Skip to main content

In April, 2020, a panel appointed by B.C.’s NDP government issued a report aimed at addressing calls for an end to the logging of ancient trees in the province.

Entitled A New Future for Old Forests, its first paragraphs explained how this issue had been flagged as a concern by successive government panels, with a report in 1992 concluding without direct action, “opportunities to reserve representative samples of old growth are dwindling rapidly.”

On Tuesday it became clear just how difficult the path to that “new future” will actually be.

Forests Minister Katrine Conroy laid out her government’s plan to address the panel’s recommendations. In the background was a sense of international urgency: Hours before Ms. Conroy spoke, the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow announced an agreement to halt and reverse the world’s deforestation by 2030.

Ms. Conroy’s plan may slow – but it will not stop – the loss of its highly productive, ancient forests. While the government said it wants a swift process to lead to a pause on logging in one-third of its old-growth forests, Indigenous groups have indicated the plan will depend on their own timelines, not the government’s. Ms. Conroy noted the province will consult individually with 204 First Nations and hopes to have their feedback within a month.

“Deferring harvest in an area this large is unprecedented and surpasses the size of 226 cities of Vancouver,” Ms. Conroy said.

The province will halt its own timber sales in the proposed deferral areas, but nothing more will happen until First Nations sign off on any deferrals within their traditional territories. It means most logging operations around the province are unchanged while the province’s promised reforms are discussed at individual tables.

As Justine Hunter reports today, the Huu-ay-aht First Nation has already signalled that it will not agree to the proposed logging deferrals in its territories until it completes its own two-year-long integrated resource management planning process.

“We’ll take the time to make an informed decision on the deferral‚” Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis, Sr. said in an interview. “It only took the immigrants that moved to Canada 150 years to wreck what we were taking care of for thousands of years. We’re stepping in to fix what was wrecked, and the best way to do that is through sustainable forestry.”

But environmentalists have criticized the government for stalling on the promised reforms with what they call a “talk and log” tactic.

“This government promised to defer logging in at-risk old-growth, not take over a year to determine what that means and then signal their intentions. Delaying deferral of what the Technical Advisory Panel has identified as at-risk old-growth means accepting irreversible biodiversity loss,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.

Meanwhile, the Council of Forest Industries estimates that the proposed deferrals would shut down between 14 and 20 sawmills, threatening 18,000 jobs.

If approved by Indigenous nations, the province will then ask forestry companies that hold the timber-cutting rights in a proposed deferral area to voluntarily suspend logging. If the tenure-holder does not agree, then the province can issue an order to rescind approved permits and prevent new permits. That order can remain in place for as long as 10 years, with no compensation to the company for the first four years.

The minister declined to answer questions about the potential financial impact of the plan, but said the province’s internal assessment predicts 4,500 job losses, if all the proposed deferrals were made permanent.

British Columbia’s forest sector cuts 55,000 hectares of old-growth trees every year – targeting the most valuable, large old trees that grow best in rich valley bottoms on the coast. A large portion of the eight proposed deferral regions are in coastal forests, although some forests in the north and the interior of the province are included.

Ecologist Rachel Holt, one of the experts retained by the province to help map out the endangered old-growth stands, has said that at the present rate of harvest, old-growth timber will begin to run out in as little as five years.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.