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Woodland caribou: Going down with the trees


Boreal Forests are living ecosystems that support thousands of species that have evolved over millennia. Like all ecosystems, if you impact one part then you affect another. Big business has monopolized our forest landscape, and been supported by Government policies of extensive clear-cutting, single species silviculture, and favouring even-aged regeneration. Vast areas of our forest landscape that once supported mixed age, mixed species and mixed size stands, the cornerstone of biological diversity, are now monocultures. Woodland caribou are in serious trouble on the island of Newfoundland and the public need to reflect on the major contributing factors. The fact that these ungulates need intact mature coniferous forests is why they are called "woodland" caribou. They require old-growth forests for the calving period as well as tree lichens and relief from heavy snow fall in winter. Caribou abandon traditional range when clear-cuts and related logging activity approach within 10 kilometres of core areas.

Guest commentary -

Boreal Forests are living ecosystems that support thousands of species that have evolved over millennia. Like all ecosystems, if you impact one part then you affect another. Big business has monopolized our forest landscape, and been supported by Government policies of extensive clear-cutting, single species silviculture, and favouring even-aged regeneration. Vast areas of our forest landscape that once supported mixed age, mixed species and mixed size stands, the cornerstone of biological diversity, are now monocultures.

Woodland caribou are in serious trouble on the island of Newfoundland and the public need to reflect on the major contributing factors. The fact that these ungulates need intact mature coniferous forests is why they are called "woodland" caribou. They require old-growth forests for the calving period as well as tree lichens and relief from heavy snow fall in winter. Caribou abandon traditional range when clear-cuts and related logging activity approach within 10 kilometres of core areas.

At first blush, one would think that the Minister of Environment and Conservation is doing the right thing by providing guidelines to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (Forestry Service) and the one remaining pulp and paper giant in an effort to influence the 5-Year Forest District Operating Plans. In a document entitled 'Forest Management Guidelines for Woodland Caribou For the Island of Newfoundland: Final Draft January 2007' we learn some startling facts. Thirty-seven core areas and associated 10 kilometre buffers are identified but the core areas are permitted to be harvested for 25 per cent over mature growth and buffer areas for 70 per cent of their older coniferous growth. Whatever the value of the scientific research on this iconic species has yielded is certainly totally lost in this outcome. This is not sustainable management. It might represent an attempt to find compromise to a biological reality that has no compromise but the public will never know the true influences behind this paradox.

The plot thickens because as you further look into these 37 core areas and their buffers, you come to discover that many of them have already been cut out, and/or are currently approved to be cut out, and in some cases were basically deforested before being designated. It is convenient for the DNR to continue to flout its Sustainable Forest Management Strategy (2003) because without overarching principles grounded in science, they can claim ostensibly to be undertaking sustainable management.

Something is badly amok when our caribou forests cannot be maintained and adequately buffered from forest harvesting. Then again, neither are spawning habitats of salmon, habitats of birds, viewscapes, outfitting lodges, cottage owners, and a sundry other resources being adequately "managed", and it all has to do with a mindset centered in the DNR that has free reign on our public forest lands.

Einstein's dictum states that problems cannot be solved by the same mindset that made them. Looking at this mindset in the context of conventional forestry we hit the brick wall called Annual Allowable Cut (AAC), the 'sacred cow' of industrial forestry. If you read the Government's Sustainable Forest Management Strategy (2003) (SFMS) you find that there is "...a lack of an intermediate age forest in insular Newfoundland..." (p.34) which is a polite way of telling you that our forests have been over-harvested. Like over-fishing, it is worldwide phenomenon. The mindset is that any and all fibre that is outside of legislated protected areas is available to the industrial forester for "allocation" into the AAC. Because this fibre calculation is spread across a vast landscape, it is simply not all available, and the inflated quantity gets taken out in a smaller geographic unit. Anything that jeopardizes this, such as increased buffers for salmon spawning and outfitting lodges, and/or protection of core areas for woodland caribou, are considered forms of "alienation". Yes, our essential forest habitats to maintain healthy forest ecosystems are "alienated" lands. How preposterous is this! In ecosystem-based management (EBM) you have to determine what to leave on the landscape to ensure healthy indicator species like caribou before you determine what to take. You cannot evolve ecosystem-based management from the mindset of conventional AAC.

Remembering Einstein's dictum, it is good to reflect on how our DNR is able to maintain status quo. In large part, this is because they have been able to limit planning of the landscape to their Forest District Planning Process. The AAC comes to this table already determined, and not open to discussion hence flouting the founding principle of EBM because they have already determined 'what to take'. But the control doesn't stop there because senior DNR bureaucrats have infiltrated important evolving entities like the Model Forest and the Caribou Recovery Team ensuring politico-pathic agendas are played out. Than end, of course, is to minimize the lands that are "alienated" from the AAC. It's a paradigm, and in earlier periods of human societies, scientists were burned at the stake for challenging convention; the earth is round not flat; the forest is an ecosystem not a cornfield. We need new thinkers. The human mind abhors change, and you can't take individuals trained as industrial foresters and turn them overnight into ecosystem managers, which is what DNR has attempted by reclassifying its District Unit foresters.

For the first time in about 100 years, central Newfoundland is freed from the strangle-hold of feeding a pulp and paper giant with enough fibre to squeeze out a kilometre of newsprint a day, and our over-harvested forests remain as testimonial to that legacy.

The SFMS has no guidelines or working principles. All part of the politico-pathic agenda to maintain the old school mindset that you can't allow forest lands to be "alienated" from fibre production. For sure, we can say that Einstein was right again. In his book 'Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies' Thomas Power notes that extractive industries produce uniform commodities that are readily available from other sources, and over-supply is the reason that these industries are in decline. By contrast, clean air, safe water, endangered wildlife, intact ecosystems, and scenic beauty are in dangerously short supply. Therefore the values associated with intact landscapes are very high indeed. Power claims that the relative importance of the goods and services that the natural world offers has already shifted away from the extractive to the environmental. Are we getting that? Environmental quality has become a central element of local economic bases and vitality. This would partly explain why the MUN study demonstrated about 70 per cent of residents of central and western Newfoundland do not believe our forests are being managed sustainably. This and the failing forest industry in Newfoundland are sending the refrain that 'the times are a-changing'.

Dr. Ian Goudie is an environmental scientist and co-ordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Forests of Newfoundland and Labrador. Interested public are encouraged to engage through nlforests@cpaws.org.

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