Government regulations get failing grade from ecologists

By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

When word got out a wood pellet company had a permit to log part of the Interior Temperate Rainforest east of Prince George, the wood chips hit the fan.

Earlier this year Pacific BioEnergy (PacBio), a Prince George company that manufactures wood pellets for fuel, received approval to cut a section of the Inland Rainforest north of Purden Provincial Park.

“Why are they allowing primary forest to be logged for pellets?” asked Michelle Connolly, ecologist and director of Conservation North, which has called for a moratorium on logging in the Interior Rainforest.

PacBio gets 75 per cent of its raw material from harvested slash piles and mill waste residue. It’s their sourcing of the remainder that meets opposition.

Connolly wonders why the pellet company can’t log previously harvested forests outside the Inland rainforest.

The PacBio logging block is primary forest but falls short of being considered Old Growth based on current law. It includes forest zoned Interior Cedar Hemlock (ICH), with western hemlock, western red cedar, douglas-fir and cottonwood. According to PacBio surveying, the red cedar are about 27 metres high and Douglas-firs 40 metres tall or more.

Don Wilkins has managed a 400 square mile trapline in the Purden area for 25 years. Decades of clearcutting have driven several species into decline, he said.

“A lot of fur-bearing animals depend upon the trees,” said Wilkins.

The wet climate and moist soils of the inland temperate rainforest of B.C.’s northern interior, such as the cedar-hemlock forests, feature coastal-type lichens and mosses, and sometimes very old, very large trees. / UNBC map

Partial logging
The Goat reached out to First Nations and several forestry companies active in the region, including
Canfor. By press time, PacBio was the only company willing to speak about its operations. The company shared its data on the Purden block for an independent ecological analysis.

“We are not clearcutting the old growth forest,” said John Stirling, CEO of PacBio. “And we’re not clearcutting purely making pellets.”

The company plans to leave 30 per cent of the forest dispersed across the block, including 90 per cent of the towering western red cedar and old Douglas-firs which comprise 19 per cent of the stand, said Aiden Wiechula, PacBio forestry planner.

The harvested trees will be sold for their highest value to local mills, and waste wood used for pellets, Stirling said.

“Traditionally, in that area, in that cut block, the retention would generally be zero per cent,” said Wiechula. “That’s a pretty big difference.”
Clearly, the company is exceeding legal guidelines. Ecologists say current government regulations are falling short on ecosystem health protection.

Shifting public opinion
The recent independent old growth review commissioned by the government reported a ‘paradigm shift’ in how British Columbians valued the natural environment. Society no longer wants publicly-owned forests managed with timber as the core value (and biodiversity as a constraint), the report stated.

Instead, biodiversity must be the core outcome, and timber the benefit of a healthy ecosystem –a significant divergence from current practice.

On the campaign trail, Premier John Horgan and Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau committed to enacting the report’s recommendations.

Under those recommendations, the PacBio logging area wouldn’t be protected, although no one knows how the societal paradigm shift in values will play out over time, said ecologist Dr. Karen Price. Price assessed the unlogged forest as just shy of old growth: ‘mature, with veterans’ (Douglas-firs) and possibly ‘approaching the ecological value of old growth.’ The recommendations only cover old growth.

The forest falls into a gap from an ecological perspective, but the forests should not be logged, said Price. In regions with minimal old growth left – like the forests around Purden – mature forests should be retained “so they can recruit towards old growth,” said Price.

With less than five per cent of productive rainforest remaining in the whole Interior, all of it is at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss, Price said. “Essentially, the productive forests in the (Inland rainforest) valley bottoms are logged pretty much entirely.”

What remains is the less productive, less biodiverse forest on the high slopes – the ‘guts and feathers’ – what timber companies consider less economically viable for harvesting, she said.

“Those are the pieces that are left to maintain biodiversity, store carbon, and deal with resilience,” said Price. “And it’s not going to work.”

“I think most people would be really surprised that companies are allowed to log rainforest for bioenergy,” said ecologist Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North. Connolly is pictured in a section of the inland rainforest permitted for partial logging. / Sean O’Rourke

Inadequate government regulations
One problem, when it comes to this tract of forest, is what’s missing from the Prince George Timber Supply Area (TSA) regulations, said Price.

Lead author of the much-referenced scientific analysis of the province’s old growth, Price and professional forester Dave Daust, another author of the report, analyzed and cross-referenced PacBio’s information with publicly available data.

“The current legal targets don’t require (retaining) any old growth in the inland temperate rainforest,” said Price. “The PG TSA is not a shining document.”

Originally written 17 years ago, the Prince George TSA document acknowledged the Interior Cedar Hemlock ‘units’ needed different forestry management, and recommended a process be developed in 2004 to address their protection.

“Yet that never happened,” said Price. “The Interior Cedar Hemlock fell through a crack.”

The regulating document acknowledged that the cedar-hemlock forest needed special protection, but never followed through to define what that meant.

Meanwhile, Connolly assessed the licenced area as old growth. PacBio concluded it legally wasn’t. Depending who’s viewing the forest, an ecologist or a forester, both may be correct.

“It’s not (PacBio’s) fault we’re in this predicament,” Connolly said, acknowledging the company’s efforts towards transparency. “It’s the government’s job to protect these places.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]