An international team of scientists, including researchers from University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), have published a new peer-reviewed study on the importance of protecting primary forests in BC’s Interior Wetbelt (IWB) bioregion for the climate.
Scientists from the UNBC, Griffith University in Australia, the Conservation Biology Institute in Oregon, Wild Heritage in Oregon and Conservation North were part of the study, which underscores the seriousness of B.C.’s emissions tied to the logging of old growth forests.
The study used data collected in the field, as well as government datasets to estimate how much carbon is contained within unlogged old growth spruce, red cedar and hemlock forests, how much has been emitted to the atmosphere by clearcut logging.
The IWB is a vast, largely forested area of 16.5 million hectares along the western flanks of the Canadian Rockies and northern Columbia Mountains.
It contains rare old growth spruce forests (referred to in other parts of the world as Boreal Rainforest) and the rare Inland Temperate Rainforest. Logging in this ecosystem accelerated from the 1970s to the 2000s.
“The region contains underappreciated carbon stocks that can help Canada meet its climate and conservation targets,” said lead researcher Dominick DellaSala.
“In their natural state, these forests constitute an irreplaceable natural climate solution, but we’re turning them into lumber and threatening to turn them into pellets.”
The Government of Canada has pledged to protect 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030 in order to mitigate the climate crisis.
“The Interior Wetbelt contains some of the most carbon dense forests on the planet,” said Art Fredeen, a study co-author at UNBC.
“If we summed up all of the carbon from historically logged timber in the IWB it would exceed B.C.’s total greenhouse gas emissions for 2019, 9 times over. Instead of increasing the B.C.’s carbon debt by further logging old carbon-rich landscapes, we should be conserving them.”
'Paradigm shift' in forestry still needed
The provincial government recently announced it’s deferring 1.7 million hectares of old-growth forests at risk of permanent loss.
B.C. also announced last fall that an expert panel had mapped 2.6 million hectares of unprotected old-growth forests at risk and asked 204 First Nations to decide whether they supported the temporary deferral of logging.
The province has now heard from 188 First Nations, of which 75 have agreed to the deferrals that will initially last two years, while over 60 have asked for more time to decide and incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the plans.
However, ecologist and co-author Michelle Connolly of Conservation North said these temporary deferrals don’t go far enough and there needs to be major forestry reforms to protect carbon-dense old-growth forests.
She said these forests need time to recover the logging-related carbon debt, and improve monitoring of carbon stocks and stock changes.
Connolly said this is what the promised ‘paradigm shift' that was called for in the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review panel ought to look like on the ground.
“Protecting all old growth is objectively good for the climate because of how much carbon they store and that's partly what our study has revealed. A truly progressive forest policy would actually protect at least all old-growth forests and provide support for First Nations to do that,” said Connolly.
She said the deferrals put the onus on First Nations to decide without any funding to examine whether they wanted to do that and what that would mean for them, or alternative conservation options.
“What ought to be happening to be truly progressive is to actually support First Nations in protecting these places. Most people in B.C. agree that protecting old-growth forests is really important, and now we have evidence that the climate is a really good reason to do that.”
Aboveground carbon storage under-reported
DellaSala added that, “for the very first time, we have a comprehensive assessment of how important B.C.’s interior rainforests are to the global climate and how much has been lost to logging. In the case of climate change, the forest is worth far more standing then cut down for wood products.”
The study also reported that nearly one-quarter of the entire IWB has been logged, the majority within the inland rainforest since the 1970s, resulting in live above-ground carbon declining by at least 18 per cent.
However, the researchers said this is likely an underestimate because government data appears to underestimate the amount of above-ground carbon storage in the most carbon-rich stands, and because logging has been concentrated in low to mid-elevations (below 2000 m) where carbon density is the greatest.
The study suggests the province is under-reporting logging-related carbon emissions by as much as 75 per cent.
“Carbon storage is the element that's really, really important,” adds Connolly. “That's what our group has been saying, if we're going to get products out of forests, they have to come from places that have been previously logged. It's a lot more responsible for the climate. You'd be releasing a lot less carbon if you focus your industrial activity on areas that have already been logged.”
-with files from the Canadian Press