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BC's New Forest Rules: A Small Word Change May Be Big for Saving Trees

Advocates applaud a key legislative change, but call for faster action to protect biodiversity.

Zoë Yunker 17 Feb 2023The Tyee

Zoë Yunker is a Victoria-based journalist writing about energy and environmental politics. Follow her on Twitter @zoeyunker.

B.C. announced this week that it would scrap an infamous clause embedded in B.C.’s forest rules often recognized as a barrier to protecting forests and their biodiversity.

The clause, written into B.C.’s Forest Range and Practices Act, says that ecological values like wildlife protection can only be included in forest planning if they don’t “unduly reduce the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.” For the most part, that means they can’t impede logging.

The announcement comes as part of the province’s stated intentions to transition B.C.’s forestry sector away from the industry-led model to one that better prioritizes First Nations, ecosystems and communities.

“After decades of short-term and transactional thinking we're making significant changes in our approach to forestry in this province,” Premier David Eby said in Victoria on Wednesday.

Government also announced new funding commitments for value-added logging, and announced that it would triple the number of forest landscape planning tables — a new type of forestry planning process introduced in 2021 — to 12 from four.

Eby’s new government faces pressure on forest protections. Next week marks the conclusion of his 100-day plan, which promised accelerated action on old growth.

Next weekend, the United For Old Growth rally at the B.C. legislature in Victoria will call on the province to implement the recommendations from the Old Growth Strategic Review. Almost three years after the review was released, these recommendations remain incomplete.

“I don't think that people planning to attend that rally would look at this announcement and suddenly feel like they didn't need to protest,” said Tegan Hansen, a senior forest campaigner at Stand.earth.

Hansen is among other advocates who support cutting the unduly clause, but question whether the move — and other commitments made during the announcement — will provide immediate relief to at-risk old-growth ecosystems.

The clause has “been a significant barrier to doing anything but logging in the forest,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee. “But the significance of this on the timescale that's most urgent — which is right away — is very limited.”

President and CEO of the BC Council of Forest Industries, Linda Coady, said Wednesday’s announcement would have impacts on the industry, but that it signalled a step forward regardless. “We've got to be able to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the opportunities that come out of this,” she said. “I think that what's been announced today will help those forward discussions on all of these issues.”

‘A stick in the mud for us’

The “unduly” clause was first codified during the era of forest deregulation ushered in by the BC Liberals when they wrote the 2004 Forest Range and Practices Act.

The clause itself wasn’t the source of the problem, said Garry Merkel, independent coach and mentor for the Old Growth Strategic Review and member of the Tahltan Nation, but it inscribed and solidified the already prevailing logic around forests into law. “It was policy before then,” he said. “The whole thing was about timber supply.”

Under the act, logging companies told the government how they intended to log their licenses through mandated forest stewardship plans. Ecological objectives like biodiversity and wildlife management could be taken into consideration when the government signed off on those plans, but the clause meant that those concerns could only impact forests insofar as they didn’t “unduly” impact the province’s timber supply.

In policy interpreting the regulation, the province often considered the term “unduly” to mean that any action to protect values like wildlife could only impact up to one per cent of the timber harvesting land base.

And that one per cent shrinks even smaller as forests are logged. So, for each forest district, if 80 per cent of the forest has been logged, the province can only set aside around one per cent of the remaining 20 per cent that’s left.

“It is something that has always been a stick in the mud for us,” said Sarah Korpan, legislative affairs specialist with Ecojustice. “It’s been a symbol of how our forest management regime is set up and set up to prioritize logging over any type of ecosystem protection.”

But the practical, immediate impacts of scrapping the law remain unclear.

That’s because the province is gradually replacing forest stewardship plans with forest landscape plans, a new type of forestry planning process between the province in partnership with Indigenous nations and in collaboration with industry and the public in an attempt to move away from the industry-led logging underway for decades.

Putting the “unduly” clause in the rearview is a critical step to help those plans protect forest ecosystems going forward, said Merkel.

So far, the province has 1,100 forest stewardship plans, and only 12 pilot forest landscape plans initiated.

For now, that leaves the vast majority of forest stewardship plans crafted with the “unduly” clause in place.

“We wouldn't be able to require that those be amended immediately,” said Forest Minister Bruce Ralston, citing time for consultation requirements for First Nations. “Companies will need to ensure that they comply with the amended regulations when their plans come up for renewal, or if they are developing a new plan.”

The plans last for five years, with potential extension up to five years after that. Once they expire the government will move all plans to the new forest landscape planning process.

The impacts of removing the clause “will definitely take five to 10 years to roll out,” said Sean Nixon, staff lawyer with Ecojustice.

There is a potential path for the removal of the unduly clause to have a more near-term effect. Korpan suggested that removing similar “unduly” language in other regulations, such as the Government Actions Regulation, could provide the province a wider latitude to set aside habitat areas or old-growth management areas, but Korpan notes these designations remain filled with “regulatory loopholes” in favour of industry.

Merkel says the clause’s power is more symbolic than practical. “We almost never use it," he said. “We have no way to really track it,” he added, noting that it’s difficult to determine what kind of activity truly constitutes a quantity of impact on the landbase.

But he supports removing the clause as a symbol for the changes ahead. “The spirit of it is the problem more than the actual application,” he said.

During the announcement, Ralston said logging companies might take the hint. “I think progressive companies will take this upon themselves, regardless of the absence of any legal requirements to begin taking steps in that direction,” he said.

But Ecojustice’s Korpan says this leaves too much up in the air.

“Tweaking [the Forest Range and Practices Act] is great,” she said. “But the tweaks don't really get to the heart of the issue, which is that our current forest management regime, especially the legal framework, was created for and by the industry.”

Korpan is among those calling for the government to enact a law which would legally codify biodiversity as a priority for all sectors. This recommendation was also put forward by the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel.

Without more legal or regulatory teeth, the province’s new landscape planning process could continue with the logging-first agenda, said Korpan. That’s because the new process “does not explicitly say that biodiversity must be prioritized,” she said.

“We just need to see the government doing more to inject that paradigm shift into the things that they're currently doing while we wait for that bigger piece, which is the biodiversity law,” she added.

Minister Ralston indicated that a law on biodiversity isn’t on the way anytime soon. “I don't think that's on the agenda at this point,” he said.

But Merkel notes the province is talking about establishing a declaration on biodiversity in the coming months, which could provide a framework for new legislation down the road. Moving too quickly and unilaterally on the declaration or the legislation could undermine buy-ins from the public, nations and industry, he cautioned.

“This is about setting a foundation that people can't take apart,” he said.

‘That's not the way of the world anymore’

Jeff Bromley, chair of the United Steelworkers Wood Council, understands scrapping the “unduly” clause and the impetus behind it.

“I understand looking at it from a different point of view, rather than always timber harvesting first or timber supply first and foremost. That's not the way of the world anymore,” he said.

“But between this point and the point they want to get to, how many of my members lose their jobs? That's what I worry about.”

Wednesday’s announcement came with funding commitments to support industry transition. That includes an additional $90 million for a manufacturing jobs fund to support forestry companies to do things like retool mills for value-added products. It also put $10 million into a silviculture innovation program housed at the Bulkley Valley Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management.

Bromley supports those investments in principle, but adds that the jobs in the value-added sector tend to pay less, and are often not unionized.

“There's a dynamic here that people aren’t talking about,” he said. “You talk about jobs, but not a lot of people are going work at them if they’re making enough to support their families.”

Government also announced that in the coming months it would develop a new conservation finance mechanism “by attracting private and philanthropic funds” to support conservation measures aligned with the interests of First Nations, and $2.4 million for the First Nations Forestry Council.

‘A good future that is being jeopardized in the meantime’

As discussions continue, Coste is concerned that ongoing old-growth logging could undermine the systemic changes on the horizon.

That includes logging in areas slated for deferral by the technical advisory panel.

“The removal of the ‘unduly’ language, the investment in starting to build a sustainable second growth forest industry — that's all encouraging,” he said. “But that makes the lack of immediate measures more disappointing, because there's actually a good future that is being jeopardized in the meantime.”

On Wednesday the province confirmed 11,600 hectares of at-risk old growth had been logged within areas slated for deferral since November 2021. The province didn’t indicate whether it would replace already-logged deferral areas with new forests.

But Coste points out that the government refuses to indicate the inverse number — how many cutblocks would have been logged if not for deferrals. That’s a concern, because many of the slated deferral areas didn’t overlap with cutblocks at all. Only a small fraction of the total 2.6 million hectares of deferral areas — 48,000 hectares — overlapped with current cutting permits. And some of the slated deferrals had been logged before they were established.

“If the deferral process has stopped less logging than it has allowed in that most at-risk category they need to be transparent about that,” he said.

The province did not respond to The Tyee's request for comment by publication time.

According to a release from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Stand.earth, the province has still not provided full support to ensure deferrals are economically viable for First Nations considering them in their territories.

Meanwhile, the technical advisory panel identified 5 million unprotected hectares of at-risk old growth across the province. The vast majority still remains open for logging.

Merkel is cognizant of the dangers of talk-and-log, but he stays hopeful about the path ahead.

“This is a big friggin’ job,” he said. “Because every system that we built is built on the old paradigm. You can't just shut it off today and turn a new one on,” he said.

“But incrementally, we're changing the system. Completely.”  [Tyee]

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