Canada’s Timber Industry May Be Rebounding, But For How Long?

Boreal forest wilderness in McQuesten River valley in central Yukon Territory, Canada CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Boreal forest wilderness in McQuesten River valley in central Yukon Territory, Canada CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Canada’s timber industry is rebounding from the economic downturn, stronger than ever. That was the news out of Ottawa on Thursday as Natural Resources Canada presented its 2013 annual report, The State of Canada’s Forests.

“Canada’s forest sector is providing exciting new products for the domestic and international markets, providing jobs for 234,000 Canadian workers and contributing $19 billion to our nation’s economy,” said Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources in a statement. The growth in Canada’s forestry sector is thanks in large part to the gradual recovery of U.S. housing construction and new markets for Canadian wood in Asia, especially China.

Unfortunately, the ostensibly rosy economic news from what’s been happening to Canada’s forests in recent years has a dark side. Last month, the Global Forest Change map — a joint project between researchers at the University of Maryland and Google that tracks the losses and gains of the world’s forests over the last 12-years — showed that Canada is one of the countries with some of the most disturbing rates of forest destruction.

Saskatchewan and northern Alberta are losing boreal forests at alarming rates thanks to mining operations and tar sands oil extraction. Growing demand for pulp and paper in China is also keeping paper mills in B.C. and Quebec busy.

The biggest threat to Canada’s forests, however, may turn out to be climate change — a point noted in the 2013 State of Canada’s Forests report, amid all the positive growth numbers.

The pine beetle, which is now often able to live through the winter, thanks to milder conditions, has killed 723 million cubic meters of Canadian timber. More severe droughts in Western Canada and an increased risk of forest fires are also a serious threat. A study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that the boreal forests of the world have not burned at the rates seen today for at least the past 10,000 years.

The world’s forests act as giant CO2 sponges, soaking up vast amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow and storing it out of the atmosphere. Combined, the world’s forests are estimated to absorb around 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, or about one-third of the carbon dioxide released through the burning of fossil fuels. Fewer forests are expected to lead to less carbon dioxide being taken out of the atmosphere, which may in turn lead to more severe climate change and even fewer trees — a classic example of a positive feedback loop for carbon emissions.

“It’s ironic that Minister Joe Oliver’s department would be warning of the risks of climate change while the minister himself is travelling the world promoting rapid pipeline and oilsands expansion, which is the single biggest contributor to climate pollution in Canada,” prominent B.C. environmentalist Tzeporah Berman told the Vancuver Sun.