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Province-wide slash burning sparks controversy

The practice of slash burning is sparking a debate about how the province manages its natural resources.

Last year B.C. burnt an estimated 5 million tons of forest fibre critics say could have been put to good use

Slash burn is a method of getting rid of debris from logging, where piles of branches and other tree debris are burned. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

When Greg Mancuso got tired of working his regular desk job at Folklore Reforestation, he pestered his boss for a change of scenery.

Shortly after, he got what he asked for: a 12-day gig setting large piles of branches, logs and tree tops ablaze.

The job gave him some nail-biting thrills.

"When you look at the size of some of the fires that you started, it kind of makes you a little nervously excited," he said.

Mancuso, who usually works as a project coordinator for Folklore Reforestation, would traverse fresh clear-cuts across the Prince George region and burn down large piles of woody debris known as slash.

They're the leftovers from logging and are systematically burned every fall and winter to limit the risks of wildfire.

It's is a common forestry practice. Just last year, an estimated five million tons of it went up in flames across the province.

Opposition to slash-burning is growing within the forest sector. (Gordon Murray)

The fires are a major contributor to B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2012, slash burning accounted for 13 per cent of the province's total greenhouse gas emissions, or  eight megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to B.C.'s latest greenhouse gas inventory.

Resources up in smoke

And now, one man is calling for a ban on the practice, highlighting the waste's potential to be converted into bioenergy.

"We just think that burning should be restricted altogether," said Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.

"It's a valuable resource that is just being wasted."

Murray says slash fibres can be used to create wood pellets, a fuel source that works as a more eco-friendly alternative to coal.

Gordon Murray would like to see a ban on all forest slash burning, citing the fibre's ability to be converted into bioenergy. (Sue Retka-Schill/Biomass Magazine)

According to Murray, getting access to the abundance of slash across the province could substantially increase the supply of Canadian-produced wood pellets. 

He says the move would not only significantly bring down B.C.'s carbon emissions but also grow the province's pellet industry.

Canada used to be the largest wood pellet exporter in the world and British Columbia was the leading producer in the nation. But the growth stagnated in 2012.

"The US industry has grown four times as large as the Canadian industry and our lack of growth is because we can't get secure access to fibre," he said.

A fibre action plan

The Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations has taken note that excess logging waste could be utilized as a potential resource.

Industry experts say wood pellets are a more eco-friendly alternative to coal. (CBC)

In September 2015, the Fibre Action Plan was introduced to make use of the residual slash. It allows plant operators to negotiate with harvesters if they can prove that there's a demand for it.

But Murray says the negotiations are one-sided and ineffective.

"They have all the power because they control it, and there's nothing to stop them from burning it," he said.  "We see it as a public resource they shouldn't have the right to burn."

The costs of clear cuts

Getting waste material to processing plants, however, can prove costly for logging companies.

"Our first preference is not to burn the material," said Ron Vaotour, a regional fibre supply manager for Interfor, one of the largest lumber suppliers in the world. 

"But if we are unable to cover our incremental costs, we will burn the slash because it's legislated by the government." 

Piles of excess wood fibre can be utilized but are instead burned to limit the costs of extraction. (CBC)

Incremental costs include getting the material stacked and shipped, which can be labour intensive when clear-cuts are far off the beaten path — and far away from the nearest processing plant.

"No one in forestry likes to see the slash burnt," he said. "And we're hopeful that more and more facilities will pop up to utilize the material."

Future timber shortage

One person who has managed to get his hands on logging waste is Stan Hadikan.

Hadikan is tasked with securing fibre to supply the Celgar mill in Castlegar, which uses the otherwise-wasted material to produce pulp — and even electricity.

"We know that there is a timber supply crunch coming, largely brought on by the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the North," said Hadikan. "And with that, you need to figure out how to get more fibre out of what you currently are using."

Foresters expect limitations on future timber supplies after provincial forests were devastated by the mountain pine beetle (CBC)

Hadikan believes it's going to take a concerted effort from both industry and government to develop cost-effective ways to get slash into processing plants in the face of looming timber shortages.

"I think as a province we need to focus on how to make this happen, because it's going to be a fibre supply that we rely on in the future," he said.

CBC reached out to the provincial government for a comment and was sent a copy of the Fiber Action Plan in response