The Canadian public would be forgiven for being confused on these issues because there is a lot of false and misleading information swirling around. Here’s an attempt to clarify and explain.

First, Canada’s forests.

Scientists have divided the world’s forests into four broad climatic zones, domains, or biomes: tropical, subtropical, temperate, and boreal. Some 23% of Canada’s forests fall into the temperate zone (think British Columbia) and 77% into the boreal zone (pretty much the rest of Canada).  

Unlike in the United States, where private ownership of forest land is dominant, forests in Canada are overwhelmingly (90%) owned by the public through provincial, territorial, and federal governments.[1] So, in Canada it is provincial government foresters, ecologists, and wildlife biologists who determine how these forest lands should be managed: whether they should be left in a wilderness state; set aside as parks; converted to pasture or crops; opened to oil and gas exploration, mining or forestry; retained for recreation or tourism; or removed for the construction of hydro dams, roads, towns, subdivisions, ski hills or golf courses.

Some 11% of Canada’s total forest land is already legally protected from development.[2] That’s about the size of the United Kingdom, with industrial activities such as harvesting, mining, and hydro-electric development banned in nearly 95% of it.[3]  The percentage of legally protected forest cover varies by province.

In addition to the 11% that’s legally protected, there’s a whopping 41% of Canada’s forest cover that’s left unmanaged.[4] Much of it is remote and inaccessible and left in a wilderness state, disturbed only by fire, insects and beetles, winds, floods, and avalanches. And more recently by a rapidly warming climate.

What remains (48%) is called managed forest: forest land under a forest management plan using the science of forestry.[5] In deciding which areas will be available for harvesting, provincial foresters take into account the likely impact on the forest of natural disturbances such as insects, disease, and forest fires; the possible impact on wildlife and habitat; the wood volume available; the sustainable limit of the area to be logged; and various economic and social benefits such as local employment, recreation, and Indigenous land rights.

Foresters first identify the forest values they want to protect and then identify local biological conditions so that they can set limits and targets for different tree types and age classes. They use the growth rates of trees and their knowledge of tree science to establish what they consider to be a sustainable wood supply and also set aside areas of concern, sometimes called high-value conservation areas. A recent study indicated that over half of Canada’s managed forest contains conservation areas within it (for example, riparian and woodland caribou management zones) where harvesting does not occur or is deferred. Which means, when you look at the big picture, that less than 25% of Canada’s forest area is actually available for harvest.[6]

Canada's Forests - Chart of Canada's Forest Lands how much is harvested

How much is actually logged?

According to the most recent data, just over 700,000 hectares of forest was harvested in Canada in 2020.  That’s 0.2% of Canada’s total forest area.[7]  And if we focus on the boreal alone, a Canada Forest Service analysis of harvesting between 2000 and 2015 estimated the harvest there at an average of 450,000 hectares per year. That represents a mere 0.16% of the boreal, or 2% over the last 15 years.[8] Recent claims that the Canadian boreal forest is being “threatened by industrial logging” and that we are “cutting the heck” out of the boreal need to be seen for the gross exaggerations they are.

Canada's forests - Chart of Boreal Forest

What are the major disturbances impacting Canadian forests?

Climate change driven by our use of fossil fuels is having a major and widespread impact on Canada’s forests. As Natural Resources Canada notes in its latest annual report, climate change is altering the frequency, severity, and size of disturbances, and facilitating the movement of forest pests. “The increase in disturbances may transform forest composition. For example, the anticipated increase in fire frequency and severity may benefit some species that could take advantage of the new conditions (pines, white birch, red oaks) while other species could decline (sugar maple, American beech, and eastern hemlock). The rate of climate change in Canada also means that some tree species will not migrate quickly enough to maintain viable populations.”[9]

Forest ecosystems are dynamic and constantly evolving, a complex array of plants, organisms, and microorganisms that interact both with themselves and their surroundings, and have done so for thousands of years. It is a little arrogant of us, then, to portray remote forest areas where humans, as far as we know, have not yet ventured in great numbers, as “pristine and undisturbed.”

Nature has been, and is there 24/7. For example, beetles, insects, and wildfires either damaged, infected, killed, or burned more than 22 million hectares of Canada’s forest lands in 2020 with little or no assistance from humans. That’s an area 31 times larger than was logged for lumber and pulp and paper and regenerated afterwards.[10] And this happens year after year: a natural cycle of death and renewal. Let’s not forget that Nature exists in all her beauty and savagery whether humans are around or not.

Canada's forests - Temporary Forest Disturbances Chart

Which brings us to the fate of the caribou

I have written elsewhere about the complex factors that have led to the virtual demise of the mountain caribou herd of South Selkirk in British Columbia: a combination of climate change (snows hitting later and spring arriving sooner) and human interference (reintroducing wolves to the area, snowmobile recreation, and the introduction of power and gas lines, logging and mining).[11]

The woodland caribou of the boreal face similar pressures today (a rapidly changing climate impacting their habitat, and other human factors, including logging). Is it fair and accurate, though, to simply lay all the blame at the feet of the forest industry, as some people are keen to do?

Because, as indicated earlier, the amount of boreal forest actually logged over the last 45 years is relatively small (5% at the most). This does raise questions as to what has been going on in the other 95% of the boreal where there’s been no forestry development. What’s happening to the woodland caribou there?  

There are also regional differences in forest composition, in natural disturbance cycles, and disease. This makes the current “one-size-fits-all” federal approach (less than 35% of the caribou herd’s range should be disturbed) somewhat problematic. And while there are many caribou herds with less than 35% disturbance that are in demise, there are also many herds with greater than 35% disturbance that are doing very well![12]

Recent caribou population studies also show that there are three times as many caribou in some ranges than previously thought.[13] Clearly, more science needs to be applied to this issue. Let’s get all the facts out on the table.  

[1] Natural Resources Canada, The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report, 2022.

[2] Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), Conservation Forestry – Careful Use of Canada’s Forest Resources

[3] Natural Resources Canada

[4] FPAC, ibid.

[5] FPAC, ibid.

[6] FPAC, ibid.

[7] Natural Resources Canada, The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report, 2022.

[8] Canadian Forest Service analysis quoted in John Mullinder, “Suzuki Dead Wrong on Paper’s Circular Economy,” October 1, 2020

[9] Natural Resources Canada, The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report, 2022.

[10] Natural Resources Canada, ibid.

[11] John Mullinder, “Journalists Do Not Like to Admit They Are Wrong, Period,” August 10, 2023

[12] Wilson, S.F December 2023. Estimating the Causal Attribution of Stressors to Improve Canada’s Recovery Policies for Woodland Caribou. In preparation.

[13] Anderson, N Thomson, A and Hettinga, P. Population demographic and genetic health estimates for woodland caribou in the Brightsand Range of Ontario based on fecal DNA mark-recapture analysis. Final report for SARSP Project No. 2021-02-1-1561520504.