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B.C. hits pause on old-growth logging on 2.6 million hectares

COFI warns more than a dozen sawmills may close if deferrals become permanent
Giant-cedar-nearPortRenfrew-credit AutumnSkyPhotographyGettyImages
Old-growth trees on the coast are generally classed as trees that are at least 250 years old

The B.C. government will defer logging on 2.6 million hectares of unprotected Crown forests that contain “ancient, rare and priority large stands” of old growth.

That is an area equivalent to 6,400 Stanley Parks, Katrine Conroy, minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, said in a press conference Tuesday.

The deferrals are a “temporary measure,” until a “modernized” old-growth management strategy can be implemented. It covers half the old growth in B.C. that is not already protected -- i.e. old growth that is still subject to harvesting.

The deferrals are on old-growth areas that are most at risk of permanent and "irreversible" loss of biodiversity, said Garry Merkel, co-chairman of the Old Growth Strategic Review.

"We can grow more trees -- they are renewable," Merkel said. "These ecosystems, in most cases, are not renewable. They will never come back in a lifetime, and possibly ever, with the effects of climate change."

If the deferrals become permanent, up to 4,500 jobs could be lost, Conroy said.

"We recognize that these deferrals may have impacts to workers, communities, First Nations, small businesses and industry," Conroy said.

The Council of Forest Industries (COFI) warns more than a dozen sawmills could be shuttered, if the deferrals become permanent.

“While we are still digesting the details, our initial analysis indicates that these deferrals would result in the closure of between 14 and 20 sawmills in B.C., along with two pulp mills and an undetermined number of value-added manufacturing facilities," COFI president Susan Yurkovich said in a press release.

"This represents approximately 18,000 good, family-supporting jobs lost, along with over $400 million in lost revenues to government each year – revenues that help pay for healthcare, education and other services British Columbians count on.”

The deferrals are based on recommendations from the Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, struck in June, and the earlier Old Growth Strategic Review.

The B.C. government says it is asking First Nations to indicate within 30 days whether or not they agree with the proposed deferrals. It’s unclear what will happen if First Nations with interests in forestry say no to the deferrals.

As part of the plan, the government will halt BC Timber Sales of timber from the 2.6 million hectares covered by the deferrals. BC Timber Sales represent about 20% of the log sales in B.C.

Forestry companies that hold tenure in the affected areas will be asked to voluntarily suspend logging in the areas in question. If they don’t, the government can revoke permits. Should the deferrals become permanent, at some point the licencees would be eligible for compensation for loss of cutting rights.

In a technical briefing Tuesday, government officials said temporary deferrals can last up to 10 years, but that the ones announced today are expected to be in place for just two years - to 2023.

Compensation to forestry companies with tenure where deferrals are implemented could be eligible for compensation four years after deferrals go into effect.

The impacts of the deferrals may be most acutely felt in coastal communities, as roughly half of the annual allowable cut for the coastal sector is classed as old growth.

Given that coastal sawmills already struggle to secure enough fibre, the deferrals and reduced sale of BC Timber Sales logs could result in some sawmill curtailments or even closures.

It appears the government does expect there will be job losses, as a result of the deferrals, as it announced it will provide programs for workers for things like education and skills training and early retirement bridge funding.

Government officials described the deferrals as a “pause” that is needed to get a more comprehensive and “modernized” forestry management plan in place that prevents the permanent loss of biodiversity of rare and unique old-growth forests.

When the deferral period ends, the newly identified at-risk forests will either be added to B.C.͛s 3.5 million hectares of old-growth forests already off-limits to harvesting, or included within forest management plans.

Getting agreement on deferrals could be complicated by the fact that many First Nations are actively engaged in forestry, and may not agree with the government's plan to make some regions off-limits to logging.

Today’s announcement came out of two recent reviews of B.C.’s “unprotected” old-growth forests – i.e. old growth that is part of the Crown forest tenure system and available for harvest.

The government uses different classifications for old growth. Broadly speaking, of the 56 million hectares of forest in B.C., 11million hectares are considered "old," and 3.5 million hectares of that is protected.

Old growth containing specific classes – big, ancient and rare – is estimated at 7.6 million hectares, of which 2.6 million hectares is protected, and 5 million hectares “unprotected” – in other words, available for harvesting. So the deferrals announced today doubles the amount of "big, ancient or rare" old growth that is protected, at least temporarily.

While the areas of most concern for environmentalists have been on Vancouver Island, the 2.6 million hectare deferrals are throughout B.C.

Whether the deferrals announced today bring anti-logging protests on Vancouver Island to a halt remains to be seen. Two previous moratoria have done nothing to stop protests and blockades.

"It’s good to have the BC government listen to the science and acknowledge that there are 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest in dire, immediate need of protection, but we aren’t popping any champagne corks just yet," Nicole Rycroft, executive director for the environmental group Canopy, said in a news release.

“Today’s announcement confirms what we already know: old-growth forests are in dire need of urgent protection, or we risk irreversible loss -- for these forest ecosystems, for our communities, and the climate,” said Tegan Hansen, Forest Campaigner at Stand.earth. 

Rycroft said the $12 million the B.C. government has announced in capacity funding for First Nations to implement deferrals into their own land use management plans "falls short of what’s needed to back Indigenous Nations' participation in solution building."

In 2020, the B.C. government came out with its Old Growth Strategic Review. It deferred logging on 200,000 hectares of old growth, as a result of that review. That didn’t stop anti-logging protests on Vancouver Island. In fact, it escalated to the point of eclipsing the War in the Woods of the 1990s in exceeding arrests.

The B.C. government then deferred logging of old growth in the areas of contention – Fairy Creek and the central Walbran – for two years. Again, that did not stop anti-logging protests, despite First Nations in whose territories the protests were taking place asking protesters to “stand down.”

In June, following the publication B.C.’s Old-Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity, which estimated only 3% of productive old growth capable of growing giant trees was left in B.C., B.C. Forests Minister Katrine Conroy appointed the reports’ three authors – Rachel Holt, Dave Daust and Karen Price – to a new Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel.

The two other members of that panel are Lisa Matthaus, formerly of the Sierra Club and current president of the board of directors for West Coast Environmental Law, and Garry Merkel – a professional forester and co-chair of the Old Growth Strategic Review.

More recently, a forestry consulting group, Forsite Consulting, was commissioned by the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) to estimate old growth in B.C., and it concluded the number to be 30%, not 3%.

The two studies used different tools, both of which have their limitations, according to John Innes, former dean of Forestry at the University of BC. The 3% estimate was arrived at using the province’s vegetative resource inventory; the Forsite group used the province’s site productivity layer tool.

“The provincial site productivity layer tool is believed to be better than the vegetative resource inventory, especially for assessing old growth, but it still has significant errors associated with it,” Innes told BIV News.

"The problems, as always, are related to the definitions that were used ...and the extent to which forests have been assessed on the ground. Remote sensing tools such as LiDAR can help, but they don’t resolve some of the basic problems."

nbennett@biv.com

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