Decade-old government documents show that an area being logged near Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island was identified by Ministry of Environment biologists as critical winter habitat for deer that had to be protected.
Environmental groups have been protesting the logging in recent weeks, arguing that a 40-hectare patch on Mt. Horne is an important wildlife corridor. But Island Timberlands is permitted to log there because the government took the land out of Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 44 in 2004, putting it under a private land management regime that allows the company to decide what's best for wildlife.
Government e-mails viewed by The Globe and Mail show that in 2001 and 2002, several officials in the Ministry of Environment fought to protect ungulate winter ranges, describing them as the most important habitat of its kind on Vancouver Island.
"We should be prepared to die in the trenches if designated [ungulate winter ranges] on these lands get thrown out," Doug Janz, then British Columbia's senior wildlife biologist, stated in one e-mail to ministry colleagues.
"These drainages have the best quality ungulate winter ranges and the highest use by deer anywhere," wrote Bob Cerenzia, a wildlife technician at the time. "To have these areas arbitrarily removed from Government protection has me feeling that I have wasted the last 27 yrs. of my working life in which I spent considerable time 'keeping the hounds at bay' so to speak. If we cannot ensure the retention of these critical deer winter ranges, then in my opinion, we could lose our deer populations in these drainages!"
The government went ahead with the conversion of TFL 44 lands despite the protests from staff, but ministry officials signed a letter of agreement with Weyerhaeuser, which then held the land, to continue negotiations over the winter ranges.
Mr. Cerenzia, who is now retired from government, said those talks stalled after Weyerhaeuser sold the lands to Island Timberlands. He said the amount of critical winter range left on Vancouver Island has hit rock bottom.
"We shouldn't be removing any of those regions we identified as critical winter ranges, because we don't have enough ungulate deer winter range to start with," he said. Asked what would happen if the critical winter range is cut, Mr. Cerenzia said: "I would say you'd see a drastic reduction in the amount of deer you are going to have out there."
But the logging company isn't violating any regulations, said Forest, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson.
"Island Timberlands is fully within its rights to log its private land," he said in a written statement. "There was an ungulate winter range that covered part of the private land when it [was] managed as part of Tree Farm Licence 44 … however, Island Timberlands now manages for wildlife habitat in a way that meets their needs."
Darshan Sihota, CEO of Island Timberlands, could not be reached for comment despite several calls.
Scott Fraser, the NDP MLA for the area, just outside Port Alberni, said he has talked with Mr. Sihota about the issue.
"The meeting I had with Mr. Sihota, he said 'it's our land and hey, if we were doing anything wrong the minister would have told us,'" Mr. Fraser said. He said Mr. Thomson should step in because the government's own records show the area is vital to deer, which move there to feed and shelter during the winter.
"There is science on this. This is critical habitat that should never be cut," Mr. Fraser said. "I have FOI [freedom of information documents] showing ministry staff vehemently disagreed with Island Timberlands doing anything on this land, [saying] that logging it will cause irreparable damage."
Mr. Fraser said the forest was considered a "no-go area" for decades by the two companies that previously held TFL 44, MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. and Weyerhaeuser.
But after 70,000 hectares on Vancouver Island was removed from TFL 44, the new owners, Island Timberlands, began cutting into the areas identified as ungulate winter ranges, arguing that it could do so without putting deer at risk. Of the 2,400 hectares of land designated for wildlife protection, only about 900 hectares remain unlogged.