September 14, 2003
Lessons from B.C.’s Forest Fires
Canadians are horrified by the forest fires in British Columbia. But after all the smoke has cleared, literally and metaphorically, some hard questions need to be asked about forest management in that province and indeed in all of Canada.
Why are “modern” forest fires so devastating? Recent conflagrations in B.C. and in the western United States have been untameable monsters that consume everything in their paths. The answer lies in forest management, or more properly the lack of forest management. The blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the “green” movement, and with governments who only too willingly destroy forest-dependent communities to appease the “trees before people” crowd.
The “green” brigades have been pushing hard to protect old growth forests from harvesting and to forbid the sensible practice of clear-cutting. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Huge tracts of forest are now off limits to logging, with the attendant devastation of rural communities stripped of their resource base.
These forests get older and older. Couple this fact with active fire suppression and the result is an unnatural build-up of fuel in these over-mature forests. Ecologists quite rightly point out that fire is a natural phenomenon and fires were common throughout pre-European North America. Some even say, “Let the fires burn,” but there are simply too many people and communities scattered throughout North America to let this happen to any great degree. No forest management plus fire suppression equal really, really big fires.
If that weren’t enough for poor B.C., the mountain pine beetle has caused the death of pine forests across huge regions of the interior. “So what?” you may ask; trees always get bugs. But the beetle only attacks large, mature trees and their activity creates thousands of acres of dead trees that fuel fires, a disaster waiting to happen. The misguided effort to eliminate commercial forestry has resulted in over-mature pine forests, which are then killed by the beetle, and the dead forests become tinder boxes.We do experience bad fires in Manitoba. But our active system of forest management and forest renewal reduces the likelihood of catastrophic fires and allows us to fight the ones that do flare up more effectively.
The ridiculous billboards in Winnipeg which denounce “logging in parks” Are laughable. Successive provincial governments, regardless of political stripe, have seen the wisdom of active forest management in our parks. Not only does forestry provide us with the means to prevent fires by reducing the area of over-mature forest, it also creates a more interesting ecology. Multi-aged forests are much more appealing than those uniform “old” forests that dominate so-called “protected” areas.
Multi-aged forests provide habitat for a wide variety of species. The temporary access roads built by forest companies grow back into interesting trails that are just the ticket for avid bird hunters. The active forest management carried on in Duck Mountain Provincial Park has created a more diverse, interesting, and productive park than in Riding Mountain National Park, where little or no management occurs.
Contrary to the anti-people views of the “greens,” I am convinced that the hand of man can be a positive force for landscape management. Manage we must, simply due to our overwhelming presence on the land. In the case of our forests, doing nothing is no longer an option. British Columbia is learning that the hard way.
Robert Sopuck, Senior Fellow
is a modern environmentalst whose interests include solving environmental problems without reducing human freedom. He is a natural resource policy consultant with a special interest in rural issues who lives and works at Lake Audy, Manitoba. He received his B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba and Masters from Cornell University. His first career was in fisheries management. He later coordinated the sustainable development initiative for the province of Manitoba and was on the Canadian delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was Manitoba's observer on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. In October 2007 he was appointed to the federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.