Is timber being harvested sustainably?

Harvesting and the regeneration practices that go along with it are at the heart of Canada’s sustainable forest management regime. Together, these activities ensure that the forest industry continues to provide a steady stream of benefits to Canadians and that our forests remain healthy and sustainable. While harvest and regeneration activities are the most significant interventions made by humans in terms of area, natural disturbances actually affect a far greater area of Canada’s forests each year.

In 2014, 148 million cubic metres (m3) of industrial roundwood were harvested in Canada, mainly for use in the production of lumber, but also for panel products (such as plywood, veneer and oriented strandboard), and pulp and paper products. This represents approximately 0.3% of Canada’s total standing wood volume (47 billion m3).

British Columbia accounts for nearly half (45%) of Canada’s industrial roundwood harvest, followed by Quebec and Alberta.

Harvest regulation

Over the last decade, more than 85% of the total volume of timber harvested for industrial use in Canada each year has originated from provincial Crown lands. Provincial governments regulate these harvest levels by specifying an allowable annual cut (AAC), which is the annual level of harvest allowed on a particular area of Crown land over a specific number of years (5–10 years in most cases) to ensure sustainability over the long term.

Although actual harvest levels can occasionally fall well below or above the AAC level because of market conditions or business decisions, AAC levels cannot be exceeded over a specified planning period. No AAC is determined for Canada as a whole, but it is possible to compare the combined provincial AACs with the combined timber harvest totals from the same Crown landbase.

Regeneration after harvesting

All areas of provincial Crown land that are harvested for timber are required to be regenerated naturally or using artificial means (i.e., planting and seeding) or a mix of the two. Successful regeneration of harvested areas ensures that forest lands remain productive for wood fibre and continue to provide key ecosystem services, such as storing carbon, regulating water quality and quantity, and providing wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. Although standards and regulations for achieving successful regeneration vary by jurisdiction, they commonly address species composition, density and distribution; age and height of the regenerating trees; and the distribution of various forest types and age classes across the landscape.

Natural versus artificial regeneration

Natural regeneration offers many benefits: it needs little human assistance, it creates a solid foundation for ecosystem-based management, and it generally costs less than artificial regeneration. However, control over species composition is difficult and thinning or fill planting may be needed to ensure that density and stocking levels meet regeneration standards. As a result, artificial regeneration is often used to increase the likelihood of achieving regeneration to forest species compositions that meet forest management objectives. It also provides more control of density and stocking levels. More than half of harvested areas in Canada are regenerated through artificial regeneration.

  • British Columbia accounts for 40% of Canada’s aggregated allowable annual cut (AAC). Quebec and Ontario together account for 31%, and the Prairie provinces and the Atlantic region for 25% and 4%, respectively.
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