The B.C. government says it wants to suspend logging in one-third of its rare, old-growth forests that are considered at a very high risk of irreversible biodiversity loss, but first needs to sign individual agreements with the province’s 204 First Nations.
The plan released Tuesday by Canada’s biggest forestry province may slow but will not stop the loss of its highly productive, ancient forests. On the same day, world leaders at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, announced an agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.
“We’ve identified 2.6 million hectares of our largest, rarest and most ancient old-growth forests,” Forests Minister Katrine Conroy told a news conference. “Deferring harvest in an area this large is unprecedented and surpasses the size of 226 cities of Vancouver.”
The province will halt its own timber sales in the proposed deferral areas, but nothing more will happen until First Nations sign off on any deferrals within their traditional territories. It means most logging operations around British Columbia are unchanged while the province’s promised reforms are discussed at individual tables.
And while the government says those deferrals could be implemented quickly, that may not happen. The Huu-ay-aht Nation has already declared that it will not agree to the proposed deferrals in its territories until it completes its two-year-long resource-management planning process.
“We’ll take the time to make an informed decision on the deferral,” Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis, Sr. said in an interview. His nation has been embroiled in the conflict over old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, on Vancouver Island, where protesters continue to be arrested in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the country.
“It only took the immigrants that moved to Canada 150 years to wreck what we were taking care of for thousands of years. We’re stepping in to fix what was wrecked, and the best way to do that is through sustainable forestry,” he said.
Ms. Conroy said B.C.’s old-growth forests can serve as a bulwark against climate change, but she said her government is legally obliged to uphold the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous communities to resource development in their territories.
Meanwhile, representatives for the forest industry warn that the proposed deferrals would have devastating consequences for workers and forestry-dependent communities.
The provincial government released new technical data showing that more than half of the 25 million hectares of old-growth forests that once stood in B.C. before commercial logging is gone, and of what remains, 7.6-million hectares are made up of either the iconic, large trees that are featured in promoting the province’s natural beauty, or are otherwise identified as ancient or rare.
If approved by Indigenous nations, the province will then ask forestry companies that hold the timber-cutting rights in a proposed deferral area to voluntarily suspend logging. If the tenure-holder does not agree, then the province can issue an order to rescind approved permits and prevent new permits.
Ms. Conroy would not answer questions about the potential financial impact, but said the province’s internal assessment predicts 4,500 job losses, if all the proposed deferrals were made permanent.
The Council of Forest Industries, however, estimates that the proposed deferrals would shut down between 14 and 20 sawmills, threatening 18,000 jobs.
“If fully implemented, this move will have a profound and devastating impact on people, families and communities across the province,” Susan Yurkovich, president and chief executive of the council, said in a statement.
The deferral plan announced Tuesday stems from a commitment made two years ago by the B.C. NDP government to protect old-growth forests.
Eighteen months ago, a technical advisory panel called on the government to immediately impose deferrals. Gary Merkel, a professional forester, was one of the authors of that review. On Tuesday, he said the province has now started down the path of reforms that are needed to protect irreplaceable ecosystems that are disappearing under intensive forestry.
“Some of our ecosystems in British Columbia have remained relatively undisturbed since the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago,” he said. “They are not renewable.” The deferrals are meant to buy time to transform the way forestry is done in B.C., replacing clear-cut logging with harvesting methods that mimic natural disturbance, “which means that we would harvest in a manner more linked to the way nature would change the forest. In some coastal forests, that’s a few trees at a time.”
B.C.’s forest sector cuts 55,000 hectares of old-growth trees every year – targeting the most valuable, large old trees that grow best in rich valley bottoms on the coast. Ecologist Rachel Holt, one of experts retained by the province to help map out the endangered old-growth stands, has said that at the present rate of harvest, old-growth timber will begin to run out in as little as five years.
Environmentalists have criticized the government of stalling on the promised reforms with what they call a “talk and log” tactic.
“This government promised to defer logging in at-risk old-growth, not take over a year to determine what that means and then signal their intentions. Delaying deferral of what the technical advisory panel has identified as at-risk old-growth means accepting irreversible biodiversity loss,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee. “The province of B.C. is absolutely not doing its part when it comes to managing forests in the face of the climate crisis.”
Tzeporah Berman, international program director for Stand.earth, welcomed the identification of 2.6 million hectares of at-risk old growth forests, but said the government is still delaying concrete action.
“The province must act urgently to implement logging deferrals and provide concrete funding options for [Indigenous] nations to make old-growth protection a viable economic option,” she said, adding that the province missed the opportunity to end the current dispute at Fairy Creek, where more than 1,150 people have been arrested, by keeping that area out of the proposed deferrals.
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