Canada’s Zombie Forests
How logging has quietly taken its toll on the country’s woodland.
Although Canada has developed a reputation as a responsible steward of its massive — and environmentally crucial — boreal forests, a new study published in the journal Land calls that reputation into question. The analysis, by researchers at Australia’s Griffith University, found that 35.4 million acres of the country’s evergreen forests in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have been effectively lost to logging since 1976. The government-approved methods used to regenerate those forests — which require loggers to replant cleared areas or show that the region will recover on its own — have had a devastating result, as similar practices have had in many other parts of the world.
Overview of logged forest within the study area from 1976 to 2020.Climate Action Beacon, Griffith University
While 56 million acres of older trees remain across the two provinces, that acreage is now interspersed with patchworks of newly planted trees chosen for their future suitability for logging, not for purposes of ecological diversity or wildfire prevention. “The Canadian government claims to have managed the forest according to the principles of sustainable forest management,” Brendan Mackey, the study’s lead author, toldThe New York Times. “But its notion of sustainability is really tied to maintaining and maximizing wood production and ensuring the regeneration of commercially desirable trees. That has a lot of implications for biodiversity.”
Canada’s forest managers say that “At 0.02% of its forested area, [the rate of] deforestation in Canada is among the world’s lowest,” which sounds impressive until this caveat: “an area with very young trees is still a forest. The term ‘deforestation’ refers to land that has been cleared of trees and permanently converted to another use.” It’s a bit like claiming that a zombie is a healthy, normal person, simply because it seems to be alive. So while Canada may not have widespread deforestation, what it does have are swaths of newer trees that are far less effective than their forebears when it comes to carbon capture, species diversity, and wildfire prevention. “Forest degradation is the more important metric for Canada because it really captures more of what’s actually happening,” Peter Wood, of the University of British Columbia, told the Times. “Canada has downplayed the impact of the forest industry.”