In terms of emissions, logging the Walbran makes no sense

By Ken Wu, January 2016

If the BC government were serious about addressing climate change, it would protect old-growth forests.

Timber-industry rhetoric would have you believe: “To counteract climate change we need to replace our old-growth forests with healthy, fast-growing young trees that quickly sequester carbon.” On an intuitive level, this may seem to make sense—and indeed, it has become the mantra of timber industry ideologues. 

But according to the actual science, is it true? More fundamentally, according to logic, is it sound?

No and no, actually. The reality is that there is a massive net release of carbon from logging and replacing our old-growth forests with second-growth tree plantations. I’ll explain why in a moment.

This theme of logging old-growth to benefit the climate has resurfaced again in the revived battle over the endangered old-growth forest of the Central Walbran Valley. The Walbran Valley, with Canada’s most densely-packed stands of monumental red cedars, is “ground zero” for the ancient forest movement on southern Vancouver Island. Protesters began blockading logging roads in the valley in 1991 and have continued to do so sporadically over the ensuing years. Currently, protests are underway against Teal-Jones’ logging of old-growth forests adjacent to the Central Walbran Ancient Forest, the last largely intact part of the valley outside of the provincial park. 

To benefit the climate it’s time we deal with this whole issue of logging old-growth forests. Let’s look at the facts and the logic.

Contrary to the timber industry’s PR-spin, according to the actual evidence provided by scientific studies, old-growth forests continue to sequester significant amounts of carbon even as they age. Over the years, studies have shown that old-growth forests, far from being net carbon sources (emitters), are typically net carbon sinks (absorbers) and can exceed younger stands in rates of carbon sequestration due to the fact that forests are three-dimensional systems—larger trees have greater surface areas of photosynthetic tissue to absorb carbon. Remember too that a 300-year-old cedar, Douglas fir, or Sitka spruce in BC’s temperate rainforests is still a teenager in an ecosystem where trees have evolved to live to 800 or even 2000 years in age if left undisturbed. Until then, they will continue to grow and absorb huge amounts of CO2.

But more fundamentally, there is a conceptual flaw—a product of lazy thinking and blurry, flawed logic—that underlies the contention that replacing old-growth forests with tree plantations helps the climate. 

Think of it this way: If you are currently living on a $100 million inheritance that provides interest, are you financially better off if you spend it all, and then get a job as a lawyer? Of course not. With your new job, you’re just trying to make back the $100 million of inheritance that you squandered—and it could take you 200 years to make it back, if you lived that long, which you won’t.

Similarly, we inherited vast amounts of carbon in the old-growth temperate rainforests of British Columbia (we did not plant them) that have been growing and accumulating carbon for centuries or millennia. According to the science, BC’s coastal old-growth forests have about twice as much carbon per hectare as the mature second-growth tree plantations that replace them. However, we’re releasing those vast amounts of inherited carbon into the atmosphere when we log them, through the decomposing wood waste in clearcuts, the rotting pulp flushed into our sewage systems, and the discarded paper, crates, and two-by-fours in our landfills. 

Even though second-growth plantations are re-sequestering carbon, they are simply trying to “get back” or re-absorb the carbon lost by logging the original old-growth forests that we inherited. In other words, the issue when we log old-growth forests is not how fast trees grow back and absorb carbon, it’s that we’re releasing vast amounts of carbon that otherwise would have stayed locked up for centuries longer in our living and growing old-growth forests. The evidence shows it would take 200 years for the plantations to re-absorb the carbon released from logging the original old-growth forests—but this will never happen in British Columbia, as our coastal forests are re-logged on 30 to 80 year rotations, long before they become old-growth again. Even if we lengthened BC’s logging rotation age to 200 years, thereby reducing the rate of cut, the climate crisis does not have 200 years to wait. 

In short, there is a massive net release—about 50 percent, according to the research—of the carbon lost from logging the original old-growth forests when they are replaced by second-growth tree plantations in BC’s coastal forests.

But don’t we store vast amounts of carbon in our wood products? Studies show that only a small fraction, likely less than a quarter and as low as 15 percent of the carbon removed from logging BC’s forests ends up in somewhat longer lasting wood products, such as in furniture or certain types of architecture. We know that about half of the logs in BC end up in the pulp, paper, wood chip or pellet industries, which quickly end up in the atmosphere, while in the solid wood sector a major fraction also ends up in cheap, short-lived products like palettes and temporary construction materials that generate methane—25 times more potent than CO2—in landfills.

Research by the Sierra Club of BC shows that forestry is responsible for releasing the equivalent of 77 percent of BC’s official greenhouse gas emissions on average each year, even when subtracting the carbon stored in wood products. BC’s official greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2013 were 64 megatonnes of CO2, whereas logging was responsible for the release of an average of 49.5 megatonnes of CO2 annually between 2003 and 2012. 

As logging is one of the largest greenhouse gas emissions sources, the BC government needs to come up with a science-based plan to protect BC’s endangered old-growth forests and to lengthen the rotation age between harvesting (i.e. to reduce the overall rate of cut) if it wants to dramatically reduce emissions.

Instead, so far the BC Liberal government has continued to tout its climate change record, such as recently in Paris, while approving the massive overcutting and conversion of our old-growth forests into managed plantations. 

A case in point is the ongoing battle in the Central Walbran Valley’s old-growth forest near Port Renfrew in the Pacheedaht First Nation’s territory. The Walbran Valley includes some of the grandest, carbon-rich forests on Earth. While the 5500 hectare lower valley is protected in the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park, another 7500 hectares remains outside the park. This includes the 500-hectare Central Walbran Valley, the only unprotected area in the valley that remains largely intact with extensive stands of massive red cedars. 

Ongoing protests and blockades have turned Teal-Jones away from logging in the valley recently, while the company has obtained a series of court injunctions against protesters. On January 4, 2016 the company’s lawyers will be in Victoria seeking another extension to this injunction. Meanwhile, public mobilizations continue and the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, representing 73 businesses, has recently joined the call for the Central Walbran’s protection, citing the importance of old-growth forests for tourism.

In valley after valley like the Walbran, the overcutting of the biggest and best old-growth stands in the lowlands that historically built BC’s timber industry has resulted in diminishing returns as the trees get smaller, lower in value, and harder to reach. Today, over 90 percent of the most productive old-growth forests in the valley bottoms on BC’s southern coast are now gone. This high-grade resource depletion is not only jeopardizing the climate but also endangered species, tourism, First Nations cultures which rely on the ancient cedars, and forestry-dependent communities as the high-volume old-growth stands disappear and second-growth logs are exported raw to foreign mills. 

Unless the BC government reorients forestry in BC towards protecting old-growth forests like the Central Walbran and ensuring a sustainable, value-added, second-growth forest industry—rather than old-growth liquidation, overcutting and raw log exports—the crisis in our woods for the climate, biodiversity and forestry jobs will only grow.

 

Sources

“Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks” by Sebastiaan Luyssaert, Ernst-Detlef Schulze, Annett Börner, et al. Nature, 2008

“Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size” by N. L. Stephenson, A. J. Das, R. Condit, et al. Nature, 2014

“Carbon Budget Implications of the Transition from Natural to Managed Disturbance Regimes in Forest Landscapes” by W. A. Kurz and S. J. Beukema, in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998

“BC Forest Wake Up Call: Heavy Carbon Losses Hit 10 Year Mark” by J. Wieting, Sierra Club of BC, June 2015

To send a message to BC’s politicians to protect the Central Walbran Valley, visit: www.BCForestMovement.com 

Ken Wu is the executive director of the Ancient Forest Alliance.