A guest article by James Steidle from Prince George, BC
I grew up in the forest industry in Prince George, BC. We lived out in the middle of the woods near Punchaw Lake, and my dad worked at Clear Lake sawmill, where I caught the school bus with all the mill kids who lived in a trailer park there. The smell of the fresh cut conifers was there when we went to school, and was there when we came home. It was the “smell of money” I was always told. As a teenager I worked in the mill during the summers and the weekends and after high school I worked full time for half a year before heading off to university. During the summers between university semesters I would plant trees. I did that for three summers.
During this time, aspen trees, or poplar as we called them, were never given much attention. As far as I knew, the timber was completely worthless. I imagined it falling apart in your hands. We never made anything out of it, planted it, or harvested it. We never even cut it for firewood, even though we burned lots of spruce, a wood that is actually inferior to aspen for that purpose. I don’t recall ever seeing a piece of aspen lumber anywhere, throughout all my years working in the sawmill and taking woodworking shop classes in high school. If I were asked to identify the wood, I would have said it was something exotic, as foreign as a tropical hardwood.
Aspen forests are one of the most biologically diverse and important habitat types for many wildlife species in British Columbia.
BC’s forest industry seen here spraying chemical herbicides in the forest to kill aspen, willow and other deciduous trees and shrubs important to wildlife.
That isn’t to say I never appreciated the beauty of aspen trees or aspen forests. There was an aspen stand near the place I grew up, a place called Rosebud Mountain that is as beautiful a place as anywhere in the world. It was part of our range land for our cattle, and I knew the forest was as important for the cow’s summer forage as it was for wildlife and birds. That was something that was just an obvious fact of the natural world, a fact that was recognized by all our neighbours who called Rosebud the choicest range land in the whole area. Aspen, and the rich understory that occurred with it, made it so.
An old military transport truck is used to move tanker loads of chemical herbicides into the forests near Prince George
It was not until around 2010 after the Pine Beetle had decimated the mixed pine/spruce/aspen stands that I started to think about aspen as something more than just a pretty picture. At that time a herbicide spraying helicopter landed at our farm, and parked there for the night. ‘What were they spraying?’ I wondered. The aspen, we were told. I vaguely knew about this practice but had never seen it in action. It got me thinking. I watched the places they sprayed turn into pine monocultures. ‘Wouldn’t it make sense to leave different trees on the landscape?’ I thought. ‘What if the pine beetle returns?’ The only pine tree that I saw that survived on our property was surrounded by aspen. Sure, it was just an anecdote, but it made sense. Wouldn’t a mosaic of trees on the landscape likewise complicate things for pests like pine beetles?
I’d done some journalism and thought it would be an interesting story. I started researching the history of the practice, and found out about Suzanne Simard, a professor at UBC. I learned from people like her there was no real apparent benefit from eliminating these important trees from our forests. Short term increases in conifer growth seemed to be counteracted by increased risk of disease and other forest health issues. The Bobtail Fire would later demonstrate that naturally regrowing forests with lots of so called “weeds” like aspen actually stood up better to the fire. Aspen during leaf out are far less likely to burn. Then there were the numerous environmental risks of spraying, including harm to amphibians by the legal and common practice of spraying wetlands and seasonal creeks.
With a completed article, I shopped it around, but in the spring of 2011 there was apparently little interest in the subject. Neither the Tyee, BC Business, nor a few other publications returned my calls or emails. With a healthy amount of research and a belief that there was a true injustice being inflicted upon our forests, I felt the only thing left to do was to take the activist route. I started a website, www.stopthespraybc.com, filled it with scientific facts, and with the help of Dr. Suzanne Simard, put out a press release that turned into a big article in the Globe and Mail. From this we received a grant from West Coast Environmental Law and some wind in our sails. However, a legal objection to the practice didn’t pan out, as everything was fully legal. The government, and a mysterious group of unelected “experts” in Victoria, remains fully in support of spraying our forests to destroy biodiversity and make plantations of primarily pine, and they have taken great care to ensure the legislative framework to protect this practice is bulletproof. They have also taken great care to avoid any accountability for this practice. Who decides aspen is a pest and must be sprayed? All we have found out is that is is an agreement with industry, done in secret by unnamed officials, and is beyond reproach.
Recent research is showing that starvation is a significant cause of moose mortality in the Prince George Region
During this whole time I was slowly establishing a woodworking shop and business (www.steidlewoodworking.com). I had still not worked with aspen, as it was unavailable in any BC lumber store. But through my research I came to know one of the people who mills aspen and I was able to source aspen finally. I began making a number of projects out of aspen and was struck by how supple and elegant the wood grain was. I made a bunch of LP crates out of the wood, furniture, and mixed it with cedar for my cutting boards. Realizing aspen was actually a great wood, the reason it was eliminated from our forests, and why neither academics, foresters, nor environmentalists seemed to want to champion the tree, became even more mysterious.
In the last 34 years, the forestry industry has sprayed chemical herbicides on 179,226 ha of forest near Prince George. The red polygon represents what this area looks like compared to BC’s Lower Mainland where most of the province’s population lives.
Northern BC public forest land is sprayed with chemical herbicides more than any other region in BC.
As everyone else seemed to keep dismissing and ignoring aspen, I was delving deeper into the aspen rabbit hole. I bought a movie camera and began working on a documentary about it. I interviewed architects, sawmillers, woodworkers, forest scientists, students, and hunters and trappers. The documentary took me to Utah and Colorado where I investigated the largest and oldest known organism on the planet – an aspen forest near Fish Lake, Utah called Pando. I became immersed in all things aspen. Following BC aspen expert Dr. Mike Carlson’s recommendation I went to Fort Nelson and Fort Liard, where I saw the world’s largest known aspen, now a stump down a forgotten trail that should be a national landmark but which apparently only people like Mike and myself were excited about. I found out about the crooked aspen in Hafford, Saskatchewan from Dr. Ted Hogg, a federal scientist in Edmonton who studies aspen. I went to Hafford and did a short documentary called “The Mysteries of the Crooked Aspen” that was screened at the Yorkton Film Festival. The larger documentary about aspen is still in the works, waiting for time and money.
Region 5 moose harvest trends. This is an example of what is happening to your moose in British Columbia as a result of land lanagement practices which includes spraying chemical herbicides over vast areas of public forest land.
A regenerating cutblock northwest of Fort Nelson BC, near the junction of the Liard and Ft. Nelson Rivers, was aerially sprayed with herbicides. It shows the complete mortality of all deciduous moose browse that happens after an aerial application of chemical herbicides
To get caught up in a tree, especially one as derided and dismissed as Aspen, is a strange thing that only happens to a few of us. Maybe it’s our character, to champion the underdog, and to find value in what nobody else does. Maybe it’s just a testament to the sway nature holds over us. In any case, the aspen is a majestic, amazing species, a tree that is the true tree of Canada, one of the few that gets bigger and stronger the further north it goes, that exists in quantity in all Canadian Provinces and Territories, one that the vast majority of wildlife, and especially moose, in our country depends on, and one that has the potential to address climate change and help us adapt to it. If there ever was a truly national tree of great environmental and cultural significance, it is the aspen.
The fight for aspen and a new approach to forestry in Canada that values all tree species is only just begun. In the past year Stop the Spray BC has moved onto social media where you can follow us @stopthespraybc on facebook and on twitter. I teamed up with another anti-spray activist, silviculture contractor Herb Martin, and we’ve been giving a presentation around the Central Interior on this topic, showing some of the documentary footage and making the case for how important aspen in to wildlife in our province and country, especially to moose, birds, insects, and a countless array of plants.
Yours in Conservation,
In my opinion, James’ Stop the Spray campaign aimed at getting the spraying of chemical herbicides in public forests banned in British Columbia is an excellent example of an individual citizen’s dedication to the protection of wildlife and habitat that belong to the people of BC. He is focused on a single issue and he consistently targets his messages anywhere and everywhere he has a chance to. The bigger lesson here is that he is getting involved. He is focused on 1 issue that means a lot to him and to many other conservationists in BC. He is relentless in hammering away on his key messages. Hunters and conservationists in BC should take inspiration from James’ focus on a single cause and his commitment and passion for protecting biodiversity in BC’s forests. I encourage you to follow Stop the Spray BC on Social Media and help James spread his messages. Consider having making a donation to help him cover the expenses of this important conservation campaign.
Please write the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNROD) and the Minister of Environment and demand this practice be stopped on your public forests.
Wildfires burning across the province of British Columbia dominated the news during the summer of 2017. The smoke hadn’t cleared and private forest companies and the government’s BC Timber Sales division announced their plans to expedite clearing the burnt forests. In early September 2017, I wrote the article – Salvage Logging British Columbia’s Wildfires – Will Wildlife Conservation and Science Matter? In the article I expressed a concern whether science would play a role in protecting wildlife habitat in the logging of these burned habitats.
This photo essay is intended to let you be the judge of that.
Language like – “the forest fires were catastrophic”, “unprecedented damage”, “economic collapse”, “fire destroys forests”, “the impacts were devastating”, “we must salvage the timber before it rots”, “salvaging burnt timber is race against time”, “there is no time for drawn out public consultation”, “we will always meet the minimum standards for forest management”, “we are not required to use science”, “we will rely on Professional Foresters to protect wildlife values”, “we need to sanitize and clean up the forests to prevent outbreaks of forest insects” and “clearcutting forest fires is required to reduce fuel loading to prevent future fires” were all common phrases communicated by the forest industry, media and government.
Even fires ecologists and fire scientists used language like “unprecedented”, “ these fires are a result of climate change”, “it’s going to get worse” and “forest fires destroy the soil”.
I recently even heard a government wildlife biologist say that wildlife doesn’t use burnt forests because the burnt forests become tangled and criss-crossed and it’s impossible for wildlife to get around in them.
I heard others say that, “all the wildlife got displaced by fires” and that “wildlife abandoned the valleys”.
I’m not sure if it’s the optimist, the ecologist or the artist in me but I see the burnt forests for what they really are. A natural and necessary process that nature is adapted to handle. I see a burnt forest for the life and beauty it possesses, the future habitat that will develop and the abundance of life living in the burnt forest. I don’t’ see the recent scale of forest fires in B.C. as unprecedented destruction of the land but rather I see it as nature finally reverting back to what she is meant to do – right the wrongs of human interference in biodiversity.
For me, burnt forests are not dead, sterile zones devoid of wildlife and plants. In fact, to me they are the complete opposite of that.
The burnt forest is alive.
Tree cones survive the fire and this squirrel midden shows that squirrels are actively living in the burnt forest. If squirrels and other rodents are present, then so will their predators including birds of prey and small furbearers. But the squirrels need some cover and vertical standing trees for habitat.
New plants spring to life making use of small micro sites where the soil is moister.
Burnt forests still retain a lot of vertical structure for a variety of wildlife species including enough cover to reduce line of sight so large animals like moose, elk and bears feel secure knowing they are not exposed in the wide open when they forage around in their new habitat.
There are lot of deer still living in the burnt forest.
Fires burn with varying intensity which creates a variety of new micro topography features for different types of plants to regenerate on. Wherever fire burned up all the forest floor organic material, the dead needles soon carpet those areas as the process of replacing soil organics and protecting soil from erosion continues.
The hoof action of the large feet of a moose are acting to mix soil and incorporate organic material into the new forest floor.
Elk are helping to continue the process of nutrient cycling in the burnt forest.
Bunchberry will produce berries this year and the seeds will be spread around the forest by birds, bears and rodents that consume the fruits.
Fungi are one of the most important components of forest soils because they convert nutrients in the soil into the forms that trees can use. Soil fungi are thought to be the reason why northern hemisphere forests are as productive as they are. Soil fungi may be among the oldest living organisms in the world. These “morel mushrooms” are the fruiting structures of soil fungi whose job it is to spread spores so the underground fungi can colonize new zones within the forest. Soil fungi may not survive the harsh impacts of clearcutting and road building.
This small wetland located in the middle of the forest fire was protected by the wet habitat that surrounded it. This habitat will be home to amphibians and a source for water for many wildlife. Situated in the burnt forest surrounded by dead standing trees, this small piece of habitat will remain protected and functional. In the middle of a clearcut it will likely dry up and amphibians and other wildlife will not be able to benefit from its continued presence in the forest.
The fruiting “cups” of more soil fungi are sprouting up from an area that some would say is sterilized soil where the fire burned “too hot”.
Conifer seedlings carpet the forest floor in the burnt forest. A study done in the 2002 “Biscut Fire” in Oregon showed that “salvage logging” destroyed 71% of the new seedlings which meant that trees had to be artificially planted after logging instead of letting nature do it for free.
Moss completely carpets an area of forest floor where some say the fire has “cooked the soil”. All this was accomplished by nature in a matter of few months after the fire.
A small stream continues to flow through the burnt forest – running clear and pure.
Red needles blanket the forest floor helping to restore nutrients and providing protection from erosion.
Where some may say the fire burned the soil too hot and deep, others may see new possibilities for habitat for small wildlife species.
This is the artist in me…but to me that’s not a burnt tree. It’s a black bear looking at me.
More varieties of fungi and jelly molds seal over and help restore soil that was subject to intense heat. Nature has positive responses for everything. Even in the most intense forest fires, rarely does the heat pulse further than 2 cm into the soil exceed temperatures that are lethal to living plant tissue. Biodiversity needs the variety of disturbances that fire creates. There is no good and bad in nature.
A small wet area in the forest recovers quickly after the fire. Even this small patch of willow shrubs (middle left) survived and they will help create more food for moose in the coming years if they are left to grow in this undisturbed environment.
Charred logs attract certain type of insects that only lay their eggs in burnt wood. Woodpeckers are making use of this cycle and still happily making a living in the midst of a burnt forest.
Moose are by far the most common large ungulate living in this valley bottom zone of the burnt forest. Some biologists think that the long legs of a moose are partly adapted to living in old burns where once the trees fall over and become criss-crossed short legged ungulates can’t get around as easily. Living in tangled old burns where the willow are abundant might be an evolutionary adaptation of moose to avoid predation. Cearcutting this forest will expose moose to wide open habitat where they have little defense against predators like wolves. Nature knows how to “manage” moose. But do we listen?
What appears to be just a dry spot under this log is actually a type of mold. It takes a myriad of species in all the kingdoms across all the taxonomic phyla to make a forest. This is biodiversity. Does modern forest management practices promote this kind of biodiversity or degrade it?
The un-burnt cone of lodgepole pine will help with the renewal of the next forest. Lodgepole pine and their cones are designed to survive fire and open by heat. They are a symbol of the adaptation of certain plants to fire in fire-driven ecosystems.
Wild flowers like this shooting star are often considered “fragile” and “delicate” yet it is among the first plants to colonize the newly burnt forest in what some call a harsh and degraded ecosystem. Resolve, tenacity and strength lies in the beauty of nature.
This rare Sphagnum-Labrador Tea bog in the Rocky Mountains survived this forest fire and it helps to maintain plant diversity in the forest. If the area is clearcut and the bog is exposed to a hot open environment it will dry out and die.
Wild strawberry flourish in the burnt forest. Their fruit will be eaten by birds this summer and this will spread the seeds thus helping this strawberry colonize new areas in the burnt forest.
This hen spruce grouse sits on clutch of eggs hidden under a dead spruce tree in the middle of the burnt forest. It became so obvious to me after seeing her in this environment that the colouration and patterns of her plumage are completely adapted to the exact patterns and colours of the dead spruce tree that has fallen over in the middle of the burnt forest. She is adapted to living and rearing her young in a burnt forest. If this area is clearcut, the wide open area that is devoid of this type of hiding cover will not support her and her effort to perpetuate the grouse population.
The exposed yellow wood of a burnt log where the bark is sloughing off creates an interesting colour contrast in the burnt black forest. The loose bark on burnt trees creates habitat for many small species of wildlife including bats, birds, insects and amphibians. But once the “timber” is salvaged this habitat that was created by the fire will be gone.
Some would look at the red in the soil and say the fire “baked” the soil. But this is the natural colour of the soil. The reddish colour is part of a soil forming process called “podsolization” and in 11,000 years since the glacier laid the raw un-weathered soil material on the land, these few centimeters of reddish soil is all that nature has managed to weather into soil that plants can get nutrients from. The whitish-green-grey soil is the raw un-weathered glacial material that plants cannot yet extract nutrients from. This is why soil fungi are so important to forest productivity and the survival of future trees. Large logs that remain in the forest so they can rot into the soil is a key element that soil fungi require for survival in a forest. Timber salvaging removes all the large logs and along with it the habitat that soil fungi need.
More moss and plants blanket soil that was completely exposed by the fire. The sealing off of the exposed soil happens rapidly in just a few months. On top of the moss lays the remnant of a shrub killed by the fire. Research has shown that after salvage logging a burnt forest, shrubs are the plant species that have the hardest time recovering.
After a forest fire comes the forest industry. There is no legal requirement for best available science to be incorporated into the planning of timber extraction from burnt forests in BC. British Columbia has no formal way of measuring or protecting biodiversity in a forest whether its burnt or not.
A large burnt “snag” recently felled and dumped on the ground. This dead standing tree will never be a future wildlife tree for cavity nesting birds.
Soil erosion is rapidly starting where industrial equipment has degraded the soil.
In the foreground, the large indentation in the soil is compaction from the heavy logging equipment that logged this burnt forest. Compacted soil inhibits future plant growth and can accelerate soil erosion.
This area in the recently logged part of a forest fire is much more devoid of new plant life compared to the adjacent burnt forest that is still intact.
The soil after salvage logging is churned up like an agriculture field and is likely going to bake rock hard this summer making the recolonization of this ground by plants slower and more difficult.
Clearcut salvage logging in the Upper Bull River in Southeast BC looks like the surface of the moon. The entire valley from rock line to rock line is clearcut and devoid of all the habitat features nature created in the burnt forest.
The land is cleared of all woody logs and churned up by logging equipment. The forest floor has become homogenized and all the diverse micro sites and hiding cover needed by plants and ground nesting birds like the spruce grouse shown in previous photos are absent.
In an arrogant symbolic gesture of modern forest management, the used oil from logging equipment is illegally dumped on the ground in this remote location in the Bull River. Compliments of a big forest company in Cranbrook, BC who markets its lumber with the FSC Sustainable Forest Certification product label.
The burnt forest is “cleaned up”. Every last merchantable-sized tree is taken away and those trees not large enough for timber are gathered up and piled so they can be burnt this fall. The soil is exposed more now to erosion since the woody debris in a burnt forest helps protect the soil. The hill slopes in the background show the scars of where operators of logging equipment chewed their way up the steep slopes to cut burnt timber. These scars will rapidly create soil erosion. This barren wide open clear cut will be too inhospitable for many plants, mosses or fungi to survive this year as ground temperatures will soar this summer in the absence of any type of residual cover. Many wildlife species will no longer be able to use this habitat either. This valley has seen a decrease in the moose population over 50% in the last 12 years and now the ones that are left have a barren landscape to contend with. Sadly, there is little the Natural Resource Compliance Officers can do as all of this is legally authorized under the province’s “Professional Reliance” model in forestry.
The management of British Columbia’s wildlife habitat and biodiversity in burnt forests is at a cross roads. Will the public continue to allow these logging practices on their public land? Will the government of the day change the professional reliance model and enact legislation to protect wildlife, habitat and biodiversity in forest management? What are you willing to do to stand up for your land?