Rishi Maharaj: Cutting B.C.'s old growth forests makes no economic sense

There is one solitary argument in favour of destroying these forests: it is profitable to do so and therefore desirable.

By: Rishi Maharaj

It says something about how polarizing the issue of old growth logging is in British Columbia that you can hardly discuss the topic without stating your antecedents. So here are mine: I was born in Sudbury, I lived much of my childhood and early adulthood in Toronto and I have spent most of my working life on the coast of British Columbia, first in Port Hardy and now in Powell River. 

As a Torontonian, if you had asked me about “old growth forests,” I might have thought you were talking about the distinction between leafy mature trees found in older neighbourhoods like Rosedale and the scrappy examples found around my own, slightly less affluent childhood home in Scarborough. And if you’d told me that hundreds of people were chaining themselves to improvised structures on dusty backroads somewhere in British Columbia to prevent trees from being cut down, my eyes would have rolled so far back in my head that I’d still be searching for them today.

So with that in mind, I would like to take you down a shorter version of the journey I’ve been on for the last decade toward understanding what old growth forest is and why it remains such a fraught issue in B.C.

A central thing to understand about old growth forests is that they are defined by more than old trees. An old tree can be cut and replaced by a sapling that will one day become old. The Old Growth Strategic Review commissioned by the B.C. government and completed by professional foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel in 2020 described old growth forests, saying "Forests with old and ancient trees contain unique combinations of attributes that grow from ecosystems that have formed over centuries or millennia. These attributes can rarely, if ever, be replicated in younger or compromised ecosystems, even if they contain old trees. [...] These ‘ancient forests’ are globally unique, rare, and contain species as yet undiscovered, and many of these ecosystems and old forests are simply non-renewable within any reasonable time frame." So a key attribute of old growth forests, then, is that they are comprised of ecosystems that are not replaceable once cut down. If we value the attributes they have, we must preserve the ones that remain.

With that in mind, consider what’s unfolding on the ground in Fairy Creek, where hundreds of RCMP officers have been doing daily battle with protesters since May 17. The Fairy Creek watershed sits in what the B.C. government calls Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 46, on what most people know as the southwestern part of Vancouver Island and in the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations. The holder of that licence, logging company Teal Jones, is building roads into the Fairy Creek watershed to log about 200 hectares of forest, and protesters are putting life and limb at risk attempting to physically stop them.

So much is in dispute here, right down to the very definition of “old growth,” but you don’t need to know a Sitka spruce from a Western red cedar to see why Fairy Creek has become a flashpoint. Simply punch “Fairy Creek rainforest” into Google Maps, turn on satellite view, zoom right in and then start zooming out. You’ll see something like the image below.

The Fairy Creek watershed and some neighbouring areas are an island of contiguous, intact forest from valley bottom to ridgetop amid an ocean of clearcuts. This much, thankfully, is not in dispute. 

Where the two sides diverge is on just how unique Fairy Creek is among B.C.’s remaining forests. If you listen to the B.C. government and the forest industry, 73 per cent — or 10 million hectares — of B.C.’s remaining old growth forests are protected or otherwise unable to be logged, so logging all or part of the roughly 1,200 hectares of Fairy Creek is neither here nor there. For reference, 10 million ha is more than twice the size of Switzerland, while 1,200 is about 7 times the size of High Park. 

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However, independent researchers working from the B.C. government’s own data contend that just 415,000 hectares of the most productive old growth remain and that many areas of the province have less than 10 per cent of their original old forests remaining, making Fairy Creek a crucial last stand for ancient forests. 

Taking you through each of the arguments that whittles 10 million down to 415,000 would require an entire book, so that’s not what I want to focus on — although I encourage you to read the research, especially the Old Growth Strategic Review that the B.C. government itself commissioned, because it does matter.

There are many perspectives on preserving old growth forests. Some are objective and scientific, others are grounded in Indigenous sovereignty, and still others appeal to subjective feelings about the inherent value of trees that have stood longer than Angkor Wat. They are all valid. But I can’t do them justice in this space, so the argument I want to present to you for saving Fairy Creek is a much simpler one: Fairy Creek and places like it are worth more to the people of British Columbia standing than they are converted into shakes and shingles.

As far as I can tell, there is one solitary argument in favour of destroying these forests: that it is profitable to do so and therefore desirable. The rub, as always, is who profits and at whose expense. 

Fairy Creek is unique in its region. If you want to see B.C.’s iconic ancient rainforests, the stuff that our $50 million/year tourism marketing agency splashes all over the ads it buys in Berlin and Tokyo, Fairy Creek is just about the closest place to major population centres you’ll find a significant example of them. It’s just six kilometres as the crow flies from the end of the highway in Port Renfrew. 

The type of old growth present in Fairy Creek meets a definition you don’t need a PhD in biology to understand: the kind that people travel across the world to see, generating sustainable revenue and jobs in the process. Gargantuan trees, measuring up to 9.5 feet in diameter, many of which are older than this country and some of which predate the Magna Carta. 

In its application for the injunction now being enforced by the RCMP, Teal Jones estimated the value of the timber being blockaded by protestors at $10 million. By comparison, the annual economic impact of the Redwood National and State Parks in northern California is estimated at $55 million USD — annually. That is, a “big tree” tourism industry even 1/50th the size of California’s could provide more economic value than logging within a decade. 

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Logging these trees is not much different than shooting a rhino for its horn — it’s profitable for the person who gets to sell the horn, but the extinction of the species will forever deprive the community of a potential source of perpetual income. You cannot have both an old growth logging industry and an old growth tourism industry — the profits from one necessarily come at the expense of the other. And one of these things is a one-time windfall while the other is sustainable.

Cutting down the best and most accessible example of ancient, massive trees on southern Vancouver Island destroys value and represents an egregious example of the government wasting public resources to subsidize an incumbent industry. Sadly, there’s nothing more Canadian than a failing, politically-connected industry using regulatory capture to extract value for its owners at the expense of the public.

With regard to tourism, the B.C. government’s logical acrobatics about how much old growth they claim remains in remote and inaccessible corners of the province becomes irrelevant. Building a tourism industry on old-growth requires areas that can be accessed by car from major cities and there can be no doubt that Fairy Creek is among the last of those.

For many people in British Columbia, this latest “war in the woods” is deja vu. The debate of a “working forest” that sustains jobs for loggers and sawmill workers versus an environmental movement that is accused of caring little for the residents of forestry-dependent communities is older than many of the people being hauled off in handcuffs by the RCMP today. But that framing has never been more inaccurate.

Forestry may have built B.C., but it no longer pays the bills. According to B.C. government data, forestry directly contributed $2.5 billion to provincial GDP in 2018 against $8.3 billion for tourism. While forestry represented eight per cent of provincial GDP in 1997, that had declined to just two per cent by 2010. Forest-sector employment has continued to decline not just in absolute numbers, but even more starkly as a fraction of total employment: from almost eight per cent in 1991 to less than two per cent by 2019. Anyone who lives on the coast of this province outside of Vancouver or Victoria knows this story even if they do not know the numbers because so many communities have already been hollowed out by the loss of forestry jobs.

From automation to offshoring of value-added manufacturing to declining demand for paper, the reasons for the decline of the industry once called “green gold” are varied. But what is clear is that forestry is not the industry that can create enough jobs to single-handedly sustain vibrant rural communities in the 21st century as it did in the previous one. That ship has sailed, and ecotourism is one of the few alternatives that communities have. To level some of the last stands of ancient forest close to roads and people is a betrayal of that future, akin to setting your lifejacket alight for fuel on a sinking ship. 

Rishi Maharaj is an electrical engineer. He lives in Powell River, B.C.


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