Defining Forest Degradation in Canada
David Suzuki Foundation and partners
To address the global climate and biodiversity crises, Canada has committed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, deforestation and land degradation by 2030. The impact of forest degradation on climate stability and biodiversity has been established in scientific literature.1 However, forest degradation has continued in many primary, old-growth and other high-integrity forests with insufficient government acknowledgement, scrutiny, or recourse. This not only impacts forests in Canada, but undermines Canada’s credibility in calling for greater ambition from developing countries and impedes the implementation of effective, global solutions. Canadian policymakers appear to assume, without peer reviewed scientific evidence, that, either naturally or with human intervention, forests will eventually recover after industrial logging, either ignoring or denying the impact of forest degradation. This stance is insufficient given the near-term action necessary to avert climate and biodiversity catastrophes, and ignores the significant long-term or permanent consequences resulting from industrial logging.
This document –the preamble, definition and indicators–represents the joint position statement of David Suzuki Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nature Canada, Nature Québec, Stand.earth, Wildlands League, and WWF-Canada.
We acknowledge that, from a western scientific perspective, degradation occurs on a spectrum. For example, the duration of degradation depends on what is being degraded. It can be short-term (e.g., a clearing that may increase predation success on at-risk species) and still constitute a negative impact to forest conditions. Degradation occurs at multiple temporal scales from moderate (i.e., restored within a short time frame) to severe (i.e., longer lasting and difficult to restore) to irreversible (i.e., the original biodiversity and climate regulation values of the forest are unlikely to be restored within a meaningful timeframe.) It also occurs at multiple spatial scales–from the site level to the landscape scale.
Nonetheless, many policy instruments require distinguishing between “degraded” and “not degraded.” The following forest degradation definition and indicators provide a defensible framework upon which Canada can build policies to halt and reverse forest degradation by 2030. The definition is one input into policy decision-making processes that also involve the consideration of a broad array of interests and values. It is important, however, to first establish a definition of forest degradation that is based on the best available western science and Indigenous knowledge.
We recognize that Indigenous knowledge holders may have different conceptual understandings of forest degradation, and different indicators of forest degradation, and that, as such, there will be complementary ecological and Indigenous Knowledge frameworks that need to be co-applied to appropriately address forest degradation.2 Following the best available science means that we will keep refining our understanding of degradation and how best to halt and reverse it.
Any reduction in a forest’s ecological integrity, including ecosystem resilience, caused by direct or indirect3 anthropogenic impact as evidenced by the indicators below.
Forests that have undergone industrial disturbance should be considered degraded until it is shown that they are no longer degraded based on empirical evidence related to the following indicators. Phase I indicators have readily available data, knowledge, and technology for assessment. Assessment of Phase II indicators requires new data, knowledge and/or technology.
|Declining populations of indicator species, including forest-dwelling species at risk
|I & II
|Changes to forest age class compared to pre-industrial condition
|Changes to tree species composition, compared to pre-industrial condition
|Fragmentation of intact forest
|Reduction in provision of ecosystem services
|I & II
|Change in ecological integrity (EI) or forest productivity
|Loss of existing carbon stocks (I) or carbon storage capacity (II)
|I & II
1 Betts, M. G., et al, (2022). Forest degradation drives widespread avian habitat and population declines. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 6(6), 709-719; A. Vásquez-Grandón et al, (2018) Forest Degradation: When is a forest degraded? Forests, 9(11), 726; Thompson, I. (2011). Biodiversity, ecosystem thresholds, resilience and forest degradation. Unasylva, 238(62), 25-30.
2 We acknowledge that Indigenous rights and responsibilities existed prior to colonization in Canada and are protected under Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution and upheld by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Canada has endorsed.
3 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change refers to both indirect and direct degradation while acknowledging that the complexity of causes can make distinctions between direct and indirect impacts difficult. However, many indirect impacts of forest degradation are well known, such as the increased access for predators following the direct impact of logging road construction which can alter predator-prey relationships.