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Protesters work to construct road blocks along a logging road at the Fairy Creek blockades headquarters outside Port Renfrew, B.C. on May 23, 2021. On May 17, RCMP began enforcing an injunction against a series of old-growth logging blockades in the area.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

It all started with a campaign promise.

John Horgan, seeking re-election for his party in last October’s B.C. snap election, committed an NDP government to fully adopt recommendations from its independent expert panel that called for a paradigm shift in the province’s management of old-growth forests.

Politically, it made sense at the time. The Premier had called the election to get out of a minority-government pact that required co-operation with the BC Green caucus. To secure the majority that he coveted, the New Democrats were purposeful in courting green-minded voters. When asked whether he would accept the proposed plan to protect old-growth forests, the only safe answer was yes.

The NDP did secure its majority in that election, and the Green Party lost the leverage it had enjoyed in the previous minority government.

But the Premier raised expectations that there would be some tangible change in forestry practices. He had officially recognized that the value of old-growth trees left standing can be far greater than the value of those trees as timber products.

Yet the change is imperceptible. If anything, his commitment has become a weapon for his critics, who want at least a moratorium on old-growth logging until the province sorts out just what should be permanently protected.

RCMP arrest six protesters as opposition to old-growth logging at Vancouver Island’s Fairy Creek escalates

Old-growth forests work hard for us. Now, we need to work for them

Over the past week, the RCMP have arrested more than four dozen protesters who have been trying to stop old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, a valley in the Premier’s riding. Fairy Creek is part of Tree Farm Licence 46 and features increasingly rare intact stands of Western red cedar and yellow cedars, trees that are up to 2,000 years old. The logging company with the licence, Teal-Jones, has been waiting out blockades since last August and has only just started logging operations, after the RCMP began enforcing a court injunction.

Mr. Horgan’s government has pleaded for patience with those who want to stop logging of ancient forests. But the grievances are mounting. Investors who bought into the province’s Great Bear Rainforest initiative are unhappy that logging continues on B.C.’s central coast without the promised environmental oversight.

The province’s independent watchdog on forests practices found logging of large old-growth trees in the Nahmint River watershed, on Vancouver Island, failed to adequately protect old-forest and biodiversity values. Since Mr. Horgan’s independent panel came in with its recommendations for reforming old-growth logging, his government has approved logging plans at a faster rate than the year before.

While the government maintains that it was never going to achieve a paradigm shift in forestry practices overnight, there is an economic incentive to move slowly.

In the budget introduced in April, provincial revenues from forestry are one of the few bright spots. B.C. expects to clear $1.1-billion in direct forestry revenues, a significant jump from the previous year. It is a sector that can help B.C. climb out of the financial hole created by the pandemic.

After years of hard times related to trade wars, pine-beetle infestations, wildfires and labour strikes, the B.C. forest sector is finally booming. The price for two-by-fours made from Western spruce, pine and fir was shattering records this month: US$1,640 for 1,000 board feet, up 355 per cent over the past year, according to industry newsletter Madison’s Lumber Reporter.

According to the Wilderness Committee, publicly available data show that logging of old-growth forests has increased by 43 per cent in the year since the government received its report and recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel.

The province is still reviewing the data and suggests that the Wilderness Committee’s calculations are skewed, because a lengthy strike disrupted coastal forestry operations. But there is no doubt that lumber mills and logging crews are busy, cashing in on lumber mania.

For Teal-Jones, which has been missing out on some of the action because of the blockades at Fairy Creek, logging crews are just getting to work. “We will continue responsible harvesting where it is safe, and in consultation with RCMP,” the company said in a statement.

The Fairy Creek blockade also highlights one of the reasons that Mr. Horgan has not moved quickly. There is another, significant, party in this dispute.

Teal-Jones says it is operating after consultations with local First Nations, and the Pacheedaht First Nation said it was working with the logging company to determine what will be logged and ­preserved in its territory through a resource stewardship plan.

“We do not welcome or support ­unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our territory, including third-party activism,” the Pacheedaht leadership have said in a statement.

The NDP government has to do more than just acknowledge Indigenous interests. It needs to listen. In 2019, it passed legislation to ensure that all provincial laws and policies align with internationally recognized human rights of Indigenous people. It was the start of a process that is expected to take decades, and nowhere is it more critical than in consulting on the exploitation of Crown land that is subject to Indigenous land claims.

Mr. Horgan’s aims will soon be clear.

In early June, after consultation with Indigenous communities, the Horgan government will table an intentions paper outlining what changes it plans to make to the provincial forest policy.

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