Canadian forestry: the evidence says we should be proud

This year has provided me with two competing exposures to forestry; our trip across Canada, and what “everybody knows” about forestry. And a recent news story inspired me to dig into some details. What I found was a solution in search of a problem.

One thing that struck me as our family journeyed from Alberta to the East Coast is how much forest Canada is covered by. To describe it as “a lot” might win me the understatement of the year award. Unless you have driven for days on end – hour after hour after hour – through Canada’s seemingly endless supply of trees, you cannot even begin to fathom the magnitude of how many trees Canada has. And even the forests we saw alongside the roads we drove exposed us to only a tiny fraction of all the forest contained in Canada.

Out of interest after our trip I had poked around a bit at some forestry websites to get a bit of a sense of the methodologies they employ to harvest the forest for human purposes. The overarching theme is that Canada’s forestry industry employs some of the highest safety and environmental standards anywhere in the world, and our eco-responsibility is second to none.

So you can imagine how deeply my eyeballs rolled back in my head when I read this news story,

A United Nations report, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015, found that Canada was one of few developed nations to experience a decline in woodland areas between 1990 and 2015. Conversely, many countries in Europe, plus the United States, China and Australia, had increased their forested lands, the UN report found.

Canada also didn’t fare well in the report when it comes to safeguarding forests through parks and protected areas. Less than seven per cent of the country’s forests are protected for the long-term. That sits far behind the U.S. (11 per cent), China (13 per cent) Australia (17 per cent) and Brazil (42 per cent).

Oh, great; more eco-crusading informed entirely by a misreading of the facts.

No, Paul; don’t jump to conclusions. Especially not when they provide a link to the very data upon which they are basing the conclusions.

So, I went to the link, replete with tables and tables of data. Ok, so far I’m impressed (numbers do that for me).

Table 1: Canada has the third largest forest area in the world (347,069,000 ha) after Russia (814,931,000 ha) and Brazil (493,538,000 ha). We beat out the USA (310,095,000 ha) and China (208,321,000 ha).

Table 2: The extent of the forest has declined from 348,273,000 ha in 1990 down to the present value of 347,069,000 ha. That’s a total change of 1,204,000 ha. That’s about 0.35% of the total forested area in Canada.

Yes, you read that right. Over the past 25 years Canada has lost a grand total of 0.35% of all the forested land area is has.

So how big is 1,204,000 ha? That’s 12,040 square km. If that were all put in one giant square, that would end up being 110 km X 110 km. According to Google Maps, the drive from Vancouver, BC all the way to Sydney, NB, is about 6,019 km. Total driving time at a steady speed of 100 km/h is about 60 hours. That would take almost a week of driving if you drove 10 hours each day.

So to put Canada’s total forest area loss in the past 25 years into perspective, it would take you a little over one hour to drive across the total forest loss in all of Canada (if it were put in a perfect square) compared to driving a total of 60 hours – almost a whole week of daily driving (accounting for sleep breaks) – to drive across the entire country.

Or, let’s consider it from another perspective; per capita. How much land has been lost in the past 25 years per Canadian citizen? To make the math easy let’s use round numbers; an “average” Canadian population of about 36,000,000 people, compared to roughly 12,000 km2. That means, over the course of 25 years, each Canadian “consumed” a total of 0.00033 km2 of forestry.

That’s about 333 square meters; roughly 18m X 18m. If we reduce that to an annualized area, Canadians consumed about 3.65m X 3.65m of forest land each year. That’s less than the size of a two-car garage per year.

If it were up to me I’d rather see a net loss of zero, but this minuscule area is still a very good testament to Canadian eco-responsibility. The percentage is so small, in fact, that in Table 2, under “annual change rate” it just rounds the percentage loss down to 0.0.

Compared to the unfathomably massive forestry resources within our borders, our forestry loss is essentially zero.

That speaks volumes.

And, to put those numbers into another very important context, the total area loss over 25 years is only a little more than the total area loss due to forest fires in any single – very tame – forest fire year. Using the data at the link provided above, in any particular year Canada loses somewhere between under 1,000,000 ha (e.g., 2001) up to about 7,000,000 ha (1995).

If we lose an average of, say, 2,000,000 ha/yr to forest fires and compare that to the total annual loss as reported at the Global Forest Resources Assessment which hovers around 50,000 ha/yr (Table 2) then the total annual loss due to forest fires is about 40X the total annual loss for all forests.

So whatever impact humans are having on the forests is a pittance compared to the natural cycles of the forest, untouched by humans. And, unlike forest fires, we have this tendency to actively replant that which we cut down.

The report contains some other interesting information.

Table 3: “Other wooded area.” Since 1990 the total “other” wooded area has not changed by a single hectare. Not one hectare up or down in 25 years! Clearly we are not generally reckless with our natural resources.

Table 5: The highest rate of deforestation was 65,000 ha/yr between 1990 and 2000. As a function of the total forest area (in 1990) that’s about 0.019% / yr. The rate of deforestation these days has declined to about 48,000 ha/yr. Again, compare that to the roughly 2,000,000 hectares that get burned every year through forest fires to gain a little perspective.

Table 6: The rate of reforestation has ranged from 401,000 ha/yr up to 496,000 ha/yr, and it’s all “artificial” which I assume is code for “responsible Canadians (probably mostly in the forestry industry) are doing a whole bunch of replanting.”

Tables 8, 9 and 10: The primary forest (table 8) and the “other naturally regenerated forest” (table 9) are in decline by a total of about 28,600 ha/yr + 467,800 ha/yr = 496,400 ha/yr in the most recent year on record. According to table 10, however, “planted forest” is increasing by 448,000 ha/yr for the same time period. It’s not quite keeping up with the total decline, but at 90% they’re not doing too bad.

[I’m not sure why “planted forest” (table 10) shows up as 448,000 ha/yr and “reforestation” (table 6) shows up as 496,000 ha/yr. Are we supposed to combine those two, or do they overlap? I’m not sure; the data seems unclear.]

There’s plenty of other data in the report but most of it doesn’t alter the overall picture. Canada has an unfathomable forest resource in our backyard and we are, for the most part, doing a world-class job of managing our resources in a way that benefits humanity without sacrificing the ecosystem. Are there was to improve things? Of course; there always will be! And we need to continue seeking out improvements.

But (as far as I can read the data) there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t hold our heads high and confidently declare to the world that Canada takes our eco-responsibilities seriously and we have the data to back that up.

Nature Conservancy of Canada would like to expand the protected areas, but protection is only required where there is a threat. What’s the threat? We have decades of data showing that Canadians – including Canadian-owned companies that engage in forestry – are doing an absolutely stellar job of managing our resources responsibly. Our eco-footprint in this regard is a tiny pittance of the footprint of natural processes like forest fires.

As I showed previously (here and here) even the oil sands represent a tiny fraction of the “destruction” to the forests that forest fires represent. The total land that might ever get disrupted for surface mining of the oil sands is only about 3,525 square km which (for yet another comparison) is a tiny fraction of the 12,040 square km already lost.

And that was a pittance of the total forest area in Canada.

All-in-all, I would argue, we can be proud. Constantly vigilant for ways to continue improving, yes, but still proud.