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A dry land sort at Sarita Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island, purchased by Huu-ay-aht First Nations in 2017.Wendy Stueck/The Globe and Mail

On the banks of the Sarita River, Robert J. Dennis Sr. scanned the water for smolts. He was rewarded with a ripple and a splash, evidence that young salmon were making their way to the ocean.

Mr. Dennis was standing next to a channel in the Sarita’s estuary that was cleared in 2018 after being blocked years earlier by a logging road. The project was part of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ efforts to restore a river their members refer to as “the heart of the people.”

Those efforts include buying in to the very industry that once threatened to choke the life out of the Sarita. Since 2017, the Huu-ay-aht have been investing in forestry operations in their treaty territory, which consists of more than 8,200 hectares of land in the Barkley Sound region on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

They’ve bought a site where logs are marked for sale and transport, known as a dry-land sort in the jargon of the industry. They’ve struck training and employment agreements for Huu-ay-aht members. They’ve formed a joint venture, Tsawak-qin Forestry Limited Partnership, with Western Forest Products Inc. The Vancouver-based forestry company holds harvesting rights in Tree Farm Licence 44, a provincially set harvesting area that takes in parts of traditional territories of 14 nations, including the Huu-ay-aht.

Currently, the Huu-ay-aht own 35 per cent of Tsawak-qin (which translates to “we are one”) and have an option agreement to increase that stake to 51 per cent in 2023. Western Forest Products owns the rest.

The Huu-ay-aht are part of a shift in British Columbia toward increased Indigenous ownership and control of forestry. That shift, driven in part by B.C.’s 2019 decision to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has implications for First Nations like the Huu-ay-aht, who are counting on forestry for jobs, income and cultural connections. The changes will also affect forestry companies, contractors and the provincial government, whose plans to protect old growth forests hinge on First Nations consent.

Mr. Dennis, who was first elected as the Huu-ay-aht’s chief councillor in 1995 and has held that role nearly continuously since, believes the forestry industry is moving in the right direction.

“When we talk about reconciliation – this is all part of it,” he said on a recent tour through Huu-ay-aht territory.

“This is our prescription for what we want from reconciliation.”

The Huu-ay-aht and four other First Nations are part of the Maa-nulth Final Agreement. Finalized in 2011, the agreement is the first modern-day treaty on Vancouver Island. It includes financial payments and land transfers.

The Huu-ay-aht’s treaty lands are key to their vision for a diversified economy built around sectors including forestry, small hydro, fishing and tourism. That vision is a work in progress. Less than a decade ago, it included a liquefied natural gas project, but that proposal was put on hold in 2019. A small hydro project is still in planning stages. The commercial fishing sector has withered along with salmon runs.

That leaves forestry as one of the best economic opportunities for the Huu-ay-aht’s roughly 750 members.

But forestry is under pressure too. For decades, First Nations and environmental groups have warned that intensive logging, especially in Vancouver Island rainforests, has put old growth at risk.

The old growth debate flared with the “war in the woods” in 1993, when hundreds of people were arrested in protests against logging near Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. It ignited again in August, 2020, when protestors set up tents and roadblocks near the Fairy Creek watershed, north of Port Renfrew.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested in connection with those protests since May, 2021, when RCMP began enforcing a court order obtained by Teal Cedar Products Ltd. The company holds logging rights in Tree Farm Licence 46, where Fairy Creek is located.

Before coming to power in 2017, the provincial NDP government campaigned on a commitment to sustainably manage old growth.

In 2019, the province appointed a two-person independent panel to review the issue. The panel’s report, the Old Growth Strategic Review, was publicly released in September, 2020, and made 14 recommendations, including immediate action to protect ecosystems at high risk.

The old growth debate has revealed data gaps and conflicting statistics. In general, the B.C. government defines old growth as coastal forests that contain trees more than 250 years old. In drier interior regions, that threshold is 140 years.

According to the panel’s report, B.C.’s total land base is nearly 95 million hectares, of which 60 per cent, or 57 million hectares, is forested. Based on the government’s definitions, some 23 per cent, or 13.2 million hectares, of that forest is old growth.

But when most people think of old growth forests, they picture the towering trees found in places like Vancouver Island’s Cathedral Grove, a stand of ancient Douglas firs that is a tourist stop on the route to Pacific Rim National Park.

Such forests were thick on the ground a century ago. But, because they had the best timber and were relatively accessible, they were the first to disappear, giving way to roads, towns and agriculture. Now they are relatively rare. A 2020 report by three independent forestry researchers found only 3 per cent of B.C.’s remaining old forests support very large trees. The report called such ecosystems “the white rhino of old growth forests.”

The Old Growth Strategic Review panel flagged several shortcomings in the province’s management of old growth, including its failure to implement recommendations from a 1992 review, and warned that rare ecosystems could be lost if some forests were not protected immediately.

The province in September, 2020, agreed to accept all 14 of the panel’s recommendations. But progress on the ground has been slow.

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Robert J. Dennis Sr., elected Chief Councillor for Huu-ay-aht First Nations, on the banks of the Sarita River.Wendy Stueck/The Globe and Mail

In June, 2021, the Huu-ay-aht, along with the neighbouring Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations, issued a joint declaration, saying they wanted the province to defer old growth logging in Fairy Creek and the nearby Walbran area while they developed their own land use plans.

The province agreed and implemented deferrals on 2,000 hectares of old growth in those areas. The same month, it also named a technical advisory panel to help implement recommendations from the strategic review.

Then, in November, 2021, the province announced its plans to work with First Nations to defer logging in 2.6-million hectares of B.C.’s most at-risk old growth forests, asking First Nations to respond to the plans within 30 days.

That announcement triggered shock waves. The B.C. First Nations Forestry Council said many of its members had been caught off guard by the proposal and that 30 days was not enough time to respond.

The B.C. Council of Forest Industries warned that the proposed deferrals would force up to 20 mills to close and put some 18,000 jobs at risk, among other impacts.

On Dec. 1, the Huu-ay-aht said they would defer logging for two years in 96 per cent of the areas the province had outlined for deferral in their territory, but would retain the right to harvest in the remaining 4 per cent, citing economic impacts.

The Huu-ay-aht followed up with other announcements: in February, an Indigenous-led planning process for Tree Farm Licence 44; in March, a plan to become “climate positive” by 2030 through measures such as reducing the amount of wood waste that is burned in the area; and, in April, a new old growth study and a new policy to protect big trees.

The big-tree policy lowered the height threshold for protecting tall trees to below the provincially mandated threshold. The Huu-ay-aht aim to meet or exceed all provincial regulations and are willing to accept lower harvest levels in exchange for other benefits, Mr. Dennis said.

The Huu-ay-aht old growth study concluded that 32 per cent of the forests in Tree Farm Licence 44 are old growth and three-quarters of that old growth is already protected, either in parks or other designated management areas.

Mr. Dennis said the report should help the Huu-ay-aht, and other First Nations, move beyond the numbers debate and focus on how best to manage forests for future generations.

On a drive through Huu-ay-aht territory, he stopped to point out areas that have been logged and replanted. He spoke about the Huu-ay-aht’s three sacred principles, which translate as “utmost respect,” “taking care of” and “everything is one.”

He spoke about the number of Huu-ay-aht members currently working in the forestry sector: about 40, compared with two people in 1995, when he was first elected.

And he spoke about how forestry revenues are helping to pay for housing for Huu-ay-aht members, and how they could one day help build a school.

Western Forest Products, the Huu-ay-aht’s partner in Tsawak-qin, is changing the way it operates as a result of the collaboration, according to Shannon Janzen, the company’s chief forester and the chair of Tsawak-qin’s board.

“It’s the seat at the table that drives the difference – that’s a very big difference from paying someone to do business as usual in their territory,” she said.

The old growth debate continues to rage. In May, RCMP arrested old growth protestors in Argenta, north of Nelson, B.C., where activists are trying to prevent logging.

In an April 1 update, the province said it had implemented deferrals on nearly 1.7-million hectares of old growth.

The province said it had received responses to the proposed deferrals from 188 of 204 First Nations in B.C., with 75 agreeing to the deferrals, more than 60 requesting more time to decide and seven saying they are opposed to any more deferrals in their territories.

Environmental groups say the government is moving too slowly. This month, the province told the Canadian Press that about 7,200 hectares of old growth have been logged since the government announced the deferral plan.

“There is only one timeline in which the most at-risk old growth can be protected, and that is right away,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director with the Wilderness Committee.

The Huu-ay-aht are trying to navigate a course that protects ancient trees for future generations while generating jobs, income and security for their members.

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Shannon Janzen, vice president, partnerships and sustainability and chief forester for Western Forest Products Inc., and Robert J. Dennis Sr.Wendy Stueck/The Globe and Mail

In April, as a symbol of that intent, they hosted an old growth summit in Anacla, B.C., near an entrance to the popular West Coast Trail.

The summit was held in the House of Huu-ay-aht, which was built with old growth logs harvested from Huu-ay-aht territory.

If all old growth logging were stopped, Mr. Dennis said, the House of Huu-ay-aht could not have been built. A canoe log the Huu-ay-aht gifted last year to the Skowkale First Nation, in the Lower Mainland, could not have been cut. The towering figures that stand at the entrance to the House of Huu-ay-aht could not have been carved.

At the summit in April, Mr. Dennis reminded attendees that the Huu-ay-aht have not always been in control of their own lands. “For most of the past 150 years, we have watched others decide what is best for our lands, our waters and our people,” he said.

“Our three sacred principles are ignored. We are too often the last to benefit from what is taken out and the last to be asked what must be put back in. That time is over.”

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