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Protesters stand on debris of a cutblock as Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers arrest those manning the Waterfall camp blockade against old growth timber logging in the Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island, near Port Renfrew, B.C., on May 24, 2021.

JENNIFER OSBORNE/Reuters

The three First Nations who have been the reluctant hosts of B.C.’s current war in the woods have called for a deferral of logging in some of the most contentious areas in and around the Fairy Creek watershed.

Since mid-May, more than 170 people have been arrested at blockades located in the traditional territories of the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht. The dispute over old-growth logging has pitted environmentalists against the provincial government and the forest industry, but the Indigenous communities, who have a financial interest in logging, say it is time their land use decisions are respected.

The two-year deferral, which is expected to be approved by the B.C. government, applies to Fairy Creek and the central Walbran, but other logging operations will continue elsewhere. “The Nations ask that while work is under way, everyone allow forestry operations in other parts of their territories, approved by the Nations and the province, to continue without disruption,” the joint statement says.

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B.C. Premier John Horgan acknowledged the request on Monday, promising to honour the declaration. Exactly where the deferrals will apply will be worked out in the coming days. Until then, those on the blockades say they are not backing down until the entire 2,080-hectare rainforest is protected.

The three First Nations have offered a possible way out of this conflict, but for Mr. Horgan’s New Democratic Party government, the fight over old-growth logging won’t end here. Because it was never about just one watershed.

Mr. Horgan’s government won a majority government last October with a promise to protect old-growth forests. The government is promising to move to a new approach that recognizes the value of keeping ancient forests intact, but it expects to take years to work out the details.

This is not a matter of concern only to electors in British Columbia.

In late May, the climate and environment ministers of the G7 nations met and issued the following statement: “We acknowledge with grave concern that the unprecedented and interdependent crises of climate change and biodiversity loss pose an existential threat to nature, people, prosperity and security.”

Each member nation – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States – committed to conserving or protecting at least 30 per cent of their own land, including terrestrial and inland waters, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. As an interim step, Canada has set a target of 25 per cent by the year 2025. As of last year, Canada had conserved 12.5 per cent of its land and freshwaters, and 13.8 per cent of its marine territory.

British Columbia has a critical role to play in meeting Canada’s targets. It has, at the most, 17 per cent of its land base in protected areas. More importantly, it has the greatest variety of living things – biodiversity – in the country.

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To meet its international commitments, Canada has earmarked roughly $4-billion for protecting land and waters. British Columbia’s share, if it reaches for it, could go a long way toward taking old-growth forest lands off the table for resource development.

“Keeping temperate old-growth forests in British Columbia intact is important at every imaginable scale,” says Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke, who serves on the World Commission on Protected Areas. “B.C. has a spectacular opportunity now to join the federal government in committing to protecting 25 per cent of the province by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030. . . There’s money on the table to do that kind of thing. And there’s absolute global urgency.”

Dr. Locke is chair of the Beyond the Aichi Targets Task Force of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas, and he is co-author of a report that assembled the global consensus of scientists on how to save the world, through protecting biodiversity. The science concludes that the global target for protected areas needs to be between 30 and 70 per cent. “There are no studies that suggest less than 30 per cent will do it,” he noted. So Canada is committing to the bare minimum.

Globally, Canada is essential to achieve progress. The United Nation’s Environment Programme states that nature is a key ally in the fight against climate change, and a 2020 nature map shows just where protected areas can do the most heavy lifting. Here, Canada’s lowlands south of the Hudson Bay are recognized alongside the Amazon rainforest for the potential to mitigate climate change while safeguarding significant numbers of species.

British Columbia’s increasingly rare intact temperate rainforests are not the only priority, but they would meet multiple objectives – including the B.C. NDP’s political challenge. Ken Wu, executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, calls the federal funding a golden opportunity to end the latest war in the woods. “Will B.C. join the North American leadership movement to solve the intertwined climate and biodiversity crisis, or get left behind as an anti-environmental conservation laggard?”

B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said in an interview he and his federal counterpart, Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, are in talks about how the province can tap into those funds. However, British Columbia has not yet committed to the federal and international targets for protected areas.

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“We’re continuing our internal assessments of what the important areas are for British Columbia in terms of protecting biodiversity, protection of the priority at-risk areas of old growth, where there is potential irreversible loss of biodiversity, and that process is ongoing,” he said. Once that’s done, he’ll go to cabinet to determine what B.C.’s targets will be.

Canada would like to see progress by October, when the UN Biodiversity Conference meets in China. But Mr. Heyman said B.C. can’t rush to meet anyone’s deadline, because its commitments to consult with Indigenous communities come first.

That consultation is exactly what Indigenous leaders have long demanded, but it has left a heavy burden on those First Nations communities dealing with the conflict at Fairy Creek.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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