Ontario’s Biomass program threatens Ottawa Valley forests


If you go for a walk in the woods today, tomorrow you could be in for a big surprise. Vast forests could be slated for clear-cutting before they even reach maturity. Above: Area clear-cut showing residual regeneration. Photo C. Huggett

Going against the age-old forest sustainability principle of “harvesting only the interest without disturbing the capital,” Ontario’s Biomass Initiative is reversing the trend. “Forest Biomass,” in this context refers to combining mill wood-waste such as slash, bark and chips with younger trees harvested from crown and private woodlots. The slurry is dried and made into simulated logs and pellets to be burned for energy.

Canada is following the eastern US lead in converting emerging forests into wood chips and sawdust. The wood pellets are marketed in Europe and have replaced coal burning in parts of the UK to produce electricity. Per energy unit, wood is less dense; consequently, biomass burning results in higher emissions than coal. The industry initiative is capitalizing on the climate crisis, which has sparked alternatives to status quo carbon intensive fossil fuel production.

Unlike solar, wind, and nuclear, burning wood increases the release of carbon dioxide while removing the carbon sink provided by a mature forest. It involves prematurely cutting down millions of acres of forest in the Ottawa Valley, which deprives them from reaching their full rotation age to produce valuable sawlogs.

Clear-cutting in winter 2023  of soft woods along the upper Bonnechere watershed. Photo C.Huggett

It’s no mystery that those involved in the forestry sector, and anyone spending time in the bush, know we are running out of merchantable timber. Over the decades the MNRF and the forest industry have based harvesting quotas not on sustainability but on market demand. The Forest Sustainability Certification program, established in the late 1980s, had the genuine objective to improve the way trees were extracted from the landscape. However, over the past few decades, the certification process perverted itself. Among other factors, industry was assigned to internal auditing, and new, larger and damaging forestry equipment replaced the chainsaw. The FSC logo became just another international marketing “green-wash” strategy.

Warming climates, drought, insect infestations, storm damage, exploding deer populations along with  intense canopy fires have exacerbated industry’s over-harvesting. The MNRF’s computer modelling and practices have failed to incorporate these emerging climate realities into predicting the impacts that current and future rates of harvesting will have on the future viable Ottawa Valley forest inventory.

In many areas classified as “barren and scattered,” once they are clear-cut, the thin soils are lost on granite bedrock and nothing resembling a forest reemerges.

Consequently, tree regeneration lags precipitously behind the timber volume we witness being trucked between lumber mills along the highway 60 corridor in the Madawaska Valley. Ottawa Valley forests, like many parts of Canada, are now dominated not by forests with quality sawlogs, but young marginally valued shade-intolerant species.

Like aged cheddar and wine, these emerging forests improve and are exceeded by shade-tolerant species such as maple and oak.  Since World War II the rotation period has been reduced to keep up with global market demands, especially to Asian markets. In theory an individual tree’s biomass is reduced to maintenance and repair by the age of 80-100 years depending on the species. It’s at this stage that industry decides to cut it down as it is only marginally increasing its wood volume, and the possibility for wind or insect damage outweigh the advantage of leaving it on the landscape.

Cable skidder stacking logs off White Mountain Chute Road, along the Bonnechere River winter 2023. Photo C.Huggett

But with increased transportation, logging road construction, machinery costs and higher worker wages, the rotation interval has been reduced from 100 years to 80, and now is less than 60 years of age to keep profits up. The number and quality of sawlogs produced from a single tree has plummeted. Decades of high-grading have left a crooked consortium of marginal trees blanketing the valley.

Despite both domestic and foreign demand for wood, Ontario Government subsidies in a globally competitive market are the only reason our local mills have not been shuttered.

Now with forest inventories collapsing, Premier Doug Ford’s MNRF Minister Graydon Smith, has been assigned to capitalize from the climate crisis  and announce a 1.5 million dollar grant program to area mills to retrofit and assess the feasibility of grinding and chipping birch and poplar or other under-aged forests for biomass production. From a traditional forest management perspective, the trees should be left on the landscape for the next half century before being harvested. The Biomass Initiative assigns these “underutilized hardwoods” to be cut now. Forfeiting tomorrow’s prosperity for today’s wealth is not good economics, let along protecting the ecosystem they support.

Area mills are assessing new chipping plants to capitalize on what they argue is “under utilized low-grade wood” in Renfrew County. A healthy society involves the collective contribution of all age classes, from cradle to grave. A forest ecosystem is based on the same principle. As forester and naturalist Aldo Leopold said, “The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

The Biomass Program will not only contribute to global warming but will devastate the Valley’s future for generations. It represents a last desperate attempt to salvage the dying forestry sector which stubbornly refuses to change direction and acknowledge that “less today is more for tomorrow.” 

Lower Pine River, young forest stands marked for harvesting during 2024. Photo C.Huggett


  1. Doug Delamatter

    What most people (including politicians) don’t appreciate is that on our thin soils, the trees spend their lifetimes scavenging nutrients from those soils. In a natural forest, an 80 year old tree would fall to the ground, decay and release those nutrients back into the upper layer where seedlings use them to establish a strong root system. When the wood is harvested, we are actually trucking those nutrients away from the forest, leaving the ground more barren than before.
    We do not sell “lumber”. We sell, pelletize and burn “plant nutrients”. Reforestation with seedlings does not replace what we remove. To imagine that this is a sustainable practice is extremely short-sighted.

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