Valuing the forest and the trees

I wanted to know more about why forest companies log original forests. Would it be possible to prioritize ecosystem health and still have a strong forest industry?

Laura Stovel in old growth by Rainbow Creek. Photo: Rosemary Kelsall

This story first appeared in print in the February 2021 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:

With so much riding on the future of old growth forests, so many valid, but often competing, interests, including the unspoken interests of the forest itself, the public needs clear, accurate and centralized information to engage helpfully. Yet good information is hard to find. Downie Sawmill’s Forest Stewardship Plan for the Revelstoke area is unavailable online, forest company reports are often challenging to read, and many maps and documents are outdated or lack detail. Perspectives may differ, but basing discussions on technically sound, shared information may go a long way toward building understanding, respect and trust between those who share and care for our forests.

From sprawling underground mycelia networks to insects yet unknown to us, ancient forest ecosystems take thousands of years to develop. An intricate balance evolves between trees, soil, water, climate and all other living things. Fire is part of this balance. So is human use of plants, animals and fish. Because a forest is much more than trees. The Indigenous people who long knew this land saw themselves as part of the natural world, not dominant over it. Colonial governments changed that. They regarded land, trees, waterways and minerals as resources for human use, disregarding their intrinsic value.

Since Revelstoke was settled 136 years ago, forestry has been an economic mainstay in the region. In the 1960s, industrial logging took off. Today, Downie Sawmills/Selkirk alone employs about 300 people with another estimated 50 to 60 local people employed, directly and indirectly, in road building, harvesting, development, silviculture, maintenance and freight, according to Angus Woodman, the company’s plant manager. Jobs with Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation, Stella-Jones, B.C. Timber Sales, Kozek Sawmills and smaller mills and logging operations around Revelstoke would add to these numbers. These are also well-paying jobs. An average full-time employee at Downie would earn “$70K/yr with full benefits extended health/pension/worker indemnity insurance,” Woodman wrote.

These economic benefits come at a cost to the land. As early as 1992, the B.C. government issued An Old Growth Strategy for British Columbia that stated, “In parts of the province … opportunities to reserve representative samples of old growth are dwindling rapidly. These pressures are leading to increased instances of conflict among supporters of competing land uses.”

Since then, further environmental protections have been put in place. Land was reserved for endangered species, especially caribou, and Old Growth Management Areas and restrictions on logging in riparian areas were established. Still, logging old growth continues and citizens have few avenues to inform themselves about logging plans and practices.

An original forest in the Rainbow Valley north of Revelstoke. Photo of giant cedar by Laura Stovel.

A New Future for Old Forests report

Last September the B.C. government released a strategic review entitled A New Future for Old Forests, written by foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel. Merkel, a member of the Tahltan Nation, brought the strong Indigenous perspective to the subject that the government sought. The panel toured the province, including Revelstoke, talking with foresters, environmentalists, and other stakeholders.

The authors called for a paradigm shift in the way we think about forests, arguing that the B.C. forest management system has its priorities backwards.

“Rather than determine what must be done to maintain ecosystem health and resilience, and then what social and economic benefits we can derive with that guidance, we often do the opposite. We consistently refer to measures required to protect ecosystem values as ‘constraints’ on timber.”

Old forests, they wrote, “are the result of complex landscape ecosystems.” In many cases they are non-renewable and cannot “be created through agricultural methods.” Rather than seeing forests as providing “value to humans … forests have intrinsic value for living things,” humans among them. Gorley and Merkel recommended greater Indigenous involvement in forestry planning and implementation, noting that Indigenous communities, “are leading many interesting and potentially valuable on-the-ground approaches to land stewardship and management of old forests.” They called for more “timely and objective” public information about trends and conditions in the forest. On their provincial tour, “almost every local government, community organization, and often individuals, expressed a need for a place to learn, exchange ideas and perspectives, and develop useful input to forest management.”

The day the government released the report, they announced an “immediate development deferral” protecting 353,000 hectares of old growth forest in B.C., including 40,194 hectares in the Incomappleux Valley south-east of Revelstoke. (A hectare is 100 square metres, the area of a large football field). On December 9, the government announced that logging operations on 276 hectares of forest in the Argonaut Valley north of Revelstoke would be suspended to protect caribou habitat. Both measures are temporary, allowing the government time to consult.

The Mountaineer reached out to Katrine Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to ask about the ministry’s response to the report.

The minister wrote, “Our focus right now is on the independent panel’s first recommendation that our government engage with leaders from B.C.’s Indigenous nations.” The old growth forests protected in September, “will not be logged while we work with First Nations, and stakeholders to develop a new Old Growth Strategy… We will engage the full involvement of Indigenous leaders and organizations, industry and environmental groups to find consensus on the future of old growth forest in B.C.” This work will “determine how we fully-implement the panel’s recommendations.”

“We are committed to a balanced and diverse forest sector that supports B.C. jobs and our commitments to the environment. We heard loud and clear that old way of protecting old growth forests wasn’t working for anyone. We also know that getting this right is going to take time.”

Why log old growth?

After reading the report and listening to public debates, I wanted to know more about why forest companies log original forests. Would it be possible to prioritize ecosystem health and still have a strong forest industry?

Put simply, the province holds 88 per cent of land in B.C. and the Ministry of Forests sets the rules for logging and protecting it. The ministry allocates or auctions off licenses to companies to log specific areas under different forms of tenure. The province’s chief forester establishes annual allowable cuts (AAC) to maintain a sustainable timber supply on each tenure. Stumpage fees, collected when an area is logged, provide revenue for the government.

Logging companies must meet AAC targets or they lose some of their AAC, explained Mike Copperthwaite, manager of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation (RCFC), Revelstoke’s community-owned logging company. “Over a maximum of five years we have to balance our cut. If we overcut, the government deducts it from our next period. If we undercut, they can put that undercut up for sale for somebody else. So we have a legal commitment to do it and there are penalties either way if we don’t.”

The largest logging tenures around Revelstoke are tree farm licenses held by RCFC, Louisiana Pacific (based in Golden) and Interfor (out of Castlegar), and forest licenses, held by Downie Street Sawmills and Stella-Jones. BC Timber Sales, a provincial agency, auctions off timber sales and there are several small woodlot licenses. The annual allowable cut on a tree farm license is based on a set area that the company manages intensively. RCFC’s Tree Farm License 56 is 40 kilometres north of Revelstoke on the east side of the Columbia River between Goldstream River and the height of land between the Carnes and Downie drainages. Its AAC is 80,000 cubic metres a year.

The annual allowable cut for a forest license is volume-based and, in the local area, is tied to a much larger tenure. Downie’s tenure is extensive, covering the west side of the Jordan Drainage and the west side of the Columbia River from Frisby Ridge north almost up to Mica. It also includes public land surrounding Mount Revelstoke and the Akolkolex. Its AAC is 130,000 cubic metres a year.

For forest companies, logging original forest is not only profitable, it creates a land base where timber can be grown and harvested in a more agricultural way. Trees can be planted and tended so they grow faster than they would in an original forest. Since industrial logging began in the 1960s, trees replanted in that decade would be 50 to 60 years old today, Copperthwaite said. Second-growth trees reach their timber prime between the ages of 80 and 100 years in local ecosystems. That’s when they are ready to be logged again. Until then, the timber supply comes almost entirely from original forests.

Most forests that RCFC currently logs are not the “beautiful, old cedar stands” that many people associate with old growth, Copperthwaite said. “Not many stands are like that.” Most of those have already been preserved. The trees that RCFC is logging “aren’t that huge. They’re old and decadent, a lot of them.”

RCFC’s tree farm license is just under 120,000 hectares, only 70,000 hectares of which has trees on it. “Of that 70,000 hectares, when you take away things like caribou reserves” (9,511 ha), old growth management areas (257 ha), riparian areas (762 ha), existing wildlife tree retention (431 ha) “and areas that we can’t get to because it’s too difficult (31,615 ha), a timber harvesting land base of 21,987 hectares remains, all of which was original forest. That means more than two-thirds of the timber harvesting land base is never harvested,” Copperthwaite said, adding that the numbers above do not overlap.

Ecological protections and difficult terrain seem to be key to preserving original ecosystems, but these protections are tenuous. New technologies or higher prices for wood might make ‘inaccessible’ land more accessible. Also, what happens if an endangered species goes extinct? Those are the two largest elements of unlogged or protected land in this area.

I asked Woodman and Jeff Lipsett, Forestry Superintendent at Downie, what would happen if original forest could no longer be logged. “If we didn’t harvest old growth, we would cease to exist,” Woodman said simply. Lipsett added that it would be “pretty tough for Downie to survive if the cut gets lowered a whole bunch more.”

Copperthwaite agreed that logging companies must rely on old growth for at least the next 30 years. However, he said, companies can slow old growth harvesting rates by caring for existing plantations. Tree farm license holders are especially equipped to do this because their planning horizons are much longer than those of forest license holders. For example, RCFC is beginning a program of thinning, Copperthwaite said. “We’re going into an area that somebody harvested and planted in the ‘60s and now we’re going to take out all the damaged, diseased, and less desirable species. We’ll take the Western Hemlock out now and leave a really nice-looking stand of cedar and fir.” The 4,000 cubic metres of timber a year that RCFC thins out counts as part of its annual allowable cut, reducing the amount of original forest harvested.

“We are definitely transitioning” to second growth, he said. “The more we do this commercial thinning the sooner those stands will become harvestable. This stand, for instance, will probably be managed almost perpetually. Every 25 years go back in and take 25 per cent out so in fact you’re always going to have a nice stand of trees.”

Laura Stovel is a writer and the author of three books who has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke but has also lived, worked and travelled in many countries around the world.