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BC Politics

What Is New about BC’s New Democrats?

The Horgan approach to old growth is stuck in a past where everything is for sale. Why not embrace the future?

Michael M'Gonigle 28 Jun

Michael M’Gonigle initiated the successful campaign in 1983 to stop logging in the Stein River Valley, now a heritage park. As chair of Greenpeace Canada, he launched its national forests campaign. He was a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU and held the eco-research chair in environmental law and policy at UVic.

I can’t get the headline out of my head: “Coastal Logging Needs Old Growth for at Least Next Decade: Forester.”

A couple of weeks ago, it was the front-page story of the Victoria Times Colonist. This is, of course, the newspaper in the province’s capital where the NDP government of John Horgan has served up a new war in the woods.

That old-growth logging is again so big an issue in the province makes no sense. Imagine a headline in a newspaper in Rome that developers need a decade to demolish the Roman Colosseum in order to create gravel for new roadways. Absurd, of course, but the B.C. headline is actually worse. A new Italian government could always build a replica Colosseum by sourcing the same natural materials as in the existing one. However, there can be no rebuilding our low-elevation, old-growth forests once they have been cut down.

A transition away from cutting low-elevation old-growth forests should have happened years ago. Today they represent less than three per cent of what, only decades ago, constituted a vast ecological network. That it now has provoked another pitched battle with hundreds of arrests is an inexcusable political failure.

The irreversible loss of these old-growth forests represents an existential crisis, locally and globally. But Premier John Horgan has chosen business as usual, and pursued it aggressively. Undermining support for the forest protectors at Fairy Creek, he embraced, perhaps masterminded, a strategy of granting a few temporary deferrals — not permanent protections. Many of these are for areas not actually slated for logging during the deferred time period. It is not surprising that the defenders at Fairy Creek rejected this strategy as a fraud.

How are we to understand this sorry situation?

The Times Colonist headline at the top of this piece says it all: “Coastal Logging Needs Old-Growth for at Least Next Decade: Forester.” Let’s break that down.

‘Coastal Logging Needs Old Growth…’

This phrase is illuminating — it’s about what the industry needs, not what old growth needs, nor for that matter what any other interests need.

Consider some far, far larger needs. Today, natural scientists recognize the braking effects that refuges of biodiversity have on the pace of climate change. More of one means less of the other. This is not taken seriously in Victoria, however. Instead, ongoing old-growth liquidation is treated as the inevitable need of industrial forestry.

Indeed, it’s as if Christy Clark were still at the helm of government — but this time with nary a peep from within the NDP ranks. MLAs who know better are hiding in plain sight.

With what’s at stake, this inaction is inexcusable. The TC article quoted Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee decrying the government’s refusal to consider an “outright ban” that could prevent “irreversible biodiversity loss.”

However, the last word in the piece went to the industry, its representative declaring that old-growth logging must last not just for a decade but “for roughly 10 to 20 years.” Note “roughly.”

‘…for at Least Next Decade…’

What do these vague timelines mean? In reality, the stop date for industrial forestry and its corporate practitioners is open ended.

That has been the playbook for decades. After the Second World War, government set policies that gave the industry a competitive edge in the international market. High levels of old-growth logging provided that edge, supported by the lax regulation of logging practices.

If history is our guide, this approach will continue to drive decisions to the point where so few stands of old growth remain that they will be of minimal economic significance for the forest industry — and of minimal value as biodiversity reserves.

The industry’s comfortable relationship with B.C. governments over history has provided it a self-justifying defence. After all, it just follows the rules. The same arbitrary rules have given cover to politicians, as well, and the courts, again and again, enforce them. Altogether, this system and its pseudo-scientific lingo has lulled democracy to sleep.

The result today is an economic and political system on autopilot, immune to long-term planning. This is B.C.’s "political economy." But now an end point is in sight: systemic collapse. Unless thousands of independent scientists are making it all up, in the not distant future, the physical world will be unrecognizable, and for many, unlivable. B.C. will have played its part to the hilt.


The TC article drew on an interview with Garry Merkel, the forester who co-authored the province’s recent "strategic review" on old growth. Merkel is well-regarded and his review does call for an eventual phase out of old-growth logging. Yet, as a forestry insider he defers to the belief that making “big changes” in the forest industry “will take time.” Insisting on immediate protections undercuts the larger need “to manage properly,” he says, and the either/or thinking of environmentalists is “really dumbing down, frankly.”

Yet “making big changes” has been talked about since at least the advent of the last NDP government in 1991. That’s 30 years ago. And here we are being told there’s another 20 to go! What such timeless deference to the managerialism of professional forestry actually dumbs down is this: the ability to take charge of B.C.’s political economy.

Whether in industry or government, foresters have gone to the same schools, learned the same values and practices, and got the same jobs in the private and public sectors. In the 1980s, the education of foresters was almost exclusively about “harvesting” and “sustained yield.” It contemplated virtually no alternatives to an economy that relies on endless industrial extraction of limited natural resources.

This one-sided history led to huge but now largely forgotten battles between the industry and environmentalists, and between academic foresters and progressive reformers. We can see who won.

One casualty was the movement for a transition to eco-forestry, an approach that avoided massive clearcuts in favour of a selective approach. Another casualty was the incipient movement away from forestry controlled by corporations and towards management by local communities, a shift of particular relevance to rural and Indigenous communities.

582px version of JohnHorganDeferralAnnouncement.jpg
BC New Democrat Premier John Horgan announcing logging deferrals, not moratoriums, for some old-growth areas of the province on June 9, 2021. His party, when in power, has missed chances to save old growth over many decades.

The opportunities lost could have prevented today’s fight over the last few scraps of old growth in B.C. The New Democrats could have avoided their own current predicament. For example, out of the academic and activist struggles of the 1980s, huge pressure for the reform of the industrial tenures had been built up. But when the NDP took power in 1991, the industry mobilized and crushed any prospect for tenure reform. Today, nothing has changed. As the recent meeting of the BC First Nations Forestry Conference concluded, for example, today’s practices and policies do nothing to advance “reconciliation.”

The NDP is a political party whose name reflects its avowed concern to build a “new democracy.” To achieve such changes in the past, social movements actually challenged unequal power relations — the racist economy and culture behind slavery, the capitalist calculus that justified the industrial exploitation of 19th century slum-dwellers, the patriarchy that denied women the vote right into the 20th century.

Unequal relations continue to dominate today. This is most notable in the treatment of the natural world and Indigenous peoples by governments of all stripes.

And yet Horgan’s government of New Democrats shows no will to take up the struggle. It is incredible that, as biodiversity collapses globally and locally, no substantive discussion exists of what a transformation away from that inherited political economy might look like.

Where is the caucus revolt? Where are the New Democrat politicians who stand for something more than the short-term needs of capital and unthinking acceptance of commodification?

What is newly democratic about being ruled by the principle that everything everywhere has its price?

Foresters are largely trained to see forests as commodities. Fibre is to be harvested and turned into lumber and shakes and shingles. Old growth is best not because it embodies irreplaceable ecological values, but because its physical traits — tight grain, large dimension — command a price premium in the market.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Jeremy Nickel of the iconic house-moving company Nickel Brothers complained that, in central and south Vancouver — a huge swath of the city still filled with distinctive character houses — there are “literally hundreds of houses… fenced off and boarded up, awaiting demolition.” These houses, he recounts, have at least 50 years of life left in them, yet their ongoing demolition now accounts for over 40 per cent of all landfill waste. Meanwhile each replacement will require lumber from 60 to 80 trees.

Nickel’s criticism is a perfect description of the linear spectrum of commodification. At one end is the “harvest” of old-growth forests; at the other end, the trashing of established neighbourhoods. At one end is the manufacture of clear-cut landscapes; at the other, overflowing dumps. At one end are marginalized communities; at the other, rapacious urban developers. Commodification generates big profits for some, but is wildly wasteful of the world’s natural and social assets. By definition, it is unsustainable at its core.

And yet, while climate scientists give us less than a decade to prevent runaway climate change, government managers feel pressured to please an industry wanting “roughly” two decades or more to complete the liquidation of old-growth forests. How can we citizens of British Columbia live with such a profound contradiction?

Building the long community

In a previous article on logging Fairy Creek, I referred to “the long community,” — one that thrives over the long term by sustaining its own local world with which it maintains a trust relationship. Fostering such communities is a path away from commodification and its political economy.

People increasingly talk about this shift in terms of creating “circular” rather than “linear” economies, and of the role of central governments in fostering this transition. Indeed, a recent report concluded that ending old-growth logging in a 35-kilometre buffer around Port Renfrew generated more economic benefits (with minimal job losses) than the present approach.

Now if this shift sounds abstract, it is partly because most citizens have so little direct experience with it, because of the unflinching commitment to extraction and commodification as the underpinning of our economic world. As long as this persists, there can be no practical political democracy. And no truly new democrats making change in this province’s legislature.

As I write this, Teal Jones is pushing to surmount the ridge and cross over and into Fairy Creek, and begin clear cutting. But that company’s immediate goal is less about cutting timber than about decapitating both the watershed and the social mobilization that defends it.

If the company succeeds, B.C.’s governing party will be the loser. History will not look kindly on a premier and his New Democrats who failed this opportunity to pull free of the old, and initiate the transition that most everyone else knows is inevitable.

In the forest, otherworldly images beckon. Eden Grove. Fairy Creek. It is past time to heed their call.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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