Debunking Forestry Myths: A Closer Look at Wildfire Risk and its Impact on Communities, Biodiversity and Wildlife.

November 6, 2023
By: cpawsstaff

Debunking Forestry Myths: A Closer Look at Wildfire Risk and its Impact on Communities, Biodiversity and Wildlife.

Canada has seen one of its largest and longest fire seasons yet with over 18 million hectares having burned in 2023 nation-wide. Many communities across the country have been impacted by wildfire, whether it was through prolonged days of poor air quality, altered summer plans, or having lived through the traumatic experience of being evacuated from their homes.  

That said, when talking about wildfire in Canada, it would be difficult to avoid talking about our forests, their health, and how they are managed. In addition to forest management, climate change is the leading factor in increasing wildfire risk and severity — and so, for years, communities across the country have witnessed unusually dry conditions that have created the perfect storm for severe wildfires. 
 
In Alberta, forestry is a major industry and forestry companies can play an important role in helping to reduce wildfire risk around communities. However, in many cases the industry is using our fears of wildfire to justify ecologically harmful, profit-seeking practices. Does the “Love Alberta Forests” campaign ring a bell? It’s an initiative from the Alberta Forest Products Association, an industry lobbying group that works to promote the industry’s interests. Some of the claims made by the AFPA are highly misleading and are designed to garner support for practices and regulations that favour the industry’s bottom line. They tout their vision for sustainable forestry, but in practice they push for maximizing economic value, seeing our forests as a resource to extract, rather than for their inherent value as habitat for innumerable species, land for exercising Indigenous Treaty rights and cultural practices, and a nature-based climate solution.  
 
The truth is that current forest management practices and land use heighten Alberta’s wildfire risk and severity. 
 
As wildfire seasons continue to worsen and the number of people living, working, and recreating in areas with severe wildfire risk increases, we desperately need scientifically defensible forest management that is focused on protecting communities, biodiversity, and wildlife. To do that, we need to be able to have honest discussions about how forest management influences wildfire risk. The forestry industry has an important role to play in protecting communities from wildfire, but current practices don’t do enough to achieve this — and some even make the problem worse. Below, we address some of the most common myths created and perpetuated by the forestry industry, which are used to justify profit-first forestry practices. 

MYTH: Clearcut logging should be used to reduce wildfire risk.

FACT: Industrial scale clearcuts are not a good tool for wildfire mitigation. 

While the forestry industry frequently asserts that clearcutting old forests across the landscape will mitigate fire risk, evidence supporting this claim is lacking. In reality, many facets of current forestry practices are ineffective in reducing fire risk, and these methods may even exacerbate the risk of wildfire. 

MYTH: Increasing the harvest of old growth stands will reduce wildfire risk to communities. 

FACT: Targeted treatments that are specifically designed to minimize wildfire risk around communities are the most effective forest management options to reduce risk to those communities.

To reduce wildfire risk near communities, targeted treatments (such as thinning, harvest design and forest composition) are the most effective approach. The idea that increasing old-growth forest harvest rates on a landscape level protects communities from fires is misleading. Instead, the focus should be on strategies within the wildland-urban interface (the areas where human development meets or intermingles with the natural environment). 

Ultimately, weather conditions drive fire; and, as climate change worsens fire regimes, we will continue to see more wildfires. Nevertheless, there is much more that can and should be done to minimize risk to communities, and the forestry industry can be an important part of that work. 

MYTH: Current forest management practices are sustainable because they mimic natural disturbances, like wildfires.

FACT: Clearcut forest management fails to effectively mimic the ecosystem benefits that wildfire provides. The overarching goal of current forestry management is to maximize timber supply, while ecosystem integrity and fire risk management outcomes are secondary. 

Wildfires in the boreal forest play a critical role in shaping the forest’s age structure, species composition, and landscape diversity. Humans have harnessed the benefits of fire for resource management and community protection for millennia (Hoffman et al., 2022). Wildfires can bolster biodiversity by creating habitat for both fire-adapted and shade-intolerant species, while also regulating water, pests, and further catastrophic fires (Pausas & Keeley, 2019). 

 It has been argued that harvesting can mimic natural disturbances, thereby providing the ecosystem with similar benefits. However, harvesting and natural disturbances affect biodiversity in different ways which vary according to the ecosystem type, harvesting techniques, and scale of disturbance seen in forests (McRae et al., 2001). In addition, forest harvesting comes with extensive road networks, which bring their own set of problems as described above.   

MYTH: Maintaining or increasing timber harvest levels is compatible with boreal caribou recovery.  

FACT: Forestry activities hinder boreal caribou recovery, especially in areas where caribou habitat is already highly disturbed and caribou herds are precariously small.  

Woodland caribou were listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003, but caribou populations continue to decline nationwide. In Alberta, aggressive wolf culls on provincial land are the only actions keeping some populations stable (Hervieux et al., 2014), while the Federally managed herd in Jasper National Park is implementing a breeding program. Simultaneously, industrial activity on provincial land continues to expand. A significant portion of both Boreal and Southern Mountain caribou ranges overlaps with commercial forest harvesting, the vast majority of which is clearcutting.  

Since 1999 the forestry footprint has more than doubled from 2.1% to 5.3% of Alberta’s land2. Despite continued caribou population decline and confirmation of “imminent threats to its recovery” from the Federal government for some populations, industrial-scale clearcutting continues to take place in critical habitat. 

Forestry impacts caribou in several ways:  

Indigenous Knowledge & Prescribed fire  

Historically, Indigenous peoples in North America widely used fire as a tool to manage resources (e.g., to create better moose habitat) and to protect communities – what is often referred to as Indigenous fire stewardship. This cultural burning is almost always carried out in spring, winter, or fall, to keep fires under control. Frequent low severity burning reduces fuel loads and creates mosaics of habitat that reduces negative impacts from wildfire. We can think of it as “bringing the right fire, to the right place, at the right time” (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022). Colonization led to the loss of these practices as fire suppression was widely adopted and Indigenous peoples and their knowledge of fire stewardship was marginalized, despite the fact that Indigenous fire stewardship increases biodiversity and reduces catastrophic fire risk (Hoffman et al., 2021).  

Indigenous-led fire management programs are seeing success in revitalizing Indigenous fire stewardship, in Australia (Freeman et al., 2021) and the US (Marks-Block & Tripp, 2021).  In Canada, the Prince Albert Grand Council (Saskatchewan) established a Wildfire Task Force in 2018, which is working to ensure that First Nations have input on all aspects of wildfire management (Hoffman et al., 2022). In British Columbia the Tsilhqot’in Fire Management program has worked to revitalize fire practices after devastating fires in 2017 and 2018 (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022). However, there is an urgent need to remove barriers to revive Indigenous fire stewardship at scale across the country by addressing power imbalances, devolving decision-making, increasing capacity, and supporting cultural burning (Hoffman et al., 2022). 

Indigenous communities have long recognized the importance of controlled burning as a wildfire management tool, but legal barriers and colonial legacies continue to be barriers to the revitalization of Indigenous fire stewardship (Copes-Gerbitz et al., 2021; Hoffman et al., 2022). Indigenous communities are also uniquely vulnerable to wildfire because communities are often located in remote forested regions and lack support from provincial and federal governments to mitigate their fire risk. Increasing support for Indigenous fire stewardship and prioritizing Indigenous leadership in fire management is critical to minimizing wildfire risk to all communities (Hoffman et al., 2022). 

Prevention vs. suppression 

Wildfire prevention is massively underfunded – for example, the Cariboo region of BC spent $3,949,301 on wildfire prevention activities such as fuel treatments in 2017 and 2018 combined, whereas they spent $229,503,189 on wildfire suppression (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022).  Funding for wildfire prevention activities is a cost-effective method to reduce the costs of wildfire response. Supporting Indigenous Fire Stewardship should be front and centre.

Interested in the full technical version of this analysis? Email [email protected] with your request. 

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