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A Douglas Fir tree at Avatar Grove along the Gordon River Valley, B.C. August 29, 2010. (Arnold Lim For The Globe and Mail/Arnold Lim For The Globe and Mail)
A Douglas Fir tree at Avatar Grove along the Gordon River Valley, B.C. August 29, 2010. (Arnold Lim For The Globe and Mail/Arnold Lim For The Globe and Mail)

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A Vancouver Island environmental organization is praising the B.C. government for protecting a unique old-growth forest known as Avatar Grove, but the Auditor-General has slammed the province for losing track of the forest resource.

Government management of B.C.’s timber supply is insufficient and has reached the point at the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry where the province isn't properly monitoring its programs, said John Doyle's ministry audit.

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Avatar Grove, so named by environmentalists inspired by the Hollywood eco-fable Avatar, has become a tourism attraction due to its fantastically shaped western red cedars, including one tree nicknamed “Canada's Gnarliest Tree” for its massive burls.

The Victoria-based Ancient Forests Alliance applauded the government's decision to protect from logging almost 60 hectares of the old-growth cedar forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island.

“We commend the B.C. government for protecting this key tract of rare, valley-bottom, old-growth forest because virtually all the valley bottoms on southern Vancouver Island are gone now,” forests alliance spokesman Ken Wu said on Thursday.

“But at the same time thousands of hectares of old-growth forests are logged every year on Vancouver Island and millions of hectares are endangered across B.C.”

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the protected area covers just under 60 hectares. B.C. forest company Teal-Jones Group, which held the licence to cut trees in the grove, will be compensated for losing its cutting rights there, Thompson said.

He said the government was persuaded to protect the grove after a public consultation process last fall that received 236 comments, only four of them against saving the unique region.

He said businesses in the Port Renfrew area see the grove as a potential tourism draw.

But Mr. Doyle's report found that elsewhere in B.C., the government hasn't been as diligent in protecting the future for forests.

“Industry is legally obligated to reforest the areas it harvests, and it does so,” said Mr. Doyle in a statement after the release of his 23-page audit.

“But government, which is responsible for over 90 per cent of British Columbia's forests, and whose reforestation decisions have a significant impact on our future forests, is not clear about its own commitments.”

Mr. Doyle's audit found the ministry has not clearly defined its timber objectives and, as a result, cannot ensure that its management practices are effective.

The report said existing management practices are insufficient to offset a trend toward future forests having a lower timber supply, and the audit found the ministry is not properly monitoring and reporting its timber results against its timber objectives.

Mr. Doyle's report makes six recommendations, including developing performance measures that can be used to evaluate progress in achieving long-term timber objectives.

The ministry responded with a statement saying it was already meeting Mr. Doyle's recommendations and “will strive to develop a publicly reported performance measure that shows progress in achieving timber objectives.”

Mr. Thomson said he's confident the ministry will have an updated inventory of lands that require reforestation within the next six months.

He said he disagreed with the Mr. Doyle's assessment that the ministry is falling behind on its management of the timber resource.

Mr. Doyle's audit said that of the 95 million hectares of forested land in British Columbia, 22 million hectares are available for harvesting.

Industry is legally obligated to reforest 10 per cent of that land – about 2.2 million hectares – while the government is responsible for the management of the rest.

Mr. Thomson said the ministry has identified 733,000 hectares of land that is “non-sufficiently stocked.”

He suggested that amount could change once the ministry completes a review.

“I'm confident we have the resources and the staff available, and the technology available, to do the analytical work that will identify and clarify the lands that need to be restocked,” Mr. Thomson said.

Opposition New Democrat forests critic Norm Macdonald said Mr. Doyle's audit is a condemnation of the government's management of its timber supply over the past 11 years.

“The first place you start is you get the inventory right,” he said.

“Seventy-five per cent of the inventory is decades out of date. They just do not know what's going on on the land base.”

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