As British Columbia's mountain landscapes fill with golden clouds of smoke, harmlessly contained on our TV screens, we can heave a sigh of relief that so far this year Ontario has avoided massive forest fire misery. This is mostly because of heavy early-summer rainfall, and not at all because of Tory timber policies. Indeed, recent changes in Ontario forest management give us no reason to become complacent.
On the contrary, I fear they put us at risk of seeing vast fires in our own province. That's because politicians have now taken the increasingly understood reality that fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and turned it inside out. If the effects of fire help enhance forest biodiversity, their reasoning seems to go, then so must the effects of logging.
One of the most insidious examples of this distorted logic is a scheme the Ontario Tories dreamed up in defence of clear-cutting, called Natural Disturbance Pattern Emulation. Currently being phased in, this policy allows for vast clear-cuts, in some instances with no limit on size, "to help forest managers emulate natural disturbance patterns, such as forest fires, through forest harvesting." The implications are clear: if letting some fires burn helps prevent major conflagrations, then so will clear-cutting.
The Tories' policy allows some clear-cuts of over 10,000 hectares in size. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Natural Resources on October 18, 2001, 40 international forestry experts stated that clear-cutting does not imitate the effects of forest fires.
The ministry itself has acknowledged that fire is a chemical process while clear-cutting is mechanical. Fires release the nutrients stored in the burned forest, while cutting removes most of them, except for a combustible mess of twigs, bark and debris collectively known as "slash" that can act as kindling, increasing the chances of starting a fire or spreading it further.
And yet, according to Statistics Canada, over 90 per cent of Ontario's forest area annually "harvested" for timber is clear-cut.
In 1999, in response to ever more fires of ever greater magnitude in western forests, the U.S. General Accounting Office summarized: "The assertion has been made that we are getting more acres burned because we have reduced the timber harvest. The reverse, however, is true." That report was in response to critiques that increased conservation measures were having negative effects.
But as Dan McDermott of Sierra Club Canada puts it, "Catastrophic fires are relatively rare in natural forests but increasingly common in Ontario's 'managed' forests with their massive clear-cuts.'
Lightning strikes have been natural sources of forest fires since trees evolved. Forest ecosystems have adapted to periodic outbreaks of fire. But slash gives both natural and human-caused fires a greater chance to burn and spread, while logging roads provide enhanced access to the woods, increasing the likelihood of fires derived from accidental, or even intentional, human activity - the source of many of the worst fires in recent history.
I have to think the government knows all this (it has been told enough times) and just does not care. Even if the gamble fails, great megafires sweeping across the province can be blamed on nature or God or anyone but the Ontario government and its reckless change in forest management policy.
Do we want to gamble that we will not have any more dry, hot summers in Ontario? Letting the politicos determine such policies (not that conservationists don't fight them) is in the same league as giving a child a box of matches and hoping the kid's lack of appreciation of the consequences doesn't lead to his burning the house down around us.