A British Columbia company that wants to avoid logging sections of at-risk old growth was told by the Crown corporation that manages B.C.'s public forests to cut the trees down or pay to leave them standing, its chief forester said.
Logging began in the two cut blocks north of Revelstoke in spring 2021, but Downie Timber halted the operations a few months later, when protesters blocked access to the sites.
Kerry Rouck, chief forester for Downie's owner, Gorman Bros. Lumber Ltd., said it has remained on pause since the province launched the ongoing old-growth deferral process that fall.
He said the company values its relationships with local First Nations and the public, and doesn't want to jeopardize its social licence by logging areas that overlap with provincially recognized at-risk old growth, as well as caribou habitat.
But BC Timber Sales, the provincial corporation responsible for auctioning the harvesting rights for about 20 per cent of B.C.'s annual allowable cut,told Downie it must fulfil its logging contract — or pay full stumpage fees for the trees left standing, Rouck said, referring to payments to the government for logging on public land.
"If there's volume left in a timber sale block that is not logged or removed from the site, according to the terms in the contract, then the licence holder owes the province for that wood, in full value," he said in an interview.
Rouck wouldn't estimate how much the company would have to pay for the trees it wants to leave standing, but he said it's a "significant" amount, in addition to roughly $200,000 that Downie has spent building forestry roads into the two areas.
"The irony is that we're trying to work towards a balanced conservation result, and we stand to be penalized," he said.
In response to a request for comment, the Forests Ministry said Downie could choose to resume harvesting and cut around the old growth, which was identified as part of B.C.'s process to defer logging in the most ecologically at-risk areas.
Or, the company could declare the harvest over, remove already felled trees and apply for waste relief for those left standing, the ministry statement said.
But those options would carry significant costs, either financial or social, Rouck said.
Cutting around the old-growth deferral areas would not address concerns about caribou habitat raised by First Nations and conservation organizations, he said.
Still, Rouck said he's optimistic Downie and the province will find a way forward.
Downie's contracts to log the two areas expire later next year, he said, so there's time to find a way to leave the trees standing while avoiding significant costs.
In a followup email on Thursday, Rouck said he's since had further discussions with Forests Ministry staff, who indicated they would be open to creative solutions.
"Perhaps we can change the harvesting prescription from clearcutting to an innovative partial cut that is more caribou-friendly," he wrote.
Downie and BC Timber Sales will explore options over the coming months, he said.
Eddie Petryshen, a conservation specialist with the Kootenay-based charity Wildsight, said Downie is showing it wants to be part of the shift that's needed to manage B.C.'s forests in a way that preserves the integrity of irreplaceable old-growth ecosystems and the species that depend on them.
But government, not a logging company, should be leading the way, he said.
"If the province is serious about preserving old growth and keeping public credibility ... then they need to start coming to the table with solutions."
Petryshen said he's walked through the forests within both of Downie's cut blocks, describing the valley-bottom areas as particularly "spectacular." Some of the cedar and hemlock trees measure more than two metres in diameter, he said.
They're part of the inland temperate rainforest, a globally significant ecosystem that was the subject of a peer-reviewed study published in 2021 by an international team of researchers, including several from B.C. They warned the ecosystem is at risk of collapse within two decades in some areas, largely due to clear-cut logging.
First Nations whose territories encompass B.C.'s proposed old-growth deferral areas — of which there are 2.6 million hectares across the province — must indicate their support before any deferrals are implemented for an initial two-year period.
Provincial officials have said the temporary deferrals are meant to preserve at-risk old growth while allowing time for planning around longer-term management.
B.C. government mapping shows 50 per cent of one of Downie's cut blocks north of Revelstoke overlaps with an old-growth deferral area. The second block also overlaps, but by a smaller amount.
The Forests Ministry would not confirm whether First Nations have approved the deferrals in the areas Downie wants to avoid, saying the province is not disclosing their responses to respect confidentiality.
However, The Canadian Press has seen a letter from the acting director of the ministry's forest analysis and inventory branch, which states, "I am aware that as of August 18, 2022, priority old growth deferrals are being implemented throughout the Selkirk Natural Resource District, including the Revelstoke (timber supply area)."
The two cut blocks are located in that same area, provincial mapping confirms.
The letter was sent to Petryshen after he submitted concerns during the comment period for the ongoing review of the Revelstoke timber supply area.
Rouck said Downie works with First Nations on whose territory the company operates, and his understanding is that they all support old-growth preservation.
The Okanagan Nation Alliance issued a statement last August demanding that the province protect old growth and caribou throughout its territory.
Another nation, Splatsin te Secwepemc, has also voiced support for deferrals around Argonaut Creek, the same area where one of Downie's cut blocks is located.
Throughout the old-growth deferral process, the province has indicated deferrals are going ahead in areas where First Nations have signed off on the plans.
But the Forests Ministry said Downie bought the rights to the two cut blocks before the start of the deferral process, and the B.C. government is not using legislation to enforce deferrals in areas with pre-existing timber supply licences in place.
Instead, it said B.C. is working with companies, including Downie, to voluntarily defer harvesting in deferral areas with First Nations' support.
"We appreciate the challenges that come when companies like Downie voluntarily defer old-growth harvesting," the ministry said.
As of last month, the ministry said 1.16 million of the 2.6 million hectares of old growth identified as being at risk of irreversible loss have been deferred.
Rouck said Downie wants to follow the spirit and intent of the New Democrat government's policy direction on old-growth and long-term forest management.
That's why the company paused logging in proposed old-growth deferrals shortly after the province launched the process in November 2021, he said.
"The Gorman group has always been, you know, let's figure out what works for the public. You give up a little bit here and there because it's in the greater interest right? Try to keep wood flowing to the mills, but it's not at all costs."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2023.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press