Why is BC Timber Sales, a government agency, at the centre of so many contentious Vancouver Island logging disputes?
THE NAKED RAWNESS OF A NEW CLEARCUT in an old-growth forest is often jarring, but for Chief Rande Cook, the expanse of stumps around Schmidt Creek, above Robson Bight, was also personal. “It’s our territory. It was an eye-opener. It was devastating to see first hand what has been done. I have never seen so many yellow cedar logs, and there were some culturally-modified trees that were cut down,” said Cook, known as Makwala, who heads the Ma’amtagila First Nation.
Cook, who is talking to experts about lodging a complaint with the Province, said removing culturally-modified trees, which mark the historical presence of Indigenous people, is like erasing the DNA of the First Nations. He's likely to face an uphill battle, however. BC Timber Sales (BCTS), which auctioned the timber in the valley south of Port McNeill, said an archaeological assessment, conducted with assistance from another First Nation, found no culturally-modified trees or areas with archaeological potential.
Clearcut logging of old-growth forest near Schmidt Creek authorized by BC Timber Sales (Photo by Mark Worthing)
Schmidt Creek is in Tlowitsis-Ma’amtagila territory. Cook is not surprised that BCTS is claiming Indigenous input; selective consultation, he says, is common. “These people only want to consult with the First Nations they know they can get a pro-business outcome with,” he said.
In areas earmarked for cutting by BC Timber Sales, there are questions about the weight given to experts, lack of climate change consideration, and impacts on communities. Overarching questions are why a stand-alone government agency is at the centre of so many contentious logging disputes, and why remaining patches of old growth—especially on Vancouver Island—seem to be in the crosshairs.
In addition to the Schmidt Creek logging, other recent controversies involving BC Timber Sales include its plans to log 109 hectares of old growth adjacent to Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, a proposal that provoked a public outcry and is now on hold to allow consultations with the operator of a nearby eco-lodge; clearcut logging in the Skagit Doughnut Hole, beside Manning Park, a decision that brought protests from the US and accusations that BC was breaking an international treaty; and clearcut logging in the Nahmint Valley, west of Port Alberni, where one of the biggest Douglas firs in Canada was felled, despite objections from conservation groups.
Growing public discomfort is evident at demonstrations asking the BC government to halt old-growth logging. Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC’s forest and climate campaigner, believes that people now understand more about the climate emergency because of floods, droughts and fires—and realize that destroying the forests will make the situation worse.
A petition, signed by 20,000 people, asking for a halt to old-growth logging, has been delivered to Forests Minister Doug Donaldson; and a letter last year from 223 international scientists urged the Province to take immediate action to protect BC’s temperate rain forests.
The BC Green Party wants a moratorium on old-growth logging on Vancouver Island, with development of sustainable forestry practices. Sonia Furstenau, Green Party House Leader, finds it disappointing that old-growth logging is continuing at the same rate as under the previous Liberal government. “While there seems to be an acknowledgement that the world and conditions have changed very quickly, the practices aren’t [changing],” she said.
T.J. Watt, co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, said there is virtually no difference in the logging taking place under the BC NDP than under the Liberals. “People are tired and fed up. We know things need to be done better and there are sustainable second-growth alternatives out there,” Watt said.
Wieting noted two key issues behind the growing logging controversies: first, many remaining patches of old growth are close to communities or recreation areas, increasing the notice of what’s going on, along with the likelihood of conflict; and second, there have been few changes in the Forests Ministry bureaucracy since the former government was in power. “They are running out of places to find timber where they can log without conflict, so they end up pursuing what I call ‘extreme old-growth logging,’” he said.
Furstenau agrees that there has been little change within the ministry. “It’s very hard to change course in a radical or transformative way when you are still getting advice from the same people,” she said.
Some of that advice is simply incorrect, according to Watt. “I think the NDP is being given the same information around the incorrect idea that old growth forests aren’t endangered and there’s nothing to worry about…when, in fact, we know that is not the case,” he said.
Logging companies are anxious to bid for increasingly scarce old-growth timber, and BCTS, which manages 20 percent of the Province’s annual allowable cut—making it the biggest tenure holder in BC—is planning to auction off about 600 hectares more of old growth on Vancouver Island this year and another 8,800 hectares in future years.
“The BC government has put them in a straitjacket—auction 20 percent of BC volume, no matter what. So, instead of using BC Timber Sales to develop and implement best practices in the midst of climate and species emergencies, they behave like a machine designed with a single purpose—find the fibre,” Wieting said.
Jobs and money are at the heart of many of the decisions. An emailed statement from BCTS claimed, “Approximately 8,000 people are directly and another 10,000 people are indirectly employed, as a result of BCTS’ auction of timber, as well, the net revenue generated from these auctions are returned to the government so as to support many of the programs the government offers the citizens of BC. Curtailing BCTS operations would have significant impacts on all British Columbians.”
(What is not noted is how forestry revenues and employment, through mechanization and over-logging, have declined over the decades. By 2016, forestry provided only 3.3 percent of BC’s GDP. There are far more tourism jobs than forestry jobs in BC—133,100 versus 59,000 in 2016.)
There is also the question of the effect on communities. Schmidt Creek has been a textbook case of BCTS ignoring local input, according to conservation organizations.
The steep slopes of the Schmidt Creek valley are above the orca rubbing beaches at Robson Bight, leading to fears that the world-famous beaches will be degraded by sedimentation or landslides.
BCTS said in an email that the beaches were examined and experts concluded that carefully planned harvesting in Schmidt Creek was unlikely to affect the rubbing beaches, which are being eroded by sea-level rise and severe storms, but show no sign of sedimentation. “Harvesting activities are occurring inland in a side valley on slopes that are not directly above the beaches,” BCTS said.
Prominent killer-whale researcher Paul Spong of OrcaLab, a whale research station on nearby Hanson Island, believes ongoing deterioration of the rubbing beaches is likely to be exacerbated by this logging. The rubbing beaches are used by northern resident killer whales as a massage parlour, explained Spong. He fears the cultural activity, passed down through generations of whales, could be disrupted. “It’s shocking. Schmidt Creek is right next door to the rubbing beaches,” said Spong, adding, “I totally expected an NDP government to do things differently and, with respect to forestry and logging old growth, they are not doing things differently. It’s business as usual.”
Mark Worthing, Sierra Club BC climate and conservation campaigner, visits Schmidt Creek regularly and dives in the water around the rubbing beaches. His June visit was devastating, he said. “It was like a punch in the gut. They are just hammering this poor little valley. This is the sound of the last of the ancient rainforest,” he said.
Worthing believes the beaches will inevitably be affected by soil erosion, either from a major rainfall event, a quick strong landslide, or cumulative erosion. “When you take that much wood and soil off any hillside, the soil finds its way down, that’s a physical certainty,” he said.
The Province is looking for input on sustainable management of BC’s forests “to inform changes to the Forest and Range Practices Act and regulations” (public input will be accepted until July 15). But critics say the government is a long way from its 2017 election promise to use the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest as a model.
Forests Ministry estimates of the amount of old growth protected on Vancouver Island differ wildly from figures given by conservation groups who say that, combined with other logging on Vancouver Island, more than 30 soccer fields of old growth is being clearcut every day.
Minister Donaldson has said that 50 percent of old growth on Vancouver Island—or more than 520,000 hectares—is protected. But Wieting countered that Donaldson is referring to half the remaining old growth—therefore, in a bizarre twist, the more old growth that is logged, the higher the percentage of protected forest.
“Almost 80 percent of the original productive old-growth forest and over 90 percent of the low-elevation, high-productivity stands, where the largest trees grow, has already been logged,” said Watt. Provincial figures, he noted, include low-productivity forests that grow at high elevation or in bogs; in reality only about eight percent of Vancouver Island’s original productive old-growth forests are protected in parks and old-growth management areas.
Furstenau wants to see decisions made on more than just financial outcomes. Community forests should form the basis of future forest policy, allowing decisions to be made with input from residents and First Nations, so the community is not undermined by decisions made in Victoria, she said.
She also argued that as Vancouver Island faces drought conditions, climate change has to be factored into all decision-making. “We can’t just continue with business as usual and then see what happens. We know what’s going to happen.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith