Two First Nations choose own path on old growth

Written By Fran Yanor

A year and a half after the New Democrat government recommended logging deferrals in almost 3 million hectares of B.C.’s old growth forests, two northern interior First Nations are still bristling at the “unilateral” process, saying they’ll participate in forestry management discussions, but the final decision will be theirs.

“The province … [announced] they were going to protect old growth, and with no consultation to us as First Nations, said ‘We’re going to do this, and industry can figure it out with First Nations.’ Or [the nations can] just agree to the two-year moratorium on protecting old growth until the province figures something out,” recalled Simpcw First Nation kukpi7 (chief) George Lampreau in an interview last week.

“We couldn’t support that,” he said.

Lampreau called the deferrals a “unilateral decision without our input,” and said implementing the deferrals would have potentially shut down the local cedar mill, negatively affecting the local and regional economy.

In October 2020, an independent, government-commissioned review of B.C.’s old forests made several recommendations to protect old growth, including deferring logging in forests most at-risk of irreversible biodiversity loss. The following year, a technical panel identified 2.6 million hectares of forests for deferral.

“The government just dropped this old-growth decision on us like a bomb.”

George Lampreau

Initially, the BC NDP government said it was going to engage in a government-to-government process with First Nations over the deferrals, but instead passed the issue onto nations to negotiate directly with forestry industry representatives.

“The government just dropped this old-growth decision on us like a bomb,” said Lampreau. 

“They just have to be better at how they deal with us. This is what happens when they aren’t,” he said. “We’re just going to start making decisions and being the decision-maker in our territory, and still work with government, but whether we adopt everything they want to do or not, is going to be up to us.”

First Nations want more say

“We heard this pretty consistently from First Nations that they wanted a much greater say when it came to all aspects of what was happening on the land – the conservation, or plans for logging, or other activities,” Nathan Cullen, minister of water, land and resource stewardship, said in an interview last week. “This is the general direction we’ve been taking on a lot of things.”

“The ideal place we come to [for] these solutions … is collaboratively.”

Nathan Cullen

Cullen’s ministry is largely tasked with creating new land, water and resource stewardship decision-making processes that incorporate the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and recent rights and title court decisions like the Blueberry River judgement,  along with new provincial policies like the upcoming watershed security strategy and old growth review recommendations. 

Asked if a government-to-government relationship allowed for a nation to veto a provincial directive, Cullen skirted the question.

“The ideal place we come to [for] these solutions – be they conservation or resource development – is collaboratively,” Cullen said, citing the agreements with Blueberry River and the other Treaty 8 nations, as well as, the Section 7 Agreement with Tahltan.

Industry must abide Simpcw directives

One of 17 “campfires” in the larger Secwepemc Nation, Simpcw have spent years building relationships with municipalities and industry in both the North Thompson and Robson valleys, Lampreau said. “We like to include our neighbors and the municipalities, the mayors, everyone, when we do things.” 

The nation has nearly 700 members and has pursued clean energy business concepts, and forged economically progressive partnerships with forestry and natural gas companies. They own a timber company, a hardware store and have acquired forest tenure; they operate a wildfire response unit and run the highly successful Simpcw Resources Group, among other enterprises.  

Simpcw First Nation territory spans 5 million hectares and overlaps with several other nations in B.C. and Alberta. [Map courtesy of Simpcw First Nation]

Implementing the old growth logging deferrals as recommended by the B.C. government would have immediately impacted band member jobs and the operations of their trading partners in the region, said Lampreau. Instead, the nation developed its own process – based on its own values and directives – industry must follow when working in their territory. 

“Those directives are water, medicine, cultural use, wildlife, archaeological sites and our people. With water being the highest one,” Lampreau said, explaining some of the standards industry have to maintain in his nation exceed provincial criteria, such as the size of buffers around waterways. 

“I’ve seen a lot of practices on the land – because I’m out there a lot. I don’t just sit in an office or you know, sit in meetings all day, I’m very active and out on the land – and I see what industry is doing and what they’re able to get away through the poor practices now. We put standards in place that industry is following … because they see the direction we’re going in with the effects of climate change,” he said.

“We’re not going to wait for legislation to put those in place.”

Actual deferrals may exceed recommendations

So far, most of the B.C.’s First Nations have engaged in the deferral process, although many have yet to make final decisions. About 1 million of the original 2.6 million hectares identified for protection has been deferred by nations and an additional 1 million hectares that wasn’t mapped, has also been deferred, according to the forests ministry.

Many nations are still assessing their forests and comparing the areas mapped by the province with the “ground truth” in their territories, said Garry Merkel, a registered forester from Tahltan Nation and old growth review co-author. Because the panel had to rely on government data that was in some cases out-of-date or not confirmed by ground surveys, some forests identified as old growth are young, and vice versa – an occurrence, the panel anticipated – resulting in nations rejecting or adding to the original deferrals.

Merkel said the exact amount of old growth ultimately deferred isn’t as important as honouring the spirit of the recommendation – to save ecosystems at highest risk of irreversible biodiversity loss. He estimates nations will end up deferring even more forests than originally recommended.

‘We’re taking control of our forests’

Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, whose territory claim overlaps with the Simpcw and a few other nations, is still considering what to do about the old forests identified for deferral within its territory, said chief Dolleen Logan. Some will probably be implemented, others need further study. “We have to review them and go through them with our team,” she said.

Shortly after the B.C. government issued its recommendations for old growth deferrals in 2021, the Lheidli put out a declaration that all resource development on their land had to come through them. 

“We’re taking control of our forests, and our lands, and our territory,” Logan said, adding that having final say over all decisions in their territory is a long-term goal.

“We would prefer final veto. But we’ll have to work [on] partnerships until we get to absolute control over our territory. This is just the start. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be years in the process, but we would love to be able to have total veto over what goes on in our territory.”

“It’s going to be years in the process, but we would love to be able to have total veto.”

Dolleen Logan

Until then, Lheidli welcome collaboration with other governments, said Logan. “We work well with the governments. That’s the key, right, is working together.”  

Lheidli are working with several nearby First Nations as well, including the Saik’uz, Nazko, and Mcleod Lake Indian Band, Logan said. 

Lheidli T’enneh First Nation territory includes the Robson Valley, the Prince George area, and overlaps with several nations, including Simpcw. [Map courtesy of Lheidli T’enneh First Nation]

Simpcw and Lheidli are in the process of signing an MOU to clarify territorial boundaries, shared areas and who takes the lead on what area or watershed, according to Lampreau. 

“If [other nations] have watersheds that need to be protected, everyone would be on board for that,” Logan said offering an example of possible cross-nation collaboration. 

“It took us years. But look what we did to the ancient forest. It’s protected now,” she said.

Interconnected old growth forestry industry

Unlike smaller, more isolated, or less affluent nations, both the Simpcw and Lheidli enjoy the advantage of prosperous operations on huge, resource-rich territories. 

In fact, when old growth deferral areas were identified in the Valemount Community Forest Company tenure and the organization was asked to stop logging, management reached out to Simpcw for advice, said mayor Owen Torgerson.

“We’re in a predominantly old-growth area. A lot of interior cedar, hemlock stands here. Right from Barriere to McBride. That’s a huge area for deferrals,” said Torgerson.

“We had contractual obligations to local manufacturers, to intra-regional manufacturers, to harvesters, and other specialized commercial thinning operations. We had all these obligations,” he said. “Not going into these deferral areas was not an option.”

“Not going into these deferral areas was not an option.”

Owen Torgerson

Most of the 15 businesses in Valemount’s industrial park are fibre-dependent, with significant trade occurring between them and other businesses across the region. Intra-regional trade is so efficient, 98 per cent of cedar trees felled in the village’s community forest operations are utilized and it is all selectively logged, said Torgerson.

The regional forestry sector supports upwards of 400 value-added jobs in logging, small-scale mills, manufacturers and contractors transporting raw and finished products as far as the B.C. coast and into the United States, he said, adding any shut down of logging among the trading partners would affect the whole region.

Unwilling to let operations idle, Torgerson said the community forest reached out to Simpcw for advice, with an unexpected result: “It actually got industry, communities, indigenous leaders in the same room having a chat about what the future of forestry might look like.”

Protecting intact valleys

For decades, Roy Howard, with the Dunster-based Fraser Headwaters Alliance, has been advocating to protect several undeveloped valleys in the Robson Valley. Howard participated in developing the Land Resource Management Plan for the Robson region back in the early 2000s when his group helped protect almost 7,000 hectares of the Raush Valley – about 93,000 hectares short of what they actually wanted.

Roy Howard (far right) with Dave Macdonald (left) and Keith Berg by an old cedar in the Raush Valley in 1997. [Photo Keith Berg]

“We wanted to protect the whole Raush,” Howard recalled in an interview a couple years ago. The Raush includes the largest intact, unprotected tributary of the Fraser River in B.C., but the old resource management plans capped the amount of land that could be protected. 

“We wanted to protect the whole Raush.”

Roy Howard

“Of course, industry was not happy because they didn’t want to give up anything, and the conservationists were not happy because we wanted an awful lot more,” Howard said.

Unlike the old landscape plans Howard worked on, today’s planning tables won’t be constrained by a maximum cap on how much area can be protected, according to land minister Cullen. In fact, the province (along with Canada) has committed to the United Nations biodiversity resolution to protect 30 per cent of its land and sea by 2030.

Last month, Premier David Eby’s government announced new measures for old growth, including more funding for forestry landscape planning tables to improve forest management and incorporate “local knowledge and community priorities.” Planning tables will be guided by new provincial directives protecting salmonwatersheds and ecosystem health, which includes prioritizing values beyond timber in forests.

“We need to protect the last intact valleys,” said Michelle Connolly, director of the volunteer-run, Prince George-based Conservation North, pointing to the Goat, Walker and Raush Valleys in the Upper Fraser.

“These areas should remain free of roads and logging. Roads are always the beginning of the end for intact valleys,” said Connolly, who has long advocated to protect the unique Inland Temperate Rainforest ecosystem of the Robson Valley and Prince George region, as well as, all primary forests.

The Ministry of Forests released spatialized mapping of old growth and no harvest zones in the Prince George and Robson Valley, following a B.C. Forests Practices Board recommendation,. [Map Ministry of Forests]

Simpcw have been working with Conservation North to build relationships with private property owners in the Raush Valley, Lampreau said, explaining his nation plans to make it an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area.

“Basically a park controlled by us. We’ve already let government know that that is our intention,” said Lampreau. 

A couple years ago, Prince George-based timber company Carrier Lumber applied for road-building in a portion of the Raush, which local citizens strenuously opposed. Limited logging was conducted, then ceased, Howard said. Whether Carrier hit a wall with permitting because of residents’ opposition, or the lumber company just backed off, is unknown. 

“Roads are always the beginning of the end for intact valleys.”

Michelle Connolly

A request for an interview with Carrier Lumber president Bill Kordyban went unanswered by press time and the Ministry of Forests did not provide an update on outstanding development permits approved for the Raush in time for publication.

‘No logging’

Even so, Lampreau was unequivocal about Simpcw intentions for the Raush Valley.

“No logging,” said Lampreau.

“We’ll more likely be open for any sort of [eco-tourism] like hikes and maybe some rafting or something on the river. It’s still to be determined,” he said. 

But on one point, he’s clear as mountain run-off water in an intact watershed: “It’ll be controlled by us.”

The Raush Valley. [Photo Fraser Headwaters Alliance]

Forestry landscape planning table

Simpcw are working on a territorial-wide landscape plan, he said. “Once we’ve got that down … it’s going to be, how do [provincial policies] fit into our plan?” 

Whether the Robson Valley will get a forestry landscape planning table to bring First Nations, governments and other interests together, is anyone’s guess. Ministry of Forests officials wouldn’t say. 

However, Merkel, co-author of the old growth review, said last month forestry tables will be set up where these kinds of issues need to be resolved. Each table will operate under a provincial/First Nation government-to-government umbrella and will include industry, community, and other stakeholders who will come up with a local plan.

Even with a table, it’s doubtful everyone’s interests can be satisfied, “but we could strive towards it,” said Lheidli’s chief Logan, who is optimistic there is room for movement in everyone’s position. “Absolutely. That’s what partnerships are about.”

‘Things get more complex’

“Of course, things get more complex inherently, when you get to the land base, if there are multiple interests, if there’s other views on things,” conceded land minister Cullen. That’s why B.C. put more resources towards forest landscape planning and modernized land use planning, he said.

“I think you’ll see in the coming weeks and months, more nations agree to modernize land use plans that incorporate a whole series of interests.”

“The community’s interest in working with the First Nations should always be front and centre.”

Nathan Cullen

Cullen says he tells First Nations, conservation groups and industry the same thing: “B.C. will overwhelmingly be Indigenous-led conservation, in collaboration with the province,” he said, adding later, “the community’s interest in working with the First Nations should always be front and centre.”

On old growth deferrals, he said, having First Nations agreement is essential to getting durable decisions. “To do otherwise would put deferral decisions into a more precarious state for sure.”

What if the province recommends a deferral area and the nation refuses?

“That’s what the good work is,” says Cullen, sounding wearily optimistic. 

“A nation might say no to a deferral for a whole multitude of reasons. And not always that they’re planning on logging.” Maybe they need more time, more work in the field, or a clearer mandate from their members, he said.

Some people worry if a nation says no, it will never happen, but Cullen is circumspect, calling this “the beginning of the conversation,” and urging respect for the process.

“Just allow the good work of reconciliation to take place,” he said. “Which means dialogue. “