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‘Frustrating as hell’: advocates say old-growth still being cut years after B.C. promised protections

The province promised to implement more than a dozen recommendations made by an independent review. Some worry change for the old forests home to at-risk species hasn’t come fast enough

Three years after the B.C. government released a landmark independent review, which called for an overhaul in the way it manages forests, conservation groups say logging continues to threaten diverse, old-growth ecosystems across the province.

The old-growth strategic review warned “the priorities that currently drive our forest management system are backwards.” The focus should be ecosystem health, not timber, it said. The expert panel behind the review urged a “paradigm shift,” offering 14 recommendations to improve forest management in B.C.

The NDP government promised to implement them all. So far, none have been fully achieved.

The province has deferred logging in some old-growth forests, initiated a new forest landscape planning process with greater First Nations and community involvement and started work on a new biodiversity and ecosystem health framework. But conservation groups say the government is moving too slowly as old forests continue to fall.

“They’ve been hugely disappointing,” Torrance Coste, national campaign director at the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal. “It’s frustrating as hell.”

A new road being carved through the forest
Conservation organization Stand.earth says its satellite monitoring tool shows new road building and logging are taking place in old-growth forests. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

In their report, the independent expert panel behind the old-growth strategic review suggested a six to 36 month timeline for implementing its recommendations.

“There’s a good saying that I always liked and it’s, how do you make the Creator laugh? And the answer is build a plan,” Garry Merkel, a professional forester and one of two members of the independent panel, said in an interview Monday.

“We were certainly under no illusion that this whole thing was going to be solved within that short period of time,” he said. 

Merkel said he’s not sure anyone fully understood the scale of the proposed changes. 

“British Columbia was built on the backs of the timber industry and we have a very deeply-rooted timber bias and timber structure in government,” he said. “What we’re talking about is changing a fundamental core part of their culture and changing the entire system to accommodate that.”

“I don’t see a lack of intent, what I see is a whole bunch of things that have caused this to be implemented slower than we needed to,” Merkel said.

But one thing that’s always present at the back of his mind, he said, is the recommendation to set aside the most at-risk old-growth forests and the worry that if it takes too long, those ecosystems could suffer irreversible losses.

As old forests decline, many of the species they support do too

Old forests are crucial habitat for many plants and animals, including at-risk mountain caribou, northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, fishers and more. They’re culturally significant for many First Nations, which harvest food and medicines from forests they’ve stewarded for millennia. And in some areas, they’re a major draw for tourists who come from all over to marvel at towering trees. At the same time, these forests — with their financially valuable timber — are highly prized by the forestry industry. Forestry has long been an economic mainstay in communities across the province, many of which are dealing with the repercussions of mill closures and other job losses amid a long-term decline in the industry.

But decades of industrial logging have taken an immense toll on ecosystems. Industrial logging has been linked to warmer stream temperatures that threaten salmon, driven spotted owls in B.C. to the verge of local extinction and pushed some populations of mountain caribou over the edge.

The impacts are felt “right across B.C. from rare, wet forests in the interior to forests further north and of course the iconic old-growth forest on the coast where the biggest trees grow,” Coste said.

caribou mother calf Klinse-za maternity pen
B.C. is no exception to the biodiversity crisis that’s gripped the world. Logging and other resource extraction across the province has fragmented critical habitat for caribou, spotted owls and many species at risk. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

In the midst of global biodiversity and climate crises, which have seen unprecedented declines in nature, Indigenous leaders and conservation groups are demanding the government do more to protect old-growth forests.

“The B.C. government cannot ignore this any longer,” Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a release Monday.  

“At this rate, there will be nothing left for our children. Stop putting profit and votes over people,” he said. “Stop logging our old-growth trees and help us start rebuilding in an ethically and environmentally friendly manner.”

Conservation groups question lack of transparency around old-growth deferral areas

In February, the province announced a suite of new measures to improve forest management, including repealing outdated language in the Forest and Range Practices Act, which limited any conservation measures that “unduly” impact timber supply. It also announced eight new regional forest landscape planning tables, that will see greater First Nation and community involvement in forestry planning, and committed to completing an old-growth strategic action plan by the end of the year.

As of February, the government said it had also temporarily deferred logging in 2.1 million hectares of old-growth forest, an area approximately two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island, a stop-gap measure to prevent further losses as a new approach to forest management is developed, according to the government news release.

But conservation groups warn logging has continued in some old-growth forests and say a lack of transparency around deferral areas make it difficult to monitor what is or isn’t happening in forests that are — at least for the moment — meant to be protected.

Logging equipment sits idle among fallen logs
The B.C. government says it has deferred logging in 2.1 million hectares of old-growth forests, but conservation groups say ecosystems remain at risk as old trees continue to fall. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

The B.C. government convened an old-growth technical advisory panel to help guide deferrals. That panel identified about 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest at highest risk of being lost and recommended those areas be set aside as new forestry policies are developed.

This week, the government said it has now deferred logging in 2.25 million hectares, but that includes just 1.2 million hectares of the highest-risk old-growth forest identified by the technical advisory panel.

Coste said the province also hasn’t publicized where those protected areas are located.

“They haven’t disclosed where these forests are, they haven’t disclosed how much of those confirmed deferrals overlap with planned logging versus areas that weren’t going to be logged in the last three years anyways, they haven’t disclosed how much logging has gone ahead within that 2.6-million-hectare deferral target area,” he said. “This is a huge concern.”

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Stand.earth, another conservation organization, says its satellite monitoring tool shows logging is continuing in at-risk old-growth forests.

“Since Premier [David] Eby promised to ‘accelerate action on old growth’ last November, we’ve seen thousands of hectares of old-growth forests destroyed,” Tegan Hansen, a senior forest campaigner with Stand.earth, said in a news release Monday.

In a statement to The Narwhal, Forest Minister Bruce Ralston said the government is working with First Nations to implement additional deferrals. He noted the province has updated laws and regulations to adopt an ecosystem health approach to forestry and created an innovation program to increase alternatives to clear-cutting.

“B.C.’s forests are critically important to people, communities and wildlife, and the province is taking transformational action to protect old growth in partnership with First Nations rights and title holders,” he said in the statement. 

The minister did not respond to The Narwhal’s questions regarding the lack of transparency in deferral areas.

Province urged to support workers, communities through forestry transition

Though conservation organizations have repeatedly warned the province is taking too long to change how it manages forests, some industry associations warn limits on logging are taking a toll on the people and communities who rely on the industry for work.

In a statement to The Narwhal on Monday, Bob Brash, the association’s executive director said, “the major concern today is the total lack of any real transition plan for the forest sector, regardless of whether there’s agreement with the still undefined future vision for our forests.”

Brash said the level of uncertainty loggers, communities and the industry are facing is at “historic highs and the consequences are becoming increasingly detrimental.”

“Our biggest ask is for all those involved in influencing and deciding B.C.’s forest policies to think about those people, their businesses, their communities and the substantial value they bring to our province,” he said.

Linda Coady, CEO of the BC Council of Forest Industries, told The Narwhal although old-growth deferrals have had an impact on jobs, the implementation of the old-growth strategy is just part of a broader transition underway in the forestry sector.

“Changing markets, products, technologies and forest practices are also driving change,” she said.

A variety of factors, from corporate consolidation, trade disputes and impacts to forests from the mountain pine beetle outbreaks as well as wildfires, have contributed to a long-term trend of a shrinking forestry sector, according to a February economic report by Brian Yu, the chief economist at the Central 1 credit union.

Back in February, Forest Minister Bruce Ralston said “short-sighted approaches have led us to challenges we’re facing today.” 

Moving forward, “we need to do more with less and create more jobs for every single tree harvest,” he said.

Canfor sawmill
A series of mill closures across B.C. left hundreds out of work as the forestry industry undergoes a major transition. Conservation groups say government must support workers and communities to ensure they don’t bear the burden measures to protect old-growth forests. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Coady said new forest landscape planning tables “should produce better outcomes” moving forward.

“Forest companies in B.C. have and will continue to work with the province, Indigenous communities and others in the shift towards more local planning and landscape level frameworks that can support both resilient ecosystems and communities in the face of climate change, while also creating a more predictable and sustainable future for the forest sector,” she said.

Alongside developing new planning processes, the province has announced new funding to support mills to be able to process smaller diameter logs and produce higher-value products. In a statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests also pointed to  programs to help older workers retire early, on-the-ground community transition services when a sawmill or other major employer shuts down and a new forest employment program that offers short-term contracts for workers.

But more is needed, observers say. Alongside the immediate deferral of logging in all at-risk old-growth forests, Coste said the Wilderness Committee is “calling for adequate funding to ensure that communities and First Nations don’t bear the brunt” of those protections.

At the same time, he said, “we’re calling for serious, fulsome investment in that long-term planning so that we can develop forest economies in the interim that don’t rely on the continued logging of old-growth forests.”

Updated on Sept. 11, 2023, at 7:08 p.m. PT:  This story has been updated to include comments from the Ministry of Forests and to update old-growth deferral figures, including a clarification that only a portion of deferred areas are located in the highest-risk old-growth forests identified by the old growth technical advisory panel.

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