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Evan Saugstad: Changing our forest elephant’s habits

Industry wishes to maximize its profits; government wishes to maximize its revenues, and wildlife habitat is left to be managed by someone else, somewhere else
Pipeline construction and logging in the South Peace.

saugstadLast week, I wrote about industry and its relationship with wildlife management, and that industrial forestry (our elephant) is B.C.’s largest modifier of the environment. I also wrote that we must stop focusing on industry as the problem and begin to hold government accountable for our mismanagement and mistakes.

Now I look at some of the major impacts industrial forestry inflicts on wildlife and their habitat, and some suggestions on how we can begin changing our elephant’s habits.

For the most part, this applies to both coastal and interior forestry, but it should be noted that our coastal forestry is a bit more limited in terms of what they can or cannot do given the terrain and size of their trees. Most of my focus is more applicable to the interior.

Some of my favourite Peace River country hunting spots are the old selective or diameter limit logging areas from the 1960s and 70s.

Back then, with not many rules and not much use for small or defective tress, much of the forest was left behind. The largest and best lumber-making trees were removed with the smaller and undesirable deciduous trees left standing, as were some of the large defective ones that did not make for good lumber.

These areas are often referred to as “forestry slums” as our current forest evaluation is based on the ability to produce lumber. In these terms, the value of an area with a preponderance of deciduous, defective, and damaged trees is much lower than it would be had this stand been clear cut, planted, and managed back to sawlogs.

Yet despite this lower forestry value, these areas are some of the best and preferred habitats for many of our animal and bird species that inhabit the Peace River lowlands.

Although most humans prefer neat and orderly looking landscapes, our wildlife is mostly the exact opposite. Wildlife seems to do best in a messy and disorganized looking environment, one that meets their needs for shelter, feeding, resting, hiding, or escaping from predators.

Fast forward to today and look at our current practices and regulations. Damage a standing tree while harvesting and you could be required to remove it. Leave a snag standing and WCB requires you to assess or remove for tree planter safety. Only leave deciduous species standing or allow them to grow back if they do not compete with the conifer seedlings. Leave too much forest debris and be told to remove it for fire management purposes. Leave a large percentage of the cutblock standing and you are told that this is poor management, that it will affect the provincial coffers and future harvest levels. 

The list is long but does have one theme in common: All the above are beneficial to our wildlife yet are not forest practices we tend to favour or prefer.

Current government regulations dictate how industrial forestry is managed, what is removed, what is retained, what the future forest will look like. This view has moved an industry that once was much more balanced with the environment to what we have today.

Industry wishes to maximize its profits; government wishes to maximize its revenues, and wildlife habitat is left to be managed by someone else, somewhere else.

Current annual allowable cuts are based on the ability of future forests to produce lumber or other high value products which promotes the hypothesis that the more sawlog trees we have, the better off we are.

As an aside, we need to stop talking about and blaming the mountain pine beetle. Yes, we did accelerate our harvest and did throw many of our good management practices out the window, but that is now yesterday’s news.

Now is the time to move back to a more holistic management approach and strategies.

Forestry can still be profitable; government can still get their pound of flesh, and we can maintain an abundance of wildlife if we choose to manage to a differing set of values.

We can start by modifying forest silviculture regulations and allow for more competing vegetation (ie. deciduous tree species, shrubs, and grasses), and instantly reduce much of our reliance or need for herbicides and other stand management techniques designed to eliminate competing vegetation.

Current silviculture regulations and guidelines mandate that those who harvest Crown lands must reforest with preferred trees species (coniferous species for most of the province), planting densities (stocking standards), and must keep plantations free from competing species for a specific period of time - until “free growing” is achieved.

When forest managers are faced with competing broadleaf and grass vegetation, the preferred method, by cost, is the use of herbicides which can and will eliminate most of the unwanted species. Unfortunately, the side effect of herbicide is that it targets the same vegetation that is the preferred browse and habitat for many of our wildlife species, especially ungulates. Manual brushing and weeding achieves similar results.

Modifying regulations that allow for less clear cutting and more species competition and diversified forests for habitat purposes versus a singular focus on future timber supply will address many of our concerns, including the ability for game species to better hide within cutblocks and not be so visible to hunters and our four-footed predators.

A simple change in management styles and objectives can be of significance in how wildlife uses cutblocks and the future regenerating forests. Especially important for those parts of the province where most of the primary forest is already harvested and reforested back to closed canopy plantations for future lumber production. These are the areas where a greater diversity of stand structure and stand composition is required to meet the wide range of diversity that wildlife needs.

Changing regulations as such, should not be rejected by most industrial forest operators, as they can be achieved in a relative cost-neutral basis. Higher direct harvesting costs due to more care in felling and skidding. Lower silviculture costs as less stand management is required, including less burning of large woody debris. Primary manufacturing costs can be reduced when defective and low value trees are left behind.

Downsides includes less material available for pulp mills and pellet plants when leaving defective trees standing or lying on the ground. Future annual allowable cuts may be reduced when not managing for maximum volumes on regenerating stands.

And we, the public, need to understand that by leaving this stuff behind isn’t just about industry avoiding costs and abdicating responsibilities.

Next week, we look at a complicated issue: forest road management.

Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and is one of hundreds of thousands of hunters and fishers in B.C. He lives in Fort St. John.

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