It’s only 19 pages long, but a new draft framework on “biodiversity and ecosystem health” released by the government this week has the potential to bring about massive change in rural British Columbia.
Environmental protection, not resource development through industries like forestry, fishing and mining, will be the overarching priority of the province going forward, according to the new plan.
“The framework sets the stage for the desired transformational shift from a land management system that prioritizes resource extraction (subject to constraints) to a future that is proactive, prioritizes the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity, and is implemented jointly with title and rights holders (a paradigm shift),” reads the report.
“This shift recognizes that strong, stable, and prosperous communities and economies rely on healthy ecosystems.”
Framework ‘logical lens’ to view inevitable change
The language is enough to raise concerns for the thousands of people working in resource-dependent communities, where natural gas, logging and mineral exploration are still the economic lifeblood of local economies.
But Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen said it’s simply a “logical lens” from which to view the inevitable changes required to the sustainability of those sectors.
“I was talking to people up north about this, folks that work in forestry, people who hunt and people who are keen in conservationists, and I was surprised at how much overlap there was in interest and conscious enthusiasm,” Cullen, the MLA for Stikine, told Northern Beat in an interview.
“One older fellow said this is how we should always look at the land.”
Green MLA Adam Olsen, who is supporting the framework, said the plan enables government to make decisions about land use on more than just the value of timber, minerals or other resources that companies want to extract.
“This framework represents a shift in how we view the natural world around us,” said Olsen.
“For decades in this province we’ve viewed it as both the wealth, the natural resources that turn into financial and economic resources for us, but we’ve also treated nature like the landfill as well.”
Framework admirable, conflicting goals confusing, says MLA
Still, it’s unclear how deprioritizing natural resource development affects the province’s push for green technologies like electric vehicles and solar panels, which require increased rare mineral extraction from mining.
Premier David Eby and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week almost $300-million in taxpayer subsidies toward a $1-billion lithium-ion battery plant in Maple Ridge. Both leaders hailed it as making B.C. a leader in clean technology.
But there was no talk about the less politically popular need to feed the plant from new lithium deposits.
BC United critic Peter Milobar said the conservation goals in the framework are admirable, but the conflicting messages are confusing.
“There’s large pockets of British Columbia, in the southern region especially, that think we should not have any development on anything and protect all of the lands,” said Milobar.
“But we also want to green-up our economy… B.C. has a very large number of minerals and materials in the ground you actually need for those technologies. So where is that going to overlap and fit into this land use planning?”
Forestry protections hurt workers, says critic
The shift also comes amid a troubling few years for forestry in particular, which has shed hundreds of jobs and suffered numerous mill closures due to a fibre supply shortage, at the same time as the NDP government has moved to protect more old growth trees from logging.
The new biodiversity framework, in fact, comes from one of the recommendations of a previous review into protecting old growth forests.
BC Conservative leader John Rustad slammed the NDP’s direction in comments made after the Polar Sawmill in Bear Lake announced a curtailment.
“I look at Premier Eby’s NDP and I think — this is a party that has forgotten the meaning of the term ‘workers movement,’” Rustad said in a statement.
“No one is hurting blue collar workers more than premier Eby and his NDP government.”
‘We can’t keep doing things the way we were doing’
Cullen said he’s sensitive to forestry jobs, but that the overall current path isn’t sustainable. It’s a position even some BC United MLAs have admitted, such as Prince George-Mackenzie’s Mike Morris.
“I know a lot of people who work at the mill and they also are out at the valleys and recreate and hunt and they talk to me a lot,” said Cullen.
“I’ve been hearing this for 20 years of elected office that we can’t keep doing things the way we were doing 20 or 30 years ago, we are going to run out. This, I think, very much fits in line with that.”
Biodiversity protections will be ‘overarching framework’ of government
The “paradigm shift” on how B.C.’s land is prioritized for conservation was also part of an announcement between the federal and provincial governments earlier this month, where the two levels announced a new $1 billion nature agreement to help protect species at risk and ecological biodiversity.
B.C.’s goal is to protect 30 per cent of land and water in the province by 2030. This new framework promises to codify that into law as part of the “overarching framework” of the government.
“For us the idea of the legislation is it really puts the protection of the biodiversity and ecosystem first, and that shift from currently our resource extraction is we take until a certain amount of harm can be done,” said Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, which strongly praised the new framework.
“We want that flipped on its head.”
Sierra Club BC, Wildsight BC, the Ancient Forest Alliance and Endangered Ecosystems Alliance all praised the draft framework, but also called for immediate interim measures to protect at-risk species, old growth forests and sensitive ecosystems while the government finalizes the work.
There are almost 2,000 species at risk in B.C., including northern spotted owls, which the BC Greens have highlighted for government protection.
Minister confident people will see the benefits
Cullen said he recognizes the job uncertainty raised in some communities by the framework. He said the government will have to work to do — especially with nervous rural northern residents — during upcoming public consultation.
“I think show don’t tell is a true positive,” said Cullen.
“If we’re able to continue to show value added manufacturing, if we are able to show the agreements we’ve had with First Nations, particularly on forests but more broadly on the land, it leads to less conflict, more investor confidence, and leads to a much more healthy place to live. I’m confident people will begin to see.”
Cullen pointed to a $35.9 million deal in October between Western Forest Products on Vancouver Island and Campbell River-area First Nations, which will see Indigenous communities take a 34 per cent ownership stake in the forest company to help guide it into more sustainable logging practices on their traditional territories.
The forest sector itself isn’t quite sure what to make of the new framework.
“The forest industry will be reviewing and commenting on the consultation paper,” said COFI President & CEO Linda Coady. “Its direct impact on our sector isn’t clear yet and will depend on what the final policy looks like.”
Coady said B.C. already has a good foundation of sustainable forest management.
“The wildfires this year have further demonstrated the importance of forest health and resilience, and companies in B.C. are committed to forest management practices that protect and enhance that resilience,” she said.
Olsen said the wildfire seasons continue to show the province has spent years with the wrong priorities in mind.
“We didn’t look at nature and learn from it, we just kind of clumsily stripped the value from it and then didn’t pay any attention to the long term impact of that, and what we see is landslides, and soil being scorched,” he said.
If done right, the new biodiversity and ecosystem health framework could preserve jobs in the long run by making industries like fishing and logging more sustainable for the next generation, say proponents. If done poorly, it will hammer the resource sector, putting people out of work.
“From an environmental perspective we’d look at it from the point of view of you can’t keep extracting like you are doing forever, you are going to hit a point, and some say we’re hitting that point already, where you are almost working yourself out of a job,” said Lafreniere Vicente.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis and it’s not getting any better.”