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7 facts on disturbances and deforestation

Natural disturbances like wildfire, insects or disease are often mistaken for causes of deforestation. In fact in Canada, forests – particularly in the boreal zone – rely on disturbances to renew and revitalize themselves. Although natural disturbances do create a temporary loss in the forest cover, in the long term they help forests stay healthy and encourage diversity in the tree, plant and animal species that inhabit them. Here are 7 reasons why natural disturbances don’t cause deforestation.

Forest in spring with a fallen tree. Natural disturbances such as forest fires, insect and disease outbreaks are part of the natural life cycle of the forest.

1. Natural disturbances are a normal part Canada’s forests

Natural forces such as wildfires, insects, disease, drought and floods have been at work in Canada’s forests for thousands of years. A forest is a living community of organisms that is constantly changing, and natural disturbances are the biggest drivers of change. They shape the structure, age, types and diversity of the trees and other plants and animals that inhabit our forests. These natural cycles of renewal help keep forests healthy.

Natural disturbances account for considerably more lost trees in Canadian forests each year than human activities like logging or urban development. For example, in 2014 fires affected 4.6 million hectares of forest land while only 700,000 hectares were harvested.

2. Natural disturbances do not cause deforestation

Deforestation means that a forest landscape is cleared and permanently converted to another use. For example, forest land may be turned into farm land, or trees may be cut to build roads or other infrastructure to support industrial, urban or resource development. This represents a permanent loss of forest cover.

Natural disturbances cause a temporary loss of forest cover and do not contribute to deforestation, because the trees will regenerate. Forest land that temporarily has no trees is still considered a forest, since the trees will grow back in time.

3. Deforestation is not increasing in Canada

Canada carefully monitors and regularly reports on the important issue of deforestation. For the past 20 years, deforestation in Canada has been declining, and is currently at a rate of only 0.02%. Learn more about Canada’s low rate of deforestation.

Natural disturbances such as fire, disease and drought occur in cycles that may be shorter in some forest regions and longer in others. This means that disturbances may increase in some years and decrease in others. This is part of the natural life cycle of the forest. Because the loss of forest cover to natural forces is temporary, this does not affect the deforestation rate.

4. Natural forces cause more temporary forest cover loss than harvesting

Although natural disturbances and timber harvesting both create some temporary loss of forest cover, natural forces disturb far more area in Canada’s forests than is affected by harvesting. On average, over the last 25 years, about 21 times more forest area was disturbed by fires and insect outbreaks than by harvesting.

It is important to remember that these are only temporary losses in forest cover. Nearly all the forest area disturbed by natural forces and harvesting will grow back. In fact provincial laws or policies require that areas harvested on public land must be regenerated, either naturally or through planting and seeding. About 94% of Canada’s forests are on public land. Learn more about sustainable forest management.

5. Boreal forests benefit the most from natural disturbances

Natural disturbances occur in all kinds of forests, but occur more often in boreal forests than in Canada’s temperate forests. In fact, boreal forests rely on disturbances to help them rejuvenate.

Wildfires in particular help boreal forests to revitalize, to shape the forest landscape and to support biodiversity over the long term. Fire stimulates new growth and some fire-adapted tree species, such as jack pine, rely on forest fires to reproduce. Read more about fires in the boreal forest.

Large insect outbreaks and diseases are also part of the natural cycle and renew forests by releasing nutrients stored in the trees and in dead plant material. And while some types of trees die, other species are allowed to grow, which helps create diversity in the forest.

6. Sustainable forest management includes managing disturbances

Although forest fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and important for maintaining its health and diversity, they can also threaten communities and destroy valuable timber resources. This makes fire control a vital component of forest management in Canada. Forest agencies work to limit potential damage and costs of forest fires. In fact, governments and industry spend about half a billion dollars each year protecting forests from fire. Read more about the ways Canada manages wildfires.

7. Canada monitors the environmental impact of natural disturbances

Natural disturbances can have a major effect on the environment, including the carbon balance. Canada monitors disturbances very closely to inform management planning and as part of our climate change reporting requirements. We also report publicly on fire and insects as two key criteria in our annual State of the Forest report. By monitoring disturbances like fire and pests, forest managers can better understand their effects and take steps to mitigate the changes natural disturbances create in the environment. Learn more about sustainable forest management.

Learn more about natural disturbances in Canada’s forests

See how fire, insects and other disturbances shape Canada’s forests.

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