Long after logging trucks have left and the felled trees have been cut into lumber or flushed away as toilet paper, treeless “logging scars” remain on the landscape. Over 250 new aerial photos from the NGO Wildlands League show that, while Canada claims to have “near zero deforestation” and provinces like Ontario pave the way for unfettered, deregulated industrial logging, significant areas of forest are not regrowing, even two or three decades after clearcutting. These brown, barren stretches, where logging roads, equipment, and piles of stacked logs have rendered the ground inhospitable to regrowing trees, are extensive and systemic, with dire implications for the forest, wildlife, and the global climate.
The Canadian boreal forest is a climate linchpin, storing twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves. This carbon-dense forest, which is also home to over 600 Indigenous communities and treasured species like the boreal caribou, plays a central role in the carbon cycle, making its protection a global priority.
Yet each year, the Canadian logging industry clearcuts over a million acres of boreal forest to create products like toilet paper, newsprint, and lumber. Even when the forest regrows, logging’s impacts are significant, not only for wildlife, but also for the global climate. Clearcutting releases vast stores of carbon from the boreal forest’s carbon-rich soils and vegetation and hampers the forest’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Through a loophole in Canadian policy, the logging industry is not being held accountable for this toll on the climate.
Wildlands League’s new data builds off its revelatory report released last December, which showed that, across 27 clearcut areas in northern Ontario, an average of 14 percent of the impacted areas have remained essentially barren even two or three decades after logging. This study posed a stark contrast to industry claims that its "world class" practices facilitate near-perfect forest regrowth. The satellite images released today show that logging’s impact is even more severe and sustained than previously thought, and firmly refute the industry’s arguments that the previous findings were simply an isolated problem. These “logging scars” are created by logging roads and landings, where logs and unwanted logging residue are processed with heavy equipment and stacked, compacting the earth and suppressing regrowth. Because there is no sign that forests will return to these scarred areas before the next logging cycle, they are, for all intents and purposes, deforested.
These deforested areas not only fragment and degrade critical boreal caribou habitat, but drive significant climate impacts. Assuming the current rate of deforestation continues, by 2030 logging scars in Ontario alone will have reduced the forest’s climate mitigation potential by a total of 41 million metric tons of CO2, which is equal to the annual emissions of Canada’s passenger vehicles. If this trend holds true elsewhere in the boreal, which is likely given that the practices causing these scars are commonplace in other provinces, the climate footprint will be even greater.
Even as logging’s legacy of deforestation across the province has come to light, Ontario has doubled down on prioritizing unfettered industrial development at the expense of the climate, communities, and threatened species. The Ford government has been systematically dismantling fundamental environmental safeguards, leaving just the flimsiest tethers to constrain the logging industry’s practices.
In early July, the Ford government exempted the logging industry from its Environmental Assessment Act, eliminating the public’s opportunities to express concerns around logging projects and essentially putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. This is simply the latest in a string of policies that put industry over public health and environmental sustainability, jeopardizing democratic values, Indigenous rights, and international climate efforts, while also undermining Ontario’s reputation as a source of sustainable forest products.
The more data we have, the more we understand the severity of the logging industry’s impacts on the boreal forest. Logging’s long-term impact is there, etched on the landscape—it’s just that Canadian officials refused to look for it. In order to protect this critical climate ally and address the logging industry’s runaway climate impacts, Canada needs to acknowledge and track these scars and hold the industry accountable for the full extent of its emissions. The boreal forest has tremendous capacity to help the world overcome the monumental climate challenge that lies ahead, but first, Canada needs to protect its remaining intact forests and allow this vital, scarred landscape to heal.