Forest management must change to adapt to climate change— or the industry will falter

by | Apr 25, 2024 | 2024, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, March/April 2024, The Last Word

An early fire season is upon us in many parts of Canada already, and in some regions, fire fighter shortages abound.

This alone demonstrates that forest management in Canada must change. Otherwise, expect huge swaths of forests to burn every summer from now on, as well as escalating costs for fighting fires, until the Canadian forest industry becomes a mere shadow of what it once was—or could be.

But there is another way. It’s time to change our paradigm and view ourselves as gardeners rather than exploiters of the forest.

Year round logging that includes a significant amount of variable retention as well as commercial and pre-commercial thinning to maintain a sustainable timber supply is not only necessary, it is inevitable as Canada transitions from natural forests to natural managed forests or plantations. Already, 15 per cent of all primary commercial forests in Canada are first generation managed forests and that number will increase exponentially over the next 50 years when, eventually, most commercial forests in Canada will become managed plantations desperately in need of gardeners—or they will become burnt and wasted timber because we failed to act.

Continuing to spend vast amounts of money fighting forest fires is an insanely expensive, band-aid method to conserve Canada’s forests over the long term. It is literally the approach of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Where government investment needs to happen now is in re-purposing a significant portion of money budgeted for fighting forest fires to forest resilience activities. Organizations like the Canadian Forest Service have been preaching this approach and developing best practices for at least the past three decades. Now it is time to apply forest management strategies mandating these practices in an effort to save the industry.

Two issues make this transition to forest fire prevention necessary. The first is a changing climate. A good example of how climate change is influencing the forest industry is what has happened with the traditional winter logging season.

Typically, in many parts of Canada, winter logging begins at freeze up, usually by early to mid-November. This year, many loggers didn’t get the green light till the middle of December. While this year was an extreme example, over the past decade loggers working in soft ground are entering cutblocks later each winter, often have their activities interrupted mid-season several times because of sloppy cutblock and road conditions, and barely make it to the end of March because of warmer weather earlier in the spring. If these conditions persist—and there is no reason to believe that they won’t—forest companies will find it harder and harder to find dependable contractors. A shorter logging season makes it harder to keep staff and make equipment payments. Many contractors will simply close up shop for lack of employees or a predictable income.

There has always been resistance within the forest industry to practice variable retention as well as commercial and pre-commercial thinning, even though companies acknowledge that it does result in a healthier, more resilient and more productive forest—eventually. And therein lies the problem. It is unfair to expect companies to adopt these expensive practices because of the length of their forest management agreements. It makes no sense to invest in these practices if there is no guarantee that the company will eventually reap the benefits down the road. So first and foremost, governments must consider longer forest tenure and management agreements of maybe a century or longer, carefully worded so that companies cannot escape liability for poor or negligent forest management practices—but long enough so they know that they will cash in on healthier, more productive commercial forests down the road, while recovering some commercial timber, though smaller in diameter, as the forest grows.

Should this occur, there is also more incentive for companies to hire logging contractors on a year-round basis and engage them not only in commercial logging but also in commercial and pre-commercial thinning. Changes will be required for equipment fleets so that contractors can navigate within regenerating commercial forests in a more careful, surgical manner, removing volume while maintaining the evolving cash crop for a final harvest down the road.

Yes, companies will find themselves processing higher volumes of smaller logs. But smaller logs are better than no logs and no industry, which is the trajectory we are on now.

Expecting this federal government to lead in terms of a national forest management strategy is fantasy. This is the same government that has failed to negotiate a softwood lumber agreement with our largest customer while billions of dollars from forest companies remain locked in deposit accounts. Action must come at the provincial level, starting with the largest forest products producers because they have the most to lose financially each time the forest catches fire.

Forest management change on this massive scale in Canada is nothing new. Fifty years ago, the alarm bells sounded regarding a significant decline in standing softwood timber, triggering a large-scale, national reforestation effort that we are benefitting from today. So it can be done.

Change or die. That may sound alarmist but the consequences of climate change are upon us. Intensive forest management or ‘gardening’ is our only hope.

Tony Kryzanowski

Author

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