Is Quebec running out of trees?

From up in James Bay, the answer may seem obvious. Loggers are quickly rushing to the edge of the northern treeline, after clear-cutting the forests in southern Quebec.

But the $18-billion forestry industry and Quebec government say the forests are being managed just fine, and there’s nothing to worry about.

They claim the forests are being cut sustainably.

The debate has been raging ever since Quebec singer Richard Desjardins released his film L’Erreur Boréale last year, which slammed the province’s forestry policies.

The Nation spoke with some of Quebec’s top experts on forestry to find out if there really is a problem, and how bad it is.

They said the government’s assurances are based on fanciful guess-work, and no one has a reliable idea of how much logging is sustainable.

“No one has precise figures on that, even the (natural-resources) ministry,” said Christian Messier, a forestry professor at UQAM who specializes in forest regrowth.

“The statistics don’t exist,” agreed Luc Bouthillier, a forestry economist at Université Laval, who was once a provincial appointee on the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment.

“We are overestimating regrowth. As things are going now, there is an overexploitation of the forests.

“Will the forests disappear? No. But we run the risk of having moments when the forests won’t support the industry.”

Messier agreed: “Are the forests about to disappear? Obviously, no. The problem is we are cutting too much, and we are cutting the best trees. The natural forests are disappearing, and we are left with a lot of degraded forests in Quebec. They always take the best trees and leave the worst ones behind.

“It’s becoming a big problem. The industry does whatever it wants, and the public doesn’t have a say.”

A big problem, both experts said, is that the government’s figures on sustainability are so shaky. That’s because everything rests on complicated formulas for figuring out how many trees will grow back 20, 50, even 150 years down the line. Just like with interest in a bank, a tiny difference in the growth rate today can wildly influence returns a century later.

“It’s a little like many diseases. You don’t have facts. You have to use hypotheses,” explained Jean Bégin, another forestry professor at Université Laval, who is one of Quebec’s pre-eminent researchers on forest regrowth.

“We are not always as certain as some would like to believe. (The government’s) hypotheses are not all verified. Certain hypotheses did not have scientific facts,” he said.

Bouthillier said there is a parallel with what happened to the Maritimes cod fishery, which collapsed due to overharvesting throwing thousands out of work:

“If there is a similarity with the history of the Maritimes fishery, it is that we don’t have good information on the resource and the impact of our actions on the resource.”

It’s not just Crees who are concerned about seeing their forests disappear. South of the border, in frontier states like Maine, many Americans say their forests are also being clear-cut to supply Quebec’s hungry mills. Quebec companies are increasingly using wood from the U.S. Northeast as supplies get scarcer north of the border.

Quebec’s booming furniture industry, which employs 33,000 Quebecers, now gets virtually all its hardwood supplies from the U.S., since Quebec’s own deciduous forests have been wiped out.

“Maine is running out of trees,” warned Christina Haas, of Maine’s Sierra Club. “It has to stop or we’re going to have a very serious shortage.”

Especially bothersome for many Maine residents is how little benefit the state gets from the trees. Little processing is done in Maine. Also, Maine workers are being crowded out of logging jobs in their own state by Canadians, who don’t have to be paid as much because of the weak loonie.

In the past two years, Maine residents have blocked roads near the border three times to protest the export of unprocessed logs.