There has been a long history of native bands blockading logging roads in British Columbia, but the big, dramatic confrontations of the past may be fading, thanks to a quiet shift in government policy.
In a series of headline-grabbing events starting in 1984, the Tla-o-qui-aht blocked crews from cutting old-growth forest on Meares Island, at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
In 1985, Haida elders dressed in traditional regalia were hauled away by RCMP officers on Moresby Island. And in a similar battle, Nuxalk hereditary chiefs from Bella Coola were arrested in 1997 when they defied a court injunction and blocked crews from logging at Ista, a place where according to native belief the first woman descended to Earth.
Since then there have been dozens of other smaller blockades around the province by bands trying to stop logging in the forests near their communities.
Blockades will always be an option for bands that often feel desperate and ignored. But such protests may become unnecessary if the B.C. government succeeds with an innovative program it began recently, which is giving bands the power to decide if, when and how logging takes place around their communities.
The government last week issued the Canim Lake band a first-nations woodland licence, a permit that gives the small community of 570 people long-term logging rights to 21,000 hectares of Crown land.
It is just the second such licence issued by the government, with the first going in December, 2011, to the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island. Under that deal, the band got harvesting rights to 9,500 hectares of forest, near Bamfield.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said his government is running behind schedule in its efforts to shift more logging to native communities through woodland licences, but he hopes to pick up the pace.
“In the forest-sector strategy, we had a goal of reaching eight in the first year and it doesn’t look like we’ll quite reach that target for 2012-13,” he said in a recent interview. “We have a number of other [woodland licences] that are close, but we think we’ll meet that target and probably exceed it for 2013-14.”
Mr. Thomson said the strategy emerged from a roundtable on forestry issues, which among other things identified a need to give native communities more control over the forests around them.
Over the past two years, the government has signed some 60 forest consultation and revenue-sharing agreements with native communities. The woodland licences go a step further by giving control of logging to bands for 25 to 99 years.
Mr. Thomson said the long-term tenures will help bands secure investment and loans to develop their own forestry operations.
“It really does provide the opportunity to build capacity in terms of employment in their communities,” he said.
Bill Bourgeois of Healthy Forests – Healthy Communities isn’t so sure of that. He says the concept of giving communities control of the forests in their area is a good one, but he worries the government isn’t providing bands a large enough allowable cut.
“If you don’t have a big enough area and volume of timber, it is hard to succeed,” he said.
The Canim Lake band is allowed to cut 20,000 cubic metres of timber a year.
“That’s ridiculous, to be blunt,” said Mr. Bourgeois. “I would encourage them to be bigger.”
He said bands need an annual allowable cut of 100,000 cubic metres a year.
But Mr. Thomson said he thinks the deals are working for the bands and will help create thriving, native-run forest companies.
“If you look back at where we were 10 years ago in terms of first-nations participation [in the forest sector], we’ve made very significant gains,” he said.
Many native people might not agree with that. Idle No More, after all, was born out of frustration. But the woodland licences do look like a pretty good improvement on the bitter, logging-road blockades of the past.