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The deal protecting ancient forests such as H'kusam is the first under the British Columbia government's recently announced plan to suspend logging in 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest.Grant Callegari/Handout

Thirty years ago, surveyors for a logging company started mapping out the H’kusam forest in northern Vancouver Island. In a region where commercial forestry had already reduced many of the once-vast stands of forests to remnants, the local First Nations stepped in to protect the site, where they have traditionally harvested materials for clothing, medicine, canoes, totems and houses.

Now, the Na̲nwaḵolas Council, representing four First Nations, has signed a deal with forestry company Western Forest Products that will temporarily protect 2,500 hectares of rare and significant ancient forest, including H’kusam. It’s the first such agreement under the British Columbia government’s recently announced plan to suspend logging in 2.6-million hectares of old-growth forest.

Four B.C. First Nations make deal with Western Forests to defer old-growth logging

But cutting will continue under the pact, outside of the areas earmarked for protection, and the conflict over what is left of B.C.’s ancient woods will persist.

The agreement was announced last week, while elsewhere in B.C. protestors demanding an end to all old-growth logging in the province were participating in rolling highway blockades – the latest tactic in a conflict that has led to more than 1,000 arrests since last spring.

Members of the Na̲nwaḵolas Council have spent decades fighting to protect old-growth forests, including H’kusam, but council president Dallas Smith acknowledged that last week’s agreement is unlikely to reduce the temperature of the conflict over logging.

“This time, the only people we are looking to satisfy is ourselves,” said Mr. Smith, a veteran of the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest agreement, which protected a swath of forests on the B.C. coast.

“Our nations have been really just preparing themselves for this day when they can say, this is what’s socially acceptable to us, these are the cultural values that are important to us, and this is also where the economy fits in, so we can gain some jobs and economic benefits.”

The agreement came about under the terms of the B.C. government’s logging deferral plan, which the province announced in November. The plan calls for logging to be temporarily halted in designated areas across the province, while longer-term stewardship plans are negotiated.

B.C. makes big commitment to save old-growth trees from further logging

The deferral process is not straightforward. Under its legal commitments to Indigenous consultation, the province left it up to First Nations to decide just how the new regime would work on the ground. There are 204 First Nations in B.C. and each was asked to respond within a 30-day period to the deferrals proposed in their territories. So far, 161 have replied to the province, and most have simply explained that they need more time.

The Na̲nwaḵolas were the first out of the gate with an agreement only because they have spent years working with the forestry industry to reach the same kinds of stewardship deals that are now on the table. The deferrals happened to fit their plans.

Many details of the pact between the council and Western Forest Products will be worked out in the next two years. The deferrals ensure important stands of trees won’t be logged while negotiations take place. Mr. Smith said the final agreement could provide the member First Nations with revenue sharing, contract work, or even an equity stake in the forestry company. Part of the deal will allow for the sale of carbon credits, which could permit the nations to profit from the land without logging.

The deal may be a model for other deferrals under the province’s old-growth strategy, but it also underscores the length of time it takes to achieve agreements.

The Na̲nwaḵolas were part of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, which promised to protect 85 per cent of the coastal temperate rainforest on the mid-central coast of B.C. – the largest such rainforest on the planet. When that agreement was signed, the Na̲nwaḵolas turned their attention to their traditional territories on Vancouver Island, which were not included in that conservation deal.

The H’kusam forest is just one part of the deferrals in the council’s agreement with Western Forest Products, but it is a critical part. The council has identified roughly 200 trees in the forest that are culturally modified, meaning Indigenous people have harvested planks or bark from them over time without killing them. And H’kusam is where Na̲nwaḵolas youth learn about traditional forest management.

Successive forestry companies have applied for logging permits in H’kusam, despite the objections of the First Nations. “Over the years, we have almost come to blows over it.” Mr. Smith said. “It’s beautiful. It’s magical. Once you get out of the car and get on the trail and get to the area, you feel that difference. This is a rainforest. The trees are huge – they’re everywhere. The sounds are different, the air is different.”

In November, Katrine Conroy, B.C.’s Minister of Forests, announced the provincial old-growth deferral plan with some urgency. Her government had made election commitments to protect old growth. But, by the time of the announcement, the ministry had made little progress, and frustration was mounting. Environmental organizations accused the government of delaying action while old-growth forests continued to fall for profit. Mass arrests were taking place in Fairy Creek, where demonstrators are still trying to stop an active logging operation.

Of the 2.6 million hectares that are to be temporarily protected, logging of old growth has stopped only on the Na̲nwaḵolas land and on 600,000 hectares of land that is managed by the province through BC Timber Sales, a government agency. There is still a lot of work to be done.

“Our forests are renewable, but some forests are special and need to be preserved for future generations,” Ms. Conroy told a news conference last week. “This is part of our government’s new vision for forestry, where we take better care of our oldest and most ancient forests, where Indigenous peoples are our full partners, and sustainable forest management and workers and communities benefit from secure, innovative forestry jobs for years to come.”

The province has promised supports for workers, communities and First Nations to offset economic impacts of implementing the promised new regime for managing old-growth forests. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks with details on programs to support forestry workers and communities during the next three years.

While the forestry industry has objected to the deferral plan, saying it will lead to significant job losses and disruption, Shannon Janzen, Western Forest Products’ chief forester, said the agreement with the Na̲nwaḵolas Council won’t spell doom for the communities the company operates in.

“Through our work with Nanwakolas, including extensive pre-existing agreements and specific, predictable processes for planning and approvals, we believe we can mitigate potential short-term disruptions to the business, while ensuring the priority areas identified by Nanwakolas are deferred over a two-year period,” she said.

Mr. Smith added that the deal is an improvement over the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, because this time Indigenous communities were part of the solution from the start.

“I go back to the experience that our nations had through the Great Bear Rainforest, where we watched NGOs and industry fight over our backyard while we were on the sidelines and not really participants in that discussion,” he said. “And I’m proud to say that over the years, through that discussion, we’ve grown the capacity to understand what we need, what our communities need. We do have values that need to be protected.”

“And at the same time, we’re taking a pace that is going to guarantee that we can minimize the economic impacts that come to not only our communities, but the surrounding communities and our neighbours in Campbell River, Port McNeill, et cetera. So this is a really carefully thought out approach that is Indigenous driven.”

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