forest. Economic demand, not ecological regeneration, dictates patterns of replanting.
Replanted areas thus rarely reflect the initial ecological composition of an “old growth” forest. Despite the restoration of tree cover, new forests are robbed of the ecological diversity that made them so beautiful in the first place. In my experience, the difference between old-growth forest and replanted forest - even if it is twenty, thirty, or forty years old - is painfully obvious to the naked eye. Tree plantations are dead and lifeless in a way that is quite soul-destroying when one has experienced the true beauty of what a “real” forest looks like. A pine or spruce plantation will not support wildlife in the same way that a forest with three or four species will. On paper (no pun intended), forest management practice in Western Canada is sustainable. In practice, I have seen that any human harvesting will irreparably change the local environment.
There are also tangible benefits to species diversity. Diverse forests function at a level of complexity that is beyond the scope of human intervention. Regulating the spread of pests, soil formation, climate regulation and nutrient dispersal are all products of the ecosystem that one would find in an untouched Canadian Forest. When we disrupt this ecosystem, no amount of care will restore it to that original state. Scientific evidence is that even after 40 years, a forest plantation won’t even closely resemble the old-growth woods that surround it. To assume that one can literally tear through this environment with a bulldozer and replace ecological function with speedy human intervention takes a special kind of hubris. I would argue that the same approach can be applied when we think about “sustainability” elsewhere in the world. A transactional view of the natural world misunderstands the concept of sustainability and over-estimates our ability to replace what we have taken away.
To assume that one can literally tear through this environment with a bulldozer and replace ecological function with speedy human intervention takes a special kind of hubris.
That said, we need to acknowledge that this method didn’t come from nowhere. Outside the lower mainland, forestry has historically been a key component of the Canadian economy. In the northern interior of British Columbia, where I spend my summers, one in five local jobs is directly dependent on forestry. Everything in Prince George - from the local swimming pool and library where I would spend my days off in town, to the family fairs - is sponsored by one of the major logging companies that operate here. The footprint of the industry is obvious. The fact that people here identify with the forestry industry is obvious. Up to ten percent of the provincial GDP is directly tied to the economic value held in the forests. I am reminded every time I head into town for a day off that, despite my issues with the practice of replanting, timber products are a key component of the Northern Economy. This transactional attitude, as misguided as it may be, does arise from the real economic needs of people in British Columbia. This begs the question of what a balanced concern of economic and environmental needs, with regards to resource management, would look like.
There is some hope on this front. Greater use of biomass energy allows for more efficient use of products that might have gone to waste in timber processing. A provincial government report on the economic potential of biomass technology, in 2018, estimated that only 45 percent of the wood that reaches a sawmill will actually be turned into saleable lumber. Making more efficient use of wood waste seems, to my mind, to strike a balance between neglect of the environment and support for northern communities. The precipitous decline in the availability of timber over the last 20 years seems to mean that the timber industry will need to use wood more efficiently regardless. There is some hope for more efficient use of the forest that is cut down.
Another interesting development is the rise of something called Community Forestry over the last 20 years. In 1998, the provincial government created something called the “community forest charter,” allowing local communities to apply for sole license to manage the forests in a particular area. The argument underlying local forestry management is that it allows for a more sustainable, ecologically responsible way of extracting economic value from forests. Community Foresters actually argue that this solution is more suitable for the needs of rural communities, and allows for more localised decision making. In non-community run forests, decisions about harvesting and when to grant a harvest license are usually made outside the community, and on the basis of what is needed by the local “natural resource district”. When forests are run locally, a community will be left less vulnerable to changes in the international market for timber products. They will also, on balance, manage a forest in a way that is more respectful of natural ecological diversity.
Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the ecological unsustainability of current forest management practices, and the continued economic decline of the timber products industry, are two sides of the same coin. Much of what I have discussed in this article - and what I found to be problematic in my experience with this summer job - can be tied to a certain corporate perspective to forest management. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) a think tank associated with the anti-corporate guru Naomi Klein (and in my opinion, one of the few high-quality, progressive voices in contemporary Canadian political discourse) produced a report in 2018 that made fundamentally the same case. Interestingly, the CCPA also argues that there are deeper inefficiencies in the licensing process by which a major timber corporation will bid to harvest wood from crown-owned land. By allowing harvesting to be done by one of a handful of corporations - and not on a community basis - one will get less value from forests that are cut down. In this sense, a type of resource management that empowers and trusts rural communities would be beneficial to them and facilitate more habitat conservation. As a History student - and someone that was very interested in politics before I came to Vancouver - I find this aspect of the future of forestry especially interesting to think about.
My experience working in forestry left me profoundly cynical about an approach to sustainability that sees nature as a resource to be managed and monetised.
My experience working in forestry left me profoundly cynical about an approach to sustainability that sees nature as a resource to be managed and monetised. Habitat loss, changes in soil quality and species diversity, increased spread of pests and plant disease are all quantifiable and are tangible benchmarks on which one can say that this interaction with the environment is not ecologically sound. Similarly, tree harvesting that does not prioritise the long-term needs of rural communities fails the people for whom forestry is supposed to work. These are points of criticism that I make both from my experience spending a quarter of my year in replanted forests and interacting with the communities that rely on them. Practising forestry with corporate priorities will be ineffective and unsustainable. More than that, it is rooted in an imperfect understanding of how the natural world works, and how much control we have over it.