B.C.’s forest and range ecosystems are far more complex and subtle than the arguments we have over how to manage them. The current dispute centred on the recently leaked government timber supply document is a case in point. Politicians’ consideration of logging in what critics describes as forest preserves has quickly led to two opposing and simplistic positions. To propose logging sensitive areas to mitigate timber supply is driven by short-term thinking. And the opposing position, that these areas are off limits, is animated by ideology more than a careful observation of events on the ground. Neither do the subject proper justice.
The wise public policy that circumstances call for, which should have a lot to do with restoring resilience to our forest and range ecosystems, will not be found in resorting to the old polarities of logging versus preserving our forests. Those positions do not answer to the dynamic forces that have swept the landscape already in one remarkable wave of insects. Continuing effects are now gaining potential to create a series of aftershocks including unprecedented fire, unexpected flooding, and economic disruption. As demonstrated already, these events have little regard for our timber supply assumptions or the boundaries we have drawn on maps designating who gets what, and for what purposes. Our conversation on forest management has to reflect these emerging complexities and the dramatic new ecological paradigm that we are just beginning to realize we are caught up in.
One area this new conversation will have to explore is the actual disposition of “static reserves” which have produced so much contention. BC’s system of static reserves (static in time and place), including Protected Area’s, Old Growth Management Area’s, riparian reserves, Ungulate Winter Range, Wildlife Tree Patches, Wildlife Habitat Area’s, and other constraints on landscape management (e.g., Visual Quality Objectives), have not been successful in meeting their intended objectives.
A good example is from 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, where a natural process (wildfire) negatively affected the many static reserves within its perimeter. None of the reserves had been actively managed to build in resilience ahead of the fire (and haven’t post-fire) with the result now leaving large areas of forest that are not meeting the intended objectives behind the reserve designation. Numerous other examples from the last decade (Nuntzi Provincial Park, Stein Valley Provincial Park, etc.) suggest this trend is on the rise. The inference from these observations is the paradox that a certain amount of intervention—e.g. in the Okanagan case, thinning would have offset the denied effects of the area’s historical fire regime—is required to keep reserves in the condition we would like to think of as their natural state.
The obverse of this is true as well, particularly when we try to sustain a land use objective that runs contrary to the ecological forces that want to play out on the landscape. For example, if we intend to maintain unnaturally high density stands of Douglas-fir in the Okanagan for ungulate winter range or flammulated owl habitat, then managers are forced to protect them from those natural processes that tend to affect that unnatural forest structure (wildfire, spruce budworm, Douglas-fir beetle, tussock moth, etc.). This requires active, overwhelming fire suppression and spraying to maintain this state.
But practices to date don’t generally include active management of most reserves. The issue is that dynamic forces of nature continue to impact them and affect the goals under which they were established. Conflicts then are likely to arise in the future when the static reserves are lost to natural disturbances. Advocates for those reserves are likely to come to the province with demands to replace them. Legislation may compel the province in some cases, such as in the case of the federal Species At Risk Act, to enter into costly and time-consuming negotiations with licensees and tenure holders to replace lost reserves. There is a good chance that our current course will put us in the future in the same untenable land-use position we currently find ourselves, only it will originate from the conservation side.
It is interesting to note that threats to static reserves come mostly in the form of wildfire, insects and diseases; similar to threats facing our timber supply in many regions. It is also worth noting that the most threatened reserves are located in the ecosystems most departed in structure and composition from historical conditions, in particular, where fire suppression has led to dramatic increases in density and in species shifts. Also embedded in these landscapes are millions of dollars of public investments in reforestation as well as the current capital we are counting on to supply timber.
Nature of course will not be fooled by much of the ongoing partisan posturing. If we want to preserve what is valuable to us on the land we will need to manage the entire landscape under an ecosystem management paradigm. This will mean no longer subscribing to the fallacy of static reserves. Nor will it tolerate treating the landscape as a convenient means to obtain a particular commercial commodity. By managing fluidly to restore resilient ecosystem structure and species composition we may be able to live off a landscape similar to pre-European settlement. Unfortunately we are a long and discouraging way from having that kind of conversation, let alone seeing it realized.