For the first time in recent memory, old-growth forests were discussed in a televised B.C. election debate.
Green Leader Sonia Furstenau raised the issue in a question to NDP Leader John Horgan, reflecting the growing public conversation about old-growth in this province.
Responding to years of advocacy, the last government struck an independent panel to review B.C.’s old-growth management. It then released the report 10 days before Horgan called this election.
Environmental and First Nations advocacy organizations have praised the report and its 14 recommendations. It calls for a total paradigm shift on protecting old-growth forests.
The Horgan government’s response to the report before the election was a measly two-year deferral in areas that don’t even contain much productive old growth and a whole lot of vague half-promises.
Then Horgan called the election. The NDP released its platform first with a commitment to “implement recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review to protect further old-growth stands.”
On the debate stage, Horgan insisted that all forests ultimately belong to First Nations. His government has stressed the importance of protecting forests in concert with Indigenous people. Forest Ministry staff have stated that new protections for old growth won’t move ahead without Indigenous sign-off.
This is all excellent, and it’s the standard that Horgan’s government should apply across the board, not just for conserving forests. Indigenous free, prior and informed consent must be required for logging too, but the permits and forestry plans under which non-renewable old growth is being logged now don’t meet this standard.
The government must expedite engagement with Indigenous communities, proactively seek direction around protecting critical forests within their territories and commit funding to this process and the costs of setting forests aside and investing in alternative economic opportunities.
It must also reach out to forest sector unions and workers to ensure any workers who are impacted by halts to cutting and road-building permits in critical areas are protected. Transition plans for positions dependent on old growth must be developed alongside permanent forest protections.
Pressure is rising. Bodies like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs have called on the government to fully implement all 14 recommendations. Blockades around the threatened Fairy Creek watershed in unceded Pacheedaht Territory (and Horgan’s riding) entered their third month midway through the campaign.
Then last week on the campaign trail, Horgan promised to implement “the report in its totality.” He further said, “Many of the old-growth stands on Vancouver Island are worth way more standing up than they are on the back of a truck.” This week his party made a more detailed commitment for a “paradigm shift” and to “act on all 14 recommendations.”
Any government serious about ensuring the survival of non-renewable old-growth ecosystems, rebuilding public trust in forest management and advancing reconciliation needs to implement the 14 recommendations.
If re-elected for a second term as a progressive leader, Horgan needs to realize that this promise has a firm expiry date.
Every single day that passes, the amount of old growth in B.C. is reduced by the logging industry. And despite stating otherwise in both his party’s platform and his debate response to Furstenau, Horgan’s government hasn’t protected anything since receiving the report — the 353,000 hectares he’s celebrated aren’t permanently saved, logging is just deferred until Aug. 31, 2022. Again, the vast majority of these areas are high-elevation, lower productivity forests, previously logged areas or areas already protected.
The best, most crucial ancient forest, the kind you picture when you close your eyes and think of old growth, is being clear cut logged today. Immediate steps to implement the panel’s recommendations, including legislation, are required this fall. Not next fall, indeed not post-COVID.
A paradigm shift in forestry is also a chance to build back better required by the pandemic recovery. This is a perfect opportunity to reorganize and restructure the forest industry around renewable forests and shift entirely to the kind of forestry that can support a sustainable, resilient economy.
Only the John Horgan of 2020 or 2021 will be able to keep the promises he made last week — by 2022 or 2023 and beyond, much of the forests the report suggests taking action on will probably be gone.
Bold, aggressive mandate letters and clear direction to ministry staff to move swiftly and decisively to engage with First Nations and put holds on logging in forests that won’t be here by Easter are needed. This has to be on the agenda, no later than November.
Horgan and his NDP government could be a leader in protecting old-growth forests, but only with immediate action.