As autumn rains extinguish the last of this summer’s fires, the final accounting for a brutal B.C. wildfire season is becoming clear. Nearly one million hectares of forest has been burnt and more than $500 million spent containing the carnage.
That doesn’t begin to include the human cost, as British Columbians – our friends and neighbours – were forced from their homes, tourism curtailed and agriculture disrupted. Add to that, human exposure to airborne pollutants was up to 40 times worse than maximum recommended levels, a pall that enveloped parts of the province in the worst air quality in the world.
How we manage our forests in the next five to 15 years will determine whether we can secure a future with healthy forests, healthy wildlife, and safe communities.
If the effects of wildfires on fish, wildlife, habitat, the economy, provincial budget and our health aren’t important enough, here comes salvage logging to harvest burned timber before it is “worthless.” Due to the degrading quality of standing burnt timber, there is a rush to harvest which represents a real threat to fish, wildlife, habitat and the future resilience of our forests and communities.
Salvage-logged cutblocks look like a moonscape. They bring roads, weeds, and compacted soil, which destroy and fragment wildlife habitat. Salvage logging can degrade the soil’s ability to retain moisture and regulate temperature, which limits regrowth and encourages erosion, sedimentation, and even landslides. The impact on fish-bearing streams can be catastrophic. Left undisturbed, regrowth after a fire can provide exceptional wildlife habitat, but to leverage those natural processes we have to change the way we log.
If we want to make our forests more resilient to fire and focus on restoring wildlife populations, logging can play a key role. If post-fire logging is to promote fire-resilient forests, and wildlife populations, it needs to be conducted under several constraints. Large burnt trees and surviving green trees should be left in place as wildlife trees for cavity nesters and woodpeckers. Standing timber also regulates soil temperature and moisture, minimizing erosion and sedimentation while the forest regenerates.
Road densities need to be managed to a maximum of 600 metres of road per square kilometre of habitat, a scientifically-based threshold that B.C. has ignored for decades. In fact, many areas of the province already far exceed these thresholds. Road building and logging in wildfire areas should only occur during the winter to minimize soil compaction. Road building and logging operations must follow pre- and post-logging weed management plans. Fine fuels such as tree branches and small trees that are excess to the needs of the ecosystem should be removed to ensure we don’t turn our forests into tinder waiting for a spark. Areas with historically high frequency of fires will require controlled burns within a decade so they do not revert back to an overgrown matchbox. Most importantly, we cannot go back to the old playbook of planting coniferous trees and treating deciduous trees like weeds which helped get us into this mess in the first place.
The provincial government has acknowledged we are at a critical point, and that it’s time for a paradigm shift in forest management. The practices that brought us to this point will not provide a sustainable future. B.C. needs a new logging playbook, something we call restoration logging. First, that means investing in our forests, air, water, and wildlife.
There were several wildfires of note in the Peace Region this summer and if salvage logging is to occur, it should occur in a manner that is most friendly to fish and wildlife habitat.
In 1991, B.C. spent 4.9% of its budget on renewable resource management. By 2001 3.3%, 2011 1.6%, and in 2021 it’s just 1.4%. Surely the health of our natural assets is worthy of more than 1.4% of our taxpayer dollars. Rebuilding resilient forests means returning our renewable resource management budget to 5.0%. Without a reasonable financial commitment, it is impossible to move forward.
B.C. needs to invest $250 million per year in fuel reduction, ecosystem restoration and controlled burns instead of burning taxpayer dollars up trying to suppress uncontrollable wildfires. B.C. needs to set goals for hectares of land treated with controlled burns, including wildlife-friendly cultural burning by First Nations. We must reduce road densities, manage weeds, take care of our watersheds and permanently rid ourselves of salvage logging.
There hasn’t been a controlled (prescribed) fire for wildlife on crown land in the Peace Region since 2017 even though there have been proposals in front of B.C. government decision makers ever since. These proposals are totally funded through the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and local stakeholder groups such as the North Peace Rod and Gun Club, the Wild Sheep Society of BC, and the Guide Outfitters Association of BC. First Nations have been contacted and there is support for the proposals. Stakeholders have been very responsive to comments and requirements provided by the local BC government staff, but still no approvals. In the meantime, we continue to see wildlife numbers dwindle and new proposals for increased restrictions on hunting.
If we invest in our renewable resources and change logging practices, we can restore our wildlife, help our fish and make our forests more resilient. It will also help our health, protect our communities and the economy, but it requires a long-term vision of what this province should look like 50 years from now.
Is B.C. up to the challenge?
Gerry Paille - BC Wildlife Federation
Evan Saugstad - Hunters for BC
Ray Enz - BC Trappers Association
Josh Hamilton - Wild Sheep Society of BC
Aaron Fredlund, Sean Olmstead - Guide Outfitters Association of BC