Mt Prevost_Cowichan Valley_Chris Istace-02615

North Cowichan residents discover they own six mountains and a logging company

The municipality owns 5,000 hectares of coastal Douglas fir forest. Now the question is: to log or not to log?

When coloured logging tape appeared in a beloved forest on Stoney Hill in the district of North Cowichan on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2018, local residents naturally started asking questions.

Who owns this land? Who wants to log it? How are they going to log it? What will happen to the wood? Why hasn’t the community been consulted?

Residents were stunned to discover that in fact they own these lands. Or at least, the Municipality of North Cowichan owns these lands.

“People suddenly realized these mountains that everyone thought were owned by private industry were actually owned by the public,” says Icel Dobell, a fifth-generation resident of North Cowichan.

“No one knew this. I’m talking about people who have lived here all their lives — 70 years, 80 years — had no idea,” Dobell says.

‘A unique situation in British Columbia’

“In North Cowichan, that’s a unique situation in British Columbia,” says veteran Vancouver Island forester Ray Travers. “It is public land because it is owned by the municipality, but they own it [outright].”

This differs from most other community forests in B.C., which are either managed under provincial forest licences or are on lands purchased from private owners.

Totaling 5,000 hectares on six mountains (Mount Tzouhalem, Mount Richards, Mount Prevost, Maple Mountain, Mount Sicker and Stoney Hill) North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve is one of the largest municipally owned forests in North America, encompassing 25 per cent of the North Cowichan land base.

“[The North Cowichan municipal forest] came into the control of the municipality in the 1930s,” Travers says. “When the people who’d owned the land didn’t pay their property taxes, it reverted to the municipality.”

These lands were originally part of the E&N Land Grant, a federal land deal from the 1870s in which approximately 769,000 hectares of land on southeastern Vancouver Island were expropriated from Indigenous peoples and given to the E&N Railway Company to pay for the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway.

The Municipality of North Cowichan is part of the traditional territories of the Cowichan, Halalt, Penelakut and Lyakson First Nations. Upwards of 85 per cent of the Indigenous lands on southeastern Vancouver Island are now private, much of it owned by logging companies such as Island Timberlands and TimberWest.

Cowichan Valley Maple Mountain

Hikers enjoy a trail on Maple Mountain in North Cowichan. Maple Mountain is part of the North Cowichan municipal forest. Photo: Chris Istace

A threatened ecosystem

North Cowichan is part of the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, one of British Columbia’s 18 ecological zones.

“It is one of Canada’s most threatened ecosystems,” says forest ecologist Andy MacKinnon. “It has less than one per cent original forest remaining, high percentages of urban and agricultural land, a relatively low percentage of protected areas and B.C.’s highest percentage of private land, by far.”

He adds: “Not surprisingly, the coastal Douglas-fir zone has B.C.’s highest number of threatened and endangered species and ecosystems.”

While the North Cowichan municipal forest would have all been logged at some point in the past 80 years, according to North Cowichan resident Dobell, these forests are uncommon on this part of the island.

“This is so rare,” Dobell says. “A forest that is 60 or 70 years old that was not replanted in a timber-lot sort of way. Back then, they didn’t log like they do now. They left the enormous arbutus and maple, they left the alder, they left trees that weren’t perfect, like big fir. So people who come into this area that haven’t been here before are shocked by the complexity.”

Icel Dobell

Icel Dobell, a fifth-generation resident of North Cowichan, was surprised to discover the municipality owns 5,000 hectares of local forests. Photo: Jacqueline Ronson / The Discourse

Citizens unite

The only thing more shocking to North Cowichan residents than the revelation that the municipality owns these forestlands was the realization that they were being considered for logging.

“I found out about the ribbons on Stoney Hill in September,” Dobell said. “And if I’m honest, at first I didn’t want to hear it.”

But one day she was struck by inspiration. Dobell felt compelled to write a story about the plight of the municipal forests. This writing became the basis of a video that she directed and narrated and which was produced by Arrowsmith Media.

“That was what triggered people, was the first article and the film,” Dobell says.

Word began to spread and pretty soon an informal community group formed. Another resident, Rob Fullerton, started a website and they came up with the name “Where Do We Stand?”

They started a petition calling for a pause to any further logging in the municipal forest until a public consultation can be done to reassess the values and priorities of the forest. That petition has generated more than 1,400 comments and signatures to date in support of a pause to the logging.

“We’re not a charity, we’re not a non-profit, we’re just a community,” Fullerton said. “It’s just been a three-month blitz to try and get a pause.”

‘I’ve never seen the chambers that full’

The public backlash in North Cowichan reached a crescendo on December 19 at a meeting of the newly elected mayor and council, with estimates of 200 to 400 people trying to get into the council chambers on a Wednesday afternoon.

“I’ve never seen the chambers that full,” said Mayor Al Siebring. “This issue is generating some considerable interest and that’s fair enough. An engaged community is always a good community, as far as I’m concerned.”

Travers is pleased to see this level of engagement happening. “I would say that [Dobell] struck a responsive chord. When you can get 200 people out to talk about forestry in any community, that’s a major accomplishment in my view.”

The video recording of the event reveals people packed shoulder to shoulder, wrapped all the way around the chamber. One by one, community members step up to the microphone to express their opinions about the municipal forest. Speakers can be broken down into two groups: the ‘pausers’ and the ‘anti-pausers.’ The pausers outnumbered the anti-pausers at least five to one.

Those arguing for a pause emphasized the need  for community consultations. They talked about how forest use is changing, ecotourism is on the rise, climate change is upon us, forests provide valuable ecological services and that there are alternative forestry models to look to, such as Wildwood near Nanaimo.

Those arguing against a pause said there was no need to stop logging. They praised all the good the municipal forest has done for the community, such as land purchases, fire-fighting, educational opportunities and scholarships, as well as the sustainable practices that have been in place since the 1980s.

The community walked away from that meeting without any clear answers, other than a resolution from council not to move forward with any logging or road-building on Stoney Hill until they’ve had time to study the matter further.

North Cowichan Municipal Forest

A cutblock in the North Cowichan municipal forest. Photo: Arrowsmith Media

A literal windfall

The night after the December 19 meeting, southern Vancouver Island suffered one of the most destructive windstorms in its recorded history. With gusts exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, large swaths of trees were blown down in the North Cowichan municipal forest.

Concerned residents see this literal windfall as an opportunity to cover some of the lost revenue that would result from a pause in logging operations.

Another council meeting is scheduled for February 15 to vote on a budget scenario for 2019. This means deciding whether to log or not to log. If council decides not to log at all, this could blow a $600,000 hole in the budget.

Harvesting the windfall would soften the fiscal blow somewhat and help fund a pause to logging, while public consultations are allowed to take place.

‘Our municipal forest has been severely maligned’

Mayor Siebring has been on council since 2008 and he does not mince words when defending the reputation of the North Cowichan municipal forest.

“Our municipal forest operation has been severely maligned and misrepresented by those who want to stop logging,” Siebring says. “They’re taking out full-page ads, articles in local media, where they talk about, ‘The municipality wants to clear-cut the six mountaintops.’ ”

Siebring takes particular exception to the term “clear-cut.”

“What do you think of when you hear ‘clear-cut?’” Siebring asks. “You think of the worst forestry practices that existed in the ’50s and ’60s. We don’t clear-cut. Since we set up this paradigm in the ’70s, we have never clear-cut.”

Technically speaking, the type of logging that is done in the North Cowichan municipal forest is “clear-cutting with reserves,” meaning loggers do leave a few trees behind. It is clear-cutting, but cutblocks are much smaller than the average in B.C.

The allowable annual cut in the municipal forest is 20,000 cubic metres per year. This translates to a maximum of two per cent of the land base, or 100 hectares, available to log each year, with the forest recycling itself every 50 years. In reality, this has only averaged out to about 44 hectares logged per year.

Cutblocks are replanted and logs are sold to a variety of local sawmills, as well as TimberWest’s log sort yard, where an unknown percentage of the logs go overseas.

North Cowichan operates as a “market logger,” which means the actual harvest levels fluctuate based on wood prices. When prices are up, they try to log the maximum. When prices are down, they leave the trees in the ground.

According to a municipal forest report, in four of the last five years, with wood prices historically high, net revenues from the forest have been just over $1 million a year.

Of that, 20 per cent goes into general revenues to keep taxes down, 40 per cent stays in the reserve fund to fight wildfires and operate in lean years and 40 per cent goes into a forest legacy fund, which funds community projects such as local museums and scholarships.

“Bottom line is I do believe we have done very well by that forest, not just financially but we’ve done a good job of sustainability,” Siebring says. “At the same time, I want the world to know that I am open to improving that.”

‘We stopped being as transparent as we should have been’

In 1981, the municipality established a forest advisory committee to advise North Cowichan’s forestry department staff. Today, the committee is made up of four registered professional foresters and one council member.

With the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the global economy in 2008, wood prices fell very low, so the municipal forest was doing very little logging, other than a few telephone poles for BC Hydro.

Siebring, who had just been elected to council for the first time in 2008, recalls that it was getting a little ridiculous that every time they wanted to cut down a few telephone poles it had to go before council. So council delegated authority to the forestry department and the advisory committee to look after the forestry business.

“That, I think, is fundamentally where we went wrong,” Siebring says. “We stopped being as transparent as we should have been about the way we were logging and the cutblocks we’re logging. For the last 10 years, council hasn’t seen those cutblocks and those logging contracts.”

Icel Dobell says there needs to be a restructuring of the advisory committee.

“Our forest has been run as if it was a private logging company, rather than a community forest,” she says.

Cowichan Valley Maple Mountain

A hiker enjoys a fern gully on the yellow trail on Maple Mountain in North Cowichan. Photo: Chris Istace

‘Communities are waking up’

While the particulars of North Cowichan’s situation are no doubt unique, they are not alone in their calls for greater transparency, more community consultation, an examination of alternative forestry methods and the need to reassess the true value of the forests in our own backyards.

“Most of southeastern Vancouver Island was first logged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says forest ecologist Mackinnon. “The last logging was lost to cultural memory. And so it came as a surprise to many when the trees became large enough and the logging began again.”

Coastal residents of Port Renfrew, Cumberland and Cortes Island, as well as elsewhere in B.C. like Ymir and Grand Forks, are taking a greater interest in the impacts of logging on watersheds, eco-tourism and communities’ ability to weather the uncertainties of climate change.

“Communities are waking up all over Vancouver Island and indeed the province,” Dobell says. “They’ve been surrounded by forests that have been maturing for 60 years and the public assumed that they were forever. Now communities are madly trying to pull together and raise funds, millions of dollars in some cases, to purchase the forests around them.”

The Cumberland Community Forest has done just that. When residents realized that logging companies owned the forests surrounding their community, they began fundraising to purchase them in order to prevent them from being logged. They have raised millions of dollars to date and purchased well over 100 hectares of forestland, with more on their radar.

North Cowichan is in a unique position in that they don’t have to purchase the forests around them — they already own them.

“This conversation is just emerging in our community but we feel it is taking off,” Dobell says. “The more people are learning, the more we realize we don’t know anything about what the alternatives are.”

Mayor Siebring says he is open to a reassessment of what the municipality has been doing.

“I’m hoping that we can come up with a compromise that says, we’re going to do minimal active logging this year, we will keep a bit of a revenue stream going by pulling out the trees that got knocked down in the wind, and give ourselves a year’s breathing room to step back and say, ‘Are we doing the best that we can?’ ”

The agenda for the upcoming council meeting on February 15 indicates changes are indeed coming to the forest advisory committee, with several new people being added to the group, including members of the Cowichan Tribes, Halalt and Lyakson First Nations.

A decision will be made on Friday about whether slated logging will continue in 2019, or whether a pause will happen to allow for community consultations.

*Correction made at 11 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2019: The article originally stated the E&N land grants totalled 300,000 hectares, but they actually totalled 769,000 hectares.

Daniel J. Pierce is a filmmaker and journalist based in Vancouver. His work explores the intersections between environmental, economic and…

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