B.C. old-growth forests logging David Moskowitz

When will the B.C. government prove whether it really intends to save the last old-growth?

Despite a flurry of recent announcements about intentions to defer old-growth logging, little progress has been made to protect the province’s last ancient forests

Jens Wieting is the senior forest and climate campaigner and science advisor with Sierra Club BC.

If you thought the BC NDP government has made significant progress protecting awe-inspiring, irrecoverable old-growth forests that don’t exist anywhere else, think again. 

Provincial data shows that one soccer field of the last old-growth gets clearcut in B.C. every 7 minutes and nothing suggests this has changed. It is heartbreaking and infuriating but ignoring it is not an option. 

On Nov. 2 the B.C. government shared new old-growth maps and announced their “intention” to defer logging of the most at-risk forests across B.C. The new data confirmed that many old-growth ecosystems are in a state of emergency. The province shared the maps showing the 2.6 million hectares proposed for deferrals with 204 Indigenous Nations across the province, with a request for a response within 30 days. 

The latter infuriated many Indigenous leaders, because, as stated by Khelsilem, chairperson for the Squamish Nation Council: “The BC NDP are giving a terrible choice by only offering consent for temporary deferrals but not requiring consent for logging. Deferrals are needed now to provide the opportunity for long-term planning.” 

Despite recent government ads and misleading media reports that make it sound like a vast area of old-growth was recently protected, a provincial mid-December update offered no clarity on how much of these most endangered forests has been set aside but indicates that the majority of the contacted Nations have not yet made a decision. A high-level review of provincial logging data by Sierra Club BC shows that thousands of hectares that were proposed for deferrals have already been logged, and thousands more are on the chopping block for the coming months. 

To understand how far behind the NDP government has fallen on its promise to protect old-growth, we need to keep in mind that the call for deferrals for at-risk forests is only one of the 14 recommendations made by the Old-Growth Panel. Deferrals are needed to ‘stop the bleeding,’ buying time to find solutions for a small fraction of B.C.’s forests considered at very high risk. 

The full set of recommendations with a three-year implementation framework describes a paradigm-shift with the goal to safeguard biodiversity in all of the forests in B.C. The panel called for deferrals for at-risk forests within six months and Premier Horgan promised to implement all recommendations in the fall of 2020. Over a year later, we have maps that show which forests need deferrals but change on the ground remains uncertain. The B.C. government has accepted that some old-growth forests are as imperiled as endangered whales, but they still haven’t stopped the industrial hunt. 

One exception is BC Timber Sales. The province announced in November that the provincial agency would stop auctioning at-risk forests. This step should result in deferrals for about one fifth of the proposed areas. The BCTS example also shows the logical next step provincial staff must take to hold off the ongoing logging of endangered stands. Provincial staff must immediately stop issuing cut permits for all at-risk forests and use all options available to ensure logging companies spare at-risk areas already on the chopping block. 

This course correction must be combined with immediate adequate funding commitments to address both short-term impacts and enable Indigenous-led conservation solutions. Current provincial commitments for “new capacity funding of up to $12.69 million” to support Indigenous Nations and “nearly $19 million in new funding” for workers, contractors and communities, are insufficient to enable long-term protection for old-growth forests. 

The initial public discussion in response to the provincial old-growth announcement was dominated by exaggerated claims on jobs impacts. Then, the November floods and landslides offered a horrific reminder that clearcutting, particularly of old-growth forests, exacerbates life-threatening and infrastructure-destroying climate impacts that can disrupt entire regional economies. 

The escalating climate emergency highlights the urgency to defend the lifesaving, irreplaceable benefits of intact old-growth forests before climate impacts like floods, heat waves and wildfires create even more havoc (more on this in Sierra Club BC’s expert report ‘Intact Forest, Safe Communities’). In contrast, deferrals for less than five per cent of B.C.’s total forest area have a limited impact on forestry jobs, a sector that represents less than two per cent of B.C.’s total workforce today. 

Protecting old-growth forests will not come for free but it will save money in the long term. The B.C. government can justify the needed funding by highlighting the immeasurable benefits of intact forests such as reducing the devastating damage caused by climate impacts, storing huge amounts of carbon and preserving species habitat, drinking water, clean air and long-term jobs in a diverse economy. A recent economic analysis for a Vancouver Island study area showed old-growth forests are worth far more to society standing than logged when considering their value for a stable climate, tourism, recreation, salmon habitat and non-timber forest products. A 2017 case study estimates the average value of environmental services such as flood control, climate regulation and water filtration of one hectare of intact forest in Canada at more than $26,000 per year.   

It’s not too late for the province to pull together the needed funding solutions to make their old-growth promises a reality. They can look to the conservation financing component for the Great Bear Rainforest as a blueprint. The 2006 Agreements included $120 million to support Indigenous Nations in the region and enable protection of an additional 1.7 million hectares in new protected areas, with the provincial and federal governments ($30 million each) matching private funding ($60 million). By 2009, all the proposed protected areas were fully legislated. 

The per-hectare cost of conservation financing for old-growth will be much higher in 2021 compared to 2006 because of inflation and other economic factors. In addition, land use planning by Indigenous Nations will likely result in many more hectares of forests proposed for protection. But the Great Bear experience showed that adequate financial commitments are a crucial part of any conservation announcement to give Nations and communities confidence that they will receive transition support. 

The Great Bear Rainforest model suggests that a provincial commitment of $300 million combined with an invitation to the federal government and private funders to create a one billion funding mechanism would be a promising signal that the Horgan government is serious about following through on its old-growth promise. 

There are few regions in the world that could contribute as much as B.C. to make progress on climate action, protect nature and respect Indigenous Rights. Provincial leadership in protecting forests and reforming forestry is essential if Canada is to follow through with last month’s UN Climate Conference commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Canada cannot make progress towards its international commitment to work with Indigenous Nations to protect 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030 without crucial provinces like B.C. This year showed more clearly than ever before that we only stand a chance if every corner of the world does its part to save the life support systems we depend on. Will we do our part?

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