Green light given to log old-growth trees for wood pellets

Old-growth trees into pellets

Sean O’Rourke was hiking in B.C.’s globally rare inland rainforest this spring when pink flagging tape indicating a planned cutblock caught his eye. Finding flagging tape is nothing new, but when he looked closer, he realized the tape had the name of a nearby pellet company on  it — Pacific BioEnergy. 

The company operates a plant in Prince George where it turns waste wood  products — sawdust from mills, tree bark, wood shavings and clippings —  into pellets to be burned to produce heat or electricity, replacing coal and fossil fuels. More than 90 per cent of Canadian wood pellets are shipped overseas to Europe and Asia, according to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. 

But the ancient cedars and hemlocks in the rainforest in Lheidli T’enneh First Nation territory, about 60 kilometres east of Prince George, are most certainly not waste wood. 

O’Rourke, a field scout with Conservation North, a grassroots organization advocating for the protection of old-growth forests in northern B.C., took photos of the flagging tape to show his colleagues. He later combed through the publicly available harvest data to confirm the province had indeed issued permits to Pacific BioEnergy to log the old-growth forest. 

While wood pellets are often touted as a renewable energy source, Conservation North director and ecologist Michelle Connolly challenges that claim. 

“If the raw material for harvested wood products or pellets is coming from primary and old-growth forest, it is not clean or green or renewable in any way, shape or form,” she said in an interview. 

“Destroying wildlife habitat to grind forest into pellets to ship them overseas to burn, to feed into an electricity plant so that people can watch Netflix or play video games really late at night — we can’t allow that to happen,” she added. 

The planned cutblock is set to be logged this winter for pellets, but Conservation North is asking the B.C. government to provide legal protection to all primary forests — those that have never been logged —  in the northern region. 

After O’Rourke showed his colleagues his photos, they went to the rainforest together to explore the areas slated for logging. The group walked for almost two hours to get to the flagged boundary. The forest is surrounded by clearcuts and second-growth stands of lodgepole pine. Connolly described it as an oasis.

“There are low carpets of moss and beautiful fallen old trees,” Connolly said.  “The stands that we’ve seen have really large western red cedars and  western hemlock, and we occasionally came across massive Douglas firs that are really large for this area … it would take at least three people to wrap your arms around them.” 

More than 500 kilometres from the coast, the inland rainforest is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. Temperate rainforests far from the sea are only found in two other places on the planet: in Russia’s far east and southern Siberia.

The rainforest supports a variety of animals including moose and endangered caribou. The stands of old-growth trees have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and the soil also stores huge amounts of carbon.

The rich biodiversity of these old-growth forest ecosystems is threatened by logging, according to a report published in June. 

As The Narwhal reported last year, much of what remains of the inland temperate rainforest is at risk of clearcutting. Connolly said there is “little to no social licence” to harvest these old-growth trees. 

“We talked to a lot of people who hunt, who trap, who fish, who guide, and among those people, we’ve sensed a lot of dismay about what’s happening,” she  said. “We’re kind of at the limits of tolerance up here.”

The province’s promotion of the pellet industry focuses on using wood that would otherwise be wasted or burned in the forest to reduce the risk of wildfires, but rarely mentions the use of whole trees. 

“The pellet pushers (including the present NDP government) originally said  they would use only logging and milling debris as the source of wood fibre for pellets,” Jim Pojar, a forest ecologist wrote in an email. 

However, a recent investigation by Stand.earth found that pellets made of whole trees from primary forests in B.C. are being sent to Europe and Asia. 

“No mature  green trees should be cut down and whole logs ground up to produce wood pellets for export, especially if the trees are clear cut from globally rare and endangered temperate rainforest,” Pojar said.

Connolly said a lack of legal protection allows the government to greenlight logging whole trees for pellets — and the province’s language around the industry hides the fact that old-growth is being cut down.

“My understanding is that this is allowed because these forests don’t have any other use,” she said, meaning that they aren’t suitable for making  lumber. 

“The B.C. government has some really interesting language around justifying pellet harvesting,” she said. “What they say is that they’re using inferior quality wood."

This isn’t the first time a pellet facility has logged trees to meet its production needs. As The Narwhal reported earlier this year, both Pacific BioEnergy and Pinnacle Renewable Energy, another large-scale pellet company, use whole trees to produce pellets.

Over the  past few years, B.C. has been ramping up its support for the wood pellet industry, but as sawmills shut down across the province, pellet  facilities are running out of raw material. 

Recently, the province handed out a number of grants to support projects that take trees that would otherwise be burned on the forest floor in massive slash piles and convert them to pellets. Pacific BioEnergy has received more than $3.2 million from the province through the Forest Enhancement Society for projects related to its operations.

Connolly said the province’s push to support the pellet industry is problematic. “We’re kind of rearranging the deck chairs, you know? They’re making  little modifications of things they already do, instead of actually looking at the value of keeping the carbon in forests.”

The Ministry of Forests could not comment on this story because government communications are limited to health and public safety information during election periods.

The Narwhal also requested an interview with Pacific BioEnergy but did not receive a response by publication time.

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