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February 12, 2021 | BEHIND THE STORY: “Seeing Red: BC’s Last Primary Forests” Map Weaves an Artful Fiction About Forestry

Stewart Muir is founder and executive director of the Resource Works Society, a Vancouver-based group open to participation by British Columbians from all walks of life who are concerned about their future economic opportunities. He is an author, journalist and historian with experience on three continents including a financial editor of The Vancouver Sun responsible for mining and markets coverage. Since Resource Works was established in 2014, the group has gained international recognition for its practical approach to the public challenges of responsible natural resource development and use.

INFOGRAPHIC: ResourceWorks News takes a look at how GIS data is being employed to create a highly misleading picture of forest practices that is at odds with the obvious evidence from satellite photographs. What we discover is confusing, to say the least.

In the image below taken from a Conservation North online mapping tool that is making the rounds, the red areas represent “disturbed” forests in B.C.  At this level of detail, it appears there is very little in the way of “primary forest” – which the map tool’s promoter defines quite vaguely as “natural forest of any age”.


Looks terrible, doesn’t it?

And when you drill down a little bit and look at just Vancouver Island, the impression is also of a vast and degraded region, with just a few areas of green representing natural forests:


From this map, it would seem that the majority of the Island consists of land that has been “disturbed by industrial human activity.”

Wow, shocking stuff!

Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re going to keep drilling down to see what else is there. To get at more detail, consider the map below, which is a closeup of the area in the white inset box from the Vancouver Island section above:


At this level, the picture starts to get more interesting. Much of the map area is depicted as red (“disturbed by industrial human activity”), yet now we realize that a significant proportion falls into another category, the one coloured in light grey shades. This is said to be “non forest”, or areas for which there is no data.

Based on this, there is only a tiny bit of true forest in this area. The rest of it has been subject to “industrial human activity”, or been left deforested, or maybe is shrouded in mist that satellites cannot penetrate.

If you were wary of British Columbia’s forest sector, but not very knowledgeable about it, you might at this point be concluding that even in more remote regions like shown above, the forest industry has wiped out pretty much all of the forest. (Which would be a silly thing for the industry to want to do if it wanted to ensure its future survival, but let’s park that thought for the moment.)

Now consider the image below from Google Maps. It shows approximately the same area as depicted above. Contrary to the Conservation North rendering, it turns out that this region is actually quite significantly forested. The only “non-forest” areas are roadways, lakes or adjacent Johnstone Strait.

There is plenty of evidence of forest harvesting. The lightest brown areas are the most recently harvested and subject to replanting. Darker brown areas are where new growth is already starting to show up. And then there are different shades of green indicating more mature regrowth. Yet none of this shows up in the Conservation North map, which depicts these healthy forests as simply “disturbed by industrial human activity.”


While the original Conservation North map claims that a large area of this zone is “non-forest”, it is plain to see that apart from some tiny communities like Sayward (middle right) and a few narrow strips of roadway, this entire area is forested – the exact opposite of what is claimed.

Let’s keep drilling down. In the two maps below we are looking at that same area, as seen by satellite (below left) and then as imagined by the creative colour-coders at Conservation North (below right). We’ve added some inset areas too.


Here is where things get really interesting. Above, we’ve marked out an inset area. In the images below, we zoom in on that area. In the Conservation North map, below right, but for a small area of green, perhaps a park or First Nations Reserve, the entire area is either in post-industrial recovery or is not forest at all. The satellite photo, below left, is of the exact same area yet conveys a completely different impression.


Now this is confusing. Two images, same area. Are we looking at industrial, de-forested land – what’s shown on the right – or a mostly roadless, verdant expanse of trees, which is what is pictured at left? Clearly, the camera does not lie: this area is a healthy forest. Here’s a closer photo image, from an area in the top centre of the inset area:


According to Conservation North, the area above is “non-forest”.

When it comes to the “Seeing Red” campaign, the devil truly is in the details. “Red Handed” is a more apt description of what’s going on here. We didn’t even have to work very hard to search for these anomalies: the example given above was pulled entirely at random. It’s likely that the same situation applies to most or all of the other areas depicted.

By a careful sleight of hand, including the selection of a lurid red tone that becomes the dominant colour when the map is zoomed out, an entirely false impression has been created.

Not only that. We are also left confused by what is even meant by the term “industrial human activity”. It seems intended to conjure up William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” issuing black smoke into the air.

Let’s zoom in on one such area – the campus of the University of Victoria. The entire campus and its surrounding neighbourhood is tinted blood-red, suggesting it has been terribly blighted by industry. At right is the same area, except as it’s seen from Google Maps satellite view.


UVic: industrial wasteland – or bucolic suburban retreat for higher learning?

Depends on which source you choose to trust, it would seem.

Conservation is a valuable pursuit. And there is certainly plenty of value in bringing detailed geographic information to the general public – when it’s done right. However, those seeking to gain public trust should be careful in how they use technical information, and avoid the temptation to create distortions. Online tools like Hectares BC allow anyone to access pro-grade GIS information. This is a great tool to play around with if you’re interested in biodiversity, forest conservation, and the future of interrelated ecosystems.

For those policymakers who are under pressure to make significant decisions based on characterizations of rampant industrialization, or irresponsible forestry, in the case of British Columbia with its rigorous environmental protections, the true picture is much different than that presented by some pressure groups. Unfortunately, they come across as more concerned about creating upset than in promoting evidence-based decision making.

The lesson for decision-makers is clear: be careful about claims placed before you, and be sure to examine things carefully before arriving at your conclusions.

Has anyone else spotted other mischaracterizations in this data set? We’d like to know. Write to us at [email protected].

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February 12th, 2021

Posted In: Resource Works

One Comment

  • Peter Brimacombe says:

    At Agriculture Canada, I worked with satellite images. I’m wondering how Conservation North marked each area. How do you tell if an area has been logged? I’m guessing by looking at time series. If you go back in time and can see that there’s no forest then it’s a safe assumption to say that it’s been logged. It may look perfectly fine right now.

    You mentioned the little town of Sayward. The people in Sayward have a pretty good idea of the state of the forest and I’m betting they don’t donate to Conservation North. What about about a map of donors?

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