Forest Degradation: Canada’s Skeleton in the Closet

Read through the Government of Canada’s annual "State of Canada’s Forests” report, or materials prepared by the country’s logging industry, and you’ll notice that something seems to be missing. There is not a single mention of “forest degradation.” Instead, government and industry focus on Canada’s low deforestation rate—the process by which forested land is converted to urban space, farms, roads or other infrastructure. But forest degradation—a change in forest conditions after disturbances like clearcutting that result in a loss of overall biomass and species diversity—is the skeleton in the closet when it comes to Canadian forests, especially its vast boreal forest.

The omission is surprising. In its assessment reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cites deforestation and forest degradation as the two largest contributors to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the forestry sector. As Canada likes to point out, it has made significant progress on the former, reducing annual deforestation from 156,000 acres in 1990 to 84,500 acres in 2014. That’s good news, but by focusing on deforestation, Canada and its forest industry are taking advantage of public awareness of the issue—which is prevalent in the tropics and poorer countries—to hide the ball on practices that may be having similarly severe ecological impacts.

The image on the right is from 1988 and shows a clearcut that was completed within a year of that date. The image to the left shows the area circled in red in a recent satellite image (<2013). 25+ years after the initial harvest the borders of the cut remain clear, trees are growing in rows with visible spaces between them, and the contrast between the mature, unharvested forest and the regrowing forest is striking. Cut location: 49.114497, -71.619079. Image: Google Earth

A Massive Annual Harvest

Over the last 10 years, the average area of land harvested in Canada’s forests has totaled an astonishing 1.8 million acres annually—an area half the size of Connecticut—with 1.7 million acres of that harvest done via clearcutting (the removal of most or all trees from a given area). Looking specifically at Canada’s boreal forest—with most logging taking place in Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta—more than one million acres are clearcut annually, representing more than 60% of the forest that is cleared each year across the country.

All of this might seem to be grave cause for alarm, but Canada would have you believe there is no reason to worry, because all of it could conceivably, at some point, grow back. The pace and scale of logging activity has left Canada with a vast area of forest land in recovery mode. Fifty-seven million acres have been cut since 1990, with 52 million of those acres—an area nearly the size of Idaho—clearcut.

The Canadian government touts its requirement that all harvested forests be “regenerated” following harvest. But a written requirement and the results of huge areas of clearcutting year after year are two very different things. And the implications of Canadian forests not achieving the 100% regeneration goal in practice are huge: Tens of millions of acres of Canada’s forests may be degraded, vastly undermining the ecological benefits they are assumed to be providing to the country and world. The lack of certainty around this point is something we hope that government and industry will not only help to clarify, but also address if indeed degradation is as wide spread a problem as we fear.

The image on the right is from 1986 and shows a clearcut that was completed within a year of that date. The image to the left shows the area circled in red in a recent satellite image (<2013). 28+ years after the initial harvest the borders of the cut remain clear, trees are growing in rows with visible spaces between them, large open areas remain with limited or no vegetation, and the contrast between the mature, unharvested forest and the regrowing forest is striking. Cut location: 49.220589, -72.577153. Image: Google Earth

Too Many Questions. Not Enough Answers.

Forest degradation and post-harvest recovery have not been heavily studied in Canada, despite the country’s claims about the sustainability of its forest industry. The few independent studies that do examine some of the impacts of widespread clearcutting do not come back with encouraging conclusions:

  • We believe the widespread application of even-aged, single species management at all scales of boreal forest management interferes with fundamental ecological processes that maintain ecosystem integrity in boreal forests.”
  • Although past management practices have been shown to decrease species and landscape diversity, it appears that most boreal forest landscapes have at least partially retained their resilience to disturbance. However, current evidence suggests that the intensification of forest management to enhance wood production has reduced forest biodiversity and resilience.”
  • Failure of post-logging natural regeneration in Wood Buffalo National Park is attributable primarily to two factors: (1) large size of the clearcuts, placing most of any area logged beyond the effective dispersal distance of white spruce seed; (2) destruction of advance growth and lack of residual growth. Clearcutting and site preparation are shown to degrade boreal riparian ecosystem structure and function.”

The impacts of industrial forestry, not to mention mining and oil and gas development, on boreal forest species are increasingly well-documented and recognized. The plight of the woodland or boreal caribou is a growing black eye for Canada’s image as a sustainable manager of its forest resources. And recent reports examining the state of wildlife across Canada have pointed to serious declines for a huge number of species.

Deforestation or Degradation?

Deforestation is usually defined as the conversion or changing of a forested area into something else, usually farmland, roads, or some other form of built environment. Forest degradation is slightly more complex, but equally important to a forest’s health and the benefits it is or isn’t providing to a region or the globe. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) offers a useful and fairly detailed definition of forest degradation:

“Changes within the forest which negatively affect the structure or function of the stand or site, and thereby lower the capacity to supply products and/or services. . . .  In most cases, degradation does not show as a decrease in the area of woody vegetation but rather as a gradual reduction of biomass, changes in species composition and soil degradation. Unsustainable logging practices can contribute to degradation if the extraction of mature trees is not accompanied with their regeneration, or if the use of heavy machinery causes soil compaction or loss of productive forest area.”

A few elements of this definition are especially important in Canada’s boreal forest: the potential for a reduction in biomass, changes in species composition, and the impacts of harvesting on soils. Out of the many reasons these are important, two stand out: First, if forest degradation is a widespread problem in Canada, its impact on the boreal forest and its ecosystems and species can be expected to be significant. Second, degradation undermines the effectiveness of Canada’s boreal forest as a global carbon sink, an ecosystem that sequesters more carbon than it emits.

The image on the right is from 1990 and shows a clearcut that was completed prior to 1989. The image to the left shows the area circled in red in a recent satellite image (<2013). 24+ years after the initial harvest the borders of the cut remain clear, trees are growing in rows with visible spaces between them, large open areas remain with limited or no vegetation, and the contrast between the mature, unharvested forest and the regrowing forest is striking. Cut location: 49.840011, -76.299951. Image: Google Earth

The Carbon Connection and the Canadian Boreal

What is less well understood is forest degradation’s role in undercutting the boreal forest’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to store it in its organisms and soils. In the tropics, deforestation grabs the headlines because of its astonishing scale, pace, and damage. In northern latitudes, where forests are often left to regrow following clearing (either via direct reseeding and replanting or through natural processes), there seems to be a blanket assumption that regrowth is taking place in a way that will avoid forest degradation and the resulting loss of biological productivity and carbon sequestration.

But if forest regrowth is not meeting the expectations inherent in that assumption—and the aerial snapshots above suggest it is not—there’s a much different tale to tell.  Our limited samples suggest that aggressive clearcutting of Canada’s boreal forests may have left behind tens of millions of acres that are degraded in ways that inhibit their return to the biologically complex forests that were present before harvesting. That degradation, in turn, seriously undermines the forest’s ability to act as a global climate stabilizer, by unlocking carbon that was once stored in forest soil and debris. Over the long term, both of these factors decrease the forest’s overall ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The solutions to the problem of forest degradation are complex, but at a high level, the IPCC sums them up succinctly:

Meeting society’s needs for timber through intensive management of a smaller forest area creates opportunities for enhanced forest protection and conservation in other areas, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.

It’s an approach that can deliver powerful side benefits. As the IPCC notes:

Stopping or slowing deforestation and forest degradation (loss of carbon density) and sustainable forest management may significantly contribute to avoided emissions, conserve water resources and prevent flooding, reduce run-off, control erosion, reduce river siltation, and protect fisheries and investments in hydroelectric power facilities; and at the same time, preserve biodiversity

Getting to the Root of the Problem

There are several steps Canada can take to begin tackling the issue of forest degradation.

First and foremost, there is a pressing need for more information. Federal and provincial governments should design and carry out comprehensive studies of harvested forest areas that measure and describe the changes that have taken place following clearcutting.

In the meantime, there is an opportunity for Canada’s federal government to align its climate policies and goals with the imperative that it also place critical boreal caribou habitat under permanent protection. Doing so will also advance First Nations’ and provinces’ efforts to deploy boreal caribou recovery plans that require significant forest areas be left off limits to most types of industrial development.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Manager of fossil fuels and climate policy, Canada Project, International Program

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