Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Old growth logging vs the carbon tax

with 8 comments

There is a Canadian Press story this morning which got covered by the CBC, where it caught my attention.

One year of logging old-growth forests in southwestern British Columbia blows away a year of carbon reductions accomplished by initiatives like the carbon tax.

That’s the finding of a Sierra Club report released today, entitled Carbon at Risk: B.C.’s Unprotected Old-growth Rainforest.

That’s the top of the CP/CBC story – and you can find the same thing elsewhere. In fact I think you should. For a start, missing from the CBC story is any substantive content that they have added – and, even worse in my opinion but common to most news web sites, there isn’t a link to the report. For a better example go to Huffington Post  which has the same CP story but at much greater length, and with an interesting back and forth between Rick Jeffery, Coast Forest Products Association president and Sierra Club spokesman Jens Wieting.  But also no link to the report.

In fact I actually talked to Jens Wieting myself this morning. First of all I did not even know that there is more than one Sierra Club – but I guessed that Sierra Club Canada was probably the source. Wrong, it’s actually the Sierra Club BC. Their web page is actually much more active and has the press release – but that doesn’t link to the report either. Jens sent it to me by email, but you can download it from the publications section. Its a six page pdf but worth a look.

I am not at all an expert in this field, but I have some connection to it. I would have had a job at the Forests Ministry had not the BCGEU “bumping” practices snatched it away from me. I did do quite a bit of research before the interview – and he who did the bumping didn’t have to – so I have been a bit more aware of the issues since.  I have been in BC’s old-growth forests – there’s small patches on the North Shore, but more impressive are Cathedral Grove and Meare’s Island.

The old growth

Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve

Cathedral Grove

Cathedral Grove

Hug a tree

Meare’s Island

The latter was the famous site of the Clayoquot Sound protests. And I was also caught by a carbon offset scam which took my money so it could cut down old growth then plant new trees using the same justification that Rick Jeffery trots out. And which has been pretty much debunked. I do feel that the Sierra Club are a bit more reliable here as their report actually is backed by research and data, with useful links. That really is the point I am trying to make here. When you hear something on the radio or tv these days, they will often say “go to our web site for more information” but mostly it isn’t there. But there is Google. We watch tv news now with our tablets at hand. And when you read this

“They don’t want us to log,” said Jeffery. “That is the raison d’etre of the environmental groups. For them to tell you anything else is an outright lie.”

It is a matter of a moment to determine (by going to the report) that what they are calling for is

Increased conservation of the remaining old growth temperate rainforest, phasing out logging of old-growth and transitioning logging fully to second growth is urgent from a climate adaptation and mitigation perspective.


Improved forest management, in particular longer rotation, eliminating waste and selective logging, is equally important to reduce carbon loss. Forestry can be an important sector of the low carbon economy of the future, but not without increased forest conservation and improved forest management.

Perhaps if Jeffery had stuck to what he knows about – what his members are doing or proposing to do – and providing some source material to back that up, he might have some credibility. But by first claiming that he knows what the Sierra Club wants – and then calling them liars for their much more nuanced approach – it is not an end to logging that they are calling for – he discredits himself and his employers.  Of course if you are a business you want to maximize your return on investment – that’s what business does. But businesses that want to be around for a while, that do not want to be treated as social pariahs and have some understanding of the concept of sustainability, rather than simple greed for short term profits – do better in the long run.

“They’re basically telling you that once you cut that old-growth tree, that carbon all gets released into the environment,” said Jeffery. “It goes to other uses. It gets recycled. It goes into buildings and it gets stored.”

No they’re not. What they are actually saying is that clear cutting releases a lot but not all the carbon – and the report uses the rather generous assumption that about a quarter of the carbon is stored.  And there is a picture of slash burning to illustrate what actually happens in the woods when they cut the trees down.

There is a also in the CP story as printed by HuffPo some policy issues with quotes from BC Ministers – again something the CBC misses altogether. But rather than get into that, I do think that what is being demonstrated is that the BC carbon tax is an increasingly flimsy pretence at doing something about greenhouse gas emissions, that is more than offset by all the other activities of the present administration. Perhaps it is indeed the right way to do accounting, to log the burning of our exported coal, oil and natural gas against the nations that burn it. But if we weren’t subsidizing the extraction processing and transport of these fossil fuels, they would cost a great deal more, would be less attractive and those nations would look to other sources of energy. Renewables would be much more attractive to them.

The whole world would be better off if we left more of the oil, gas and coal in the ground. We would also be much better off if we stopped logging old growth forests (especially by actually being honest about how much carbon is released when they are cut and how poorly second growth compares at carbon sequestration). And when we do cut down the trees, we do a great deal more than simply ship off the raw logs elsewhere.

8 Responses

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  1. While in depth understanding of carbon storage is not my field I should note a few things that are relevant to this discussion.
    First it is important to know what ecosystem and area we are talking about when we talk about old growth. Old growth forest in fire dominated ecosystems (mainly interior ecosystems) store much less carbon in the forest floor than coastal equivalents.
    The next important thing to consider is the product that will be made from any forest harvesting. Products like pulp tend to have short lifespans and will decompose into carbon dioxide quicker than products like lumber (biofuels would be a more difficult comparison I don’t want to try and think about right now) that lock up the carbon for long periods of time.
    What about forest succession, or the risk of catastrophic stand loss? Some ecosystems are much more likely than others to suffer a catastrophic stand loss (and thus release its carbon), forinstance pine dominated forests in the interior and the mountain pine beetle.
    Another important consideration is the timeframe for the comparison. Is it one forest rotation, two, ten?
    There is a lot of carbon stored in coastal old growth, but for true old growth the rate of carbon sequestration is much lower than in younger forests (decay comes close to equalling growth). So without a doubt by logging old growth you are releasing a lot of carbon into the atmoshere. But to know how a specific bit of old growth logging is impacting carbon you need to know what is happening with the other factors. How much carbon was stored initially, what product was produced, would that carbon have been released anyway due to fire/insects/ect., what timeline are you looking at? I can easily imagine that logging coastal old growth would release more carbon than gets sequestered for several forest rotations, but at some point more will be captured by the second growth (assuming a product mix heavy to lumber (like BC)).
    Not to mention the kicker, if not wood lumber from BC what will be used instead. If the answer is plastic, cement or steel I would assume you have just increased your carbon emmisions. If the answer is wood from somewhere else you better look at the source before you feel good about your emmisions. If the answer is something like hemp ask yourself where do you grow hemp and what was growing there before you planted hemp?


    February 27, 2013 at 2:05 pm

  2. …They took all the trees
    And put them in a tree museum
    Then they charged the people
    A dollar and a half just to see ’em…

    W. K. Lis

    February 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm

  3. Thank you for juxtaposing the two viewpoints, Stephen. This one drew my interest. I think both sides have some merit, but there are inaccuracies. A larger biogeoclimatic / ecosystem and land management view is required. But the Sierra Club of BC was right to focus on this issue, which brings government climate policy and forest ecosystem health together in one debate. Kudos.

    Climax forests more or less reach a climax in carbon sequestration that is limited by climate, soil, plant genetics and other factors. They do not increase forever, but reach a stable state where a balance between carbon released through decay / degeneration (even old growth trees have limited lifespans) and storage via photosynthesis and new growth is achieved. However, while old growth forests everywhere have overall limits to their ability to absorb and store carbon, the amount of carbon stored specifically in wet temperate coastal old growth forests is phenomenal compared to forests in other regions of BC and the continent. Old growth and mature second growth on the coast have roughly ten times per hectare of the cellulose fibre volumes as interior forests, and therein ten times the fuel for forest fires, ten times the carbon stored, and ten times the wood commodity. No wonder they have become a focus of attention.

    It is technically incorrect to state that logging a section of old growth forest will “release” its entire store of carbon. That is possible only when 100 percent of it burns or decays, (i.e. completes the carbon cycle). It is, of course, correct to state the obvious: that trees will stop absorbing carbon once dead; that logging, slash burning, fueling beehive burners and wood stoves, milling, and wood-related transportation and construction all emit carbon; and that reforestation of any kind will rekindle the carbon absorption cycle on a particular site.

    After these considerations, the carbon-cellulose structure of harvested trees remains largely intact in the form of dimensional lumber, but there is a measureable loss in sawdust that is not recycled into particle board or oriented strand board, which in my opinion are inferior products that don’t stand up to wear and tear or water infiltration into building envelopes.

    Thousands of cubic metres of carbon-cellulose from old growth Douglas fir logged a century ago in BC have become a hot commodity in the form of large dimension fir timbers from old mills and warehouses, which are now usually carefully removed during redevelopment and are reused in other buildings or furniture. This today is tragically not the case where smaller-dimension lumber in older houses usually ends up in the landfill where the wood decays quickly and releases its carbon. My own house is 103 years old and has old growth Douglas fir studs (their inherent carbon still intact) in the original walls. I’ve saved the larger bits of fir from renovations for use in furniture later. It’s a beautiful wood when re-sanded to remove a century of grime. It is also quite hard as the unique properties of fir resin allow it to petrify into a golden orange colour.

    It becomes an entirely different matter when you consider the very stable ecosystem coastal old growth forests signify. They not only store carbon, but billions of litres of water, and provide one of the most unique and relatively rare habitat systems and is truly worthy of protection from further damage. As mentioned above, there is a tremendous amount of carbon-cellulose contained in the trees, not just in the tree stems and branches but in the form of massive subsurface root systems which literally hold together the soil even where the heaviest rains fall. The symbiotic soil chemistry relationship between tree roots and micorrhiza fungi, which effectively brings water and nutrients to a plant’s root system from hundreds of metres away through microscopic inter-linkage, is heavily disrupted with clear cut logging. Then you have all the other well-known effects of industrial-scale logging: incremental long term erosion into streams and marshes rated as salmonid habitat; landslides and the loss of an entire soil structure on slope rainforest landscapes; replanting with monocrops; pest infestation in areas with a limited-species mix; etc. We are at the point in BC history where, in my opinion, all logging in the remaining remnants of old growth forest must stop and the remaining forest lands must undergo a new model of management that accounts for climate change and holistic ecosystem planning.

    Dr. Hamish Kimmins (with the UBC Forestry Dept., probably retired now) stated repeatedly in his courses that the regenerative power of that ultimate pioneer species, the ever-prolific but lowly alder, should be harnessed to assist the re-establishment of forests in logged over areas all over BC. A mature alder fixes about 90 kilograms of atmospheric nitrogen into the soil every year and absorbs a significant amount of carbon. Once a 100-year old alder forest gives way naturally to native climax conifer species, it has built up the organic content of the soil by about 30 centimetres and fixed on average nine metric tonnes of nitrogen for every tree into the soil, thus creating exceedingly rich conditions for further forest growth. Alder is adapted to a large variety of conditions and grows very fast, and because of its beneficial and resilient properties Kimmins recommended borrowing an obvious technique from Mother Nature and seed alder from airplanes as a cheap, quick and very effective technique to help re-establish forests over large logged-over areas, which would also conform to the notion that planting mixed species adapted to local conditions is not just Nature’s way, but a form of Best Management Practices. This was a simple idea, but forestry companies to this day consider alder a “weed tree” and continue planting a select few coniferous species in huge plantations all over the damaged landscape with little attention paid to the soil or complete ecosystems.

    In my opinion the following steps should be considered:

    – Protect all remaining coastal old growth forests in perpetuity.

    – Recalibrate forestry and land planning policy at the provincial level to factor in climate change (which will affect parts of the province differently than others), urban growth and community management of local public forests.

    – Emphasize limited selection logging practices based on thorough analysis of location conditions. Many private and community forest stands in Switzerland and Germany have been sustainably harvested this way for centuries and are very healthy, mixed species stands.

    – Place a special effort on silvicultural research into beetle-resistant species and a very large-scale replacement of the beetle-devastated interior pine forests with a wider mix of species.

    – Purchase all remaining private lands held by private forest interests, notably on Vancouver Island. Huge swaths of these lands were sold over the last decade to private developers with secret provincial authorization that effectively allowed said companies to avoid a big land zoning related tax bullet. Therein, a substantial area of unsustainable large-lot rural residential and suburban developments will appear in coming years in areas not served by transit and utilities, and reforestation will likely not even be considered. If these lands were purchased by the public sector (hopefully with federal support), this holding could become an effective instrument to negotiate sustainable development practices on previously logging-damaged sites with regional districts and First Nations within range of urban services. One can imagine starting perhaps with showcase or model car-free, transit-oriented villages linked by rail with each other and to the ferries. Reforestation of probably half of the lands in question and offering local towns, regional districts and First Nations conditional management of community forests outside of protected habitats could effectively guarantee long-term sustainable forests and economic opportunities.

    We need to do better in this key realm of stewardship, especially in this unique province.


    February 28, 2013 at 12:28 pm

  4. …They took all the trees
    And put them in a tree museum
    Then they charged the people
    Nine ninety nine just to see ‘em…


    February 28, 2013 at 12:30 pm

  5. Admission Rates

    Summer Admission Rates June 1 through Labour Day
    Adults $15.00
    Seniors (65 & older) $13.00
    Youth (13 to 18 years old ) $13.00
    Children (5 to 12 years old) $10.00
    4 and under FREE

    Special Shoulder Season Admission Rates
    Includes April, May, and September (after Labour Day) to October
    Adults $11.00
    Seniors (65 & older) $9
    Youth (13 to 18 years old) $9
    Children (5 to 12 years old) $7
    4 and under FREE

    Family Day Pass $55.00
    (2 Adults or Seniors & 3 Children/Youth

    Special Admission Rate
    *Only applies during Christmas Express, Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival & Easter Scavenger Hunt
    $7 per Adult/Senior//Youth
    $5 per Child (2-12 years)
    Children under 2 are FREE

    Stephen Rees

    February 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm

  6. @ Rico

    Many excellent points. Kudos.

    It’s true that concrete, masonry and steel replace wood where wood is not abundant. Wood is underused even here in BC, notably in buildings over four stories. Vancouver-based architect Michael Green is one of many trying to change that and is advocating towers made from wood. He has some exquisite neo-modernist works out there, not the least North Vancouver city hall. If you peruse his website you’ll see some beautiful glue-laminated timbers used in the city hall project.

    I’d really like to see further exploration of engineered wood in Vancouver. I suspect that there is a huge potential to expand on its use and produce some very creative and pleasing structures, not necessarily towers. Engineered wood has proven itself structurally in projects like the Richmond Skating Oval with a glue-lam beam roof with a horrendous clear span. Much of the wood came from beetle-killed pine and therein the timbers have a blue tinge. This ain’t old growth wood.

    It stands to reason that engineered wood products could perform well economically in attached single-family (rowhouses, town houses) and multi-family low and medium-rise buildings considering their design flexibility and factory-controlled fabrication. Even though they may be more expensive than traditional stick framing in terms of materials cost, the precision made-to-measure pieces can be bolted together quickly on site and save on labour. The finished housing product appears on the market faster and would be less subject to inclement weather compared to stud framing, which usually has significant shrink-swell deficiencies related to winter-long exposure during construction. That is one reason to avoid oriented strand board as exterior sheathing, though it is technically an engineered wood product. How many cheap houses turn grey (and probably were structurally weakened) as the OSB was exposed for several weeks to rain and fungus while under construction?

    If, say, a six-storey structure was made from stout glue-lam posts and beams and engineered wood joists, it would take a fraction of the time to erect compared to a concrete structure where building forms is very labour and time intensive. Structural engineers can design fabricated steel joints that provide excellent seismic resistance. Moreover, with floating floor and proven fire-rated wall + ceiling insulation and sound attenuation techniques were utilized, it would arguably be as sound tight – even more so – than solid concrete in both airborne and impact sound generation considerations. Features like these would make strata councils happy.


    February 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm

  7. MB, you may be aware that more and more single family houses in Europe, along with small apartment buildings, are built using custom-made prefabricated panels of cross-laminated timber.
    Not a huge number yet but its coming.
    The great advantage is that the shell of a home can be erected in a few days.

    I saw photos of such panels used to add 2 storeys to a low building in Paris. Using the traditional method of walls made of concrete blogs or load bearing bricks would have required that 1/ 2 the width of a narrow street be closed on a whole block… for the crane, trucks etc. with neighbours bothered by noise for months.
    In that project the street was closed for 2 days I think (sidewalks were open) and it was acceptable to the neighbours.

    I have notice a couple of apartment buildings around Vancouver that are 5 storeys high and of sticks and plywood and don’t like it at all.

    As for the carbon tax….I understand the concept, but the cynic in me sees it as hypocritical as the forgiveness of sins by a Catholic priest who suspected he was lied in the confessional to but couldn’t do much about it…

    Red frog

    March 1, 2013 at 12:28 am

  8. Red frog, there are a couple of companies specializing in pre-fabricated, factory-built single-family homes in Vancouver. One is run by an architect, so the designs are pretty decent. Their main attraction is, as you outlined in your Euro example, the quick assembly. Other features include watertight factory-made wall panels that are just trucked to the site and bolted together very quickly on a pre-built concrete foundation. Some of the better contractors here now place a big tent over their construction sites to effectively eliminate slower construction or deficiencies related to winter construction that would otherwise saturate teh entire wood frame structure for weeks.

    I see much potential for rowhouses using these techniques to keep construction costs affordable. One contractor could feasibly build 10 at a time and minimize mobilization costs and construction timeframes. For example, one crane placed near the middle units could service the entire site, and crews would simply assemble the units like a kit with numbered parts.

    None of these techniques means that good design would be eliminated. In fact, with good architects and project managers, they could win awards and portray the best urbanism Vancouver has yet to offer. Unfortunately, “pre-fab” here has connotations with trailer park culture and cheapness, so there may have to be some good press to get this idea off the ground.

    Back in the early 20th Century you could order a kit house from factories in Ontario, the US Midwest or the eastern seaboard of the US. The house would be packed onto trains and shipped to the nearest railyard or station. Many kit houses had wonderful Edwardian and Craftsman architecture — some even had stained glass windows and high-quality millwork.


    March 1, 2013 at 9:59 am

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