As soon as the British Columbia government released what Premier John Horgan said was a new vision for forestry in the province, critics panned it as a status quo document that fails to protect any more old growth.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking, frankly,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee advocacy group. “They don’t want to take meaningful action because they’re worried about the consequences of it.”
The 28-page paper “Modernizing Forest Policy in British Columbia: Setting the Intention and Leading the Forest Sector Transition” sets out 20 “policy intentions,” many of which have been talked about for decades.
“Our forests are foundational to our economy and a way of life for British Columbians,” it said. “B.C.’s forestry policy framework, put in place nearly two decades ago, is inadequate to address today’s challenges.”
It includes policies aimed at redistributing forest tenure as a step towards diversifying the ownership of companies in the sector, particularly with an eye to increasing Indigenous participation. Other policies are aimed at improving the oversight over log exports, using managed burns and giving the forests minister and government more discretion over certain decisions.
There’s a policy to “Promote the use of wood and mass timber,” one to “Strengthen compliance and enforcement” and another to “Protect good jobs.”
Coste said that on a first read there’s little to object to in the government’s policy intentions themselves. “On the surface they look OK.”
They are not, however, what’s needed at a time when public trust in the government’s forest policy is fragile and many are outraged by the continuing logging of old-growth forests, he said.
A dispute around Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew on southern Vancouver Island continues to escalate. As of Monday, RCMP officers had arrested at least 140 people while enforcing an injunction against blocking logging and road-building in Tree Farm Licence 46, where Teal-Jones Group is the licence holder.
It’s out of touch for the government to suggest that more talk and consultation is what’s needed now, Coste said. “This is broken record territory. It’s talk and log.”
Presenting the intentions paper, Horgan said a new vision is needed because B.C.’s forest laws are inconsistent with the province’s situation today.
B.C.’s forests are publicly owned, and older policies didn’t provide the most benefits to the most people, he said, adding that many forest-dependent communities continue to struggle despite the high prices for lumber during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The direction is based on what the government has heard over four rounds of engagement and consultation in recent years with Indigenous governments, industry, labour, environmental groups and the public, Horgan said.
“We need to make sure the devastating impacts of climate change on our forests are addressed,” he said, and stressed that the government is continuing to collaborate with First Nations and other stakeholders to protect biodiversity.
At the same time, many people make their living through forestry, Horgan said. “We need to be conscious that the direct income of 50,000 people depend on forests.”
Key to the vision is an unwillingness to dictate to First Nations, many of which are involved in the industry, what they can do on their territory, he said. “I know British Columbians want to turn the page on our colonial past.”
Critics including Coste have pointed out that the government appears to be much quicker to respect the rights of Indigenous people when they want to log on their territory than it is when their wishes are at odds with the industry.
The Council of Forest Industries, which advocates for the industry, put out a statement quoting CEO Susan Yurkovich agreeing it was time to update B.C.’s forest policy.
“We appreciate the province’s desire to work collaboratively to ensure healthy forests, create more opportunities for Indigenous people and communities, sustain good jobs for British Columbians and deliver low carbon forest products to the world,” she said.
Aside from Horgan and Katrine Conroy, the minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development, others participating in the government’s announcement included Takla Chief John French, mill owner John Brink and United Steelworkers Wood Council chairperson Jeff Bromley.
The press release included endorsements from Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson, Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith, Union of BC Municipalities president Brian Frenkel and Truck Loggers Association executive director Bob Brash.
“I tried to be as positive as I could,” Bromley said of his participation in the event. He remains wary of what impact the government’s direction will have on USW members. “The devil’s always in the details, and right now the details haven’t been worked out.”
The USW’s members include workers for Teal-Jones who have faced blockades on their way to work in recent weeks.
“No disrespect to the protesters, but it’s all about emotion,” Bromley said. “It’s about balance and it’s about the impact deferrals have on communities and workers and the ability to make a living. That’s my emotional response.”
The BC Green Party issued a statement saying the government’s intentions paper failed to go far enough.
“People want to see this government step up and recognize the urgency of the moment we are in,” said Leader Sonia Furstenau, MLA for Cowichan Valley. “This lack of leadership betrays the trust that people put in John Horgan and the NDP when they promised to protect old growth during the 2020 election.”
Releasing the paper without concrete actions to protect ancient forests “is nothing more than a stalling tactic and a recipe for further conflict in our forests,” she said. “With a lack of any action on the ground, today’s announcement is another attempt to delay, deflect and continue the status quo of talk and log across B.C.”
In its 2020 election platform the NDP promised, “In collaboration with Indigenous leaders, labour, industry and environmental groups, we will implement recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review to protect further old-growth stands.”
That review contained 14 recommendations, including, “Until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.”
The authors did not call for a full moratorium on logging old growth and the government did defer logging in some areas, but academics and environmentalists have argued that deferrals should be put in place in more areas while discussions happen.
“Today’s announcement was an Orwellian nightmare,” said a statement from Jens Wieting, the senior forest and climate campaigner for the Sierra Club of BC.
“The outrageous claims by Premier John Horgan about how much old growth is already protected and the extent of old-growth protections enacted during his government is quickly destroying any and all remaining trust that his government is sincere about its promise to protect at-risk forests before it’s too late.”