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Happy Earth Day!

         I thought it would be appropriate to continue my series of environmental diaries today by posting an essay I wrote about boreal forests in Quebec.

         As is the case with former diaries like A primer on electronic waste in China and Rain forest destruction and oil palm plantations: What you should know, this essay was written for a course that was part of the geography degree I am now completing.

           Large tracts of Quebec's boreal forest have been systematically plundered by the forestry industry over the past fifty years as a result of poor management practices by companies and the provincial government.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Abitibi region of northwestern Quebec, where forestry has played an important role in economic development since the beginning of the century.  In 1999, Abitibi singer and songwriter Richard Desjardins drew attention to the destruction of these forests by producing a documentary called L'Erreur Boreale, which detailed the unsustainable management practices of the forestry industry and the provincial government.  In the wake of this documentary, public outcry forced the government to address the deteriorating state of Quebec's forests.  The Coulombe Commission was formed as a result, and it was given the mandate to analyze the province's forest management policies and make recommendations about policy measures that could be implemented in order to safeguard Quebec 's forest heritage.  In this context, it is worth examining the historical policies that led to the mismanagement of Quebec 's forests and investigating the current state of forests in the Abitibi region in order to assure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the wake of the Coulombe Commission's report.

          The forest industry has long played an important economic role in both Quebec and Canada.  In a country with a vast land mass and a small population, the boreal forest was originally perceived as an inexhaustible resource.  During Canada's early development, the government encouraged the process of natural resource extraction in the hinterlands as a means of achieving economic progress for the country as a whole. Prior to the introduction of the income tax, stumpage fees from the forestry industry provided both provincial and federal governments with a large proportion of their annual revenues (Draper and Reed, 2005). Quebec and Ontario therefore emerged as major players in the international timber trade, and later in the pulp and paper industries (Knox, Marston, and Nash, 2004).  Aided by its strategic geographical position at the mouth of the Maurice River, Trois-Rivières by 1930 was the largest producer of paper in the world (Boothman, 2000).

           Changes in forestry technology greatly accelerated the speed with which logs could be felled and transported.  Handsaws and horses were systematically replaced by chainsaws and logging trucks.  By the 1950's, mechanization had enabled large-scale extraction of logs by clearcutting (Lefort, Harvey, Parton, and Smith, 2002).  Yet it wasn't until the early 1980's that forestry ministers within the federal and provincial governments began to realize that the annual wood shortages being reported were the consequence of poor long-term management and irresponsible practices on the part of the forestry companies (Dufour, 2004).   These governments began to reduce their quotas for annual allowable cut, but the forestry industry, fearing reductions in supply, responded by intensifying harvesting practices.  In 2004, the Coulombe Commission noted that the average volume of harvested trees in Quebec had decreased by 33% since 1977, a figure supporting Richard Desjardins' claims that wood theft- the harvesting of smaller trees to avoid stumpage fees- had become a widespread practice within the province.

           Canada's forests today face unprecedented threats by industry.  Consolidation of the forestry industry has resulted in a situation where thirteen companies now account for 48% of all Canadian forest leases (Global Forest Watch Canada, 2000).  Similarly, almost 50% of the Canadian boreal forest is currently leased out to logging companies, most of them multinationals with considerable economic and political influence (GFW Canada, 2000). Clapp (1998) argues that governments and resource management agencies are heavily influenced- and sometimes even captured by- the very industries they are supposed to regulate.   The result is that even though a vast majority of Canadian forests are on public land, in many cases they have become semi-privatized with little or no public input.

           The importance of the forestry industry to the Canadian economy means that this situation is not likely to change any time soon.  As of 1994, one in sixteen Canadians was employed, either directly or indirectly, by the forestry industry (Dufour, 2004).  Canada remains the world's largest exporter of timber products, and forest products continue to be the single largest contributor to Canada's balance of trade (GFW 2000; Draper and Reed 2005).  Pointing to British Columbia's recent experience as a warning of things yet to come, certain scholars speculate that if more sustainable management practices are not implemented, Canada's forestry sector may soon fall victim to an Innisian staple trap, leaving hinterland communities dependent on forest products to become even further marginalized within the national economy (Markey, Pierce, and Vodden, 2000).

           Quebec has the largest area of forest in the country and in 1997 was responsible for over one-third of the forested areas cut in Canada, although it accounted for only one-fifth of the total volume of wood cut (Canadian Forest Service, 1999).  In light of these figures and the industrial practices exposed by Richard Desjardins' documentary, it is therefore necessary to further examine Quebec 's unique forestry situation, exploring the failure of the resource analysis process, poor policy and management decisions, interactions between and amongst non-state actors, and the role of the Coulombe Commission in shaping future policy, while giving particular attention to the situation in the Abitibi region.

           The failure of the resource analysis process in Quebec 's forests lies principally with the software used to calculate forest inventories, SYLVA II.  This software, which also failed to predict the collapse of Atlantic cod fisheries, is flawed in many respects; the Coulombe Commission devoted an entire 62-page chapter of its findings to discussing these problems.  Although a full discussion of these flaws is impossible here due to the limitations of space, the main problem identified by the Coulombe Commission (p. 118) was that SYLVA II predicted growth curves for forest regeneration without taking various important factors into account, notably variance in geological substrates, spruce budworm epidemics, reduction in wood volume due to forest fires, reduction of cutting areas due to protected areas and buffers around water bodies, lower than expected productivity of certain areas due to harvesting methods, and poor analysis of space-time partitioning of sylvicultural activities.

           Most importantly, SYLVA II failed to account for the differential regeneration rates of forests in northern and southern harvesting zones within Québec.  Given that forests take much longer to regenerate in northern latitudes as a result of climatic factors and the amount of sunlight available throughout the year, this omission led to a major discrepancy between the software's statistical predictions and the actual reality on the ground in the forests themselves.  Further complicating matters was the fact that much of the initial data analyzed by the software was provided by the forestry companies themselves.  The data collection stage of the process was thus tainted by errors and inaccuracies.  The result was that when the process of resource analysis was completed, policy and management decisions were made based on erroneous forest inventories and poor forecasting models.

           Following the passage of Quebec 's Forest Act in 1986, the forestry industry was granted leases known as Timber Supply and Forest Management Agreements (TSFMAs) that allocated control over vast tracts of public forests to private companies, with the stipulation that they manage these forests in accordance to conditions set by the provincial government (Dufour, 2004).  In reality, TSFMAs were essentially a giveaway to the forestry industry, even if it was not recognized at the time.  Dufour (pp. 278-279) cites the example of the Péribonka Management Unit, where almost 70% of the TSFMA was allocated for priority forest production areas.

           From a policy and management perspective, the Forest Act of 1986 essentially enshrined private management of Quebec 's forests within the framework of public policy, with very little oversight on the part of the provincial government.  Although this is clearly problematic from an ethical point of view, the government rightly assumed that the general public would remain largely unaware of the issue due to the relative geographical isolation of most of the effected forests.

           It was only recently that non-state actors other than corporations began to play a more active role in the public discourse.  Richard Desjardins' film led to the foundation of new environmental groups whose goal was to improve public understanding of the forestry issue in Quebec.  Additionally, the recommendations of the Brundtland Commission put pressure on national and provincial governments to set aside more land for the purpose of conservation.  The discourse of sustainable development encouraged stakeholders of all stripes to voice their opinions and create new coalitions and partnerships in order to change the status quo of ecological destruction for short-term profit.

           One such partnership led to collaborative research between university and government scientists who joined forces to study the feasibility of sustainable forestry and the introduction of new, more environmentally friendly logging practices in the Abitibi region.  Underlying this partnership was an increasing recognition on the part of the provincial government that historical management policies had been insufficient to protect the forests from abusive industrial practices.

           The Abitibi region is unique in Quebec 's boreal forest because its underlying geology is typified by poorly-drained clay soils with high concentrations of organic matter (Lefort, Harvey, Parton, and Smith, 2002).  Due to higher concentrations of soil moisture, fire is less common in this part of the boreal forest than elsewhere in the biome, with the result that a majority of the forest stands in the Abitibi region are over 150 years old (Lefort et al, 2002).

           Abitibi's clay geology also made it more susceptible to industrial forestry practices.  Forest regeneration has been hampered in the region because mechanized timber extraction disturbs the soil and makes it difficult for pioneer species to recolonize the landscape.  The university and government scientists therefore decided that it was necessary to introduce new methods of logging in the area that better mimicked natural disturbance regimes, permitting the maintenance of ecosystem biodiversity while also enabling local forestry communities to make a sustainable living.

           The researchers devised two new ways of logging that have met with success: careful logging around advanced growth (CLAAG) and harvesting with regeneration protection (HARP) (Lefort et al, 2002).  These new logging techniques integrate natural forest dynamics into resource allocation and management, recognizing that ecosystems change over time and attempting to minimize human impacts by "maintaining or generating the structural and compositional attributes of a regional forest mosaic similar to what the natural disturbance regime would produce" (Lefort et al, 2002, p. 669).  The authors note (p. 668) that their research "has often been cited as providing a viable solution to reconciling forestry and biodiversity maintenance in the boreal forest."

           The research being conducted in Abitibi is a step in the right direction, but broader institutional change will be necessary before Quebec 's forests can be qualified as protected in any meaningful way.  Relative to the rest of Canada, protected areas in Quebec still constitute a very low percentage of publicly-held lands (CPAWS, 2007).  Although the Charest government recently increased Quebec 's protected areas to 4.8% of the province's land area in the midst of a tight election campaign (Le Devoir, 2007), there is still plenty of room for improvement.  His government has yet to show whether its actions are motivated by genuine concern for the environment or sheer political opportunism.  To date his government has been heavy on talk and light on action.

           Over two years after the Coulombe Commission's report was released, little headway appears to have been made in implementing its recommendations.  SYLVA II is still being used as a tool to produce forest inventory forecasts, road building continues unabated in the northern part of the province, and few concrete steps have been taken to ensure that Quebec 's forests are responsibly managed.  On a positive note, however, several major forestry companies, notably Tembec and Domtar, have partnered with the Forest Stewardship Council and the WWF to improve forest management practices and sell wood products that meet certifiable standards for environmental responsibility (WWF, 2005).

           Forests have played an important role in the history of both Quebec and Canada and remain an important economic, cultural, and environmental resource.  The expansion of the forestry industry and advances in harvesting technology over the past fifty years have led to unprecedented and unsustainable rates of deforestation that today threaten the livelihoods of forest-dependent families and the ecological integrity of these unique ecosystems.  In Quebec, resource analysis based on poor forecasting models, coupled with mismanagement by the provincial government and private companies, has led to irresponsible policies that unnecessarily exclude public opinion and oversight.  Although new methods of logging are being successfully introduced in the Abitibi region as a result of collaboration between university and government scientists, the recommendations of the Coulombe Commission have yet to be implemented on a provincial scale. A more active role on the part of the provincial government, regardless of which party is entrusted to make these important decisions, will be necessary if Quebec 's forests are to be meaningfully protected to meet the needs of future generations.  Cooperative, participatory discussions involving citizens' groups, logging interests, conservation organizations, and government representatives should be encouraged to safeguard the heritage of the boreal forest ecosystem.

      Happy Earth Day!


Originally posted to geodemographics on Tue Apr 22, 2008 at 05:02 AM PDT.


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