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  • Loss of primary forest

    David Broadland

    I FIRST WROTE THIS INTRODUCTION in mid-2020: After Veridian Ecological produced BC’s Old-Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity, but before Gorley and Merkel’s A New Future For Old Forests; before the Ministry responded to Gorley and Merkel with a set of deceptive deferrals that changed almost nothing but helped an NDP-led government get re-elected; before the Fairy Creek blockades turned into Canada’s largest ever act of mass civil disobedience; before a second panel was assembled to review old growth; before the ministry announced 2-year deferrals on 2.6 million hectares of old forest—subject to First Nations’ approval within 30 days—and before Grand Chief Stewart Phillip chided the Horgan government for using coercion to get First Nation approval for those 2.6 million hectares. By the time you have finished reading this sentence, the situation may have changed again, and I will be re-writing this introduction.

    That is to say, the struggle to protect as much remaining primary forest as possible has heated up, is fluid, and the momentum in the battle does not appear to be on the side of the logging industry. But who really knows?

    In going from mid-2020 to late 2021, the extent of primary forest that scientists and conservationists say should be taken out of the 22-million-hectare Timber Harvesting Land Base has grown.

    In mid-2020, the concern was for primary forest that contained “large” or “very large” old trees. Forest scientists Karen Price and Rachel Holt, along with forester Dave Daust, had estimated that an area of only 415,000 hectares of such forest remains in BC. 

    Price, Holt and Daust, along with Gary Merkel and Lisa Matthaus were appointed to a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) by forests minister Katrine Conroy earlier in 2021, and now their focus has shifted to 7.6 million hectares of “Big Tree Old Growth,” “Ancient Old Growth” and “Rare Old Growth.”

    Of that 7.6 million hectares, 5 million hectares is unprotected. The ministry of forests, advised by TAP, has prioritized 2-year logging deferrals on 2.6 million of those 5 million unprotected hectares. TAP’s recommendations were based on ministry records indicating where primary forests remain and the risk that logging could occur in those areas in the next two years.

    It is too early to say whether the ministry is genuinely considering deferring logging on 2.6 million hectares of at-risk primary forest. Given its record of deception on the deferrals it announced in mid-2020 before the provincial election, there’s good reason to be skeptical. It might be the case that the bad publicity from the Fairy Creek blockades has forced the ministry to devise a communications plan that proposes a course of action that sounds good on CBC and makes the public think the issue has been settled, but that the ministry has no actual intention of following. We’ve seen that before.

    Nor is it clear what a “deferral area” means to the ministry of forests. At the November 2 press briefing before the announcement of the 2.6-million-hectare priority deferral areas, the assistant deputy minister of forests was asked by a reporter: “In the past, old-growth deferral areas still allowed for logging of second growth, cutting new forestry roads, that type of thing. People saw some major activity in and around some major trees. Is that still allowed here? Is it still allowed to have activity in deferral areas, logging in and around the rare and ancient trees?”

    David Muter didn’t say “no,” and instead referred to the deferral areas announced a year before where, he admitted, logging has been, and will continue to be, allowed. When asked about this the day after, Muter still didn’t clarify whether logging would be allowed. If the ministry has a genuine commitment to fully protect these areas of primary forest and logging is not going to be permitted, surely he would have said so.

    We asked Rachel Holt if leaving old trees in the deferral areas while removing younger but merchantable trees would serve the purpose of protecting biodiversity—one of the key concerns about loss of primary forest. Holt simply responded: “No.”

    The grounds for skepticism about the government’s intentions don’t stop there.

    The priority deferral areas, the ministry stipulated, required approval by First Nations. Indigenous governments were given only 30 days to make that decision. First Nations were promised some money to help them with the work of determining what impact the deferrals would have on them, but apparently no such support materialized. Further, accurate mapping of the deferral areas, essential for First Nations to know what it was they were being asked to make a decision about, wasn’t provided. On the 29th day of the 30-day decision period, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Phillip Stewart, expressed concern about the government’s intention.

    “Let’s be clear,” Stewart said, “What we want is a moratorium on old-growth logging. Period. We don’t want some convoluted, concocted, deceitful notion of deferrals, of kicking the ball down the road and allowing the industrialized devastation of logging in British Columbia to continue.”

    So it’s difficult to know at this date (December, 2021) whether the deferral announcements are a step in the direction of the “paradigm shift” called for by Gorley and Merkel in their report, or just a devious communications plan created by the ministry to make business-as-usual look like a resolution to the question of how much of BC’s remaining primary forest will be allowed to be converted to plantations.

    To make things even more complicated, all of the numbers and descriptions about how much area of primary forest remains—and what’s in them—that were used by the Technical Advisory Panel are all guesses based on databases that everyone admits are badly flawed. Over the years, the ministry of forests just hasn’t done the work necessary—ground-truthing—to be able to say how much primary forest is left, where it is and what’s in it.

    One thing that is clear, especially following the mid-November flooding of Merritt, Princeton and the Fraser River Valley, as well as the widespread damage to highway infrastructure: For conservationists, the “old growth” goal has expanded from protecting the remaining forest that contains large old trees to protecting all remaining unprotected primary forest.

    The Discovery Islands Forest Conservation Project will follow and report on this story as it unfolds. But we are going to go further than that. We see the need for the case to be made for protecting all remaining primary forest. We will help to make that case. But so far, all the back and forth between government and industry and the conservation side about how much primary forest is left in BC—and where it is—has been based on computer models that have not been ground-truthed. Lines need to be drawn on maps—lines that are informed by actually knowing what’s inside the lines.

    Government hasn’t done this work and the question is: What will it take for the ministry of forests to do the work of determining where primary forest still exists and, where it exists, what’s in it?

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