Located at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako rivers in northern B.C., Prince George is a city within a forest. Vast, verdant clouds of lush, rustling birch, aspen and spruce dominate the skyline. In the fall, colourful foliage lights up the hillside and during the summer, luminous green canopies provide solace to city dwellers from the heat. While most inhabitants enjoy the green spaces, usually hiking along the popular Cranbrook Hill Greenway Trail or walking their dogs at off-leash parks like Ginter’s Meadow, others gather nettle for tea and forage for wild berries in the forest.
One among them is Jennifer Cote, a Prince George resident who runs a “wildcraft” business harvesting plants from their natural habitat. She frequently gathers huckleberries for her firm called Moose, Mushrooms and Mud. She also makes jams and jellies from them.
“Since huckleberry jams aren’t commercially cultivated, they aren’t available in grocery stores, so I often like to teach people how to make them,” she says.
Throughout the year, Cote journeys in and around Prince George collecting wild food and medicines from the McGregor Range, northeast of the city and around the Buckhorn, Purden and Tabor lakes.
Every time she is out picking berries, Cote is careful not to damage the bushes and the berry patch.
“It’s important that after collecting, you leave the area in a way that the plant population remains healthy. I want to be able to come back year after year,” she says.
However, there are other factors that pose a risk to wild berries. One is herbicide spraying.
Cutblocks in Prince George have been doused with herbicides like glyphosate, a possible human carcinogen, by provincial government agencies like BC Timber Sales and lumber companies for several years to kill off berries, herbaceous plants and broadleaf trees like aspen.
According to James Steidle, founder of the advocacy group Stop the Spray BC, the forest industry considers these plants “pests” impeding the growth of cash crop conifers like spruce, pine and fir.
In B.C., approximately 17,000 hectares of forested land have been sprayed per year with herbicides, primarily glyphosate-based herbicides.*
The forest industry uses herbicides in areas that have recently been logged and replanted to reduce competition from “pest” plants which would otherwise inhibit the growth of conifers like lodgepole pine seedlings.
When forest companies harvest an area of Crown land in B.C., Section 29 of the Forest and Range Practices Act requires them to establish a “Free Growing Stand.” The act defines a Free Growing Stand as “a stand of healthy trees of a commercially valuable species, the growth of which is not impeded by competition from plants, shrubs or other trees.”
In order to achieve this requirement, the forest companies prepare pest management plans to spray herbicides at cutblocks and reduce competition, said Nancy Pezel, spokesperson for Western Forest Products, a Vancouver-based lumber company.
“Failure to meet the free growing standards can result in penalties and has potential implications on the future timber supply,” said Pezel.
The pest management plans prepared by companies like WFP provide lists of targeted species the herbicide aims to eradicate. These include major competing vegetation that might include anything from herbaceous vegetation like thimbleberry, salmonberry, raspberry, elderberry; deciduous trees (that lose their leaves in the fall) like big-leaf maple and oak; and broadleaf trees (those with leaves that have a flat, relatively broad surface and are not needle-like) like aspen.
“Herbaceous vegetation exhibits rapid early growth rates and is the prime competitor in the initial phases, which is why they hinder growth of conifer seedlings,” Pezel explained. “Later, the large deciduous trees pose greater risk, as pines compete with them for light, nutrients, water and growing space.” But there has been increasing opposition to the use of these herbicides.
The spraying is troubling for berry foragers like Cote, and Indigenous people who rely on wild food plants for their livelihood.
More broadly, anti-herbicide groups such as Stop the Spray BC worry that herbicide use will result in reduced plant diversity, leading to monocropped forests that are vulnerable to more frequent and destructive wildfires.
‘I am probably picking something with glyphosate’
Stop the Spray BC claims that the Prince George region contains some of the most heavily sprayed forests in the province.
For the last five years, BC Timber Sales and Canadian Forest Products Ltd., often known as Canfor, have been spraying herbicide in Prince George as part of their pest management plan.
Last August, when Cote travelled to two cutblocks she had previously scouted, she was greeted with signs from Canfor at both locations indicating that the areas had been sprayed with a herbicide containing the chemical glyphosate.
She couldn’t harvest and incidentally lost several pounds of berries.
“Wild foods are a source of natural food, free from chemicals, but when they are sprayed with herbicides, they are no longer natural,” she said.
While several organizations and researchers have raised concerns about glyphosate’s potential effects on human health, some even linking it to cancer, Health Canada maintains that none of the claims are scientifically supported. A 2019 public statement from Health Canada states, “No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.”
Research published in 2021 by Lisa Wood, a plant biologist from the University of Northern British Columbia, revealed that glyphosate remains in forest plant tissues for over a decade after the chemical has been applied. But the study also asserted that the levels of glyphosate in these plants wasn’t considered toxic for people.
The herbicide does, however, affect the plant’s ability to grow and produce fruit. Wood’s research states that glyphosate-based herbicides have been found to cause the abnormal formation of reproductive structures in some agriculturally relevant plants.
“Pollen viability of treated plants is reduced by an average of 66 per cent,” she writes. “Reduced pollination reduces fruit production, thereby reducing plant populations and food for animals that depend on them.”
For Cote, who relies on wild plants, this is bad news.
“It’s harder to find areas that haven’t been sprayed in Prince George. I feel like I am probably picking something with glyphosate,” she said.
Pests or plants and medicines
South of Prince George, within the Sea to Sky Natural Resource District, another avid berry picker, Angela Hopkins Rose, fears confronting a similar fate.
Since March this year, Hopkins Rose has been advocating against the BC Timber Sales’ five-year plan, which spans from 2022 to 2027 and involves spraying herbicides such as glyphosate and triclopyr on Crown land between Hope and Squamish.
After hearing about the proposed plan, Hopkins Rose quickly took to Instagram calling on people to email and call government officials and requesting them to delay the spray.
The BC Timber Sales plan aims to eradicate plants such as salmonberry, huckleberry, thimbleberry, elderberry, salal, red raspberry, blueberry, mushrooms, false hellebore, devil’s club and fireweed in the cutblock areas. These plants, while considered “pests” from a forestry perspective, are important for Indigenous peoples, explains Hopkins Rose, a member of the St’át’imc Nation.
“These are all culturally significant plants and medicines that local Indigenous peoples have harvested and relied upon for thousands of years, and targeting them will have serious negative impacts on local Indigenous peoples, local wildlife,” she said.
Concerned with the prospect of aerial herbicide spraying in the territory, Hopkins Rose wrote a letter to BC Timber Sales asking them to disclose detailed maps of potential spray sites.
Typically, these detailed maps are not released to the public. But Hopkins Rose and activists like Steidle want to see more transparency from forestry companies.
They also want to see good-faith consultancy processes from the companies. In March 2022, Hopkins Rose says she asked BC Timber Sales to extend its consultation period. The company went ahead with its original plans.
Most of the time, the notices for pest management plans are published only in local newspapers and don’t reach a wide audience, said Steidle.
Recently, Western Forest Products advertised its pest management plan on July 15 in a local newspaper but not online. It proposes to spray herbicide on a vast area of northern Vancouver Island including the Port McNeill region and the forests surrounding Quatsino Sound from 2022 through to 2027.
“It’s really like a whack-a-mole. You try to deal with one company and another one appears with its pest management plan,” said Steidle.
The forest industry in B.C. is entirely confiner-focused, so much so that they are obligated to reduce competition to lucrative conifer species, Steidle said.
“Forests are supposed to grow naturally and the current forestry practices in B.C. result in monoculture forests with limited biodiversity and little wildlife,” said Steidle.
“A replanted cutblock doesn’t have more than five per cent deciduous trees. It is entirely legal to cut down and spray 100 per cent of deciduous broadleaf trees in every cutblock and there is no requirement to preserve any of it in any law or statute anywhere.”
In response to questions from The Tyee, Neil Hughes, forest establishment lead at the ministry, said in an email that the ministry is in fact focusing on increasing the number of broadleaves in B.C., and the under five per cent claim was incorrect.
“Careful analysis of inventory data shows us that there is more than five per cent of broadleaves in many of our young forests. As more manual brushing is being carried out, we are prescribing for increasing amounts of broadleaves to be retained,” he said.
The special case for deciduous trees
Provincial forest policy regarding the management of deciduous trees has not changed in many years. But in light of the climate crisis, increasing threats of wildfire and waning support for widespread herbicide use, B.C. forestry needs to place more value on deciduous trees, said Steidle.
Deciduous stands are now understood to mitigate wildfire risk and provide important wildlife habitat. Celebrated ecologist Suzanne Simard’s research has shown that deciduous trees hold more water, contain less resin, and are less flammable than conifers. Other studies have shown that protecting deciduous trees in forests helps maintain biodiversity of birds, animals, plants, fungi and other organisms.
Simard’s research also shows that conifer forests don't necessarily do better when the broadleaf plants are killed off — meaning that the whole process of spraying herbicides may be pointless.
The Ministry of Forests says this assertion doesn’t align with their own research.
“Foresters remove competition from their crop trees for the same reason farmers remove competition from their wheat fields and apple orchards,” said Hughes. “Forest research scientists have studied competition extensively. We have excellent growth and yield models that can show just how much growth reduction occurs when increasing amounts of broadleaf trees are present.”
Nonetheless, the ministry now acknowledges the importance of broadleaf trees and in response has commissioned three working groups to develop best management practices and strategies to manage deciduous species, primarily trembling aspen, paper birch and cottonwood species.
The groups are called the Interior Broadleaf Working Group, Interior Hardwood (hardwood comes from deciduous trees which lose their leaves annually) Regeneration Working Group and Interior Deciduous Working Group.
Hughes, who is part of the Interior Broadleaf Working Group, says that the team has identified the Prince George Timber Supply Area as its first study site.
“We have already reviewed the existing broadleaf inventory, and have worked with wildlife habitat specialists and wildfire specialists to identify management objectives. Instead of removing broadleaves, we are now in the process of setting targets to increase their level through focused retention of aspen,” he said.
Once the group has completed its work in Prince George, it will be made available in other parts of the province as a process for better managing broadleaf trees.
But advocates like Stop the Spray BC’s Steidle say they will continue to sound the alarm on rethinking forest management practices in B.C.
“As big industry converts our forests into lifeless tree farms that will devalue humanity’s relationship with the woods, we need to fight for more diversity in our woods,” he said.
“It is a fight for maintenance of the natural world and preservation of Indigenous cultures and traditions.”
* Story updated on Sept. 4, 2022 at 2:05 p.m. to correct the frequency of herbicide spraying.