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In February, the government unveiled plans to protect about 70,000 hectares of forestry habitat suitable for an endangered seabird, the marbled murrelet, and more than 30,000 hectares of breeding areas for an at-risk raptor, the northern goshawk (pictured), along the B.C. coast.

Caitlin Blewett/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government has launched another round of talks on the future of the province’s old-growth forests. While they talk, logging those forests continues apace.

This is what the conservationists, who have already participated in extensive consultations with the government, describe as “log and talk."

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson has been talking-while-logging for some time already. In January, he sought submissions from stakeholders in response to a government discussion paper on improving the province’s forestry regime. The responses were due last summer, which is when he appointed an old-growth strategic review panel to carry out more consultations.

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In an interview, Mr. Donaldson says it’s not all talk.

In February, the government unveiled plans to protect about 70,000 hectares of forestry habitat suitable for an endangered seabird, the marbled murrelet, and more than 30,000 hectares of breeding areas for an at-risk raptor, the northern goshawk, along the B.C. coast. Mr. Donaldson announced in the summer the protection of 54 big trees – each surrounded by a soccer-pitch-sized grove of other trees to help their stability. And his ministry is working on amendments to the Forest and Range Practices Act, which governs resource-based activities on Crown land in B.C. The amendments will incorporate some of the advice from the 28 conservation groups that made a formal, joint submission, he said.

But what those groups want would be a dramatic shift in the way B.C.'s forests are managed. They argue that climate change demands a new approach, and mature forests, left intact, are more resilient and can best protect biodiversity and watersheds for people and for nature.

Mr. Donaldson, who is already facing intense pressure over the loss of forestry jobs during his tenure, is seeking more public input. His independent panel began its work late in October, asking British Columbians about how to manage old-growth forests. Recommendations are due next spring. Any legislative changes resulting from that process would not be made at least until the fall of 2020.

In the meantime, the province continues to approve logging of old growth at roughly the same rate as the former Liberal government. Last week, the province increased the annual allowable cut in a section of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests that environmentalists view as dangerously rare.

The conservation group Sierra Club BC estimates that about 20 per cent of Vancouver Island’s original productive old-growth forests – those big trees that are of greatest value to the logging industry – remain standing.

The government insists the picture is not so grim, but both sides define old growth differently. The province suggests there is plenty of old growth left: 13.2 million hectares, provincewide. According to the ministry of forests, the forest industry cuts just more than 200,000 hectares forest land every year, and of that, 27 per cent comes from old growth.

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But a series of soccer-pitch-sized stands of trees does not an intact ecosystem make. A policy for old growth will need to determine just what scale of protection is needed as B.C. prepares for a changing climate.

“We have seen tinkering around the edges for the past two years,” said Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC’s forest and climate campaigner. He says he does not think B.C. needs more studies, it needs to take action now.

While conservationists are trying to persuade the government that B.C.'s remaining old-growth forests are key to holding the line in a climate and extinction crisis, those old giants are still prized by forestry companies that have not adapted their mills to processing second-growth trees.

Mr. Donaldson has to walk a line between conservation values and the demands that he maintain forestry jobs in a sector that is struggling. U.S. trade wars are part of the challenge, but climate change has also dealt a heavy blow to the sector, from the ravages of the mountain pine beetle that thrived in mild winters, to the unprecedented wildfires that swept across a parched landscape in recent years.

It’s a tough line to walk. He comes from a remote rural community where those changes are being felt acutely.

“I [have an] understanding of how dependent communities are upon the health of the ecosystems that surround them including the health of the forest,” he said, “and at the same time, the need to derive economic benefits from all kinds of resources that are held within the forest, including the trees.”

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He promised “significant changes” are coming in the spring legislative session.

Mr. Wieting said he’d like to believe that. "Those amendments will show whether this government is serious about making the changes needed for the most endangered ecosystems, the most endangered species – or if they are continuing to tinker around the edges.”

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