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BC Politics

Will BC Deliver on ‘Radical’ Forest Reform?

The government is signalling a shift in resource management. Here’s one way to prove it’s real.

Andy MacKinnon 22 May 2024The Tyee

Andy MacKinnon is a retired B.C. professional forester and professional biologist who is active in lobbying governments at all levels to reform land use and resource management practices.

It’s been six months since the B.C. government released its “Draft B.C. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework” suggesting a radical and welcome shift in its approach to resource management.

The framework, from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, promises to “prioritize the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity, including the conservation and recovery of species at risk.”

The approach “will align all existing related initiatives and set the path for co-development and implementation of new policies, legislation and strategies,” the framework says.

Why radical? The statement suggests a change in overall government direction on resource management on Crown lands, one that promises to focus on ecosystem health and biodiversity.

Up to and including today, the B.C. government’s primary forestry focus has been on timber supply, and that single objective has driven land use and forest management over public lands (about 94 per cent of the province) for the last century. (Much of this land is only currently considered Crown land pending settlement of First Nations land claims.)

B.C.’s protected areas conserve nature and cultural values.

But the network of protected areas does a better job of protecting non-forested areas than protecting areas that are important for timber supply. Protected areas cover 15.4 per cent of B.C. Yet only three ecological zones have more than 20 per cent of their area protected, all of them without trees: alpine areas in southern and northern B.C., and the non-forested subalpine in B.C.’s far north. Most of the areas important for logging have less than 10 per cent of the land in protected areas.

And outside of protected areas? Since the 1950s, most of B.C. has been divided into timber supply areas and tree farm licences.

The names of these management units provide a clue as to what they’re primarily managed for. They all have allowable annual cuts (the volume of wood that can be cut each year). The long-term agreements that forest companies sign with the B.C. government state that if they don’t cut their allocated volumes, their licences can be revoked.

There’s no clause in these agreements that threatens to revoke their licences if they don’t manage sustainably for wildlife, or for water, or for biodiversity.

Forests on B.C. Crown land have been managed under the Forest and Range Practices Act and its predecessor, the Forest Practices Code. Both pieces of legislation were designed to ensure that management requirements had a minimal impact on timber supply.

You could see it in the legislation. In the Forest and Range Practices Act, for example, management of anything but timber (soils, wildlife, fish, biodiversity and community watersheds) could take place only “without unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.”

This remained in place until last year. In 2023, the B.C. government amended or removed the “unduly” clauses. This is a good step, but on its own it doesn’t really change anything — the focus on timber remains.

That’s why the “Draft B.C. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework” is such a big thing. It suggests that, for the first time in our province, forest management and land use is to be driven by something other than a timber focus.

Timber is an important value in much of B.C., as are the jobs and economic activity in communities.

But it should not be the only value determining how we use public lands owned by all British Columbians.

The current and previous provincial governments have promised changes to land use and forest management and not delivered — or at least have not delivered yet.

For example, in campaigning for B.C.’s 2017 provincial election, the NDP promised endangered species legislation; when elected, they changed their mind. And so B.C., with more species at risk than any other province or territory, remains one of the few jurisdictions in Canada without endangered species legislation.

The current government’s 2020 report “A New Future for Old Forests” and the followup government-appointed technical advisory panel recommendations are both excellent. But we’re still waiting to see some action on most of their recommendations.

Implementing the “Draft B.C. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework” will require major changes in government focus. Within resource ministries, opposition and inertia must be overcome.

And if history is the guide, change may not happen at all.

But there are some simple steps that the B.C. government, in partnership with First Nations, can take to demonstrate it’s serious about a new approach to managing public lands.

In 1998, the NDP government created a new form of tenure on Crown land — community forests. They’re a wonderful innovation allowing communities to manage their local forests in a way that the community decides.

There are now 60 community forest agreements in place in B.C.

But each community forest is allocated an allowable annual cut. This compels the community to log the forests, usually at the same rate that they’d be logged over the rest of B.C., though no community forest agreements have been cancelled for not logging their AAC.

Communities can manage local forests as they choose. So long as they log them.

If the B.C. government is serious about moving away from management based solely on a timber focus, here’s something simple and fast that it can do to demonstrate this.

The government — and First Nations partners — can announce that tomorrow, all community forest agreements will be amended to remove the clause that compels them to meet allowable annual cut commitments.

Communities could then truly decide how they want to manage their local forests. They could continue to log at current rates, if they choose, or they can log less and focus on other values (community watersheds, biodiversity, recreation, tourism) without fear of having their community forest licence revoked by the provincial government.

For those in the provincial government still focused laser-like on extracting timber, the effects of such a policy shift would be minor. Existing community forests cover less than two million hectares, and existing community forest annual allowable cuts total approximately 2.3 million cubic metres out of the provincial AAC of approximately 60 million cubic metres.

And most community forests will continue to log their forests, many at the current rate, so the effect on timber supply should be minimal.

But the effect of the provincial government moving one small, local form of tenure away from a timber focus will demonstrate that this time, it’s really serious about a shift in resource management focus.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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