Old growth protections lauded, but satisfy few

Written By Rob Shaw

The BC NDP government tried to accelerate its protection of old growth forests with an announcement this week, but in doing so has largely continued the please-nobody-fully-approach that has come to define its handling of the file.

Eby announced more than $125 million Wednesday to help boost First Nations forestry planning, regional forestry tables, silviculture research, and forest company transitional assistance.

“Our government has a new vision for BC and our forestry industry, one where we take better care of our rarest and oldest ecosystems, our oldest forests and our climate, where Indigenous peoples are full partners in sustainable forest management, and where workers and communities benefit from secure, innovative forestry jobs for years and generations to come,” said Eby.

“Our government has a new vision for BC and our forestry industry.”

David Eby

Environmentalists celebrated an accompanying regulatory change that removed a clause in the Forest and Range Practices Act prioritizing timber supply over the health of water, ecosystem and environment. But overall, it wasn’t enough to satisfy many.

‘What matters is the destruction of endangered old growth’

“Changing priorities, making investments and talking about beginning the shift to sustainable forestry in BC are all important, but at the end of the day what matters is the destruction of endangered old-growth forests continues on the BC NDP’s watch and that’s unacceptable,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.

The forestry sector said it appreciates anything the government could do to bring more certainty to timber supply, but it needs more help to stave off additional mill closures in areas like Prince George that have resulted in hundreds of job losses, with potentially more to come.

“Nowhere in there do I see anything that would give confidence or certainty to those that work in this sector that this government has their back,” said BC Liberal critic Mike Bernier.

“Nowhere in there do I see anything that would give confidence or certainty to those that work in this sector.”

Mike Bernier

“In fact, it looks like they’re trying to just manage the decline of a forestry sector, rather than being optimistic of the future of something that’s so important, that has built our province.”

Important conversations needed

The Council of Forest Industries called the move “positive” but said important conversations about the future of the sector need to continue.

“Strengthened Indigenous and local engagement on land use planning at the regional level will help ensure goals for forest health and biodiversity are met while also creating more predictability for workers, communities and forest-related businesses across BC,” the organization said in a statement.

“Strengthened Indigenous and local engagement … will help ensure goals for forest health and biodiversity are met.”

Council of Forest Industries

Still, forest companies and the NDP government remain at loggerheads over whether to invest in retooling mills to provide so-called value-added products.

It can cost millions of dollars to change the input and product at a mill, and companies have long said they are reluctant to make that investment in BC without certainty from the province that the timber supply is available at an economical rate. The NDP has been hesitant to help the major forest companies financially, because of their hesitancy to invest. The feedback cycle has stalled the sector.

“I think a lot of unintended consequences are going to come from this announcement,” said Bernier.

“Environmental groups are going to look at this and say great, more of our backcountry is being shut down from resource extraction and development. But forgetting again, to highlight that this means more mills will be closed, more people will be losing their jobs, more communities will be negatively affected, as this government continues to not support an important part of our province, and that’s our forestry sector.”

Old growth action plan

Garry Merkel, a forester from the Tahltan Nation who co-wrote a strategic review on old growth forest management for government in 2020, said Eby is acting meaningfully on what he and co-author Al Gorley recommended.

Among other things, the review recommended immediately deferring development of old growth most at-risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.

Premier David Eby announces new measures to speed forest protections, while Garry Merkel, co-author of the old growth review, looks on this week. [Photo BC Government]

“We have a number of ecosystems that are almost gone in this province,” said Merkel. “What the deferrals are about is hanging on to those so that once you build an ecosystem-based plan you can have those available. If we take them out now, you can’t get them back.”

“We have a number of ecosystems that are almost gone in this province.”

Garry Merkel

Eby also announced a new old growth strategic action plan, to be tabled in late 2023, to address the remaining recommendations from Merkel’s 2020 review.

However, the government has struggled for more than a year on its first attempt at tackling the report recommendations. The NDP promised to protect 2.6 million hectares of old growth, by negotiating temporary deferrals with First Nations. 

That’s resulted in a mess — some nations want to continue logging on their lands, others have agreed to deferrals and some have said they lack the resources and time to manage long-term forestry planning.

Eby’s latest announcement does not change that dynamic. But he said the hope is that his new financial resources for First Nations will move things along.

“Nations have different approaches to their territory when it comes to forestry, and it is more challenging to do it this way because there are so many nations across the province,” said Eby.

“That’s why it requires the investment that we’re announcing today… to get industry, community broadly, as well as First Nations together at the table around land use planning so those different values can be balanced.”

Other highlights of the plan include a move to develop a forest carbon offset protocol, which will let First Nations finance conservation projects by earning carbon credits.

Shift needed

“I think we’re hopeful that these changes are actually the structural changes that we’re going to need to see to shift how forestry is done in our province and how land is managed,” said BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau.

“We’re hopeful that these changes … [will] shift how forestry is done.”

Sonia Furstenau

She pointed to the regulatory priority change away from timber supply as particularly important, calling it “absolutely necessary.” Overall, the Greens remain more hopeful that the NDP is taking seriously old growth protection after Eby’s announcement than before, said Furstenau. The next step is incorporating biodiversity concerns in forestry into legislation, she said.

Ultimately, the latest Eby old growth announcement is more of the same from the NDP. It charts a path that leans far more towards environmental protection than forest sector growth — but not enough for anyone to truly be satisfied. That may be the best the New Democrats can hope for on a complex, messy, no-win file.