NSR in BC: too important for guesswork

There is some absurdity around the recent confusing and seemingly contradictory figures used to describe the not satisfactorily restocked (NSR) area of British Columbia.

These NSR lands are defined as areas “not covered by a sufficient number of well-spaced trees of desirable species”. The gist of this broad designation is that NSR lands need to be addressed with some kind of remedy such as reforestation. If we don’t address NSR lands the general implication is that their condition today will lead to a future deficiency in timber supply, diversity or eco-system abundance.

British Columbia’s NSR area was the focus of a recent opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun in which the authors accused the provincial government of, by its own admission, underestimating the silviculture net NSR by 700,000 hectares. Those “missing” hectares brought the total silviculture net NSR close to 1.5 million hectares according to the editorial. Minister of Forests Pat Bell replied that the silviculture net NSR was only 240,000 hectares. Subsequent to this exchange a 39-year veteran of the forest service, whose duties included managing inventory reports and statistics, wrote in the Victoria Times Colonist that the inventory gross NSR lands in the province likely were as high as 9 million hectares once we included gross NSR on the books in 2001 plus the land damaged by the mountain pine beetle and fire since 2002.

In those editorial exchanges we have two, supposedly well-informed estimates, one from the Minister and another from a former senior professional staff from within his ministry, appearing to differ by an order of magnitude. At least some of the contradictions, but not all of them, can be accounted for in the difference between gross NSR and silviculture net NSR used variously by the authors of these editorial assertions. In the ministry’s parlance NSR is a descriptive label in the classification of forest land. It refers to gross NSR or not stocked area. That area is netted down by excluding inaccessible and low and poor productivity sites. The silviculture net NSR arrived at then is an estimate of the gross NSR that silviculturalists deem worth planting and not likely to regenerate naturally in reasonable time. Gross NSR and silviculture net NSR, although related indicators, are different.

But to the diligent investigator things can still seem confused. Any effort to sift through the ministry’s published documents that refer to the NSR will show a range from 178,000 hectares to 3.7 million hectares. For what its worth the WSCA estimates the NSR lands currently unproductive and worth reforesting (silviculture net NSR) to be between 3 to 5 million hectares. That is based on what few surveys have been undertaken on the mountain pine beetle land combined with the ministry’s existing estimates of other lands where NSR reforestation would make a difference.

It is also worth noting that in the ministry’s 1984 Forest and Range Resource Analysis the inventory gross NSR was described as 3,386,928 hectares of which the silviculture net NSR area was estimated at 738,000 hectares. That previous extent of the NSR area was considered a forestry crisis and led to major investments from both the federal and provincial governments to restore what were then called “the silvicultural slums of British Columbia”. By most accounts we seem well past that point today.

The further blurring of NSR figures is aided when inventory NSR lands disappear because they have been reclassified as unmanaged forests: stroke-of-the-pen forestry. Some NSR lands appear or don’t depending on the methods used to statistically track them: lost in data translation. Others aren’t collected any more since the ministry stopped conducting it’s ten-year inventory analysis last undertaken in 1994. And then some NSR figures are simply made up; such as the factoid that the mountain pine beetle NSR area is 400,000 hectares. We have not surveyed the 15-million hectares of MPB attack in order to know how many hectares are NSR. Yet this has not prevented the minister from saying, rather illogically, that government fully intends to survey these 400,000 hectares to see if they are growing enough trees.

The NSR figures are important statistics reflecting the state of the regeneration of B.C.’s forests. It is in the public’s interest, and particularly the communities that depend on our forests, to know these figures so they can properly consider them as a basis for making the stewardship decisions needed to tend this valuable resource. And it is not just today’s public I am thinking about that has an interest. There are the citizens who, in many cases, haven’t been born yet. They and their communities will inherit the consequences of the decisions we make to day. The onus then is for government to present the NSR figures in their necessary fullness, with clarity and free from cant. In particular if government really doesn’t know what the NSR is in the province, as the present discourse suggests, that deficiency needs to be addressed. The state of our forests is too important to be subject to so much conjecture around the NSR.