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A forest defender places his hand on an ancient Western Redcedar in Eden Grove part of the ever-shrinking base of ancient trees near Port Renfrew, B.C.PHOTOS BY CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s rare and ancient trees continue to vanish into sawmills at worrying rates despite the Great Bear Rainforest agreement reached with great fanfare five years ago to protect the largest coastal temperate rainforest on the planet.

The province’s NDP government, re-elected last fall with a commitment to lead a paradigm shift in forestry, is mired in planning and consultation.

“The promise of the Great Bear Rainforest was to change this broken system,” said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, a non-profit group that partners with forest-product customers – including Penguin Random House, Kimberly Clark, Scholastic and The Globe and Mail – to advance conservation.

Some of the biggest names in the print publishing world gathered for a virtual conference in early March to hear how B.C. is living up to the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. They left disappointed.

“Things are clearly substantively behind schedule,” Ms. Rycroft said. Representatives for companies partnered with Canopy “left the call with a number of questions around how the government could be clearly not fulfilling the public commitment that was made.”

The 2016 Great Bear Rainforest agreement, the product of 20 years of negotiations between environmentalists, forestry companies, Indigenous communities and the provincial government, was forged under market pressure. More than 80 companies, including Home Depot, Staples and IKEA, had been persuaded to stop selling products made from B.C.’s old-growth forests. The deal’s signing brought those customers back – with the promise that buying B.C. forestry products would help them meet their own commitments to environmental values.

British Columbia reaped international accolades for the deal, which applied to 6.4 million hectares of the coast from the north of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle.

The agreement promised to protect 85 per cent of the region’s old-growth forests, with logging in the remaining 15 per cent subject to the most stringent standards in North America. But since it was signed, more than 10 million cubic metres of timber have been harvested in the Great Bear without the enforcement mechanisms that were supposed to ensure ecosystem-based management is being applied.

An ancient stump in a clearcut area near Port Renfrew, B.C.

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

Instead of setting aside the rare and iconic big trees for protection, “there are a lot of very big stumps,” said conservation biologist Jody Holmes, an architect of the agreement.

Canopy is proposing to halt old-growth logging in the Great Bear until individual logging plans are approved – and so far, not one plan has been approved. B.C. Forests Minister Katrine Conroy, who would not provide that commitment, told those at the March meeting that progress is being made, but the issues are complex. “We have to do this right; we can’t rush this,” she said later in an interview.

Marilyn Slett is the chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, whose territory encompasses a substantial portion of the Great Bear Rainforest. “We’re not thrilled with the pace of change,” she said in an interview. The Heiltsuk want to protect old growth in their territory, and there is frustration that the targets in the agreement have fallen behind schedule. The process is overly complex, she said.

“But relationships take time, and we are in it for the long haul,” she said.

British Columbia is home to 57 million hectares of forests, but ancient, temperate rainforests are astonishingly rare. A recent study found that those highly productive, intact ecosystems make up less than 1 per cent of B.C.’s remaining forests.

In 2019, the government set up an expert panel to review the divisive issue of old-growth logging. The panel’s report was not released until last fall, and during the election campaign, the NDP promised to enact all of the panel’s recommendations.

But the timeline for these changes is also slipping, and one long-running act of civil disobedience captures the dismay with the lack of progress.

For more than 200 days, protesters have maintained a remote forest blockade against logging in a valley on Vancouver Island. Fairy Creek is part of Tree Farm Licence 46 and features increasingly rare intact stands of Western redcedar and yellow cedars, trees that are up to 800 years old.

Camp set up with all of the amenities at the Fairy Creek blockade near Port Renfrew, B.C.

Signage at the Fairy Creek blockade, where demonstrators could soon face arrest.

The Fairy Creek demonstrators could soon face arrest. An application brought by the logging company, The Teal-Jones Group, will be heard in court on March 26. The escalating conflict unfolding in Premier John Horgan’s riding underscores the gap between the Premier’s campaign commitments and the unabated harvesting of some of the biggest, oldest and most valuable trees left in the province.

Mr. Horgan says his government is moving toward a new way of practising forestry, one that sustains the biodiversity in B.C.’s ancient forests while allowing forestry companies to extract more value from the timber that is harvested. There are no shortcuts, he said.

“This is an intractable problem in British Columbia, and I believe we’ve laid the groundwork for a positive resolution, but it’s a paradigm shift in how the industry operates,” he said in an interview Friday.

“It is not my intention to see the last big tree felled – quite the contrary. “

He knows the iconic status attached to those old-growth forests, but he said big trees will continue to fall while the new rules are developed.

His party was in government in the 1990s when more than 850 people were arrested at Clayoquot Sound, a fight that was dubbed the War in the Woods. The fight to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, although waged in boardrooms, was the province’s second major land-use war.

Dallas Smith is president of the Nanwakolas Council, which represents six of the First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest, and one of the Indigenous leaders who signed the accord five years ago.

Forest defender Duncan Morrison looks at fallen trees blown over most likely by a windstorm part of the ever shrinking base of ancient trees at the Fairy Creek Blockade.

The blockades at Fairy Creek are a symptom of rising tension, he warns, because the province has been dragging its heels on reform. “To have the audacity to campaign on old growth, and then still just not do anything. ... I see the War in the Woods 3.0 coming pretty quick,” he said.

Gerrie Kotze, vice-president and CFO of The Teal-Jones Group, noted that his company consulted with local First Nations before starting its harvesting plans this year.

“Engagement and reconciliation with First Nations is core to our values,” he said in a written statement. The province already does balance conservation with economic activity, he said. “We support this balanced approach to the province’s land base, and respect that significant stands of forested lands have been set aside for conservation.”

While the blockade has halted Teal-Jones’ logging operations in Fairy Creek, the company has been logging nearby, in the Caycuse watershed.

Environmentalists are concerned.

Artist-in-Residence at the Eden Grove Protection Camp and forest advocate Jeremy Herndl works on his 6ft x 5ft oil painting of an ancient Western Redcedar in Eden Grove near Port Renfrew, B.C.

“That’s the best old-growth forest that’s been destroyed on southern Vancouver Island in the last five years, and it was planned, applied for, permitted, and logged after the government commissioned the old-growth report,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee. “Every week that we wait, there’s less and less old growth to protect.”

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