Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Science + Tech

What Should a Dean of Forestry Say about Old-Growth Logging?

The dean at UBC gave his views, and drew an Oregon professor’s pointed response. We publish both here.

John Innes and Michael Paul Nelson 16 Jul

John Innes is dean of the faculty of forestry and holds the Forest Renewal BC chair in forest management at the University of British Columbia. Michael Nelson holds the Ruth H. Spaniol chair in renewable resources and is professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University.

[Editor’s note: On July 2, as the protests in Fairy Creek escalated, UBC dean of forestry John Innes posted a “personal message.” He’d faced criticism from some for not demanding a stop to old-growth logging in the province, he said, and criticism from others for not condemning the protesters. Innes therefore wanted to publicly share his views about a “situation” which “is a lot more complex than most people suppose.”

This week The Tyee received an alternative to the message from Innes, submitted by Michael Paul Nelson, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University. Nelson, who said he had applied for the same job that Innes now holds, calls for a “paradigm shift” in forestry. We publish both pieces here.]

A personal message from the dean to the UBC forestry community

John Innes, dean, faculty of forestry, Forest Renewal BC chair in forest management

Much has been made about the future of old-growth forests in British Columbia. Global media interest is intense, partly because of the coverage of protesters being arrested while demonstrating against the logging of old growth on southern Vancouver Island. These arrests were made not for demonstrating, which in British Columbia is generally a lawful activity, but for violating an injunction issued by the British Columbia legal system.

I have been asked by those on one side of the argument why I have not added my voice to those demanding an immediate stop to old-growth logging. Conversely, I’ve also been asked by those on the other side why I don’t condemn the people who are making those demands. Here, I will express my opinion as dean of the faculty of forestry at UBC. This is not the faculty’s opinion — there is no such thing, as we are a community of individuals, each with their own opinion. While very occasionally we all agree on something, the more normal situation is for a variety of views to be held on any particular subject. As I indicate below, what I can and cannot say is influenced by my position as dean, and if I was writing this as a faculty member and researcher, I would express myself differently.

As with many issues and causes reported in the media, the situation with old-growth conservation in British Columbia is a lot more complex than most people suppose. There has been a great deal of obfuscation, to the extent that the facts are quite difficult to ascertain. For example, it has been stated that that there is only three per cent of old growth left in the province of British Columbia. This is untrue. As defined by the provincial government (and there should be questions being asked about the scientific validity of this definition), there is somewhere between 13 and 14 million hectares of old growth left in British Columbia. About 10 million hectares of this is either protected or excluded from the Timber Harvesting Land Base because it is not considered to be economically feasible to harvest. Much of this forest (an estimated 80 per cent) consists of relatively small, low-productivity forest, but which nevertheless provides many environmental benefits, including important habitat for many species and a significant carbon store.

Many concerns centre on the remaining areas of so-called “productive old-growth forest.” This is a misnomer, since virtually all forests are productive, but some are more productive than others. The area of this that is left is subject to dispute, and it very much depends on how it is calculated. The truth is, there has been no complete survey of old growth in British Columbia, and all estimates are ultimately based on models, developed from several forms of sometimes conflicting inventory data. The claims that there are only three per cent left are based on estimates calculated using methods based on the Vegetation Resources Inventory site index. However, this has long been known to underestimate the productive area in mature and old stands. More reliable estimates of the area of mature and old stands can be gained from the Provincial Site Productivity Layer, but this also has serious shortcomings. On June 24, the provincial government announced the creation of the Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel. “The purpose of the Panel is to provide maps, analysis, and detailed status of old-growth ecosystems in British Columbia in order to improve public information, consistent with recommendation #5 from the Old Growth Strategic Review. The Panel will also provide recommendations on priority areas for implementation of deferrals, consistent with recommendation #6 from the Old Growth Strategic Review.” This is a critical step, and I am pleased that it has finally been taken. However, it will not be able to address the problem of the poor state of forest inventory in British Columbia.

It is clear, especially on Vancouver Island, that many of the magnificent stands of valley-bottom old growth have been logged. The surviving forest in the valley bottom at Carmanah provides an indication of what these forests were once like. These stands were not only some of the most valuable in British Columbia, but also some of the most readily accessible. These were generally located in coastal western hemlock forests. In drier areas, coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems predominated, and many of these have been lost due to land-use change and fires. Already the smallest and rarest of the ecological zones in B.C., old-growth CDF forests are believed to have been reduced to less than one per cent of their former extent, and any unprotected remaining stand warrant immediate protection.

Should this protection be extended to all old-growth forests in British Columbia? I am reminded of a report produced by the Joint Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council and the Ministerial Council on Forestry, Fisheries and Aquaculture National Forest Policy Statement Implementation Sub-Committee, or JANIS, back in 1997. This argued for the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system for old-growth forests. Their recommendations were quite specific:

They were dealing with very different types of forests to those found in British Columbia, but something similar could be imagined for prioritizing the conservation of old-growth forests in B.C. We would also want to make sure that any conservation policy addressed the vexed question of “how much is enough?”

So why won’t I specifically attempt to discredit some of the claims that are being made by either side? The faculty of forestry is a community of researchers with a broad diversity of opinions, something that we both value and encourage. Every person is entitled to their opinion, and is entitled to express it. As dean, it is my role to protect those rights. That is what academic freedom is all about. As a scientist myself, I could question some of what is being said, but I have to be extremely careful in doing so because of my position as dean. Ultimately, I have to maintain impartiality, as there is a significant power imbalance between myself and the people who work in my faculty, and university discussions are increasingly being viewed through such a lens. Faculty members are becoming increasingly astute at using the media to convey their opinions. Some have crossed an invisible line between science and advocacy, but that is both their choice, and their right. If they are wrong, it may affect their credibility in the future, but that again is their choice. When they have had a major success in their efforts, we can, and should, congratulate individuals for their achievements, even if we don’t agree with what they are saying.

I have been misquoted in the media as being critical of the Old Growth Strategy Review produced by Garry Merkel and Al Gorley. I have never been critical of this report, and I am pleased that the provincial government has agreed to follow through on its recommendations. However, I have read these recommendations very carefully, and I believe that they are more thoughtful than many people realize. The report recommends a way forward that takes into account the requirement to meet the needs of truth and reconciliation. The B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act has not simply shifted the goalposts. It has changed everything. Everyone is going to have to get used to that. The report does not recommend the immediate implementation of all recommendations, but instead indicates that they will take time, as all paradigm shifts do. They do, however, recommend that as an immediate strategy, the province should: “Until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.” This is not a recommendation to immediately defer all old-growth logging in B.C.

The management of old growth in British Columbia is inadequate, as pointed out by the Forest Practices Board in their 2012 investigation. In their submission to the Old Growth Review Panel, they pointed out that little has changed since their 2012 report. The designation, enforcement and subsequent monitoring of Old Growth Management Areas in B.C. is deeply deficient. This needs to change.

However, this is not the only area of forest management policy in need of substantial change. The provincial government’s recent Intentions paper signals a willingness to address some of the issues, including a much-needed overhaul of the outdated B.C. Forests Act. The question remains as to how much the government will actually be able to achieve, especially given the lack of capacity in the relevant ministries. Garry Merkel, one of the authors of the Old Growth Strategy Review, and a member of the new Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, has repeatedly emphasized in the media that British Columbia must go through a paradigm change in the way that we manage our forests, and this is the area that is least well-reflected in the Intentions paper.

Getting more involved with some issues is problematic. For example, I have been criticized for not showing more “leadership” during the Fairy Creek protests. That was an interesting statement and made me think. Should I have been supporting Teal-Jones, who have a licence issued by the provincial government to log in the area and the agreement of the First Nation leadership whose traditional territory it lies within? Should I have been supporting the RCMP in their efforts to enforce the law? Should I have been supporting the Pacheedaht First Nation? If so, should I have been supporting those in agreement with the logging, or those standing against it? Should I have been supporting the protesters, convinced of the justice of their cause, but acting in defiance of an injunction and against the expressed wishes of the elected leadership of the Pacheedaht? Maybe I should have been trying to broker a solution, but that was already happening behind closed doors on a government-to-government basis.

Rather than jumping in uninvited, there are other ways to show leadership, and I think we are doing that. For the past seven years, we have been building a proposal for an Indigenous Land Stewardship Centre. We’re still working on this; although the proposal is complete, permission to start has not been granted. In developing this, we have faced indifference, intransigence and the occasional outburst of outright racism, but this concept, co-developed between the faculty and Indigenous partners, and with a similarly co-designed undergraduate program, is exactly what is needed today. It is no coincidence that the Squamish Nation has listed lack of capacity as one of the difficulties facing the resource management planning that is needed to resolve some of the old-growth questions.

What about the forest industry, and the people dependent on it? Twenty-seven per cent of British Columbia’s annual cut consists of old growth. That rises to more than 50 per cent on Vancouver Island. Stopping that harvest immediately would cause major hardship for many individuals, communities and companies. Many working in the forest sector are highly leveraged, and even a temporary loss of income could have disastrous consequences for their ability to service debt. For others, it would mean job losses, and all the problems and distress that that entails. This is why Garry Merkel and Al Gorley talked about a transition period, giving time to adjust to the new reality. Of course, that would mean continued cutting of old growth, but this could be directed away from the areas most in need of conservation, potentially reducing (but not eliminating) the impacts.

Just before Easter this year, we submitted a report to the B.C. premier’s office and several B.C. ministries recommending major changes to the B.C. forest sector, including changes in the way forestry is planned, practised and regulated, changes to the tenure system, involvement of carbon conservation and changes towards a future bioeconomy. While receipt of the report was not acknowledged, and there has been no discussion of its contents with government, I was pleased that many of the recommendations we made were the same as appeared in the recent Intentions paper. I, and I hope the rest of the faculty, remain open to working with government to help design some of the much-needed change that is so clearly needed.


Michael Paul Nelson, Ruth H. Spaniol chair of renewable resources, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy, Oregon State University.

This time last year I submitted a letter of intent and my CV to be dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia, Canada. I don’t know what I was thinking, I could never be a dean. Turns out, they thought so too. I write this, then, as an unsuccessful applicant. This is the letter I would have written to the UBC Forestry community on the subject of old-growth forests.

“What kind of greedy criminal thug thieves would we be as a people and a species if we didn’t spend every iota of our cash and creativity to protect and preserve” our ancient forests? — Brian Doyle, 'A Newt Note'

Dear Colleagues,

The current debate over the continued logging of old-growth forests in British Columbia presents us with yet another important moment to critically examine and reconsider our core beliefs, values and purpose. It has been said that forestry is in dire need of a paradigm shift. Is it ever! But it is important to understand what a shift in paradigm means, and what it requires of us. To change a paradigm is not to merely tinker around the edges, to rebrand or otherwise modify in degree. It is to go to the core, to change something in kind and to radically rethink our most basic belief systems and the policies and practices they inspire.

A paradigm shift would be profound in forestry. It would change the very questions we ask. The questions we ask matter. Consider the history of the many proposals about how we should extract timber (and even that language). For example, some have asked, how much old growth is enough? This question betrays a particular valuation of the world, hearkening to the outdated paradigm of continual growth and human superiority that has led to our many conservation challenges in the first place. If we thought differently about the forests, we might instead wonder: How much forest now serving narrow human interests is enough? How much human impact on the world is enough? How much greed is enough?

Maybe we should not be asking questions like, how do we most efficiently extract timber; or, should we loosen regulations on timber production; or, should we return ownership to the province; or, should we increase thinning; or, should we narrow riparian buffer zones? Or any of the stale and grid-locking questions we currently ask. If our paradigm changed, so would our questions.

Consider the ideas of Indigenous ecologist and writer Robin Kimmerer as an example. To gather our sustenance from the forest (or the farmland, or the river, or the oceans) is to engage in a kind of harvest, she suggests. So, the questions we could be asking are: What constitutes an honourable harvest? What does it mean, and look like, to engage with the world in this way, as an honourable actor? What is required of us in such a relationship? Perhaps there are ways to honourably harvest some amount of old growth, but it is not at all clear that the dominant settler culture has figured those out. It is not clear that you can enact an honourable harvest and maximize for the dollar at the same time.

A paradigm shift would suggest that we cease thinking of and treating old-growth forest as inanimate, property, fungible or of instrumental value only. If we give up on those ideas, then how can we continue to harvest ancient forests? A paradigm shift would suggest that a program in forestry should be premised first and foremost on loyalty to the planet, rather than to institutions attributing purely instrumental value to the forest. A paradigm shift in forestry would force us to ask, what is forestry in this new paradigm? What is forest management for? How can we provide for people in ways that also allow us to help forests save us from our own “too much”?

Some might say we need to move slowly and that paradigm shifts require time. While I appreciate this concern, I’m not sure a slow pace is a requirement for a paradigm shift, or that it’s ethically appropriate in this case. Who does this demand for more time serve, anyway? Certainly not the ancient forests, certainly not the disenfranchised of the world, and certainly not those who would benefit from a stabilized climate (i.e. everyone). It serves only to further protect and perpetuate the current, dominant forms of thought and practice. It serves only those who disproportionately reap the benefits of our current ideas and policies.

A paradigm shift is sometimes referred to as a “revolution” in thinking; a great and sudden realization that changes everything, and all at once. We need a revolution. We could spend even more time and energy quibbling over how various sides of the debate have used or misused certain facts of the matter, or about how much old growth remains, or about how to define old growth, or about false dichotomies between jobs and trees. But how much time do we have? These things are all quite beside the point, they are distractions and delays, once again only benefiting those who are benefited by the status quo.

Some will suggest that my position as dean implies that I remain neutral or objective. In his book How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi points out that a failure to be actively anti-racist perpetuates the dominate institutions of racism. I think this observation can be generalized: a failure to stand up to the dominant forces that oppress and bring ruin to the world only emboldens and empowers those forces. I will not hide behind notions of neutrality or objectivity as long as our relationship with the world remains so broken. To feign neutrality is to take a side.

Some of you might be concerned that if faculty take policy positions on controversial issues that they, and perhaps the faculty of forestry collectively, will lose scientific credibility. It is important to remind ourselves that scientific credibility is controlled by the scientific community. Shame on us if we cannot distinguish between good science and advocacy, or if we think the latter somehow negates the former. It is also important to wonder what impact a failure to engage with the challenges of the world would have on our credibility with the larger public. Why should anyone care about or listen to what we might have to say as scientists, if we are not willing to publicly engage with policies that draw upon our science? I would be remiss to discourage faculty in a democratic society from engaging in advocacy. I would only encourage them to strive toward excellence here, and to advocate in justified and transparent ways.

We exist at a time of extreme environmental crisis. Rising to the challenges before us will require the greatest exercise in the human imagination and effort in the history of the world. It would be foolish to fail to save everything we possibly can: cultures and life-ways that understand how to successfully live in a land community; modes of thinking and meaning-making captured in our various disciplines and epistemologies; stories that guide us to virtues like humility, wisdom and compassion; and yes, living ecosystems that can teach us about the ecology of resilience.

As I have always made clear, I believe that our environmental challenges are as much a matter of our basic worldviews and philosophies as they are anything else. The thinking underpinning the currently dominant worldview needs to change profoundly and paradigmatically. If there is any form of leadership that a faculty of forestry at one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning can offer the world and forestry at this moment in time, it is the intellectual and moral imagination the world so desperately needs.


Michael Paul Nelson  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll