The Good, the Bad and the Unknown of BC’s 2020 Old-Growth Announcement
The old-growth panel report, the province’s initial response and what needs to happen next
This August, one month before the B.C. government shared the sobering findings and paradigm-shifting recommendations of the independent old-growth panel report, I visited an awe-inspiring ancient forest in a cutblock proposed by BC Timber Sales in the Dakota Valley in the territory of the Squamish Nation on the Sunshine Coast.
B.C.’s 14th largest yellow cedar in the Dakota valley, targeted by BC Timber Sales, still unprotected
Among the huge trees in this pocket of land stands a majestic Yellow Cedar, about 1,500 years old. Even in this part of the world there are few trees of this age and walking among them is like visiting a sacred place, in contrast to the young even-aged stands that now dominate much of the coast.
Standing next to this tree, knowing it could get logged within a year, felt dreadful. Despite having a diameter of 228 cm, making it the 14th largest in B.C. according to the Big Tree Registry, this tree would not be protected under the government’s new measures. Why? The new Special Tree regulation only protects trees of this species if they are wider than 265 cm and the Dakota Valley is not on the list of areas where logging has been deferred.
This regulation was part of some initial steps for old-growth forests the provincial government announced on September 11, in response to the independent panel’s report shared on the same day. The report shows how decades of timber-focused industrial logging practices are leaving a legacy of damaged ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. It was good news to see the B.C. government working with Indigenous governments to announce logging deferrals in nine areas. Yet, the story of the ancient yellow cedar in the Dakota Valley illustrates the shortcomings of the provincial response.
During the campaign trail, John Horgan committed to implementing all of the panel recommendations. But so far, the NDP has not committed any funding nor offered any clarity on when more deferrals will follow.
Additionally, a closer review of the deferral areas showed that while the list included some spectacular landscapes, the province inflated the numbers by including areas that were already protected or that were not at risk of logging.
On the positive side, the B.C. government acknowledged for the first time that provincial old-growth management had “caused a loss of biodiversity” and that they “need to do better.” Importantly, the panel and the B.C. government have recognized what Indigenous peoples have been saying all along: Indigenous governments must have a say in decisions about what happens on their land.
For the first time in decades, it seems like the door to protecting what little remains of the last ancient giants across the province has cracked open a little bit. It feels there is room for hope; a welcome reprieve from the despair we’ve become accustomed to, considering how few big old trees are left standing, how fast they are being cut down, and how few are protected.
To make the most of this moment we are going to need to keep fighting for what remains standing. While the provincial government regroups to form cabinet and build the budget, let’s take a closer look at the old-growth panel recommendations, the provincial response, and what more is needed.
Here are 9 things to know about the old-growth panel report and the provincial response so far:
(Click on each item to expand it)
1. The old-growth panel report confirms that we are in an ecological emergency
The panel report confirms the alarming findings of the three independent ecologists who shared their “Last Stand for Biodiversity” report earlier this year, particularly about the dire state of high-productivity, low elevation old-growth. They also summarize the risk thresholds long established in Ecosystem-Based Management research and used in the Great Bear Rainforest, showing that logging more than 70 per cent of old-growth forest ecosystems in a landscape results in higher than high risk for biodiversity, a limit that has long been crossed for almost all of B.C. forests with big old trees.
The panel illustrated this emergency with one of the maps from the “Last Stand for Biodiversity” report. This map shows that forests areas across vast parts of the province have already less than 30 per cent remaining old-growth (in red) compared to what existed before industrial logging began (less than 30% means high ecological risk, more than 70% forests means low risk; forests in this map include those with relatively small trees – minimum site index 10 – the maps look worse for old forests with big trees).
2. The panel report calls for a paradigm shift in the way we relate to forests
After meeting with people from all across the province, the independent panel found a high degree of consensus about the need for a shift in how we relate to old-growth forests. Not only is the way we have been doing things putting ecosystems at high risk, the panelists also found that the B.C. government has failed for decades to follow through and implement past recommendations or strategies that could have prevented the severity of the old-growth crisis the province is faced with today.
The report lists numerous examples of where prior commitments were not met; including a lack of compliance with biodiversity targets, Old-Growth Management Areas set aside from logging containing forests that are in fact not old forests, and a lack of periodic reviews of the old-growth management system, adaptive management and monitoring .
This map shows forest areas across vast parts of the province already have less than 30 per cent of their old-growth (in red) remaining compared to what existed before industrial logging began. Source: Last Stand for Biodiversity report
3. The old-growth panel recommendations provide a path to solutions within three years
In their report, the independent panel outlines a blueprint on how the B.C. government can work with Indigenous governments to address the risks to old-growth ecosystems and reform forest stewardship within three years. As outlined in this graphic from the report, the recommended response includes full involvement of Indigenous Peoples, immediate action for ecosystems at high risk, improved management, certainty of implementation and transition support for communities.
4. The work must be done in partnership with Indigenous governments. This requires funding.
For too long, land use decisions throughout the history of the province of B.C. have disregarded, undermined and ignored the governance rights of Indigenous nations. It’s good to see the panel recommending, and the B.C. government recognizing, that steps for old-growth and biodiversity must be done with the full involvement of Indigenous peoples. This is paramount. Making it a reality for Indigenous governments to fully engage will require significant funding to take economic pressure off communities and enable time for planning and decision-making before logging permits are issued.
Hereditary chiefs of the Ahousaht, one of three Indigenous nations in Clayoquot Sound, shared their land-use vision in January 2017 in Tofino in the presence of environmental groups and other guests. Photo by Clayoquot Sound Conservation Alliance
5. Deferral areas are a crucial interim step
On September 11th the B.C. government announced that logging will be deferred for two years in nine areas. A number of critics have pointed out that temporary deferrals are not the same as long-term protection and warned that logging might happen later. While this is true, a deferral enables time and space for Indigenous nations and the B.C. government to work together to determine what future might be possible for the land and all the beings that depend on it. It would not be appropriate for the B.C. government to forge ahead with colonial protected area designations that are not supported by the Indigneous nation whose land the protected area is on — as has so often been done in the past.
What is critical is to go into any discussion about the long-term future for these deferral areas with sufficient creativity, courage and funding to ensure that there are a wide range of economic options available to communities, that take into account our reciprocal relationship with the land that sustains us and the value of maintaining ecosystem services such as fresh water, a stable climate and salmon habitat.
According to a recent media report, the B.C. government doesn’t currently have a mandate for new protected areas. The incoming provincial government will need this mandate to be able to work with Indigenous governments towards solutions. They can partner with the federal government to contribute funding and commit to national and international efforts to protect 25 percent of the land and oceans by 2025 (and 30 percent by 2030) with indigenous-lead conservation solutions.
A marbled murrelet chick in its mossy bed. The endangered seabird depends on old-growth trees for nesting. Photo by Aaron Allred
6. The initial deferral areas are a good first step, but more are urgently needed
A quick review of the areas set aside from logging showed that while small compared to B.C.’s overall land base (0.37%) and not evenly distributed (none in the northern part of the province), the list includes some spectacular and largely intact rainforest landscapes like Clayoquot Sound and the Inland rainforest in the Incomappleux.
Deferring logging in Clayoquot Sound is fantastic news for the last big and largely intact old-growth rainforest region on Vancouver Island. While about one third of the region was already protected as parks, about two thirds were still in various logging tenures and are now temporarily set aside from logging. This milestone was only possible because of the leadership of the First Nations in the region working to secure a future for their people and for the land and waters within their territories.
Aerial view of Clayoquot Sound, the last big and largely intact old-growth region on Vancouver Island
However, as critics have pointed out, these areas in Clayoquot Sound and other deferral areas that were announced are not solely old-growth forests, some second-growth is included as well. This might seem misleading in an announcement about old-growth protection, but maintaining a high level of ecological integrity and resilience requires setting aside entire landscapes, watersheds or whole regions from industrial activity — even where not all that remains is old-growth.
Including younger forests and non-forested areas can provide connectivity and protection for species that roam larger areas. In addition, deferrals for larger areas could also allow governments to review conservation options that can prevent other problematic developments like energy or mining projects, not just clearcutting.
That being said, the areas set aside from logging only go a tiny ways towards what the independent old-growth panel recommended, and if we are to maintain biodiversity more deferral areas are urgently needed.
For important context, the “Last Stand for Biodiversity” report, mentioned above, shows that only 415,000 hectares of the last old-growth with big and very big trees remain across the province. Overlaying the locations of these at-risk forests and the 353,000 hectares where logging has been deferred shows only 6,000 hectares of old-growth forests that belong to these at-risk stands received temporary protection.
7. Defer logging of all at-risk old-growth, not only select areas
As described above, there is value in deferring logging in larger areas that also include some forests that are currently not at risk. But ignoring the thousands of smaller unprotected areas of at-risk old-growth forests is not an option. They need a coherent interim solution approach. The independent panel recommendation is clear: “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.” They also describe in detail which forests are at risk and the values they hold. They did not suggest choosing some of these at-risk areas and allowing logging to continue in the rest.
In addition to the deferral areas, the panel also recommended the use of various other mechanisms to defer logging of at-risk areas, including:
Instruct BC Timber Sales (the provincial agency responsible for a fifth of the volume logged on public land) to cease development and defer selling timber in these areas;
Request authorized tenure holders to voluntarily defer development;
Decline to authorize new permits or licences in deferral areas; and
If necessary, establish regulatory provisions and incentives to enable deferrals.
They also wrote “Act on this recommendation as quickly as possible.” But despite having four months with the panel report, the province has not used the full range of options to defer logging at this point.
The panel also recommended bringing management of old-growth forests into compliance with existing provincial targets and guidelines for maintaining biological diversity as an immediate response to help stem biodiversity loss. The panel goes on to describe a number of failures and uncertainties surrounding old-growth forests that are still being logged, despite strong evidence that they should be saved to meet existing requirements. This is an unacceptable situation that requires an immediate precautionary approach that defers logging of certain types of old-growth, until clarity and certainty that the right forests are protected exists.
The Goat River valley near Prince George is one of the few remaining intact inland rainforest areas in B.C. but is not included in the initial list of deferral areas. Photo by Taylor Roades
8. The Special Tree regulation is weak but precedent setting. It must be improved
The B.C. government also announced a Special Tree regulation. While the number of trees set aside is small and thus have largely been ignored by the media and commentators, this regulation is significant and precedent setting. The regulation lists 11 tree species that are now automatically protected (with a one hectare buffer around them) if they are of a certain size regardless of whether they exist on public or private lands. Anyone who violates this regulation by cutting these large trees down will be fined. The province estimates that the regulation will result in up to 1,500 trees being set aside.
However, a huge number of the last big old trees across the province will not be saved by this regulation — even though they are massive old trees — because their diameter is below what is required to trigger the regulation. In other words, the minimum diameter is set too high.
There is overwhelming support for protection of the last big old trees. The Special Tree Regulation can play an important part of the solution for the last old-growth but must be amended to capture drastically more of the last big old-trees as well as more tree species.
Jens Wieting crouches inside a Vancouver Island stump. It’s the length of a small car but does not meet the diameter requirement spelled out in B.C.’s Special Tree Protection Regulation for western red cedars.
9. The old-growth panel calls for changing forest management overall, not just for old-growth
What came through loud and clear in the independent panel’s recommendations is the need to transform forest stewardship overall – not just how we relate to old-growth – and supports communities through the necessary shift away from logging old-growth.
The panel recommends that we declare the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity of B.C.s forests an overarching priority, replacing the timber-focus of current provincial laws.
In fact, the B.C. government was preparing to make such a change to the forestry laws earlier this year, however the changes were delayed and then put on hold due to the election.
The panel also recommended programs to develop forestry alternatives to clearcutting, in order to maintain old forest values. This would be a crucial step to end a form of management that results too often in a complete loss of old-growth across vast landscapes, fully changed to uniform, young forests. The panel recognized that significant economic restructuring will be required to support forest sector workers and communities as we shift to a new forest management system.
Dakota Smith of the Ma’amtagila First Nation sits in his traditional territory on northern Vancouver Island. This stand of old growth is the last remaining valley-bottom forest in the Tessium Creek drainage on northern Vancouver Island. Photo by Louis Bockner
The door cracked open a little bit. What happens next depends on us
The independent old growth panel heard from people from all sectors and all parts of the province. Their report, based on all they heard, provides a path for a paradigm shift, safeguarding the web of life, respecting Indigenous governance and supporting a transition for the forestry sector; a plan that can be implemented by the next B.C. government and Indigenous governments within three years, before we chart even more dangerous climate and extinction risks.
A few days after the provincial announcement, the Ministry of Forests confirmed that the proposed cutblock with the stunning 1,500-year old yellow cedar I visited in August has been deferred for at least a year. Having visited this magical forest and its ancient trees recently, this hopeful news was more emotional for me than much of the information conveyed by the numbers in this article.
Every single tree of similar age in this part of the world has lived through more seasons and stories than any human being ever will. Every tree left standing can touch countless human and non-human beings, present and future generations, in myriads of unmeasurable ways. The decisions communities and governments will need to make about the last groves with huge old trees must weigh the short-term and long-term benefits of logging them or leaving them standing. What will these decisions tell us about our ability to respond to the danger of global tipping points for ecosystems and the climate?
The first steps taken by the B.C. government before the election — the initial deferral areas and Special Tree Regulation — give a little reason for hope but are vastly insufficient. We must use this post-election transition time to ask for full commitment to implementing and funding all of the panel’s recommendations. The door to ecosystem protection and a liveable future has cracked open just a little and we will need all the energy, good will and perseverance we can muster to work together to open it and walk through it before there is nothing left to sustain us on the other side.