Thunder Bay

Ontario must act to prevent hidden deforestation, environmental group says

Wildlands League releases new online tool to help local residents see 'logging scars' in Ontario's boreal forest and press government for action to prevent them.

Wildlands League catalogues hundreds of barren land sites left behind by forest industry

The Wildlands League says "logging scars" like this one in northwestern Ontario remain resistant to regrowth for up to 30 years and their impacts on the ecosystems remain unaccounted for in the province's environmental regulations. (Submitted by Wildlands League)

Thousands of hectares of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario have been laid to waste by the forest industry but remains unaccounted for under Ontario's forest management and climate change plans, according to a new report from the Wildlands League.

The environmental group released an online catalogue on Thursday of nearly 300 sites that have remained barren for up to 30 years. The total deforested area amounts to about 650,000 hectares or roughly 1.5 times the size of Lake Nipigon, according to Trevor Hesselink, director of policy and research for the Wildlands League. 

The sites, which Hesselink calls logging scars, are left on the landscape by access roads and heavy equipment use. Those areas fall outside of Ontario's forest management planning regime.

"With our report and this online tool, we really want to underline that this is a public forest that we all rely on either directly through employment, or indirectly in terms of climate change," Hesselink said. "And if we're going to use it sustainably, we need to be aware of the [forest industry's] full impact."

Barren land a 'blind spot' for provincial regulators

Ontario disputes claims that logging scars are a problem. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said provincial regulations requires that all harvested areas of the forest be regenerated. 

The ministry says between 2009 and 2013, just nine per cent of land designated for forestry was deemed "not free to grow" or unable to regenerate. 

A ministry spokesperson said that land is reviewed by forest managers.

But the Wildlands League said the problem of barren land in the boreal forest is a "blind spot" for the provincial regulators, currently amounting to about 14 per cent of northwestern Ontario's public forest.

Anna Baggio is the director of conservation planning for the Wildlands League. (Supplied)

The group is calling on the provincial government to increase environmental protections by including logging scars in their climate change calculations.

According to Hesselink, Ontario is ignoring the lost potential that the barren land has to capture carbon, as the province has already missed out on about 16.5 megatons of possible carbon sequestration. That amount grows with each year of more activity and lost growth.

If those impacts were attributed to the forest industry, it could no longer claim it is carbon neutral, said Anna Baggio, the conservation director for the group. 

The Ontario Forest Industry Association said it would wait to see the Wildlands League's online catalogue of logging scars before considering a response.

'More and better environmental protections' needed, say First Nations

Meanwhile, Baggio said Ontario is moving "backwards" with its environmental oversight.

The province announced earlier this month that it is "modernizing" regulations by removing environmental oversight for forestry from the Environmental Assessment Act and incorporating it in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

"We're sounding the alarm that this is only going to put more pressure on the forest," she said. "There will be less forest."

First Nations have also raised flags about that change.

"At a time when the whole world is facing unprecedented climate change and biodiversity loss, development must be supported with more and better environmental protections, not fewer," said a release from Fort Albany First Nation.

The Cree community is calling on the government to repeal the changes and partner with First Nations to develop new legislation.

The Wildlands League initially released it's report on logging scars in December 2019, highlighting 27 sites. Hesselink said the new searchable catalogue of 291 sites responds to criticism that he was "cherry picking" the data by focusing on the worst areas. Each site is evidence of systemic logging-related deforestation, he said.

The disruption of the pandemic provides "a tremendous opportunity to rethink how the forest industry works," Hesselink said. 

He hopes the online catalogue of logging scars inspires people to take advantage of the science available "from their desktop" to become engaged as "citizen scientists monitoring the environment" and consider their place in it.