A few miles up Giveout Creek Road near Nelson, conservationist Greg Utzig stands dwarfed beside a large grove of hemlock and ancient cedars.
The grove, he says, is a remnant of a much larger stand of several hundred hectares that has been logged over the years from the 1980s to its current hectare.
“It was all just growth,” Utzig says, pointing to the mined area. “There were a few small ponds in there. It would have been a spectacular area.
This logged forest has never been included in a provincial Old Growth Management Area (OGMA). It was logged as part of the conventional timber supply, and the small remnant of old trees could also be logged, without any discussion of protection.
A few kilometers further down the road, Utzig points out a forest area sparsely populated with small trees, felled about 35 years ago. That’s typical, says Utzig, of some forests that are protected in an OGMA even if there aren’t any tall trees in sight.
Utzig says that in the Kootenays there are a significant number of ancient trees that are unprotected and many non-ancient forests that are protected. It’s been like this since the 1990s, says Utzig, and he sees no sign of changing.
Response from the Ministry of Forests
No one at the Ministry of Forests, at the local or provincial level, agreed to be questioned about this apparent contradiction. But a department spokesperson said in an email that the calculation of old growth targets in the Kootenays is “aspatial,” meaning the amount of old growth is calculated as a percentage of total forest over large parts of the landscape, not lines on a map.
“It is inaccurate to say that there are a significant number of OGMAs that contain no old growth,” the email states. “It is correct that many OGMAs contain more mature forest than old growth. However, mature forests were included in the OGMAs to capture larger, more contiguous areas.
Utzig, who has spent decades doing scientific work in the forests of West Kootenay, disagrees, saying there are many OGMAs with little or no old growth and that the department’s own data shows it. confirm.
“What worries me are the OGMAs which are poor quality unproductive stands in ravines, on steep slopes and in subalpine areas, while nearby there are high quality old growth forests,” says -he. “These OGMAs aren’t high quality old-growth forests or even mature stands, they’re just places where no one wants to log.”
When asked if there were any old growth forests that were not in the OGMAs, the ministry replied in its email: “Yes. However, it is important to note that old growth protection includes several other designations and is not limited to just OGMAs.
The nature of these designations has not been explained, but Utzig says the old growth forest he is talking about is included in the timber harvest base, unprotected.
The email goes on to say that the ministry is working on a process to include more old-growth forests in the OGMAs. Asked about the timetable for this work, the ministry spokesman did not specify.
“The timelines for this work would be significant.”
Ecology vs wood
Nelson scientist Rachel Holt says government and industry know how to fix OGMAs if they want to, adding that logging of old-growth forests should be stopped until that planning is complete.
She was a member of the province’s Technical Advisory Committee on Ancient Forests in 2021 and also served as Vice Chair of the Forest Practices Board. She has worked on old growth issues in British Columbia for over 20 years.
Holt says a 2018 Department of Forestry report showed that only about 20% of OGMAs in the Kootenay Lake and Arrow Forest Districts were actually old growth forest, and that in many places old growth forest existed outside of it. OGMAs but were not protected. This report is available at https://bit.ly/3SpGigG.
The ministry’s email admits problems identifying old growth forests.
“Small plots of old forest can present a challenge for forest inventory interpretation due to data set scale constraints. Significant work continues to better identify old-growth forests.
Holt says the department doesn’t appear to be limited by “dataset scale constraints” when it comes to finding exploitable timber.
“Yeah, there are scale issues,” says Holt. “But I can tell you that when someone approaches a 400-year-old cedar tree around here, which they don’t, they know what it is. We can blame inventory all they want, but we’re very good at finding and harvesting.
Holt says current provincial OGMA management is leading to logging in areas that “shouldn’t have been logged, by any kind of baseline ecological criteria.”
Back in the field at Giveout Creek, standing beneath this patch of old-growth forest, Utzig says OGMA boundaries are fluid and can be moved by forest managers to include or exclude forest based on its harvest value. This is consistent with the Ministry’s description of the old growth forest found in the OGMAs as “aspacial”, i.e. not mapped.
He adds that managers can do this through the professional trust model, instituted in the early 2000s, in which resource companies or their professional consultants can make decisions about the use of land formerly reserved for departmental scientists, including including changing OGMA boundaries.
The ministry’s email states that anything removed from an OGMA for harvesting must be replaced with forest of equal or greater value, that this decision is made by a professional, and that the rationale must be documented by the logging company. .
Holt agrees that the department has asked logging companies for such justifications more often in the past two years due to public pressure, but for 15 years prior they did not. She adds that OGMAs have never been evaluated according to biological criteria but rather according to timber harvesting criteria, which has led to the establishment of certain OGMAs in parks or places that were not going anyway. be exploited.
A land use plan from the 1990s
The history of all this, according to Utzig, dates back to the 1990s, when a land use plan was developed for the Kootenays that specified certain percentages of old growth forests to be retained. But before it was implemented, he says the government at the time decided the percentages would have too big of an impact on timber harvesting. So they decided that a third of the initial percentages would be enough.
For many areas of the West Kootenay, the reduction in requirements amounted to approximately 3% of the forests to be preserved as old growth.
“But the thing is,” Utzig said, “they’re not even hitting that three percent now. That’s the problem.”
Holt says the province has known for decades that there are more old-growth forests in the Kootenays than it acknowledges or protects.
“In my very first job (for the Department of Forests) in 1997, I flew over every landscape unit in Kootenay-Boundary and East Kootenay, the entire south region, and identified the best OGMAs, the best old growth forests from the air with ministry staff. And the vast majority of that was never included. And what we’ve seen is this blatant decision to just put OGMAs in places that don’t impact the wood supply.
In 2021, the province hired Holt, along with forest policy analyst Lisa Matthaus, ecologist Karen Price, landscape analyst Dave Daust and forester Garry Merkel, to map the province’s old-growth forests, to identify places where logging would pose a short-term threat of irreversible loss of biodiversity. Holt says she is still waiting for the province to act decisively in its work.
In addition to these maps, Holt and Utzig independently mapped the old settlements of Kootenay using provincial data.
“We took into account the age, height, diameter, gross volume and productivity of the site. All of these factors were used to rate these stands from most valuable to least valuable growth. »
These maps can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3zCPI0K.
Even though Holt and Utzig identified an area of the Kootenays as old-growth forest, they say that doesn’t mean it’s protected from logging, because it might not be in an OGMA.
Even if it were, the OGMA limits can be changed by government or industry.