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‘The right direction’: new B.C. plan could actually protect old-growth forests

A shift in how the province manages forests — taking into account biodiversity, climate change and Indigenous partnership — signals a long-awaited change in what Premier David Eby calls ‘decades of short-term and transactional thinking’

A “war in the woods” has simmered for decades in B.C., sometimes erupting into high-profile protests and arrests over plans to log ancient trees in places like Clayoquot Sound and Fairy Creek. 

This week, the provincial government unveiled a suite of new measures that aim to accelerate old-growth protection and broker a truce. Measures include new initiatives to finance old-growth forest protection, more Indigenous participation in land-use decisions and an end to prioritizing timber extraction over all other values, including biodiversity and carbon storage. 

“Our government has a new vision for B.C. and our forestry industry, one where we take better care of our rarest and oldest ecosystems, our oldest forests and our climate,” Premier David Eby said at a Feb. 15 news conference. The vision includes Indigenous Peoples as full partners in sustainable forest management, while workers and communities will benefit from “secure, innovative forestry jobs,” Eby said. 

“After decades of short-term and transactional thinking, we’re making significant changes in our approach to forestry in this province. The first step is putting Indigenous Peoples at the center of land management decisions in their territories. The days of making decisions without Indigenous Peoples are over.” 

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Conservation groups and the First Nations Forestry Council were quick to praise the new measures, although some groups are calling for faster action to safeguard what little is left of B.C.’s old-growth forests. Less than three per cent of high productivity old-growth forests — the forests with the biggest trees and the richest biodiversity — remains following decades of industrial logging.

Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the non-profit organization Wilderness Committee, said the positive policy changes are offset by murky timelines and a lack of immediate measures to permanently protect old-growth forests in areas at the highest risk of ecosystem collapse.

“At a certain point, we need to be able to stop getting in the truck and going out and finding fresh 10-foot wide stumps in proposed [old-growth logging] deferral areas,” Coste told The Narwhal, referring to areas temporarily set aside from logging. “We need to be able to stop driving out and finding new clear-cuts in core caribou habitat . . . and there’s nothing today that changes that.” 

Spraypaint marks an old-growth cedar tree that will be measured to determine logging volumes
Spraypaint marks an old-growth cedar tree in the Seymour River watershed north of Revelstoke, B.C. The tree will be measured to estimate logging volumes in parts of the rare inland temperate rainforest slated for logging. Areas designated for clear-cutting provide core habitat for the endangered Columbia North caribou herd. Photo: Wildsight / Eddie Petryshen

Conservation financing to help protect B.C. old-growth forests

Following an old-growth strategic review led by two foresters, the B.C. government identified 2.6 million hectares of the most at-risk old-growth forest. It earmarked them for logging deferrals in November 2021. Since then, Wilderness Committee and other groups have documented clear-cutting in some deferral areas and disclosed plans to clear-cut in others, including in core habitat for endangered caribou and spotted owls.

Only one deferral area has received permanent protection. In January, in a deal brokered by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the provincial government announced a 58,000-hectare conservancy in the Incomappleux Valley in southeast B.C., protecting a globally endangered rainforest with cedar trees more than 1,000 years old.

Speaking at the news conference, B.C. Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston said the government plans to build on that success. Within six months, B.C. will establish a conservation financing mechanism to protect old-growth, an initiative long advocated by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance. 

The financing mechanism will leverage private and philanthropic donations to fund conservation measures supported by the province and First Nations, Ralston said. “We recently saw this in the creation of [the Incomappleux] conservancy, and we’re committed to expanding this model across the province.” He said the government will also enable First Nations and local communities to finance old-growth protection through verified carbon offsets that “represent long-term emission reductions.”  

Incomappleux Valley
The new Incomappleux Valley conservancy in southeast B.C. protects rare inland temperate rainforest and provides habitat for many species at risk of extinction, including grizzly bear and wolverine. Photo: Craig Pettitt / Valhalla Wilderness Society

Neither Ralston nor Eby mentioned the federal government’s commitment to provide $50 million for old-growth protection in B.C., provided B.C. contributes the same amount. The province has been criticized for not accepting the funding, although some speculate matching funds may be included in the Feb. 28 provincial budget. 

Ken Wu, executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, said he is encouraged by the major shift underway in B.C.’s forestry and old-growth policies, calling the conservation financing mechanism “a start.”  

“We are headed in the right direction, and we commend Premier David Eby for moving forward with these key commitments,” Wu said in a statement. 

Pointing to the urgency and scale of conservation needed in B.C. to meet a new nature commitment to protect 30 per cent of the province’s land by 2030, Wu said the province, which has a large surplus, must make a major investment in old-growth conservation financing. He pointed to conservation financing recently provided by the federal government to establish protected areas in the Great Bear Sea, the Northwest Territories and the James Bay Lowlands in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples.

 “The province needs to step forward here and commit their own funds for conservation financing, and bring in federal dollars while they are at it,” Wu said.

Good-bye to B.C.’s ‘unduly restrict’ clause that stymied old-growth protections

Wu also applauded the government’s decision to remove a clause in forest regulations that allowed timber supply to trump all other values, including ecosystem health, wildlife protection and First Nations cultural values. Known as the “unduly restrict” clause, the clause prevented any conservation measures from “unduly restricting” available timber supply for the forestry industry. 

Wu urged the province to lift other restrictions on conservation measures, including caps or limits on the timber supply impacts of designations such as Old-Growth Management Areas and Wildlife Habitat Areas, which can help safeguard old forests. 

The B.C. government allows roads to be carved through Old Growth Management Areas like this one in the rare inland temperate rainforest near Prince George. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North, a Prince George-based non-profit group, said wildlife habitat protection tools are still constrained by the “unduly restricted” clause that sets limits on conservation. 

“To meet the spirit of the paradigm shift that B.C. has promised, that has to change,” Connolly said in an interview. “All new forest landscape planning activities need to make explicit that there are no limits to areas retained for the conservation of wildlife.”

Connolly said she understands the continued application of the “unduly restricted” clause to Wildlife Habitat Areas and Old-Growth Management Areas was an honest mistake the government intends to correct. “Until then, it’s a problem,” she said. 

Ralston said the removal of the “unduly restrict” clause won’t apply to existing forest stewardship plans, the government-approved plans forestry companies must prepare before harvesting or road-building can begin. The new consideration of values other than timber supply will apply when plans come up for renewal every five years, he said. 

“If goals around old-growth and biodiversity are climbing Everest, then the removal of that language is the flight to Nepal,” Coste said. “It’s needed, but it’s not the whole thing. And the government says, ‘yeah, we bought the flight,’ but they haven’t told us the date. It might not leave for five years.” 

At the press conference, Eby said the government has deferred 2.1 million hectares of old-growth. He did not disclose how many hectares are in forests identified as at the highest risk of ecological collapse. 

Coste criticized the government for continuing to withhold the number of hectares actually deferred from logging, saying he believes the number is “much, much smaller” than 2.1 million hectares.  

In the absence of disclosure, it appears old-growth deferrals are being finalized in areas that weren’t even slated for logging, Coste said, adding, “We want to see where a cutblock has been planned and approved, and then not gone ahead.” 

He said it’s important to change policy, invest in protecting old-growth and shift to a sustainable forestry industry, “but at the end of the day what matters is the destruction of endangered old-growth forests continues on the BC NDP’s watch — and that’s unacceptable.”

Garry Merkel flips through a copy of B.C. old-growth strategic report
Forester Garry Merkel, a member of the Tahltan First Nation, flips through a copy of the old-growth strategic review that called for a paradigm shift in the way B.C. manages disappearing old-growth forests. Merkel was one of two authors of the strategic report. Photo: Morgan Turner / The Narwhal
The pages of a booklet are open on a wooden table
A section in the old-growth strategic review report, “A New Future for Old Forests,” notes Indigenous Involvement as a required condition for change in B.C.’s forestry practices. Photo: Morgan Turner / The Narwhal

Emergency measures to protect old-growth forests are urgently needed, Coste said. The Wilderness Committee wants to see more deferrals, mechanisms to immediately scrap the “unduly restrict” clause from forest stewardship plans and B.C. government funding to offset a loss of revenue for First Nations and rural communities. 

“Moving away from the prioritization of timber means spending money on conservation and, for the government to vaguely point to potential private resource revenue streams as the mechanism or the source of that funding, is not taking the responsibility that they should and I think that the public expects of them,” Coste said.

“It does signal that the government gets that a transition away from timber as the ultimate priority is needed. And that’s encouraging … The problem is timing. There’s just not the sense of urgency that needs to be there.”

First Nations welcome path to inclusive old-growth management in B.C.

Ralston said “short-sighted approaches have led us to challenges we’re facing today,” noting the forest industry is in a period of transition. Forestry companies have recently curtailed operations at mills across the province. 

“With the end of the beetle-kill harvest, and years of record wildfires, we need to do more with less and create more jobs for every single tree harvest,” Ralston said.

Ralston said the government will double its current $90 million investment to help mills process smaller-diameter trees and allow more high-value wood products to be manufactured. “A more diverse and resilient industry will be more resilient to the volatile boom and bust cycles we’ve seen in recent times.” 

The government will also provide $25 million for eight regional Forest Landscape Planning tables. The landscape plans, which Ralston called “a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to forest stewardship,” will replace existing plans developed by industry, providing greater certainty about where sustainable harvesting can occur to support jobs and investments.

The government will also increase Indigenous participation in co-developing changes to forest policy through $2.4 million to the First Nations Forestry Council to help ensure First Nations are full partners in sustainable forest management.

First Nations Forestry Council CEO Leonard Joe said First Nations have been asking to have a seat at the table for years. “I for one am glad to see this day, to witness the province recognize the vital role of First Nations, the role that we play in managing sustainable forests.”

First Nations priorities, values and principles must be factored into forestry legislation, policy and program development, Joe said. The old-growth strategic review report was clear that Indigenous knowledge is crucial for sustaining and restoring healthy forest ecosystems, he pointed out. 

“We are the original stewards of the land. But for too long, First Nations have been sidelined in the sector and watched our lands be devastated one tree at a time. Today there are signs that this is changing,” Joe said. 

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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