Logging rainforest for pellets: regulations get failing grade from ecologists

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 into pellets for fuel, received approval to cut a section of the Inland Rainforest north of Purden Provincial Park.

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“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.

“If you can turn any piece of wood into pellets,” said Connolly, why not log previously harvested trees outside the rainforest?  

The PacBio logging block has never been harvested and includes units of Interior Cedar Hemlock (ICH) containing western hemlock, western redcedar,  Douglas-fir and Cottonwood. According to PacBio, the redcedar reach around 27 metres high and Douglas-firs 40 metres tall or more.

The company assessed the majority of trees 120 to 190 years old – not old growth. 

Connolly disagreed. "Those stands are old," she said, estimating the Douglas-firs were 200 to 300 years or more. Even partial logging will damage the ecosystem, she said. 

Whether an ecologist or a forester, both perspectives may be correct. 

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

"The only part that really remained natural is the piece... that was interior rainforest," said Wilkins. "That's what (PacBio and Canfor) are trying to log out now."

Several First Nations and forestry companies have logging licences in the larger Prince George area. By press time, PacBio was the only company contacted willing to speak about specific operations, sharing its data 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 will leave 30 per cent of the forest dispersed across the block, including 90 per cent of the  redcedar and Douglas-firs which comprise 19 per cent of the stand, said Aiden Wiechula, PacBio forestry planner.

The 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.”

Ecologists don't argue the company is exceeding legal guidelines, it's government regulations that fall short. 

Then there's the tricky evolving public perspective to consider.

A 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. 

Both Premier John Horgan and BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau have committed to implementing the report's recommendations.

Since the recommndations only cover legally defined old growth, 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. 

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

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.’ 

From an ecological perspective, the forests should not be logged, said Price. In regions like the Purden, with minimal old growth left, mature forests should be retained “so they can recruit towards old growth,” she said. 

Less than five per cent of productive Inland Rainforest is left in the Interior, all of it at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss, Price said. “Essentially, the productive forests in the valley bottoms are logged pretty much entirely.”  

What remains is the less productive, less biodiverse forest on the high slopes – the ‘guts and feathers’ – that 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.”

One problem with the Purden logging licence, is what’s missing from the Prince George Timber Supply Area (TSA) regulations, said Price.

“The current legal targets don’t require ANY old growth in the inland temperate rainforest,” she said. “The PG TSA is not a shining document.”

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

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

Regulators never followed through to define what that protection should entail.

“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.”

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