Should we be worried about the future of our forests? You might think so if you've come across one of several recent media stories citing a University of Maryland study prepared in collaboration with environmentalist groups like Greenpeace. According to this study, "Intact Forest Landscapes" are being "degraded" at an alarming rate. And Canada is one of the worst offenders, apparently responsible for over one fifth of the total loss of intact forests since the turn of the 21st century.
To understand exactly what this means, though, and whether or not it is cause for concern, we first need to understand the terms being bandied about, and we need to put the statistics presented in proper perspective.
An Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) is defined as "an unbroken expanse of natural ecosystems within the zone of current forest extent, showing no signs of significant human activity, and large enough that all native biodiversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species, could be maintained." Note that this definition does not exclude human activity, as long as it is low-intensity activity.
But is disturbing a natural forest really such a serious problem? Forests are constantly being disturbed by forest fires, diseases and insects. In fact, in a typical year, the area of boreal forests disturbed by natural factors is about five times larger than the area disturbed by logging, which takes place over less than 1 per cent of the total forest. In other words, the trees and animals in our forests are disturbed more by nature than by humans.
And these natural disturbances are actually generally beneficial for biodiversity and the regeneration of the forest. Is logging necessarily harmful to the forest just because it's a human disturbance?
The term "Intact Forest Landscape" can be misleading, in that it makes it sound as if forests disturbed by humans will never recover their initial characteristics. In reality, a forest is not that different from a farm, in the sense that it can be harvested and it will grow back, albeit on a somewhat longer timescale. Since we cut such a small fraction of the immensity of our forests, the cycles of disturbance due to logging are sufficiently spread out in time that those forests have time to regenerate.
And thanks to the use of modern logging techniques, managed forests today look a lot like undisturbed forests, with varied landscapes and lots of diversity. Today's technologies and methods allow us to harvest the forest while respecting the environment, combining the economic needs of rural regions with the more general society-wide desire to protect biodiversity.
Environmentalists paint a dire picture of our forests, whereas in fact, as my colleagues Jasmin Guénette and Pierre Desrochers recently demonstrated, they're actually doing rather well. The most recent data show that the forest cover in Quebec was not only maintained, but actually increased slightly between 1979 and 2002. And the animals that live there are also doing quite well. This latest scary story to have made the news is just another false alarm.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.