Huge trucks loaded with wood climb the steep slopes at a slug’s pace before hurtling down at breakneck speed across the Gaspé Peninsula in southeastern Quebec. On weekdays, any driver who finds themselves ahead of these motorized ogres will vividly relive the nightmarish journey of salesman Dennis Weaver chased by a mad trucker in Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film, Duel (think Jaws on wheels, with a tanker truck instead of a shark—in which you feel you are going to need a bigger car).
But on quiet weekend days, one feels completely immersed in nature, driving on the road meandering through thick evergreen woods. Yet, the hustle and bustle of the trucks suggest another story behind the green curtain.
In May 2020, I flew from Gaspé to Montreal. It was a painful experience. As the plane was reaching altitude, I was stunned by the scale of broad patches of cleared areas crisscrossed by dirt roads. I felt fooled by the thin wooded layer bordering the highway I’d used so many times, hiding the interior of a forest that no longer exists.
“Only space visible from road corridors and selected visually sensitive areas are protected by the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks,” says Marie-Ève Desmarais, forest engineer and member of La Commission Forêt at Nature Québec, or the Forest Commission. “All the rest is ignored.”
This way of preserving visually sensitive areas of the forest environment from the public eye first appeared over 20 years ago, following a shocking documentary denouncing logging practices destroying Quebec forests for the benefit of wood companies.
Richard Desjardins’ L’erreur boréale (Forest Alert), winner of eight prizes in Quebec and France, including the 1999 Jutra Award for Best Documentary, provoked a province-wide movement for the reappropriation of public forests by concerned citizens.
An author, composer, performer, and documentary filmmaker from Rouyn-Noranda, a small town located in the heart of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region in northwestern Quebec, Desjardins showed the public forest treated as a big pile of wood by industrialists and denounced the clearcutting practiced on vast expanses of the boreal forest.
The overview of massive clearcuts—the archetype of industrial horror in forests—completely transformed the social perception of the forest in Quebec. The provincial government reacted to the shift in public perception by creating a new Forest Management Plan in 2010 where timber companies would no longer be the only players in the forest. Instead, plans would be drawn up by the Ministry’s regional offices to meet the aspirations of the local population.
The film was a real eye-opener stirring up public outrage, forcing the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks to improve their methods by taking inspiration from natural forests, creating a landscape closer to nature, and engaging in more sustainable forestry practices. Their approach, tempered by social considerations, recognized that a way to maintain socially acceptable forestry was to mimic natural spatial patterns in managed public forests by replicating physical constraints, disturbances, and biological processes naturally present in the forest environment.
With public perception at stake, the concept of social acceptability, based on landscape ecology principles, emerged with the era of new sustainable forest practices. Visual quality assessment methods, inspired by 1960s American landscape architects, were integrated to determine, classify and map areas of significant interest with a high degree of visual sensitivity.
“If recent cuts occupy more than 40 percent of a landscape that you see, it falls below the threshold of social acceptability,” explains Louis Bélanger, a retired professor and researcher at the Faculty of Forestry, Geography and Geomatics at Laval University, Quebec.
Landscape ecology is the science behind understanding the interactions between ecosystems within a region and the environment’s ecological processes. In the forestry world, this translates into the imitation of natural patterns of ecosystem disturbance by recreating natural cut shapes, preventing straight lines, and waiting for the first cut to regenerate to a height of four metres before starting a second. It also means avoiding scattered trees on peaks and ensuring that logging does not dominate the visible landscape in distant perception areas.
“This is called ecosystem-based management,” says Pier-Olivier Boudreault, a conservation biologist at the Société pour la nature et les parcs (SNAP) Québec. “The goal is to reproduce the disturbances of nature, like a big forest fire or an insect outbreak.”
The Ministry must follow two steps to get a new cutting project accepted. First, landscape planners map sensitive areas to minimize visual impacts, using a series of criteria based on social values such as the attendance and the attractiveness of the area, the number and expectations of users, the duration of use and observation, the importance of infrastructure and equipment, and the diversity of services.
“When we’ve done that, we’ve already found the problems. We know what will be visible and what will be hidden,” says Desmarais. “But we have to validate in the field if what we’ve planned meets the needs of the population.”
To validate their maps, the Ministry is required to hold a public consultation process which can include 3D virtual models of cutting patterns to be shown to citizens and committee members such as Indigenous communities, town officials, outfitters, and recreational and environmental associations. Those who live in an area where a logging project is planned have to be given the opportunity to express their concerns about how the project could affect their quality of life and livelihood. This step suggests public participation has become essential over the years, strongly influencing forest management.
“It is a process of trying to make forestry visually acceptable in places people think are sensitive. But it does not work all the time,” says Bélanger. “If we did a survey to find out the level of satisfaction, I suspect we would get a C-minus. We don’t fail like we used to, but there aren’t a lot of As.”
The Ministry’s attempt to change in the decade following the scandal surrounding forestry management, thanks to Desjardins’ documentary, showed that they could easily take the preservation of forest landscapes’ visual quality into account in the calculation of authorized cuts.
As of April 1, 2013, the Quebec Sustainable Forest Development Act states that, while promoting the use of wood to create economic wealth, the Ministry is responsible, through protecting ecosystems and preserving biodiversity, for ensuring the perpetuity of the public forest for all users. But despite the progress made to implement an ecosystem-based approach over the past two decades, a conflict persists between recognizing the needs of industry and recognizing the landscape as a resource that must be valued.
“There are still no chapters in the strategic plan of the Ministry that take into account the landscape,” says Bélanger. “The aesthetics of the public forest is still not protected.”
Already at a strict minimum to meet a threshold of social acceptability, the public forest landscapes will continue to decline in the coming decades. In 2018, the new Quebec provincial government’s goal of reaching a 30 percent increase in harvested timber supply over the next 20 years might make it challenging for the Ministry to respond fairly to all the needs provided by a territory they define as a multi-use forest.
“They want to double the wood production targets. It’s scary,” says Desmarais. “The new harvest quotas are so high, I don’t know if there will be much room for ecological and landscape issues.”
This current large-scale depletion of the forest cover is due to the new 2018 Québec Wood Production Strategy, which seems to have supplanted the emerging visual trends established in the 2015 Sustainable Forest Management Strategy.
“The lobbying of multinational forestry companies in Quebec is powerful, and they have the attention of the provincial government,” says Desmarais. “And clearcutting is more profitable than adopting an ecosystem-based approach.”
Unfortunately, the Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Since 2016, little account has been taken of citizens’ demand to protect a forest landscape against industrial logging’s visual impacts if it jeopardizes cuts already guaranteed to multinational wood industries. As a result, despite high expectations raised by the sustainable harvesting methods introduced in the 2010 Forest Management Plan, communities are still faced with a worsening of their living environment due to the Quebec provincial government’s unwillingness to concretely apply its own ecosystem-based approach.
“The current forest management plan is very good, and the sustainable forest development law is excellent,” says Desmarais. “But in reality, it is not applied in the field. Any cutting plan that could satisfy everyone but would have an impact on timber harvesting possibilities is systematically rejected.”
The awareness of the desolation left by large cut areas on the forest landscape is mostly felt for now by those who venture into the woods outside the main sensitive areas identified by landscape planners. This planned visual framing can be seen negatively by communities strongly connected to the forest, as it can be perceived as being deceived by concealing measures.
“The wooded layer, it’s cosmetic,” says Henri Jacob, ecologist and president at Action Boréale in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. “It does nothing for the decrease in biodiversity and fauna habitats caused by large-scale industrial logging. We cut faster than the forest can regenerate.”
The less well-informed citizens driving to national parks, main towns, and busy tourist areas are still spared the disturbing views and kept in some form of ignorance by being locked in these green buffer zones. However, the projected increase in wood harvesting might put in plain sight what is going on behind the visual barriers. No longer able to hold some shield if quotas have to be honoured, the Ministry may start playing in visually sensitive areas secured in the past.
“The Ministry is in a bind. It seems like they can’t keep the promises they made to the population. They have to deliver the timber to the industries,” says Boudreault.
On my next road trip through the peninsula, I got out of the car on a quiet Sunday morning and walked through the dense strip of evergreen trees lining the road. Coming out on the other side, the smell of fresh, damp moss shaded by the trees had disappeared, giving way to the hot, dry earth of a devastated field.
“The new forestry plan was supposed to put the citizen back at the heart of forest management,” says Boudreault. “Twenty years after L’erreur boréale, this is something that has not been achieved.”