The ministry of forests provided few details about the areas of old-growth forest on which it claimed it was deferring logging just before the provincial election. FOCUS has obtained mapping that confirms the ministry greatly overstated its claim of "352,739 hectares."
A load of old-growth forest heads northward on the Trans Canada near Nanaimo in December 2020 (Photo by Gordon Fuller)
FOCUS has obtained mapping of the “Old Growth Deferral Areas” that were given names—but not much else—by then forests minister Doug Donaldson just before the provincial election. The details of the mapping suggest the exercise may have been more about testing the government’s ability to mislead reporters than it was about protecting old-growth forests. Judging by all the glowing media reviews of the exercise, the upper echelons of the forests ministry earned an A+ in Advanced Dissemination of Misinformation.
On September 11, 2020, Donaldson announced a 2-year deferral of logging on “352,739 hectares” of what the minister described as “old-growth.” No maps showing the location of the nine areas that were being deferred was provided. The deferrals were apparently made as a response to the independent strategic review of the remaining old-growth forest in BC conducted at Donaldson’s request by foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorley. Their study had been released to Donaldson in April 2020.
Our original take on the issue was this: Of the 352,739 hectares of “old-growth,” there were, at best, 64,000 hectares that might be old-growth. Without mapping, no one could be sure of what was actually included in the proposals. In spite of that, Donaldson’s announcement was reported by media outlets far and wide as being—at last!—a resolution of the long-standing issue. In the campaign before the October 24 election, the BC NDP promoted the idea that a re-elected John Horgan government would save BC’s remaining old-growth forests.
The mapping we have obtained (see interactive map below comments section) shows that there may have actually been 10 areas that received 2-year logging deferrals by Order In Council 500-2020. Donaldson’s announcement only included nine of those areas. Missing was a 1,489-hectare deferral in the central Walbran Valley. Ironically, the one deferral the ministry didn’t announce appears to be the most legitimate, least over-stated example of doing what Donaldson claimed the ministry was doing.
The deferral area in the Walbran spans TFL 46 and TFL 44. According to ministry of forest’s records, there has been no logging in the area since 2015 and there is no indication in the ministry’s records that logging had been planned in the next two years. The area is in the Pacheedaht Band’s traditional territory.
The Walbran deferral includes recent (2015) and older clearcuts as well as plantation regrowth, but most of it is old-growth forest. The Ancient Forest Alliance’s description of what needs permanent protection is no overstatement: “The Central Walbran Valley on southern Vancouver Island is the grandest old-growth rainforest in Canada. The area is jam-packed with hundreds of monumental red cedars, especially in the spectacular ‘Castle Grove,’ which is perhaps the most extensive stand of near record-sized cedars on Earth. Marbled murrelets, screech owls, Queen Charlotte goshawks, red-legged frogs, cougars, black bears, and elk all live here, while steelhead and coho spawn in the rivers.”
The “Castle Giant” Western red cedar at Castle Grove in the Central Walbran Valley (Photo by TJ Watt)
Communications between members of local ENGOs who were aware of the Walbran deferral last September express a degree of satisfaction with the area being deferred. The absence of a public acknowledgment of the deferral by Donaldson’s ministry was attributed to unfinished discussions with First Nations.
Saul Arbess, a spokesperson for the Friends of Carmanah Walbran, told FOCUS, “A deferral is not protection, but an attempt to distract us and we will not rest until the entire biologically-rich central Walbran is given permanent protection.”
A comparison of the way in which the deferrals have been presented to the public with the actual on-the-ground substance of the deferrals—which is now made clearer by the mapping— makes it evident that the ministry of forests is not willing to protect much of the remaining old-growth forest that’s in the commercially operable zone of the timber harvesting land base. Their strategy for maintaining control of those areas appears to include utilizing deception. By “deception” I mean the transfer of misinformation from the ministry to mainstream media and then from the media to the general public. The ministry appears willing to fool the public into thinking they are doing something that they apparently have no intention of doing.
Consider the Clayoquot Sound deferral, for example. Of the publicly announced deferrals, the Clayoquot case accounts for 70 percent of all the area being deferred in the province. Donaldson’s September announcement put that at “248,667 hectares.” He may have believed that was actually the case. But the mapping done for Order In Council 500-2020 for Clayoquot Sound shows the deferral area includes 43,237 hectares of parks, protected areas and ecological reserves in the Sound area that are already protected from logging, plus another 62,200 hectares in the south end of Strathcona Park that are also permanently protected. The ministry sought to take credit for a 2-year deferral of logging on 105,437 hectares that already had full protection. Of the remaining 143,230 hectares, the majority has been clearcut over the last 40 years. Given the high level of technology used by the ministry for mapping and controlling the timber harvesting land base, there’s zero possibility that someone made an unintentional error by including 18 provincial parks, ecological reserves and protected areas in its deferral commitment.
The ministry’s mapping of the 248,667-hectare deferral area for Clayoquot Sound (left) overlaps with 105,437 hectares of long-established parks, ecological reserves and protected areas (right). The red crosshair is in the same location on each map. (Click to enlarge)
Allow me a small digression from adding up the ministry’s deceptions to point out why these numbers matter. Consider what’s at stake. A paper written by forest scientists Karen Price and Rachel Holt, along with forester Dave Daust, released in June 2020, used the forest ministry’s own data to estimate that there are about 415,000 hectares of forest containing “large” or “very large” old trees remaining in the province. That’s only 2.7 percent of the high-productivity old forest that was originally here. The scientists estimate that 33 of BC’s 36 forested biogeoclimatic zone variants have 10 percent or less of such forest remaining. Because of the physical and biological characteristics of old-growth forests, they support high levels of biodiversity. But Price, Holt and Daust have pointed out that when the extent of such old forest in a biogeoclimatic zone variant falls below 10 percent, that zone falls into a high risk category for loss of biodiversity. The result? Most of BC is now teetering on the brink, beyond which extinction of plant and animal species will surely accelerate. Who wants that?
The scientists’ study had a huge impact on the community of people who, like Arbess, “will not rest” until they see the ministry protect all 415,000 hectares of old forest containing large and very large trees. When the ministry says it’s deferring logging on 248,667 hectares in Clayoquot Sound, that sounds like the ministry is protecting over half of those remaining 415,000 hectares. That sounds like a breakthrough.
What the Clayoquot deferral actually shows, however, is that the ministry is going to go along publicly with the concept of protecting hundreds of thousands of hectares of old-growth forest while actually doing little or nothing of the sort. Note that it hasn’t even announced the Walbran deferral. So let’s finish with what the mapping shows for the other deferral areas.
The “17,321-hectare” deferral for Southgate River is an interesting case of overstatement. That deferral area is part of the 122,155-hectare Southgate Landscape Unit near Bute Inlet, which the ministry’s own records identify as having a total of 5,380 hectares in the timber harvesting land base—the area that can be logged economically—most of which has already been logged. It took a certain kind of misinformation chutzpah for the ministry to claim that it was deferring logging of an area over three times as great as there was merchantable forest (at one time) in the entire Landscape Unit. It’s as though the ministry chose the numbers for this deferral by throwing darts at a board with crazy big numbers on it and just happened to hit “17,321.”
As previously reported, the deferral areas for Crystal Creek and Stockdale Creek both include much ice and rock and little to no old-growth forest in danger of being logged.
The mapping for the Incomappleux Valley deferral area (40,194 hectares) south of Revelstoke shows it’s mainly ice and rock. The Valhalla Wilderness Society has estimated 1,500 hectares of 1,000- to 2,000-year-old red cedar near the confluence of Boyd Creek and the Incomappleux River. Again, a huge overstatement of the amount of old-growth forest being given a 2-year reprieve from logging.
The location of the Skagit-Silverdaisy deferral area in Manning Park was already well known since the Province, at the urging of Washington State politicians, had already committed to protecting the area. There was no possibility of logging in the area at the time of Donaldson’s announcement of a 2-year logging deferral there.
The 2,231-hectare McKelvie Creek watershed near Tahsis on Vancouver Island is primary forest and warrants full protection, not just a 2-year logging deferral.
The 1,052-hectare “H’Kusam” deferral area is on a 1,200-metre mountain rising up on the north side of the Sayward Valley above the village of Sayward. This part of Western Forest Products’ TFL 39 is certainly primary forest, and some areas of it have relatively high site indexes—which means there could be some big old trees there. Proof of that has not yet emerged. The mountain has been clearcut around its base on the east, north and west sides, but the remaining forest is on flanks so steep that it’s likely beyond the range of commercial operability, at least for now. In any case, there’s no indication that any logging was going to occur by 2022.
The mapping confirms our guess about what was being deferred at Seven Sisters Provincial Park and Protected Area beside the Skeena River. A bite out of the protected area, part of which has been clearcut, has been put back as “old-growth forest.” Another fragment of this deferral, south of the Skeena River and northeast of Seven Sisters Park, is included. That area, too, contains previously clearcut forest. It doesn’t seem to have registered at the ministry of forests that putting 2-year logging deferrals on land that has recently been clearcut isn’t going to impress anyone except new reporters working for certain community newspapers.
In making his announcement of the deferrals on September 11, Donaldson said, “Addressing the issue of managing old-growth forests while supporting workers and communities has been a challenge in the making for more than 30 years and it won’t be solved immediately, but we know that the status quo is not sustainable.” He added, “I do believe that there is enough goodwill on everyone’s part for this to happen, and that’s to use this report as a springboard, as an opportunity to reduce the polarization on this topic.” Soon thereafter, Donaldson announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election.
Donaldson may have genuinely believed that he was putting deferrals on 352,739 hectares of old-growth forest that were in danger of being logged. If so, that means other people high up in the ministry’s information ecosystem misled Minister Donaldson and appear to believe that the public, too, can be easily duped. Presumably, those people are still in the ministry, creating similar misinformation. The only beneficiaries of their work are forest companies focussed on profiting on the liquidation of what remains of BC’s old-growth forests.
Perhaps the real challenge for citizens concerned for the future health of BC’s forests—and all the life that depends on those forests—will be providing oversight for a ministry that acts like it has been captured by the industry it’s meant to regulate. Unless the public is eternally vigilant and arm themselves with ground-truthed facts, the remaining old-growth forests will quickly disappear into the mists of ministerial misinformation.
David Broadland is the publisher of FOCUS. He’s working with a group of foresters, journalists and forest activist-citizens to establish citizen-led oversight of BC’s ministry of forests.