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Big Lonely Doug, an ancient Douglas Fir stands alone in a clearcut area near Port Renfrew, B.C., on March 12, 2021.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The largest tree in Canada is known as the Cheewhat cedar. More than 55 metres in height and six metres in diameter, it is estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Premier John Horgan and his son, Nate, made the pilgrimage to visit the giant Western red cedar in 2016, and he says the trek through an ancient forest on Vancouver Island’s west coast impressed him with the importance of preserving old growth from logging.

“It is truly a monster,” Mr. Horgan said in an interview. He and his son made the trip accompanied by Al Wickheim, the son of a renowned big-tree hunter, Maywell Wickheim, who had ensured the Cheewhat cedar would be protected in the boundaries of Pacific Rim National Park. The group did not take the easiest route, which involves a shortcut accessed by a logging road. “We did it the interesting way, by taking our canoe and backpacking it through the bush on the opposite side of the lake, paddling across, climbing up the hill,” Mr. Horgan recalled. “Then it took us two hours to find the tree.”

Mr. Horgan said he’s grateful that surrounding forest is protected from logging. “To go and visit these places, and to recognize and be humbled by that majesty, is something that I and [Nate] will never forget.”

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The year after that trip, Mr. Horgan became Premier. Now his government is struggling to find a way to move forward with the reforms Mr. Horgan has been talking up for years. He has promised a fundamental change, but again, he did not choose the most direct path.

Deadlines to implement oversight for logging in the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast of the province have been missed, and last week, the province missed another set of targets for provincewide old-growth reforms. Conservationists are unhappy, and protesters are camped out at a blockade in the Premier’s riding, seeking to protect another ancient forest from logging.

Mr. Horgan acknowledges the pressure but said his government can’t bring about the sweeping changes he has promised without extensive consultations. The province has deferred old-forest harvesting in nine areas throughout the province while it engages with Indigenous leaders and organizations. That engagement has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Premier said, and until that is done, the next stages of consultation can’t begin.

“I believe we’re on track and that if we’re going to make systemic change, that has to be thoughtful, it has to include everyone, or it won’t stick,” he said. “We need to do it in a way that will not disrupt our relationships with the first peoples whose territory these trees are on.”

Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, which represents six of the First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest, said he is “really frustrated” with the lack of progress. “Everybody’s avoiding having the tougher discussions,” he said. He finds himself defending the government because it has, properly, engaged with First Nations. But his community doesn’t welcome the logging of old growth in the meantime. “We have some economic interest in seeing logging continue, but not old growth.”

The type of forest that Mr. Horgan visited, the awe-inspiring landscapes of giants that are featured on B.C.’s destination marketing posters, are rare. There are an estimated 415,000 hectares of these types of especially productive, old-growth forests left in B.C. and conservationists warn that while the government consults, these highly valuable big trees continue to be logged.

Susan Yurkovich, president and chief executive of the Council of Forest Industries, said her industry is still waiting for its turn at the table to discuss the changes. While the province is engaging with Indigenous communities, there are forestry-dependent communities, unions and industry voices that are still waiting their turn for input.

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“They want to have a discussion about how are we going to balance the values on the remaining areas of forest land, how are we going to balance the values between protection and conservation,” she said. “What do we want it to look like in five and 10 years time? Then we can have a provincewide kind of strategy for implementing this.”

She said the industry has already been adapting to changing priorities, with a shift over the past decade to seeking more value out of less timber. “We create everything from doors and window frames and decking and panels and shingles – all kinds of value-added products, and we’ve got the opportunity to do more of that.” That model, Ms. Yurkovich said, has to include some old growth because of its high value.

Change is coming but it is moving so slowly, it’s difficult to measure.

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