Forestry companies across B.C. are drawing up plans to salvage log the scars left on the landscape by this summer’s devastating fire season.
In addition to destroying entire communities and neighbourhoods, wildfires like the White Rock Lake fire chewed through millions of dollars worth of harvestable timber between Vernon and Kamloops.
The provincial government typically rushes to issue logging permits with discounted stumpage fees after a fire moves through an area, in an effort to capture any remaining value the forest may hold for another couple years after the flames.
But as catastrophic wildfire seasons become normal, there is growing pushback to how B.C. manages its forests after a fire, with current practices blamed for negative effects on wildlife, watersheds and the likelihood of future fires.
While the term “salvage logging” may leave the impression that forestry companies are pulling burned timber out of the bush, one of B.C.’s leading fire ecologists Robert W Gray says forestry companies are actually hunting green, high-value trees.
Burned timber is typically not economically viable for pulp mills, while other mills see increased expenses due to charred trees dulling blades much quicker.
“So really, you're going after the money trees, when you salvage after a fire, as much volume as you can get,” Gray told Castanet.
Much of the smaller, fully-burned trees are often then left behind on the forest floor which, when combined with replanting, can create a “really ugly fuel bed” for future fires. Some of the larger trees taken during a salvage would have been left behind for ecological reasons — wildlife, soil stability and hydrology — had the cutblock been a traditional harvest.
Academics have started to question B.C.’s current salvage logging practices. Last year, the University of B.C. Okanagan published research examining salvage logged areas on the eastern edge of the Chilcotin Plateau.
Areas that underwent salvage logging were unable to support populations of snowshoe hares and red squirrels, compared to low populations supported by areas that were left to recover naturally after a fire.
“Salvage logging decreases forest biodiversity and changes ecological processes of post-fire forest regeneration. Mosaics of regenerating forest are changed through the removal of standing and downed trees, which would naturally remain on the landscape following fire,” said UBCO biology professor, Karen Hodges, last year.
BC Wildlife Federation fish and wildlife restoration director Jesse Zeman echoed that sentiment in a recent interview with Castanet.
“For bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, a whole host of red-listed species — fire is what they evolved with. So it's the best thing for them going in. And salvage logging afterwards is probably the worst thing for them,” he said.
Logging done before the forest floor can regenerate also disturbs soil, imports weeds, and increases erosion, Zeman added.
Last year, a landslide below a salvage log site in Joe Rich, east of Kelowna, took out Highway 33 for multiple days. Zeman says that is a perfect illustration of the shortsightedness of B.C.’s current salvage logging practices.
“The government says, well, we got this much in royalty, and we process this much wood, but they don't account for washing out the highway. The accounting is broken, for sure.”
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Despite their criticism of the practice, both Gray and Zeman say salvage logging should remain an important part of how B.C. manages its forests after a fire — just in a different way.
Gray says the provincial government should be working to remove dead, economically-worthless, wood material from the forest after a fire. Otherwise, the following fire, called a “reburn,” will burn much hotter than the first.
“At the elevation that the White Rock Lake fire burned... it's going to burn again. It's going to burn again several times and as this dead material falls to the forest floor it's going to burn hotter,” Gray said.
“So we do need to take a bunch of that biomass out because it becomes future fuel for a fire, but we have to take the right material out, and chances are, it's not revenue neutral and it's probably not revenue generating. It's likely at a cost but if we don't do it, there's a bigger cost down the road.”
Gray suggested this type of salvage logging would cost the provincial government hundreds of millions of dollars. Taxpayers, however, spent upwards of $600 million fighting fires this season.
Zeman said the BCWF would like to see salvage logging take place in the winter when the ground is frozen, with weed management plans in place, and minimal increases to road densities in the wilderness.
With record-breaking wildfire seasons becoming the norm, Zeman says it is time to make changes.
“It just seems insane to me that after spending probably $600 million or more this year, we're talking about going back to the exact same problem that got us to where we are today.”
Gray said simply leaving the forest to regenerate naturally is not an option in some cases. In the past, before humans aggressively suppressed wildfires, those at higher elevations would burn hundreds of hectares — not tens of thousands.
“We've been putting fires out for so long that there were no, there are no sort of non-flammable patches out there,” he said.
The federal government has said it will meet its climate change targets by, in part, planting two billion new trees over a decade.
Gray is urging the government to be cautious about where they replant after a wildfire, keeping climate change in mind.
At lower elevations, like within the Okanagan Valley, droughts are becoming more common and the ecosystem is transitioning to a pine, fir and grass savannah — so dense replanting may not make sense or be viable.
Those grasslands, which historically were more common within the valley due to more frequent fires, also don’t support as many destructive fires.
“Fires occurred so frequently in the past, mostly through Indigenous burning and lightning, that the flame… just didn't kill very many trees. So you didn't have this problem of post-fire in a sort of dead landscape,” Gray said.
He said rushing to replant every forest means there are no “anchors” or flexibility to fighting fires in the future.
BC GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
In a statement to Castanet, the provincial government says it is in discussion with “tenure holders regarding impacts of the wildfire on planned, current and previous cut blocks.”
“We are currently developing a retention strategy for the burnt areas to manage for other values such as wildlife, habitat, riparian etc,” the statement continued.
The BC Interior forest industry has been losing mills at a pace of more than two a year since 2005, driven in big part, by a lack of timber following a rush on salvage logging pine-beetle kill.
The BC Wildfire Service's changing attitudes to how it fights fires — allowing some in remote areas to burn — is already creating conflict between industry and government. Castanet reported on one such dispute between a logging company and BCWS during the summer.
The government said salvage logging permits will be granted “consistent with the Forest and Range Practices Act and the Forest Act in areas deemed suitable, after reviews and consultation with Indigenous communities is complete.”
But Zeman says there needs to be change at the policy level, singling out the Forest and Range Practices Act as in particular need of an overhaul.
“Are we just going to treat our forests as pine production? Or are we going to treat our forests as things that take care of our watersheds, and take care of wildlife, that protect our communities?”