A helicopter sprays glypophosate on a young conifer plantation.
I GREW UP IN PUNCHAW, in the middle of the Quesnel-Vanderhoof-Prince George triangle, on a ranch. I watched unbroken forests of pine, spruce, aspen and fir get harvested at a sane rate, feeding a small local mill, Clear Lake, where my dad worked as a machinist and where I worked in the late 1990s on the green chain and the strip pile.
But the pine beetle came along, and things changed. Rules seemed to get thrown out the window. I would later learn the significance of the elimination of the Forest Practices Code and its replacement with the Forest Range and Practices Act in the early 2000s. But that’s not what I noticed. I noticed an unmistakeable change in the attitude towards our forests. Progress to selective logging in the late 1990s evaporated. Maybe folks thought what was the point of being careful, the beetle will just get it anyway. Industrial forestry went into overdrive. The machines got bigger, the mills got bigger, and the forests got levelled. This idea is still dominant. That if we don’t take it, nature will. But we have learned this is fundamentally harmful—an idea which we have so much work to do to correct.
I watched the forests try to regenerate. I even planted a bunch of them as a treeplanter. Most places saw a huge blossoming of aspen, as we had watched for decades and expected. Historically, a lot of the aspen was left alone. But the new generation of foresters had different ideas. I would later attribute this to broader global trends towards austerity, neoliberalism, the absolute maximization of shareholder value, maybe inspired by Thatcherism and Reaganomics. A new dogma of corporate subjugation. Bend the forests to the will of global capital. And so a massive campaign of spraying deciduous plants with glypophosate broke out in our area around 2000, led primarily by Canfor and a handful of thoughtless foresters.
Eventually, they sprayed up to the boundary of our property and at this time I came face to face with this silent killer that would come unobserved at dawn in the form of a helicopter and change the forest forever.
This was in 2010. I started to pay more attention to the grey expanse of dead aspen in the sprayed blocks. I attempted to write a freelance article about it. The article was never published and I ended up being an activist, I guess you could call it. Though my goal has been to report the truth as a journalist should. My research went into the Stop the Spray BC website. What followed has been a disorienting, demoralizing descent into the dark heart of bureaucratic madness and stupidity. But also a journey of discovery and hope, not least of which was the realization I wasn’t alone. That there was, and is, a community of people committed to something our own government and public employees were not: forestry based not on the principles of agriculture and pseudoscience, but upon the principles of ecology, biodiversity, and reality.
“The war on aspen” is my particular area of expertise that has come of this and what I hope to contribute to this community of change. But, of course, the war is not just limited to aspen. Other critical species like birch, cottonwood, alder, maple, Saskatoon and willow are also targeted.
Ultimately what it is, is a fraudulent, deceptive form of accounting. If we can max out the theoretical growth of the crop trees by eliminating competition and short-circuiting succession, we can cut more today. It is a scheme of defrauding the ecosystem out of more than it can give. There are obvious losers. Species that depend on aspen and other deciduous being the prime examples: Moose, beaver, many species of birds, diverse insect populations, diverse plant communities. Without the aspen the whole forest understory is transformed, and this transformation will last for the duration of the forest’s life. All these species are defrauded. But we also defraud ourselves. By getting rid of the aspen we make our forests more likely to burn, less diverse in the face of insect attacks, and less capable of sequestering carbon. A recent study has shown that aspen sequester up to 400 percent more carbon than spruce over 100 years. The aspen will also cool down the landscape, as it has significantly higher albedo, and will gather more precipitation throughfall and hang onto that water better, and will fertilize the soil with leaf litter and richer mycorrhizae. It goes on and on and much of this we barely understand.
Suzanne Simard had documented all of this for decades before I started investigating it. Federal government researchers in the American West have thoroughly compiled much of this stuff for a century. We know aspen has incredible ecosystem benefits. And despite knowing all this, the forests ministry blindly continues with the war on aspen.
The only explanation is that we are so committed to the fraud of modern “sustainable” forestry that we will intentionally and knowingly devalue our forests and make them more likely to fail. It’s basically white-collar crime that is legally protected. We have created complex and boilerplate legal parameters that prevent any independent investigation of it. The Forest Practices Board is under no legal obligation to determine whether the systematic eradication of aspen in our forests is a problem. It is not within their mandate to investigate the wisdom of systematically making our forests more prone to fire or pest outbreaks. In fact the Board is more likely to reprimand a licensee for not getting rid of enough aspen! For not making it as big of a fire-trap as it could be! It goes without saying that there are no laws or statutes that protect aspen. One-hundred percent of all aspen in every cutblock across the entire central Interior under every major forest stewardship plan can get wiped out. The fact that some aspen survives is in spite of the rules, not because of them.
The war on aspen is such a fundamental fraud and scientific deceit that no one will take responsibility for it. The companies that spray say the government makes them do it. The policy makers in Victoria say the district managers could declare aspen a commercial species. The district managers say Victoria ties their hands as to what is defined as commercial or not. They inevitably send you back to the company. “Professional reliance,” after all. The private companies have effectively privatized our forests. They manage them. From horizon-to-horizon clearcuts to horizon-to-horizon pine plantations. We did that so we don’t have to do any work, is the government’s argument. Now leave us alone.
Several other commonly used forestry practices are similarly harmful to ecological integrity. Replanting with a single commercially attractive species is putting large areas of forest at risk of succumbing to the same disease. Replanting with commercially attractive species instead of species naturally adapted to a particular area has led to massive failures to regrow. Allowing permanent, ballasted roads and landings has resulted in permanent losses of forestland of between 5 and 10 percent. Logging of areas burned by forest fires has negative impacts on species adapted to those burned forests. Beetle salvage logging has resulted in total forest loss in areas where only a small fraction of the forest had been affected by beetles. And so on.
It’s a sad state of affairs. Someone is making political decisions about what our landscapes look like, impacting the lives of many people, and nobody wants to be seen as responsible for it.
How do we get to a different place, where logging companies cutting publicly-owned forests are constrained from inflicting the harm to ecosystems being committed under the current regime of high-intensity industrial forestry and professional reliance? You tell me.
James Steidle grew up south of Prince George in the bush and worked as a treeplanter for 3 years and in Clear Lake Sawmills for 4 years. He currently runs a woodworking company and works with aspen wherever he can. He is a founder of Stop the Spray B.C.
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