Why BC uses herbicides to control ‘competition’ in its managed forests
Forestry worker Thomas Martin talks about the systemic factors that control what trees are allowed to go in BC's forests.
A forest is a complicated place.
After last year’s devastating wildfires, there is more attention on how BC manages its tree lots. A recent advertisement about planned herbicide spraying in Fraser Valley forests has drawn even more scrutiny to annual work done to manage working forests. (You can read a story about that here.)
Herbicides are used to create highly productive stands that can support BC’s timber industry. But nothing about BC’s forests are that simple—including the reasons operators seek to kill “competitive” species in the first place.
Tyler spoke to Thomas Martin—a forestry professional who has worked for a decade in a range of roles, including as a logger, firefighter, and wildfire prevention specialist—about spraying and the complex challenge of creating economically and environmentally sustainable forests.
FVC: You’re a forestry guy, who is interested pretty clearly in long-term, sustainable forestry practices. How do you feel about this herbicide practice?
Thomas Martin: I’d say the practice is an outcome of the way our forestry system is structured, in the way that our system of forestry, historically, was treating trees like crops. It’s the European system of forestry: silvopasture. It’s literally growing trees, and farming trees. And that’s that legacy is carried on in the way we treat—quote, unquote—competition, whether it’s shrubs, or deciduous trees. We require companies to manage that competition and herbicide application is one of the tools at their disposal. So they use it.
FVC: It’s something that’s required of companies by the government for its Crown land, is that right?
Martin: So they are required to manage that, in air quotes, competition or competing vegetation. That is a lot of broadleaf shrubs. That’s a lot of deciduous trees. It is region specific. And then they have a number of methods at their disposal to manage this competition. And you have to remember that a lot of companies are privately held, and BC Timber Sales is publicly held, and they have a legal obligation to maximize their profits. And so if aerial spraying is the cheapest option to fulfill their legal requirements, they will use that.
Spraying from the air is not the only way forests can be managed for competition. Other techniques include “whack and squirt,” which is the in-person application of glyphosate on select trees. There is also “manual brushing,” where crews with chainsaws will cut away brush and other plants that may obstruct the growth of conifer trees. That latter technique, Martin noted, can be dangerous for crews. In the end, he says most traces back to how BC’s forests are managed on a structural level.
Martin: If we wanted to eliminate spraying, you have to look at this forestry system we have that essentially requires or encourages it.
FVC: Should we be spraying or trying to create or manage competition in the first place, and how does that system require that at the present?
Martin: Let’s start with a very basic explainer. When a forest licensee harvests, they have a legal obligation to reforest. That’s commonly referred to as the free-to-grow standard or free-to-grow obligations. [Ed: This means the forest is managed until conifers are able to thrive on their own.] So… if the cutoff is 20 years, they have to establish a very-often conifer stand of trees specific to the ecosystem. And they have to reach a certain height and a certain spacing in a certain amount of time.
There are also criteria for deciduous competition, whether it’s tree species or shrubs, that would cancel out that free-growing status. You have to remember that there, it’s a short time-frame. Then the licensee that fourth tenure holder is absolved, relieved of that obligation, and it goes back to the province to manage. So the licensees or the forest companies have this incentive to get the conifers to grow quickly, for the first 15 or 20 years, just so they can then pass the problem back to the crown, the province; they don’t have an incentive to manage for an 80 year rotation, their incentive is to meet their free-to-grow obligation as quickly as possible, and then walk away.
FVC: So the spraying, you’re saying, is the main way they’re trying to pursue that goal. And the goal itself is one of the main issues here.
Martin: Yeah, the goal is to meet your pre-growing obligations. That’s the way the system is structured. This spraying isn’t necessarily the main way, it is just one of the tools that we use. I don’t have the stats on how much is great every year, versus, you know, how many blocks do you have deciduous trees as an acceptable species, because that is becoming more common.
Another problem we face is that typically, if you harvested a block in, say, 2005, if you have 20 years to get it free growing, you have until 2025, more or less, to get it to free growing. But the standards are set back in 2005, typically. So what we’re working with in blocks in 2022 are standards from 15-20 years ago. So if you make the change today, you still have that lag time. And if you want to change the previous standards, you have to seek an amendment from the district. So it’s a whole process you have to go through. It’s easier often just to go with the old standards.
FVC: So in the ideal world, how do you see this managed so that our forests are more holistically integrated into our communities in ways that don’t threaten communities with wildfires and have forests that are both economically useful but not just economically useful. What does a perfect world look like for you or an improved world look like for you?
Martin: If there was an easy or good answer to this problem, we would have implemented it already. I disagree that economic needs are opposed with environmental needs. I disagree with that notion. However, I certainly agree that economic needs can often oppose environmental needs or ecological needs…
One thing that does stand out for me is there’s some recent research out of UBC looking at community forests, and one thing that really stood out for me is the concept of non-transferable tenures, and how they can create an incentive for companies to manage over the longer term. So this is either First Nation-held tenures who inherently have a very strong incentive to manage their land for the long term, or community forests, who have a non-transferable tenure, which means they cannot sell their tenure to someone else. They know that they have a sense of ownership for this forest tenure. And they have more of an incentive to manage for long-term ecological benefit, rather than if the market conditions change they can just sell the tenure to another company and walk away.
FVC: Are there tweaks around the edges that can be made to improve things and kind of foster more biodiversity in forests?
Yes, is the short answer. I work in wildfire and one thing that I always push for my projects that are within any sort of distance from homes and communities is to have deciduous be what’s called a preferred species, rather than an acceptable or unacceptable species. Meaning that we’re trying to actively manage for those deciduous trees on the landscape.
Right now. It’s kind of a chicken versus the egg scenario. We don’t manage for deciduous species in BC because we do not have a large-scale deciduous lumber industry. But do we not have a large scale deciduous lumber industry because we don’t manage for deciduous species?
I have a bookshelf that is made from BC alder. It’s a great bookshelf. It’s made from a hardwood species of broadleaf species grown in BC, milled in BC, and the bookshelf was made in BC. You can buy birch veneer from Scandinavian companies, but I have yet to find a birch veneer made from BC trees.
The Current wrote last year about Mission’s community forest and how its community-focused mission shapes how it is managed. Read that story here.