Old-growth Fairy Creek The Narwhal

‘Extremely frustrating’: B.C. announces 2.6 million hectares of at-risk old-growth, no permanent protections

The announcement, which comes one full year after B.C.’s expert panel recommended the province introduce immediate deferrals in old forests facing irreversible biodiversity loss, is short on specifics and funding for affected First Nations, critics say

The government of B.C. identified 2.6 million hectares of the province’s most at-risk old-growth forests Tuesday, but stopped short of announcing specific or permanent protections for the ancient, rare and large trees. 

The announcement comes after a year of heated protest around the logging of some of the last intact old-growth forest near Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island and as global criticism of Canada’s clearcut logging practices comes during the world’s most important climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

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The B.C. government announced its “intention to work in partnership with First Nations” to secure temporary two-year deferrals in the 2.6 million hectares while forest sustainability plans can be developed, giving impacted First Nations 30 days to indicate their support for the deferrals. First Nations groups and conservation organizations say the announcement is frustratingly short on details, explicit deadlines and capacity funding for affected First Nations.

Because the announcement doesn’t stop already-approved old-growth logging, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip likened Tuesday’s announcement to a souffle: “crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.”

Since the province says timelines for deferrals will depend on reaching agreements with First Nations in the suggested deferral areas first, Phillip said the province is “kicking the issue down the road,” and pushing the burden of fixing forestry onto First Nations — without providing them adequate support. 

The province has “simply ignored” its legal obligation to obtain consent when First Nations have demanded a halt to logging in the past, Phillip said, adding he suspects government is using the promise of potential deferrals as a convenient way to avoid halting old-growth logging, something many First Nations have demanded for decades. With today’s announcement, the province is simply “hiding behind First Nations people,” he said.

‘A good step’

The announcement comes a year and a half after the provincially commissioned independent old-growth strategic review panel delivered its report in April 2020, calling for a “paradigm shift” when it comes to old-growth logging and forestry management in B.C. Within 14 recommendations made to government, the panel urged B.C. to “defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.”

Premier John Horgan said his government is acting on the panel’s recommendations by “taking steps to fundamentally transform the way we manage our old-growth forests, lands and resources.”

The 2.6 million at-risk hectares identified by the province are based on a report and old-growth maps produced by an independent old-growth technical advisory panel, which was appointed in June. The report notes that deferrals are “not equivalent to protection; deferral maintains at-risk old forests in the short-term.”

Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal it is encouraging to see the province acknowledge the science of old-growth forests being at risk, but that “it’s too late in the game” for soft actions. He pointed out a full year has passed since the advisory panel made its recommendation for immediate protection of the most at-risk forests. 

A map showing B.C.’s priority at-risk old-growth logging deferral areas. Map: Old-growth technical advisory panel

In a press statement, the Wilderness Committee said it “condemns the lack of concrete action as critically endangered old-growth forests remain unprotected in the immediate term.”

The province announced that BC Timber Sales, which is responsible for 20 per cent of the province’s allowable annual cut for Crown timber, will halt timber sales it had planned within the 2.6 million-hectare recommended deferral area — a move Coste said is encouraging. This means some of the biggest and best old-growth that would have been desirable for logging will not be sold, Coste said.

“That’s a good step,” he said.

The Ancient Forest Alliance calculates that halting BC Timber Sales forest tenures in the 2.6 million hectares could represent an area of about 500,000 hectares being placed under temporary deferral. The alliance notes this amounts to an area “larger than all protected park land on Vancouver Island put together, vastly exceeding all deferrals in place thus far.” The areas include potential timber sales in the Nahmint, Artlish and Tsitika watersheds, “areas that conservationists have struggled to protect for decades,” the alliance states in a press release.

Still, Coste said the action falls short since it’s restricted to BC Timber Sales while already-approved permits remain in place. 

“What happens on blocks that are already planned or have been auctioned off? If it’s enough of an emergency to issue this on BC Timber Sales, why not do it everywhere?” he asked.

An enormous, freshly fallen western red cedar in a BC Timber Sales-issued cutblock in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. A three-year investigation by the Forest Practices Board found the province failed to protect biodiversity and ancient trees when auctioning off cutblocks in the Nahmint. Photo: TJ Watt

Consultation, funding for First Nations inadequate: critics

Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North from the B.C. Green Party and a member of Tsartlip First Nation, said the province “did not properly consult with First Nations prior to making these announcements” in a press release.

Olsen, whose ancestral name is SȾHENEP, pointed out the 30-day response time is limiting for First Nations that have already said they are not being adequately consulted on forestry issues.

“Government is continuing old habits by leaving First Nations out of the loop and then rushing them through a significant decision-making process,” Olsen said.

Phillip said the announcement is “insidious … offloading this contentious issue in the laps of First Nations with negligible resources.”

While First Nations certainly need to be part of decision-making, he said they are being called to solve a difficult issue with “absolutely inadequate” support. 

The province promised $12.69 million in capacity funding to First Nations over three years to support deferral discussions. Since that will be split among several First Nations, Phillip said the funding doesn’t go far enough.

“Meanwhile, chainsaws are still destroying old-growth forests,” he added.

A logging truck carries old-growth logs near Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, B.C., where 80 per cent of old-growth forests have been logged. Photo: TJ Watt

Conservation financing still needed to protect B.C. forests

The province said it will enhance existing programs and introduce a “suite” of new programs to support workers and communities who will be economically impacted by the deferrals, but provided no hard numbers.

Old-growth forest advocates have long been calling on the province to provide conservation financing for First Nations and communities to support economic opportunities tied to conserving, rather than harvesting, B.C.’s oldest forests.

“Without a matching provincial commitment of several hundred million dollars in conservation financing, with a primary focus on First Nations economic relief linked to deferrals, the full scale of the deferrals, and eventual permanent protection, will be impossible to achieve,” Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner TJ Watt said in a press release.

“We have the road map in hand, but we’re missing the gas in the tank.”

While it’s encouraging to hear a commitment to help workers and communities transition, the promise is “fairly meaningless unless they have a full dollar figure they’ve budgeted for,” Coste said.

The province should calculate how much each community would have made in two years of logging during the referral and reimburse them that amount, he said.

Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, a non-profit organization that works with the forest industry’s biggest customers to develop sustainable solutions, said consumers who are looking to source wood products from responsible jurisdictions “will be left wanting with this announcement.”

“The $12 million in ‘capacity funding’ is a positive step but falls short of what’s needed to back Indigenous Nations’ participation in solution building,” Rycroft said in a statement. “If the province is serious about solving this crisis they need to bring real resources to the table to support Nations and workers in the transition to sustainable economies that support both people and the land.”

Conservation financing, the investing of money in sustainable jobs that protect the environment, is gaining momentum globally. 

Nicole Rycroft
Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canopy, said more funding is needed to support conservation financing in B.C. Photo: Alana Paterson / The Narwhal

Perhaps the best-known example of such financing in B.C. is in the Great Bear Rainforest, where conservation finance programs have created more than 100 businesses and 1,000 permanent jobs in ventures ranging from ecotourism to a sustainable scallop fishery

Under the 2.6 million hectares identified for potential deferrals, B.C. says it will work with local First Nations to clarify if old-growth forests should “be protected forever,” could support some harvest under “strict management conditions that prioritize ecosystem health” or if the areas will continue to undergo harvest.

The province pointed to the Great Bear Rainforest as an example of “innovative partnerships” that show what government and First Nations can achieve together when looking to manage forests in new ways.

Garry Merkel, one of five members of the independent technical panel, and co-author of the old-growth strategic review report, said a commitment to partnering with First Nations “and integrating their perspectives on land is fundamental to facilitating the required paradigm shift in forest management that includes old-growth as a key component of ecosystem health.”

The federal government recently announced $2.3 billion in funding over five years to support the creation of protected areas and nature-based climate solutions across Canada. Of that $340 million will go to support Indigenous guardians and Indigenous Protected Areas as part of Ottawa’s commitment to conserving 30 per cent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

More at-risk, old-growth forest in B.C. in need of protection

The independent technical advisory panel notes there are a total of 5 million hectares of unprotected, at-risk old-growth forest across B.C. that fall into the categories of ancient, rare and big tree forests.

The panel’s recommendation that the province defer logging in 2.6 million hectares of these forests is designed to protect only the forests at most immediate risk of biodiversity loss.

High productivity forests, where some of B.C.’s biggest trees are found, contain the greatest biodiversity in the province and are often home to the most endangered species, such as mountain caribou and marbled murrelet. 

Considering how slow the government has been to respond to calls to action, Coste is worried about how many more productive old-growth forests will be lost in the two-year deferral timeframe.

He said it’s encouraging to hear the province accept science on the decline of old-growth, “but the fact that they are making this acknowledgement without actually taking any steps to stop the destruction of it is extremely frustrating.”

While the government has previously stated there are more than 13.7 million hectares of old-growth remaining in B.C., the technical advisory panel identified just 11.1 million hectares of old-growth forest in the province.

Last year, three members of the panel released their own research showing the province was consistently overstating how much old-growth is left in the province.

Tuesday’s announcement, based on independent reporting and mapping from the panel, was welcomed by conservation groups who have expressed concern about the province overstating the amount of old-growth remaining in the province.

“The independent mapping is a major step forward,” Watt said. “For the first time in history, the province has used the best available science to identify old-growth forests at risk.”

“This mapping confirms what conservation organizations have been saying for years,” he added, “that much of B.C.’s forests are at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss and must be protected.”

Jens Wieting with the Sierra Club BC said the significance of the panel’s new old-growth analysis and maps “cannot be overstated.” 

“In the case of both the biodiversity and climate crises, using scientifically accurate information is paramount to assess risk and inform solutions. Now that this information exists, the B.C. government must show the same courage and leadership to act on these important findings,” he said. 

Wieting said that in order to make the ‘paradigm shift’ the old-growth review panel recommended, B.C. will need to offer clarity on where and when logging deferrals will take place and what kind of support communities can anticipate. 

“Without these steps, today’s announcement would be equivalent to adding tigers to the red-listed species, but not ending the hunt immediately,” he said.

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