Safer communities through saved forests

Photo: BC Wildfire Service

Landslides. Floods. Wildfires. They come with a vengeance, sweeping away or burning up communities. When they’re happening, they seem inevitable.

But what if these events weren’t inevitable? What if the solution was closer than we think? To get to the root of these problems, we need to look to the trees.

The provincial government released a Strategic Climate Risk Assessment earlier this year, identifying 15 climate risks to our communities over the coming decades as climate change worsens. The report was a daunting 427 pages long. But something was glaringly missing.

In the entire report, no mention was made of the impacts that the logging industry would have on these projected climate change risks. Sierra Club BC decided to tackle the report’s omission, hiring Dr. Peter Wood to comb existing research and address the logging industry’s impact on climate change risks to our communities.

We’ve invited Dr. Wood to present his findings at a webinar this month, and encourage anyone interested in forestry practices and the health of our communities to join.

Of the 15 expected climate impacts outlined in the provincial report, Wood found about nine of those will be impacted by our forest management. He honed in on the three that are expected to be some of the most severe for community health and safety: forest fires, flooding, and landslides.

Wood compiled findings from some 120 different scientific sources of information to produce the report: Intact Forests, Safe Communities. And what he found was that we can reduce the risk of climate-related disasters in BC by reforming our current forestry practices.

“What we saw when we looked at some of the science that’s available is that more intensively managed landscapes — so the industrial forest landscapes of heavy clearcutting / replanting — tend to be more fire prone,” reports Wood.

Industry touts the line that if you don’t log, the forest gets old, accumulates a lot of fuel and will burn out of control if a wildfire goes through. But recent studies disprove that long-held tenet.

“Even in some of these drier systems and protected areas — the areas that haven’t had the industrial influences — are actually still much better at withstanding the effects of forest fire,” he says.

Forestry practices today make the situation worse for communities. With practices such as leaving up to 50% woody debris behind in giant tinder-dry piles ripe for wildfire fuel, or replanting clearcuts for timber values instead of biodiversity, today’s methods do little to protect our health and safety, instead only focusing on the golden rule of annual allowable cuts.

Flooding in Hagensborg, BC, west of Williams Lake. Photo: BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure

Repercussions from logging go beyond summer wildfires too. Older forests act as moderating influences on the landscape, absorbing and releasing water more slowly, thereby reducing the risks of flooding. The intricate root systems underneath trees decays and releases its hold on the soil after a tree is cut. Those underground systems provide integral structural support to soil on steep slopes. Once that tree is harvested, it’s just a matter of time before the underlying soil stability deteriorates, increasing the likelihood of landslides and rapid water runoffs.

Even the water running through our taps is put at risk from current logging practices. It used to be that logging companies tended to shy away from community drinking water sources, Wood reflects. But as easily-accessible timber supplies have dwindled, companies have turned more and more to forests that feed into community drinking water supplies. This can have serious ramifications on the health, safety, and even pocketbooks of our communities. Wood cites the example of Peachland, BC. The small Okanagan community recently had to spend $24 million on a water filtration plant after clearcutting damaged the natural filtration system that kept their water clear and clean.

While risks to communities increase when forests are logged, the good news is that the reverse is also true: as we protect our few remaining intact forests and manage the rest for ecosystem health, we also protect the health and safety of our communities, biodiversity, and combat climate change. To do so, Wood’s research surmises, will require a fundamental paradigm shift, placing these values ahead of short-term profits.

Wood will share the findings from his research at our webinar, Save forests; Safe communities, on Wednesday, September 29th at 7 pm mountain time (6 pm Pacific). Register today.

After the relentless wildfires of this summer across BC, it’s hard to forget that many of our communities are surrounded by forests.Register 
A grassroots effort made provincial news recently, when a successful crowdfunding campaign garnered $400,000 to buy a 40-hectare piece of privately-owned land…Learn more