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The stump of what is said to have been a 800-year-old redcedar that was cut down near the entrance of Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park on Vancovuer Island, B.C. photographed on May 5, 2012.Torrance Coste/The Canadian Press

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Conservationist Torrance Coste counts the rings of what remains of an 800 year-old redcedar at Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park on Vancouver Island on June 21, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In 2012, conservationists offered a reward for information that would lead to a conviction in the theft of a giant – an 800-year-Western redcedar poached from British Columbia’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

The case was never closed, but it did draw international attention to logging – both legal and illegal – in B.C.’s increasingly rare ancient forests.

Torrance Coste, one of the conservationists who helped expose the theft in Carmanah Walbran, is exasperated by the pace of change. Poaching has continued unabated, and policy makers have until now done little to slow the legal harvest either.

With the right equipment, a tree that has been growing for 800 years can be felled and loaded onto a logging truck in the blink of an eye. Such trees are not renewable – B.C.’s reforestation programs cannot replace an intact old-growth forest and the complex ecosystems they play host to. It would be the 29th century before that tree poached in 2012 – almost three metres across and 50 metres tall – could be replicated.

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Conservationist Torrance Coste takes a photo of what remains of an 800 year-old redcedar at Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park on Vancouver Island on June 21, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Which is why the provincial government is promising to lead a “paradigm shift”: the recognition that the value of old-growth trees left standing can be far greater than the value of those trees as timber products.

Prosecutions for poaching are rare

Forest crimes in B.C. are mostly handled with administrative penalties rather than criminal prosecutions. The province handed out more than 300 tickets and $700,000 in penalties for timber theft or destruction over the past five years. Constable Darcy Harms of the RCMP’s forest crimes unit says the Carmanah Walbran case was left in the hands of a provincial regulatory agency because a criminal prosecution was unlikely.

His unit is attached to the RCMP’s major crimes section in Surrey and has been around since the 1970s. But today it is a one-person operation, and most of his work involves outreach and consulting with other agencies because B.C.’s byzantine regulatory regime makes it difficult to identify, much less prosecute, forest crimes. “British Columbia is unique – there isn’t another province that has the sheer volume of regulations,” Constable Harms said. A lot of his time is spent helping other agencies determine when a forest crime has occurred.

“Just like in any other crime, there are different levels of players involved. You have the guys just out there stealing firewood,” he said. That’s the low end of the spectrum. There are more sophisticated operators who might take a large cedar and turn it into blocks to be processed into roofing shakes. There are the ones who have self-loading logging trucks, equipped to take larger hauls.

“And then there is the fraud where you have players in the industry defrauding the government, changing timber marks or stealing large quantities or just taking small quantities off each truckload – and when you have 1,000 truckloads, now you are looking at half a million dollars or more.”

The legal harvest redefined

This fall, an independent panel that studied how the province manages its old-growth forests submitted 14 recommendations. Just weeks before the fall election, the government implemented a key one: It deferred logging in nine areas throughout the province, almost 353,000 hectares in all, while it consults with stakeholders about its next steps.

During the election campaign, NDP Leader John Horgan vowed to adopt all 14 recommendations by panel members Garry Merkel and Al Gorley. “This means recognizing that forests are unique, irreplaceable and complicated ecosystems,” Mr. Horgan said at the time. “That they have their own intrinsic value and that we should prioritize their overall ecosystem health, rather than just the value of standing timber.”

Now that his party has secured a majority government, the question is: What happens next?

The Premier’s promised changes will take years to implement. The forest sector remains an important part of the provincial economy, and despite years of promising to focus on value-added manufacturing, big, trees remain a valuable part of the harvest.

Susan Yurkovich, head of the Council of Forest Industries, says the commitment to conservation is great – as long as the province doesn’t turn its back on the jobs and economic opportunities provided by forestry. “It’s our view that it’s in all British Columbians’ interest that the outcome of this review is a balanced, provincewide strategy for not only old-growth but all of B.C.’s forests.”

Minister of Forests Katrine Conroy said in an interview that it would take three years to put the recommendations into action. But until she has completed the wide-ranging consultations with Indigenous communities, unions, environmentalists and the forest industry, she can’t really say what it will all look like.

“The status quo is unacceptable. Both economically and when it comes to the biodiversity, it is not acceptable, and we need to look at how can we move forward in a better way,” Ms. Conroy said. “We need to log sustainably, but forestry is going to be with us for a long time.”

Mr. Merkel is a member of the Tahltan Nation in northwestern B.C. and a registered professional forester. As one of the authors of the old-growth strategic review, he acknowledges that the necessary changes won’t happen easily or quickly.

“What we’re proposing is a significant shift – not just for the forest sector, this is for society. It’s a big shift. And that won’t happen overnight. People cannot become enlightened overnight,” he said in an interview.

A dwindling resource

Legal or illegal, the harvest of old-growth trees in B.C. involves an increasingly rare commodity.

The province estimates there are 13.2 million hectares of forests left, but only a small portion of that contains the centuries-trees that conservationists want protected from commercial harvesting.

Veridian Ecological Consulting, which counts the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development among its clients, produced a study last spring of just how much of B.C.’s stock of large, old-growth habitat remains intact.

“Productive forests are naturally rare in B.C.,” the researchers noted. Sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3 per cent of the province, and that has dwindled considerably from intense harvesting. “These ecosystems are effectively the white rhino of old-growth forests. They are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging,” the report concludes.

The province will begin the consultation process next year. In the meantime, logging will largely continue as it has.

“There are thousands of stumps that size that get made every day, just on Vancouver Island, legally,” said Mr. Coste, the national campaign director of the Wilderness Committee, referring to the Carmanah Walbran tree.

“When it’s done illegally, it’s really seen as this huge, scandalous story. But when it happens legally at a much greater scale, to me, it’s the bigger crime.”

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