Two years ago John Horgan commissioned an updated report on the status and management of old growth forests in BC. Now he’s cherry-picking it to his own advantage.
WHEN PREMIER JOHN HORGAN CALLED called a snap election last fall, he found himself promising, if re-elected, to implement all 14 recommendations of A New Future for Old Growth, a recently released report by an independent review panel consisting of expert foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorley.
For Horgan, it was a case of promise now, to get the Green Party off his operating ticket, and worry about the logistics later, once his desired majority had been achieved. The tactic worked, at least in the short run.
Horgan himself had commissioned the report in 2019, tasking the panelists to “engage British Columbians and collect their views on the importance and future of old growth in the province.” The response from all over was clear, the government declared on its website: “It is time for change.”
To those wanting the ancient and increasingly rare temperate rainforests permanently preserved and protected, the report flickered hope and perhaps—finally—some meaningful action. The authors reminded the government that this wasn’t the first report on old growth management. An Old Growth Strategy for British Columbia had been released in 1992 but many of its recommendations had either been only partially fulfilled or become political flotsam along the way.
Had that report been fully embraced, Merkel and Gorley wrote, we would now likely not be facing “high risk to loss of biodiversity in many ecosystems, risk to potential economic benefits due to uncertainty and conflict, [and] widespread lack of confidence in the system of managing forests.”
This time around, they advised, all 14 of the report’s recommendations must be implemented as a whole within three years’ time.
Essentially, the authors warned the government not to pick a recommendation or two to chew on in isolation—a widely tried and tested political tactic for stalling while appearing to be busy as gangbusters.
The authors would have known what they were up against. Garry Merkel, himself a member of the Tahltan Nation, told the media in late 2020 that in BC, “we’re [still] managing ecosystems—that are in some cases thousands of years old—on a four-year political cycle.”
The decline in old-growth forests in Fairy Creek area: “non-renewable in any reasonable timeframe” (drone photo by Alex Harris)
Throughout their report, the authors emphasized the alarming rate of decline in old-growth forests as well as their intrinsic value and irreplaceability. On page 14: “Old forests, especially those with very large trees…anchor ecosystems that are critical to the well-being of many species of plants and animals, including people, now and in the future. The conditions that exist in many of these forests and ecosystems are also simply non-renewable in any reasonable timeframe.”
On page 27 they identified 13 of the “many values of forests with old and ancient trees” including unique, essential and undiscovered biodiversity, resistance to fire, and intrinsic value for human well-being and perpetual tourism.
For years the Province and closely-aligned industry (too close, as David Broadland has shown in Focus) have narrowly defined old growth as trees that, in the Interior, are more than 140 years old, and on the coast more than 250 years old. But that’s been an inadequate and industry-serving definition, the authors explain. Every inaccessible (and therefore never logged) forest in the province will contain trees of all ages, from the saplings to the ancients, so under that definition, these can all be called old-growth forests.
This classification helps to inflate old-growth inventory and mislead the public. When you can dump all of the province’s stunted, out-of-reach forests in with the salient and accessible rainforest giants without specifying the difference, it’s easy to fool the public into thinking we’re so flush with forests like Cathedral Grove that unfettered logging of coastal old growth is not an issue.
But the authors are tolerating none of that, and in the report, they carefully and systematically show how little of the unprotected intact, coastal old growth is left.
“We often hear that, ‘oh, we have nothing to worry about because we have 50 percent of our old-growth left,’” Merkel told the media in an interview last January. “And I think some of the people who are saying that actually believe it because they don’t understand the science. Very few people understand the science. And so, then it just becomes a big numbers game. But almost all of that 50 percent [of alleged old growth] right now is at the tops of mountains and has tiny little trees.”
What’s especially troubling—and classic stonewalling—is that Horgan tacitly continues to let these distorted perceptions float around in the ether, despite hard evidence to the contrary in his own commissioned report.
Misleading the general public is disgraceful enough, but allowing the false narrative of a plumped-up inventory to percolate through the industry and among its employees for the purpose of riling them up against folks who would rather see the forests preserved, is deliberately pushing the dirty work down the line.
All the way down to the impasse, where the logger waving a “Forestry Feeds My Family” placard stands glaring at an activist gripping a “Worth More Standing” banner.
Where unarmed Indigenous youth on their territory are roughed-up and, in at least one case, injured by swearing, enraged loggers “just trying to do an honest day’s work,” as the cliché goes.
Where blinkered law enforcement follows orders that reek and will inevitably result in serious harm at some point.
Where a logger’s wife, incensed by the blockaders keeping her man off the job, shouts into a television camera to, “bring in the forces, bring in the military, clear their asses out…,” her pointing finger stabbing the air in every direction. She then asks darkly, “How far can you push a family man?”
There’s scant room for exploring real solutions when you’re working with blatantly inaccurate information.
EQUALLY GUILEFUL is how the government has chosen to interpret the report’s 14 recommendations, which the authors grouped under four headings. The first five on the list are under the heading:“On conditions required for change.” The first of these—Number One on the list—is to “Engage the full involvement of Indigenous leaders and organizations to review this report and any subsequent policy or strategy development and implementation.”
A chart in Gorley and Merkel’s report summarized these recommendations:
Page16 of A New Future for Old Growth
While Indigenous involvement is certainly a top priority, the authors make it clear it’s not intended to stall everything else on the list until fulfilled. Considering the centuries of chronic colonial wrongs, and all the bungling ways in which successive governments have dealt with that, Horgan and his cohorts would be stuck on this one well beyond the three-year timeframe. Nearly a year has already passed if you’re counting from the election date, nearly a year and a half if you’re counting from the report’s release date. All this to say that the other 13 recommendations would almost certainly be left unfulfilled.
Nonetheless, Premier Horgan and Katrine Conroy, minister of forests and so much more, are sticking to their message that this is the most important item on the list—it’s the first!—and they seem happy to hang their hat there for the long haul. Whenever they appear in front of a mic, it’s always the same stalling talk that comes out—about the need to first consult with First Nations, about respect (which they have yet to translate into anything economically meaningful), and about all the work to be done, getting the work done, and doing the work.
It’s a good place to be stuck if you don’t want to tackle anything else in the report. No critic would be so politically gauche as to challenge this effort, especially now, with the discovery of all those graves.
It’s a very good place to be stuck if you want to keep your eyes averted from the two urgent recommendations singled out For Immediate Response: Numbers Six and Seven state in full: “ Until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.  Bring management of old forests into compliance with existing provincial targets and guidelines for maintaining biological diversity.”
To legitimize #1 as the top priority and deflect anticipated outrage—especially since old-growth management is the heart of the report, and stopping the saws is an escalating public demand—the ministry tweaked the panel’s chart so as to be better aligned with it. The revised chart on the forests ministry website appears below. (Keep in mind that the election promise was to accept the recommendations, not modify them to better fit the government agenda.)
The new heading—Prioritizing the Panel’s Recommendations—is the first sign that things have been rearranged. The banner is gone, and the Conditions Required for Change have been individually redistributed under the other three headings that have also been altered. Where did the first Condition land? Exactly where the government wanted it—still Number One on the list of 14 but now also leading the list of Immediate Measures (formerly For Immediate Response). Now it unabashedly presents as the government’s top priority.
The government’s re-do of the A New Future for Old Growth report recommendations
As for Number 6, the immediate deferral of logging “in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss,” Horgan and Conroy made a few failed and farcical attempts to lock in the perception that old growth was now adequately protected. Last fall they announced protection for nine supposedly old-growth areas, and this spring they deferred logging for 2 years on 2000 hectares in Fairy Creek. Under closer scrutiny, both of these announcements swiftly shrank to almost nothing (see here and here).
If the Ministry was really serious about partnering with First Nations on the management of old growth, you’d think it would actually listen to First Nations. To people like Grand Chief Stewart Philip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who, in a recent Stand.earth video, had blunt advice for Horgan: “If you’re committed to working with Indigenous peoples, stop the logging of old growth immediately.”
You’d think the ministry would stop talking at Indigenous people, given how they’ve so publicly embraced Recommendation #1. But no. A new Forestry Intentions Paper—another paper!—drew reproach just days ago from the Tŝilhqot’in, Lake Babine and Carrier Sekani First Nations, who in a joint letter panned the government for developing yet another forest policy paper without Indigenous participation. “This is not a roadmap for a more just and robust future together,” wrote Chief Murphy Abraham of the Lake Babine Nation, “but rather a ringing endorsement of the status quo that ensures continuing conflict and uncertainty in our forests.”
You’d think the government would also note that 85 percent of British Columbians now support an immediate end to old-growth logging. That support will only increase, thanks to the government-orchestrated fiasco at Fairy Creek, where blockaders tenaciously defending humanity’s right to preserve a healthy and diverse environment have experienced needless hardship and suffering at the hands of the RCMP, especially in the last few weeks. They’ve been unfairly portrayed, vilified and shrugged off by the various Goliaths in this saga, and from the media they’ve received a wall of indifference. Regardless of how this eventually unfolds, the RCMP is set to fall even further from grace, and the NDP brand will be the biggest casualty of all.
Video clip of RCMP assaulting Fairy Creek forest defenders with pepper spray
AFTER 71 PAGES OF MAKING A BALANCED CASE for preserving the old forests, the authors concluded their report this way: “Our ever-expanding understanding of forest behaviour and management, as well as the effects of climate change, have made it clear that we can no longer continue to harvest timber and manage forests using the approaches we have in the past while also conserving the forest values we cherish. We therefore have to be honest with ourselves and collectively and transparently make the difficult choices necessary to ensure future generations of British Columbians can enjoy and benefit from our magnificent forests, as we have done.”
The government remains unmoved.
Or maybe not. In June, after an onslaught of criticism, Minister Conroy selected yet another panel of experts, this time a five-person “Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel” to help further identify the most at-risk old growth forests. The panelists are a stellar group and include the indefatigable Garry Merkel. Maybe it’s a sign more deferrals are coming. Maybe it’s another round on the carousel to nowhere. Maybe it’ll be another report to tweak when nobody’s looking.
In the meantime, the talking continues over the whine of the saws. For now, the government still believes it can have it all while leaving the rest of us in the sawdust.
Trudy is feeling the mental strain of climate change, environmental degradation and irretrievable biodiversity loss, and finds it distressing to know there are people who still believe the government will fix everything. She’s thankful for the garden, nature and the people in her life who help her keep it all together. She may yet become a raging granny.