Skip to content

Ecologist disputes foresters’ presentation to Columbia Shuswap district

Ecologist was concerned the presentation was not a good representation of the science
A fire flares up near Hay River on Aug. 29. NWT Wildfire information officer Mike Westwick says there’s a variety of factors that go into how dangerous a forest fire can become. Photo courtesy GNWT

Longtime ecologist, Dr. Rachel F. Holt appeared before the Columbia Shuswap Regional District Board in early spring to dispute statements presented to the board in February by two retired foresters.

Archie MacDonald and Murray Wilson offered their solutions to wildfires, specifically in terms of reducing their future frequency and intensity.

MacDonald said that over the past 150 years, the province has become too good at preventing wildfires, with the result that forests have aged, become too dense and now provide a huge amount of fuel which is easily ignited in extreme heat.

They maintain that as well as providing too much fuel for wildfires, old forests offer reduced diversity and are more susceptible to disease, pests and drought.

Holt, an independent ecologist in the Kootenays for the past 30 years, challenged MacDonald’s statement that old forests are unhealthy while less dense forests are the goal.

“I was concerned with those ideas presented to you as a good representation of the science,” Holt said, noting old forests are the cornerstone of biodiversity in British Columbia, a province that is unique in North America in terms of its biodiversity values, “The province, over the past 30 years, has recognized the key importance of managing and maintaining appropriate old growth on the landscape.”

Owner of Veridian Ecological Consulting, Holt also took issue with a comment that 90 percent of BC forests were not designed to become old growth; they were designed to burn on a 25 year cycle.

The two quotes, she said, do a bad job of talking about ecosystems and how they need to be managed.

In her PowerPoint presentation, Holt described the vast array of ecosystems within the CSRD.

“In ecosystems that are extremely different, forest management has taken the same approach,” she said, pointing out fire risk is increasing because of the climate crisis and the way the landscape has been managed. “I was concerned because I didn’t see in the previous talk by Archie MacDonald a desire to change our management habits and that is why I am here today.”

Holt warned of serious consequences if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced and pointed out that harvesting of trees and wildfires are the largest emitters of carbon in B.C.

Current forest management practices have increased susceptibility to fire by the removal of deciduous species in order to increase timber supply and by creating large swathes of similar aged forests that are highly susceptible to fire, said Holt.

As well, while relative effects differ in the vastly different forest ecosystems, clearcutting dries the ground, increases the immediate effects of climate change and susceptibility to fire.

In presenting terms of old growth, Holt said there is no evidence that it burns more than other ages of forest. However, she pointed out, there is evidence that old growth is less likely to ignite than managed forests.

“If a stand has survived, 200, or 400 or 1,000 fire seasons, then it likely it will continue to do so,” she said.

Holt cited three studies on the science on fires in her presentation, noting intense fuel management only reduces fire risk in intermediate weather conditions, and even intense management only slightly reduced the probability of a burn.

Pointing to the many root systems, diversity, including old growth, and shrub layers, etc. Holt said it makes sense that primary forests do better in drought conditions.

“Intense plantation forestry, characterized by young forests and spatially homogenized fuels were significant drivers of wildfire severity,” she said.

Holt pointed to the BC Forest Practices Board’s stand that forest management practices for most of the 20th century excluded Indigenous fire stewardship, emphasized fire suppression, livestock grazing and wood production. In general, all policies that have contributed top increases in the amount and distribution of forest fuel across the landscape.

Holt said science indicates the importance of prioritizing ecosystem health, changing forest management practices and maintaining an old forest.

This could be achieved by modifying fire suppression policies, ending the practice of clear-cutting, moving away from timber priority that has promoted the removal of deciduous species and by treating the whole forest as a wildfire interface zone.

READ MORE: Revelstoke Firesmart receives grant of more than $190k