Rob Shaw: By drafting some of its most dogged critics, the NDP government is either signalling it’s prepared to defer more forests – or making a huge mistake.
The B.C. government’s selection of a new panel on old growth forests is the first sign it’s actually preparing to move on the issue, after months of being hammered by critics, negative international press, and the arrest of more than 300 protesters at the flash point for the old growth forestry dispute in Fairy Creek.
Forests Minister Katrine Conroy announced a new five-person “Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel” that will help the government pinpoint the old growth forests at high risk of biodiversity loss that need to be protected from logging.
At first glance, this might look like the government is stalling.
After all, the province has been sitting on an expert report into old growth logging it received last spring that called for to “defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.” Its slow action on that recommendation has sparked the protests seen in places like Fairy Creek.
But the makeup of the new panel is the surest sign yet that the province may be preparing to act more decisively.
One of the panelists, professional forester Garry Merkel of the Tahltan Nation, co-wrote the first report last year that government has struggled to implement.
Three other panelists, Rachel Holt, Karen Price, and Dave Daust, authored a 2020 report that took a deep dive into the types of old growth forests still left in the province and how they could be protected from logging.
The remaining panelist, Lisa Matthaus, works as a forestry analyst for West Coast Environmental Law.
Combined, they hold immense knowledge and credibility on the file; an All-Star Team of old growth forest policy in B.C.
Conroy won’t be able to stuff their recommendations into a dusty filing cabinet and hope the public never sees them. Nor will she be able to assail their credibility on whatever forests they suggest be protected.
“We just want to ensure that we are using the best data available,” Conroy told reporters.
“And there’s been some, you know, interesting conversations around the data that we have.”
Leading those “interesting conversations” has been Holt, a Nelson-based ecologist who has spent the past few months very skillfully – and very publicly – ripping apart the 350,000 hectares of forests Conroy deferred from logging late last year in response to the first report.
Less than one per cent of what Conroy protected is actually what the public would consider traditional old growth forests, because large chunks of what she set aside are either not forested at all, don’t contain old trees, or don’t protect “productive” old growth most at risk of logging, Holt has said.
The BC Greens have used those arguments to hammer Conroy in the legislature during the spring session, putting both her and Premier John Horgan on the defensive.
By including Holt on the panel, government has drafted one of its most active critics. It’s like inviting the fox into the henhouse. Conroy is either preparing to act, or she’s made a costly mistake.
“We were working with really good science, but we were hearing from people that there was some questions about the science,” said Conroy.
“So by bringing in more experts, we can only ensure we have better science, that we have better information, that we have the data that’s needed to ensure that we’re looking at those biodiversities that need to be protected sooner than later.”
Conroy said she expects to “be able to announce more deferrals this summer.”
However, identifying the at-risk old growth forests with this new panel is just the first step.
Then the government must consult with First Nations, before – or if – it protects those forests.
Horgan has made clear he wants an Indigenous-led process, so that First Nations that choose to log in their traditional territories for their own economic reasons can continue to do so under their own integrated resource plans.
This tension is already at play around southwest Vancouver Island, where the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations have called on protesters at Fairy Creek to leave their lands while they develop their own resource plan that balances environmental protection with the economic benefits of logging.
The Huu-ay-aht sharply criticized the Ancient Forest Alliance last week for a report that called for an immediate end to old-growth logging, saying environmentalists continue to speak “without taking into consideration the constitutional rights and title of First Nations or their social, cultural or economic needs.”
The Huu-ay-aht has a joint partnership with Western Forests for logging in an area that stretches west of Port Renfrew, through Port Alberni and north of Ucluelet.
“The Ancient Forest Alliance report gives little consideration to the economic and social needs of First Nations,” the Huu-ay-aht said in a statement.
“Just like the rest of BC, we need to develop a strong and vibrant economy so we can look after the needs of our people. We will follow the guidance of our elders and citizens to make the decisions we think are right – we are asking others to respect that process and follow our direction on our territory.”
The conflict shows just how delicate and complex the old growth logging file is for the government.
The new panel is definitely a step forward for environmentalists seeking to protect more of the province’s ancient forests. And it’s a sign the government is preparing to defer more forests. But the path ahead is a complicated one for everyone involved.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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