A forestry conference invited Forests Minister Doug Donaldson to give a keynote address. He talked but didn't listen.
THE GOVERNMENT'S DECISION on the future of our last ancient forests has been made. Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations (and now) Rural Development, pronounced in the Legislature on March 28, 2019: “There will be no moratorium on old-growth logging.”
As proof of this policy failure, BC Timber Sales is poised to clearcut 1,300 hectares of old growth on Vancouver Island.
BC’s 54 million hectares of public forests represent 95 percent of the province’s landbase, but if you are hoping for a broader vision for those forests than just a supply of timber, don’t hold your breath.
Disappearing carbon sink: in this view of logging on the BC coast, areas clearcut over the past 30 years cover 80 to 90 percent of the land base.
Two weeks after his sentencing on old growth, Donaldson was invited to a gathering of 65 of BC’s top forest policy advisors, including ecologists, First Nation leaders, climate change specialists, northern community mayors, union reps, academics, and environmental groups. They were attending a dialogue hosted by the Northwest Institute, a research non-profit of coastal First Nations, environmental leaders and scientists that aims to “promote cooperation among communities and initiate model projects—all towards the goals of environmental conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.”
The major forest industry companies and unions didn’t attend. The hope was that at least Minister Donaldson would bear witness to the ideas in the room. Instead, he talked for 30 minutes and then left.
Donaldson missed presentations from those with thousands of years of collective wisdom—about the issues, values and future of forests. People like Joel Starlund, Gitanyow manager from the Skeena and Nass River, who was speaking for Chief Glen Williams. Williams guided the mapping of thousands of years of knowledge of wildlife corridors, breeding and overwintering habitat and culturally important areas that are now interlaced with 73,000 hectares of industrial clearcuts. These clearcuts generated $110 million in stumpage for government over 60 years, with only .0025 percent of that coming back to the community.
Donaldson also missed hearing from Jim Pojar, down from Smithers, the chief forest ecologist for the ministry before the great purge 16 years ago when all forest policy staff and the forest research branch were axed by BC’s Liberal government. Pojar is an expert in synthesizing and interpreting the nuanced impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems, wildlife and carbon sequestration. This is the person you really need to listen to when anticipating the future of our forests, the impacts of increasing fire, drought and storm events and what all that will mean for water, air quality and the biological web of life which we all rely on.
John Innes was also present. As dean of UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, Innes has brought a European lens—wherein communities create more value with less fibre—to one of the most wasteful, carbon-polluting corporate forest industries in the world.
Quesnel mayor and forester Bob Simpson spoke. As he stood in the smoking remnants of a half-million hectares of charred Chilcotin Plateau firescape—the largest in BC’s history and which only narrowly missed the town itself—he started to forge his own community’s plan for ecological and economic restoration, bypassing the status quo industrial clearcuts and monoculture that would just repeat the tragedy in future years.
Chris Cole of the Truck Loggers Association attended as well. He described the relationship between the large forest license holders and the contractors who actually do the forestry work as unbalanced. “The large license holders consistently abuse the power imbalance in this relationship and benefit from an imbalanced distribution of wealth from harvesting trees on public and private forest lands,” he said, noting, “The majority of funds generated from our forests are distributed to company shareholders and pension funds rather than local communities and workers living near the forests being harvested.”
Minister Donaldson also missed hearing from Jennifer Houghton from Grand Forks, who was galvanized into action when floodwaters flowed through her kitchen after the logging of her watershed. Houghton and her community, like many others, have joined the BC Coalition for Forestry Reform, which advocates for a shared decision-making process with local communities and full recognition of our forests’ non-timber values including water, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, tourism, and recreation.
Another member of the Coalition, the West Kootenay Glade Watershed Protection Society, was represented at the dialogue by Herb Hammond, a veteran forester, who monitored the overcut and over-roaded Glade logging plans, and shared the David and Goliath story going on in our public forests over drinking water. Glade residents lost their bid for an injunction in February, so logging there—and destruction of watersheds—continues.
Al Martin, of the BC Wildlife Federation, a broad rural constituency of hunters, anglers, trappers and guides, has dealt with BC wildlife issues for 30 years. His recommendation was to fund long-term rural jobs, financed through the carbon tax, to steward and restore the ecosystems that sequester carbon and support our biodiversity. Martin pointed to the government’s CleanBC initiative and noted that “environment” isn’t even mentioned.
With climate change, there are two imperatives: reduce emissions, and protect and restore carbon sinks. BC is apparently ignoring both: forest industry emissions continue to exceed every other sector.
Bob Bourgeois, who coordinated the wide-ranging, non-partisan “Healthy Forests Healthy Communities” conversations around BC between 2011 and 2013, was at the conference with his latest report card on the poor progress government had made on their recommendations. Ross Campbell, representing wilderness tourism operators, could have reminded Minister Donaldson that BC’s job-rich ecotourism industry outstrips the forest industry in GDP. Old growth brings tourists; clearcuts repel them.
There were more speakers the Minister should have heard: 65 of the best minds in BC on the complex and nuanced issues of forest ecology and policy—people who recognize the complicated and diverse ecosystems coming from diverse cultures and governance systems.
Chief amongst the recommendations was that planning around forests should be locally based, and incorporate long-term cultural knowledge with scientific data. The science would provide long-term projections of the landscape—as ecosystems die, change, or shift north and upwards with warming temperatures. The IPCC has told us we have 10 years to halt the destruction of carbon sinks.
Minister Donaldson, personally, is no stranger to these ideas and issues, and knows many of the people in the room. During the heady, pre-2003 period of collaborative resource planning work in rural areas, he was trail-building in Yoho National Park, reporting on forestry issues for a northern newspaper, writing the old pre-harvest silvicultural prescriptions for cutblocks, and working on the Land Use and Resource Management Plan in Chief William’s territory.
So why is he doing so little now? He told his audience that most of his time is taken up with his mandate from Premier Horgan in the following order of priority: softwood lumber agreements, increasing rural jobs for domestic wood products, being a leader in engineered wood, modernizing land-use plans, and undertaking a new wildlife management plan, all through the lens of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Yes, change has been slow,” Donaldson admitted to the group, but his ministry doesn’t have the staff, lost during the Liberal era, to deal with the increasing emergencies of fires, floods and storms, while trying to keep domestic production curves pointing upwards. “Any forest policy we do introduce might look slow to you, but looks fast and threatening to others,” he warned, pointing to the well-financed backlash against both the grizzly trophy-hunting moratorium and the draft caribou agreement that the Province is legally bound to carry out through the federal Species at Risk Act. Not surprisingly, the logging industry isn’t on board with the caribou agreement—why would it want change, when they have full control of our forests now?
The last time anyone in this ministry put these complex interests together to work out viable policy was in 2003, just before they were all fired. Judging by the minister’s failure to hire anyone back, it’s doubtful intelligent policies will arise. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau started the process in the fall to get feedback on the professional reliance system, which is based on the polite fiction that professionals hired by industry will look after the public interest. When Donaldson was offered a similar opportunity to hear from a range of interests by the Northwest Institute at this April gathering, he made no time for questions and answers with the excuse that he was too busy facing off with industry opposition to the caribou agreement.
The message at the conference from every corner of British Columbia was loud and clear: rural people aren’t going to wait around for the Province to do something. Mayor Simpson said his defining moment was standing on the moonscape of the Plateau fire and realizing that only local control of plans was going to make a difference. Control has different manifestations—it could be hereditary chiefs of Gitanyow using newly court-awarded jurisdiction, Simpson expanding local government tools, the people of Glade appealing court decisions, or Ladysmith watershed groups exploring provisions in the Water Sustainability Act to get local authority for the protection of water. Communities from Duncan to Invermere are realizing that they actually own the forests—and that their forests have values far beyond timber.
There are strong leaders all over this province communicating the urgency of climate change, and the need to change our practices to end the old economic model of huge tenures owned by clear-cutting corporations. My guess is that if the provincial government, regardless of its political stripe, doesn’t catch up, local communities will simply take over their watersheds and change the rules themselves.
Briony Penn is currently working with Xenaksiala elder Cecil Paul, Wa’xaid on Following the Good River, due out in 2019. She is also the author of (the prize-winning) The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.