The British Columbia government announced Tuesday that it will defer the logging of 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forests for about two years while it consults with First Nations on making the protection permanent.
While some observers welcomed the step, others said it was long overdue and far short of what is necessary. At least one First Nation cautioned that it would make its own plans for what logging may occur on its traditional territory.
“People have been clear they want us to take a different approach on forestry,” said Katrine Conroy, the minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development. “We are taking action to sustain our forests for future generations.”
The total area deferred adds up to 226 times the size of the city of Vancouver, and if the deferrals are made permanent, they will affect 4,500 jobs, she said.
The announcement included a commitment to programs to support workers, communities and First Nations, though Conroy said details including funding will be announced later.
Conroy said that while some Indigenous nations want more old growth on their traditional territories protected from logging, others have said that on their territories they believe there’s already enough protected.
“We have to have those conversations with Indigenous nations, and that’s what the two-year framework is, [to] give us time to do that, give them time to do the Integrated Landscape Management plan that they want to do,” she said.
The announcement follows the 2020 report A New Future for Old Forests: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems by senior professional foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorley.
In the report, they made 14 recommendations that would totally overhaul the management of old-growth forests, starting with grounding the system in a government-to-government framework involving both the provincial and Indigenous governments.
One of their recommendations was “until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.”
In June, the government appointed a five-member technical advisory panel that included Merkel and independent forest scientists to identify those areas. Today’s announcement included the release of eight maps based on their work.
To be considered old growth in B.C., a forest on the coast would have trees at least 250 years old and in the Interior at least 140 years old.
Background materials say that of the 56.2 million hectares of forest in B.C., 11.1 million hectares is old growth, which is almost 20 per cent below the figure the government had been using in recent years and that was still on the province’s website Tuesday morning.
The old growth includes 6.2 million hectares of what it calls “big-tree old growth,” 800,000 hectares of “rare old growth” and 600,000 hectares of “ancient old growth.”
The proposal is to defer logging of all the rare and ancient old growth and of 1.7 million hectares of the big-tree old growth. Another 2.6 million hectares of old growth in those categories is already protected.
According to the government’s press release, “The Province is requesting that First Nations indicate within the next 30 days whether or not they support the deferrals, require further engagement to incorporate local and Indigenous knowledge, or would prefer to discuss deferrals through existing treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.”
It said there is funding of $12.69 million available over three years to support the process. The process will include opportunities to refine the maps by adding areas that should have been included and removing ones that should not have been.
The province will also immediately stop advertising and selling BC Timber Sales in the areas identified for deferrals.
BC Green Party Leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau said in a prepared statement that the deferral announcement “is an essential and overdue first step” more than 18 months after government received the Old Growth Strategic Review report.
“Government is acknowledging previous miscalculations of B.C.’s old-growth inventory and moving forward on the basis of science, and this is a good start,” said Furstenau, noting the Green Party has been calling for action on old growth for years.
“Deferrals are important, but they must be paired with significant funding and informed by a long-term vision for the paradigm shift that is necessary if we are going to truly manage forests for ecosystem health in B.C.,” she said. “Questions remain about funding for transition programs, and there is a lack of clarity on how these deferrals will lead to meaningful protection for forests and communities.”
Her colleague Adam Olsen, the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, criticized the government for failing to properly consult First Nations prior to the deferrals announcement.
“Now they’re giving them 30 days to indicate whether or not they support deferrals,” said Olsen, who is also a member of Tsartlip First Nation. “I’m relieved to see funding tied to this tight timeline, but so far, First Nations have been very clear that they do not feel adequately heard on forest management in this province.”
The Huu-ay-aht First Nations released a statement saying that while it will review and consider the recommendations of the technical advisory panel, it will make decisions about what happens within its ḥahuułi or traditional territory on southern Vancouver Island based on its own integrated resource management planning process that’s now underway.
“As a Modern Treaty Nation, Huu-ay-aht will decide what is best for our people,” the statement said. “Our citizens have a constitutionally protected right to manage and benefit from our lands, waters and resources throughout our ḥahuułi.”
Torrance Coste, the national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, welcomed the effort to inventory the province’s old-growth forests, but criticized the lack of concrete action and slow pace of change.
“We’re frustrated,” Coste said. “The intentions are good but it’s late in the day for good intentions.” The government is talking about a “seismic shift” in forest policy, but is moving too slowly to reflect that urgency, he said.
“The reality is the most important old growth that was standing in B.C. isn’t on the maps because it’s already gone,” Coste said.
According to the government, about 55,000 hectares of old-growth forest in the province is logged each year.
The Wilderness Committee wanted to see blanket deferrals on old-growth logging and immediate compensation for those affected, he said. The 2.6 million hectares deferred should be the minimum protected, not the maximum, he said.
“At the end of the day, we’re still cutting down thousand-year-old trees for money in a climate crisis,” he said, adding nobody will be logging old-growth forests in the future and the government needs to show courage and keep the promises it has made.
Jens Wieting, the senior forest and climate campaigner at Sierra Club BC, said in a statement that the newly released maps are significant.
“The work by the technical advisory panel shared today by the B.C. government shows the province’s ecological emergency in unprecedented detail and pinpoints which old-growth forests need immediate interim protection,” he said.
“Despite delays, it’s not too late to use this new mapping to stop the ongoing destruction of the most at-risk old-growth forests and implement the paradigm shift towards ecological integrity while respecting Indigenous jurisdiction.”
Asked about the delay between the release of the report and making the deferrals, Minister Conroy said it was important to get the change right for forests, Indigenous nations, communities and workers. “The last thing I would want to do is do this quickly and not have it done properly.”
Merkel, who was present with Conroy at the announcement, said he was grateful the government is acting on the report he and Gorley wrote. “It’s an exciting and scary time,” he said.
Old growth is forest that has reached a state where it is relatively stable, Merkel said. It is complex and biodiverse and not just about old trees, but ecosystems that are 10,000 years old or more. While trees might regrow after logging, in a time of climate change the ecosystem that supports those trees might never recover, he said.
Adding that there’s a long tradition of forestry in the province and it is a part of many people’s psyche, he acknowledged that making a large systemic change is challenging. “Deferrals are the first step on this path,” he said.
Doing it alongside the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and during a global pandemic adds to the challenge, Merkel said.