Stop the Spray: Glyphosate, Forest Monoculture, and Fire

Conifer farming is drenching BC forests in glyphosate, increasing the risk and intensity of forest fires.

Jen Groundwater

Burnt ground and unburnt aspen trunks after the Monte Creek fire, 2021.

Burnt ground and unburnt aspen trunks after the Monte Creek fire, 2021 | Photo: James Steidle / Stop the Spray BC

Thousands of hectares of Canadian forest are sprayed every year with glyphosate, a weed-killing agent, for the sole purpose of killing off grasses, shrubs, and deciduous trees.

Yes, really.

It sounds unbelievable, but in the eyes of Canada’s forest industry, maples, alders, aspens, birch, ferns, fireweed, bluejoint grass, every kind of local berry, and other native species are considered weeds or pests. So they are removed, sometimes through a manual process called brushing, but more often by helicopters spraying large quantities of glyphosate.

Glyphosate is also in Roundup®, which was originally invented and sold by Monsanto but is now owned by Bayer. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Since then, Roundup has been banned for cosmetic use in many places, and a quick Google search reveals that thousands of Roundup lawsuits are ongoing against Monsanto and Bayer, with almost US $11 billion in settlements paid out to date, many to people who claim exposure to Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

So why in the world is this product routinely sprayed on Canadian forests?

Because when native species begin to grow in a replanted cutblock, they compete for space, light, moisture, and nutrients with commercially desirable conifers, which are naturally glyphosate-resistant.

Weed those trees — it’s the law

Canada is one of the world’s biggest producers of softwood lumber. According to Statista.com, in 2022, the value of our lumber and other wood product exports was approximately $22.16 billion. Naturally, legislation protects this important source of revenue, often to the benefit of logging companies – and at the expense of forest (and possibly human) health.

In British Columbia, for example, the Forest and Range Practices Act requires logged areas to be replanted with seedlings that must grow within a certain time into a free growing stand (“a stand of healthy trees of a commercially valuable species, the growth of which is not impeded by competition from plants, shrubs or other trees”).

The use of glyphosate has numerous negative effects, including creating a highly flammable landscape.

The pressure to create a viable crop of trees is real. BC’s forestry companies can be financially penalized if their replanted stands don’t achieve free growing status within the mandated period.

The result is that thousands of hectares are sprayed every year, creating a tree-farm monoculture that’s less hospitable to wildlife, insects, fungi, and fish than a mixed-wood forest. Not only that, but the use of glyphosate has numerous other negative effects, including damage to waterways, reduced carbon sequestration, and a highly flammable landscape.

Please don’t feed the wildfires

In June 2023, the British Columbia Forest Practices Board (BCFPB) published Forest and Fire Management in BC: Toward Landscape Resilience, a special report that opens with this astonishing acknowledgement of culpability:

“The way forests and fire have been managed in BC over the last 100 years has increased the scale and intensity of current wildfires and decreased landscape resilience. In 2017, 2018, and 2021, BC experienced its three largest wildfire seasons in 102 years of recorded fire, climate, and weather history, affecting 3.4 million hectares of land. If the way forests and fire are managed doesn’t change, BC will face many more catastrophic wildfire seasons.”

To be clear, the report doesn’t make any mention of glyphosate in fueling wildfires. But the indirect link is impossible to ignore: by regularly removing deciduous trees from cutblocks (primarily through the use of glyphosate), the forestry industry creates conditions that increase the risk and intensity of wildfires.

This is because, as the British Columbia FireSmart Begins at Home Manual explains (and many studies have proven), “coniferous trees are highly flammable and deciduous (leafy) trees are much less flammable.”

Prioritize biodiversity, not the timber supply

In a 2019 report produced for the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, certified wildland fire ecologist Robert W. Gray is quoted as saying: “The effect of fire behaviour associated with deciduous vegetation that is treated with glyphosate is not well documented. It is expected that the fire hazard in dead stems following either manual or chemical treatment would be high because dead aspen burns very hot.”

This same report says: “Forest management in BC seeks to balance all values ascribed to the forest, with the overarching objective of establishing and maintaining healthy and diverse forests.” However, forestry policy still primarily prioritizes the timber supply, which is why thousands of hectares of BC’s so-called Crown land are treated with glyphosate annually (11,000 ha in 2018 alone).

Wildfires are destructive and terrifying, with a host of negative impacts ranging from damage to human-made structures to vastly increased carbon emissions. They are also expensive. The BCFPB notes that during the 2021 fire season, $800 million was spent on direct fire suppression – and estimates that indirect costs could be as high as $24 billion.

With Canada’s worst-ever fire season still burning hot and unpredictable (with over 15.2 million hectares destroyed nationwide as of August 28, 2023, and 1.7 million ha in BC alone), we must pursue every initiative that might reduce the risk of fire. Deciduous or mixed forests are more fire resilient – one more reason to stop the spray.

Big forest fire and clouds of dark smoke in pine stands. Flame is starting to damage the trunk. Whole area covered by flame

Ecosystem health

In terms of ecosystem health, eliminating species like aspen and birch makes no sense because they’re pioneer species, explains James Steidle of the advocacy group Stop the Spray BC: “They help build soil for conifers, they improve watershed function, they’re important for biodiversity, and they provide food and forage for moose, beaver, and birds.”

Glyphosate is used in forestry nationwide (except in Quebec, where it was banned in 2001). But only BC doesn’t alert the public to its imminent use.

Both BC Timber Sales (which logs on so-called Crown land) and private logging companies produce pest management plans delineating their intentions for spraying or manually removing vegetative “pests” every five years, but these plans are general in nature, with no indication as to exact locations or times where activities will be carried out. Public feedback is accepted when the plans are first published, but there is no obligation to listen or respond to people’s concerns.

We don’t know where they’re going to spray, and they don’t have to tell us.

James Steidle of Stop the Spray BC

At least two weeks before a pesticide is applied, a “notice of intent to treat” (NIT) must be filed with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The NIT must include maps or diagrams showing exactly where the spraying will take place, along with provisions for pesticide-free zones within 10m of bodies of water, dry streambeds, and wetlands.

In other provinces, says Steidle, anyone intending to spray must make this information public, but in British Columbia there is no obligation to provide it to members of the public, even if they ask for it. Notifications are only posted in an area after the spray has been completed.

Public health

In August 2023, the Wilderness Committee raised the alarm about “provincial plans to spray forests throughout the territory of the Ma’amtagila and neighbouring Nations,” near Johnstone Strait, off the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island.

“This is a public health risk. Glyphosate is a probable carcinogen and biodiversity killer. Communities deserve to know at the very least exactly where spraying is occurring and when,” said Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner for Wilderness Committee. “There is no avenue within the Integrated Pest Management Act that automatically allows a First Nation community or public member access to spray plans. They’re only revealed if the government or industry voluntarily decide to hand them over.”

For decades, BC’s forestry paradigm has prioritized timber supply over ecosystem health and biodiversity. “As our planet continues to warm, biodiversity fades, and forest fires grow worse, does it make sense to keep eliminating the trees with the highest biodiversity values, lowest probability of flammability, and best ability to sequester CO2 and reflect solar radiation from our forests?” asks Steidle. “Obviously not.”

For him, stopping the spray is an important part of a bigger issue: the desperate need for intelligent management that preserves mixed forests in British Columbia and throughout Canada. “I think the public should be very sceptical about what’s going on in our forests,” he says.


See https://stopthespraybc.com
See also https://watershedsentinel.ca/articles/why-are-bc-forests-still-set-up-to-burn


Jen Groundwater is a writer, editor, and activist living in the Comox Valley. She has recently joined the Watershed Sentinel editorial team. 

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

Can we ask for a little of your time, and some money?

We can’t do this without you. Support independent media and donate a little or a lot – every bit makes a difference. And when you give those precious extra dollars, we treat them as the honour it is and use them carefully to pay for more stories, more distribution of information, and bonus copies to colleges and libraries. Donate $50 or more, and we will publicly thank you in our magazine. And we always thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Related Stories

We're Hiring!

Join our editorial team and help us carry forward our 30-year+ mission of publishing from the environmental grassroots!

Learn More