Neglect – The latest crisis in B.C.’s forests

Neglect – The latest crisis in B.C.’s forests

Forthcoming in the March-April 2012 Watershed Sentinel

by Jim Cooperman

In 1985, the rapidly growing amount of not-satisfactorily-restocked (NSR) land in BC forests became a crisis. This resulted in a joint provincial and federal $300-million funding plan, the Forest Resource Development Agreement (FRDA) that restocked many thousands of hectares.

A similar crisis is again occurring in BC’s forests, but this time the cause is not logging by irresponsible forest companies. Instead, the massive amount of NSR land is a result of climate-change fueled fires, diseases and beetle kill. Government policies that have stripped the ministry of employees, ended adequate inventory efforts, and handed forest management over to the corporations have exacerbated the problems.

Red flags about the status of BC’s non-stocked forestlands were first raised in 2010 only to be countered by assurances by the government that everything was under control. In an editorial, a retired forester and former senior professional with the forest ministry, Anthony Britneff, declared that, due to the lack of treatments of beetle and fire ravaged forests, the not stocked land (gross NSR) could well total some nine million hectares of which two million would be economic and feasible to plant. Since then, the government and its critics have countered and re-countered with different numbers representing different types of NSR, anywhere from the government’s initial claim of 240,000 hectares to the nine million.

The issue is complicated by the fact that there are two types of NSR land: a total not stocked area (gross NSR) and a netted-down NSR (net NSR). Net NSR includes all areas harvested by the forest industry with the exception of some small-scale salvage operations plus the area of forestland disturbed by fire and pests that the ministry deems feasible and economic to plant.  In June 2010, the Forest Practices Board (FPB) entered the fray and published a backgrounder that provided some insight into the controversy. Such as how the provincial government in 2002 removed the legal obligation for the crown to replant areas denuded by natural disturbances. Government also removed the statutory requirement for the ministry to conduct and maintain a forest inventory.

Fast-forward to early February 2012 and the debate over the NSR numbers continued at the Western Silviculture Conference. Marvin Eng, a former Ministry research ecologist who is now with the FPB, provided a report about his project on the issue. Although he conceded that the amount of net NSR might be approximately 2-million hectares, he insisted the real issue is not the actual number, but what the public expects from its forests.

BC Auditor General

On February 16, the BC Auditor General released a bombshell report that sharply criticized the government’s forest policies, lack of direction, and inability to adequately manage the forests.  The report concluded that the ministry has not clearly defined its timber objectives, management practices are insufficient to offset a reduction in timber supply and species diversity, and the ministry is not appropriately monitoring and reporting results in relation to its objectives.

Within the report are some key observations, along with more critical analysis and six persuasive recommendations. The primary focus is on the part of the land base that the government is responsible for, which totals 89 percent of the 22-million hectare timber land base. While industry remains responsible to return logged areas to “free growing” status, the government is under no obligation to ensure that areas denuded by fires and pests are reforested, including the growing number of plantations also denuded by disturbances.

The report notes that the ministry’s own evaluations indicate a decline in forest diversity resulting from industry’s reforestation efforts and a growing not stocked area being left to regenerate naturally.  Thus, the report recommends the ministry develop an effective forest stewardship plan to guide decision-making with time frames and proper assessments.

Out of the 17.5 million hectares impacted by the beetles, some 10 million hectares are within the 22-million hectare timber land base along with a sizable percentage of the 760,000 hectares of forests burned by wildfire during the last five years. The report identifies as much as 1.1 million hectares of forest that has the potential for planting and yet the government silviculture efforts have averaged only 8,730 hectares per year, despite a plan to plant 22,000 hectares. Consequently, the report recommends the ministry ensure its investments are sufficient to achieve long-term objectives.

While the report credits industry for meeting its silvicultural obligations, unlike the government, it finds fault in its practice of planting lower-value species (predominately lodgepole pine) that results in monocultures and the loss of forest diversity.  Perhaps the greatest problem identified by the Auditor General is that the ministry lacks the information it needs to properly manage the forests. The inventory is woefully inadequate and what research does exist shows a high rate of damage in the plantations. There is a growing disparity between forest cover information and actual forest conditions, growth rate, and density.

Forest Practices Board

Among the many problems identified in the report is information from the Forest Practices Board that shows weaknesses in the industry’s forest stewardship plans including vague and non-measurable commitments. As well, the ministry’s compliance and enforcement efforts show a large decline in inspections, with the number dropping by half within the last decade. And these inspections are deemed by the report to be insufficient to ensure that industry is actually complying with the few rules that still exist.

As the problems multiply, the public is increasing left in the dark as to what is happening in its forests. The report notes how the latest “State of B.C.’s Forests” report and the annual service plan reports lack sufficient assessment or interpretation to effectively assess the results or make them meaningful.  As a result the public has no way of even knowing if the forests are increasing or decreasing in terms of volume, value, or species diversity. Obviously, the report recommends that the ministry develop and implement appropriate performance measures and report these publicly.

Included within the Auditor General’s report is the response from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource to each of the six recommendations. Typically, the ministry responded with assurances that its policies and activities sufficiently address the long list of concerns and the recommendations, and it promised to continue with efforts it sees as adequate. For some of the glaring deficiencies, such as the inadequate stocking standards and public reporting, the ministry promised to review these issues.

In response to the concern about the inadequate amount of re-planting, needed for growing number of beetle and fire denuded hectares, the ministry responded with a promise to plant a large number of seedlings, as if readers might be persuaded that it was looking after the land base. In reality the proposed 20-million seedlings per year only amounts to nearly 12,000 hectares and at that rate it would take close to 100 years to reforest just the lower estimate of net NSR arising from fire and pests.

Association of BC Forestry Professionals

On February 20, the Association of BC Forestry Professionals added more fuel to the growing crisis fire by releasing a report about grossly out-of-date forest inventories. The foresters, normally a very cautious group as most of them either work for industry or government, point out that the budget staffing for inventory has been nearly cut in half, while the need has increased on an “unprecedented scale” due to the impacts from wildfire, disease and insect pests.

The report was reluctant to determine whether or not the inventory is sufficient “for the Chief Forester’s mandate of sustainable forest management (SFM) at the provincial level.” Curiously both the Association and the Auditor General provide no definition of what SFM means. Instead, the foresters believe a more comprehensive review is needed.

While the focus of this current crisis is on timber values with the rapidly growing amount of NSR land and inadequate inventory, it is important to understand that the solution should not always be to mow down what is left in the beetle-killed forests with huge machines and replant with single species. Many areas now denuded are indeed recovering naturally and sometimes replanting can cause more problems than if the land was just left to recover on its own. And if maximizing timber requires the spraying of herbicides, the solution is definitely worse than what nature can do. The key is to maintain a continuous inventory that keeps track of the ratio between growth and depletion, which should be greater than one, and to make decisions about restoration that best protect all forest values.

Secondary Stand Structure

In a 2009 study, four government ecologists point out that in 31 to 68 per cent of damaged pine forests, the secondary stand structure is equivalent or better than a 20-year old pine plantation. Yet, some of these areas are being logged for minimal volumes of lumber and to produce wood pellets. Leaving these areas to recover naturally not only makes sense from a timber perspective, but would also help with the hydrological recovery.

All this troubling news certainly comes as no surprise for the environmental community. When the last decade began, many of us believed that the previous forest practices code was inadequate, that biodiversity was increasingly at risk, that old growth forests and watersheds were not adequately protected and that overcutting was threatening all key non-timber values. So when the Liberal government took over and handed management over to industry, while continuing to reduce staffing levels and public input; most of us basically gave up trying to improve forestry or protect forest values. And despite the government’s half-baked promises, the gutting continues as the latest budget includes a $20-million cut for forest health.

Now the truth is coming out about how ten years of mismanagement and sympathetic administration when combined with the impacts of climate change are taking their toll. While we could smugly say, “we told you so,” a more appropriate response would be to help, get involved in finding solutions, and work to ensure that forestry becomes an election issue. We need to elect a government that is once again willing to work with the environmental community.

[Many thanks to Anthony Britneff and Ray Travers for their assistance with this article.]

Jim Cooperman was Editor of the B.C. Environmental Report from 1990 to 2000 and coordinated the BCEN Forest Caucus. He now serves as president of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society and writes a bi-monthly column on geography. Learn more from his blog site,


FPB NSR Backgrounder. (Access this by google: “A backgrounder on NSR”)

Clarifying the Status and Implications of Not Satisfactorily Re-stocked Forest in BC, September 2011. 

Auditor General’s Report 11: An Audit of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources’ Management of Timber, February 2012

 Association of BC Forest Professionals Inventory Report: Assessment of the Status of Forest Inventories in British Columbia: An Update to the 2006 ABCFP Review, December 2011

 Abundance of secondary structure in lodgepole pine stands affected by the mountain pine beetle in the Cariboo–Chilcotin, Coates et al, Natural Resources Canada, 2009.  Also:, 2006)

Defining the NSR in BC, Anthony Britneff