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Amid forestry struggles, panel finds ‘surprising’ consensus on old-growth logging concerns in B.C.

Two members of a government-appointed panel tell The Narwhal they heard an unexpected level of agreement about the need to ‘get back to the land’ and move past polarized political cycles when safeguarding the province’s last intact ancient forests, which are being cut down faster than the Amazon

When professional foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel were appointed to lead a sweeping review of how B.C.’s old-growth forests are managed, they made a deal with each other before hitting the road.

They wouldn’t come to a single conclusion until they had wrapped up what Gorley calls their “listening phase” — four months touring the province and gathering input from people of all walks of life, from forestry company executives to people who came in “off of the street or out of their garden and just wanted to share a personal perspective.”  

After visiting 30 communities, the duo is taken aback by the consensus they’ve encountered as they prepare to wrap up the “listening” phase of the old-growth strategic review this week. 

“I think the thing that surprised me the most is the degree of unanimity and common thinking around ‘we need to get back to the land’ and about moving past political cycles … we’re hearing it from almost everywhere,” Merkel told The Narwhal in a joint phone interview with Gorley.

“We’re managing ecosystems — that are in some cases thousands of years old — on a four-year political cycle. The management systems change from government to government,” said Merkel, the former chair of both the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation and the Columbia Basin Trust.

“I’ve seen a lot more in common than I’ve seen division and I think quite frankly that the division has been kind of pumped up a lot to sell newspapers … I think people like to see a fight. It’s put people on the defensive.”

A decline in polarization around forestry

Tensions around the province’s management of forests have escalated in recent years, due to overlogging, fires and insect attacks which have contributed to mill closures, job losses and one of the longest coastal forestry strikes in B.C. history. Challenges faced by the sector have increased criticisms of the province’s regulatory efforts to protect forests, reduce forestry waste, manage for species at risk and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples in their territories. 

UBC professor George Hoberg, who has been observing B.C. forest politics for more than three decades, said despite these challenges, he has actually witnessed a dramatic decline in polarization since the late-1980s.

“It’s unquestionably true that journalism, and the media generally, tend to select for conflict and ignores many of the stories in which there is a lot more harmony than there is conflict,” said Hoberg, a political scientist in environment and natural resource policy at UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Hoberg said polarization decreased following province-wide land and resource management planning, which he described as “remarkably effective” in creating enduring agreements about land-use. 

The mountain pine beetle epidemic switched the focus from industrial clear-cutting to climate change and also played a key role in reducing conflict, Hoberg noted.

“That altered everyone’s perceptions, especially perceptions in the environmental community,” he told The Narwhal. “People came to an understanding of what the bigger threat to forests was, and that has had an effect of depolarizing the old-fashioned politics around clear-cutting, or not, and old-growth.”

Forest ecologist Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North, said many people in the province’s interior — where workers have been hard hit by mill closures and curtailments due to a long-anticipated decline in timber supply — are concerned about how B.C.’s forests and old growth are being managed.

“Much of what’s coming through Prince George on the trucks every day is the last of the big trees,” said Connolly, who was one of 200 people who presented to Merkel and Gorley as they toured the province. “I think that most people who spend any time in the bush are aware that we only have small fragments [left] of what was originally there.” 

Michelle Connolley Ancient Cedars Inland Temperate Rainforest The Narwhal

Connelly in an area of B.C.’s inland temperate rainforest that contains stands of ancient cedars, some estimated to be 1,500 years old. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“We’re seeing these forests disappear overnight. It’s happening so fast, and there’s very little old growth left in this part of B.C. It’s an environmental crisis that’s no less tragic than the loss of coral reefs and tropical rainforests.” 

Hoberg said even though polarization has declined significantly over the past three decades a divide exists between “people who value forests for how they contribute to their economic livelihoods and those who value them for recreational, environmental or aesthetic reasons.”

Much of the divide, which emerged with the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s, centres on clearcutting old-growth forests, Hoberg noted.

“But many of those who depend on forests for their livelihoods also value their recreational, environmental and aesthetic benefits,” Hoberg told The Narwhal. 

“They live in rural communities close to forested wilderness in part because they love being outdoors in nature. So it’s no surprise that they also dearly value old growth, especially on the coast and in the interior wet belt where old-growth ecosystems are more distinctive.” 

Polarization can quickly re-emerge when plans to protect old growth are perceived to threaten livelihoods, Hoberg said.

“The challenge is to create solutions to protecting old growth without undermining the economic livelihoods of those in the forest-dependent communities.”

“Urbanites love nature and people in rural communities love nature and the really big difference is when the things you want to do to protect nature end up directly threatening individuals’ livelihoods and how they react ideologically.” 

‘This is about protecting nature’

B.C. is losing its iconic old-growth rainforests faster than the Amazon rainforest is disappearing, according to scientists and conservation groups. 

On Vancouver Island, just 10 per cent of the oldest trees remain and clear-cutting is taking place at a rate of three-square metres per second, according to Sierra Club BC, which recently documented how ending clear-cutting is as important for climate action in B.C. as phasing out fossil fuels

In Schmidt Creek on northeast Vancouver Island, the government agency BC Timber Sales has auctioned off cutting rights to an ancient forest above orca whale rubbing beaches, drawing the ire of conservation groups, biologists and First Nations. In the Nahmint Valley west of Port Alberni, two investigations found BC Timber Sales was not complying with rules designed to ensure sufficient old-growth forest was retained to avoid the loss of biodiversity.

And in B.C.’s Interior, much of the remainder of the inland temperate rainforest — where some cedar trees are 2,000 years old — is at risk of being clear-cut for uses such as garden mulch and fence posts, as previously reported by The Narwhal

Canada’s forgotten rainforest

Conservation North, which is documenting the disappearance of the rare rainforest, is calling for an immediate moratorium on logging high-value old-growth forests until legislation is passed to protect B.C.’s remaining primary forests.

The group is also asking for old-growth forests — such as those in the Anzac Valley that provide habitat for highly endangered caribou and other at-risk species — to be managed for values that include carbon storage, climate change resilience, biodiversity and water.

“If the province takes the panel’s report and simply makes tweaks to existing policies then this whole process will simply have been a waste of time and money,” Connolly said. 

“I think the province of B.C. knows full well that nothing short of legislated protection of old growth will actually conserve our last forests. Minor tweaks to the system will not protect old growth to the extent that’s necessary here.”

In an October 2019 submission to the provincial government about how to revitalize the interior forest sector, the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council noted that B.C.’s forestry management regime “puts the whole ecological system at risk” by giving priority to timber supply above other values. 

Current forest policies and practices do not include the “safeguards needed to protect environmental and other values” or to mitigate the impacts of environmental catastrophes that put the forest industry and forest-dependent communities at risk, said the council’s submission, which makes recommendations to support the revitalization of the sector with First Nations as full partners.

Connolly noted that old-growth protection has benefits that extend far beyond saving ancient trees.

“This is about if and how we make room for other species,” she said. “In B.C. we have hundreds of species of plants and animals that need old-growth forests. So losing old growth also means losing other species … This is about protecting nature.”

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Lack of a finite timeline worries Prince George group

Once Merkel and Gorley review more than 200 written submissions and the results from 6,500 online questionnaires, they have until the end of April to submit their recommendations to Doug Donaldson, B.C.’s Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The ministry says the recommendations will be made public by November.

British Columbians have until January 31 to complete an online questionnaire about old-growth or to make a written submission to the panel.  

After receiving Gorley and Merkel’s report, the government plans to engage in consultations to develop new policies and strategies for managing old-growth forests, according to the terms of reference for the strategic review

But the lack of a finite timeline for change worries Conservation North, which was created by Prince George scientists and forest ecologists to draw attention to the critical role of the inland rainforest in storing carbon and providing habitat for species as the world faces the rapid destruction of life-supporting ecosystems.

“It creates a risk to old growth where you announce these processes where people can share their views and then companies are allowed to continue operating as though nothing is happening,” Connolly said. 

“Part of the reason we’re demanding a moratorium on logging in the high value old growth, which is where industrial logging is targeting right now, is to avoid this problem of talk and log.” 

Inland-Temperate-Rainforest-TheNarwhal-0128 Taylor Roades

Clear cut logging in the Anzac River Valley. The valley bottom, where caribou migrate to find lichen during deep-snow winters, is also slated to be logged. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

‘Old growth can’t be dealt with in isolation’

Merkel and Gorley said the goal of the review is to build a new management system that manages forests — and, particularly, their old growth components — in a much more scientifically grounded way. 

“I think we understand pretty clearly that old growth can’t be dealt with in isolation,” said Gorley, the former chair of B.C.’s Forest Practices Board and a past member of the Forest Appeals Commission and Environmental Appeals Board. 

“It has to be dealt with as part of the package of the whole forest. That will definitely be a factor [in the panel’s recommendations]. How does the system deal with the whole forest and the dynamics in the whole forest?”

Merkel, a member of the Tahltan Nation, said a big chunk of the panel’s job is to make recommendations about how to build old growth into the management system “so that we can deal with it effectively.” 

“[Gorley]’s right — it doesn’t exist in isolation,” he said. “This is the tip of a bigger management system, tenure system, stumpage system and political system. We have to at least speak to some of those other features if they’re limiting factors to us managing this component of the landscape effectively.”

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Panel members call their experience ‘invigorating’

Despite the demanding schedule, Merkel and Gorley have found the experience rewarding and even energizing.   

“It’s been enlightening and, in some ways, invigorating. There are so many people who care about this issue and want to talk about it and understand that when you’re talking about old growth you don’t talk about it in isolation. It’s part of a bigger picture of how we interact with the land,” said Gorley, who also served as president of the McGregor Model Forest in the interior and was a founding director of the Canadian Model Forest Network

“You have to have a really open mind and listen to everybody and learn everything you can and hopefully make good recommendations that are useful for the public and government,” Merkel said.

Gorley said there will always be different views that cannot be reconciled.  

“I wouldn’t expect there ever to be a complete consensus,” he said. “On the other hand, I think we have seen a lot of common ground.”

Both he and Merkel said they believe their recommendations, if implemented by the NDP government, will help dial down some of the perceived polarization in the province over forestry issues.  

“We’re both optimists,” Merkel said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was going to make a difference.”

Hoberg said one way to address concerns among workers is to reorient jobs to forest rehabilitation and reducing fire-risks. 

“There are a lot of jobs in doing that. They’re somewhat different kinds of jobs,” he said. “The challenge is we need public investment to pursue those jobs. It’s unlikely to be something that there’s private profit to be made from.”  

“If B.C. really wants to address the major climate risks from the forests we need to find a way to reduce fire risks, which are the biggest pulse of carbon emissions from the forests.”

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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