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Forest policy paper gets mixed reviews

Slow progress criticized by Conservation North, targeted by MLA Bond

Time is ticking away as far as Michelle Connolly is concerned.

The member of Prince George-based environmental advocacy group Conservation North had hoped for something more concrete on how the provincial government plans to protect B.C.'s old growth.

Instead, it issued last week a list of intentions for stewardship of B.C.'s forests with old growth "relegated" to an appendix to the back of the document where a three-year timeline to develop a strategy was outlined.

"This is very disappointing," Connolly said. "They say they're going to do it by 2023 but things need to happen now."

The document was issued nearly nine months after the authors of a review of the state of old growth in B.C. issued 14 recommendations to better protect what remains of the stands and urged the government to act within six months.

While Premier John Horgan has promised to live up to those recommendations, the most assertive step so far came with the release of the review back in September when the province  temporarily deferred logging of 353,000 hectares spread over nine locations. 

The move drew faint praise from Conservation North, in part because just one of the spots is in northern B.C. but also because it was considered a token gesture that was not all it was purported to be as some locations were already under some form of protection.

In particular, the group has been fighting to gain protection from logging for the Anzac Valley and the cedar-hemlock forests of the Upper Fraser-River, commonly referred to as part of the inland temperate rainforest.

Conservation North has also taken issue with the numbers the government has been touting about how much old growth remains in B.C. They have "grouped productive and unproductive old growth together," Connolly said.

Also absent from the intentions paper, noted Connolly, was any specific reference to the need, as asserted by the Forest Practices Board in a January statement, of revamping the way business is done in the Prince George Timber Supply Area to better protect biodiversity.

Conservation North has maintained forest companies have used a loophole in the regulation to get around restrictions on logging old growth in the TSA and there is little forest district managers can do about it.

"It's a literal rubber stamp, once they've submitted a cutting permit," Connolly said.

That said, Connolly was encouraged by a statement in the document released last week that acknowledged managers across B.C. have "minimal discretion to refuse a permit" and that the government will "explore options" to give them more leeway when "important forest values, such as water, wildllfe and Indigenous heritage" come into play.

"That matters, because it's a foregone conclusion right now," Connolly said.

Connolly also worries that while the government has vowed to double to 20 per cent the amount of tenure under First Nations' authority, they're also being backed into a corner where they will be forced to log old growth to make ends meet.

Her comment echoes the position taken by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. In February UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was a signatory on a letter sent to the provincial government in February that, in part, calls for support to develop "conservation-based businesses and economies as an alternative to logging endangered old-growth forests."

In May, the provincial government hiked the apportionment of the Prince George TSA going to First Nations to 14.9 per cent from 3.6 per cent. 

During a media event last week, Takla First Nation Chief John French praised the step, saying the new apportionment amounts to 1.24 million cubic metres of timber. He said the move means First Nations will benefit from the resource "economically, spiritually and otherwise."

Horgan, meanwhile, made it clear that major changes are in store for the forest industry's biggest players - a message he has been sending for some time, notably in speeches at Council of Forest Industry conventions.

"We very much want the major players to continue to participate, but they have to understand that the old chasing volume is no long viable in a time of climate change," Horgan said and made reference to the fall down in timber supply due to the mountain pine beetle and wildfires.

"All of us need to look at this differently. There have been discussions around tenure reform for decades. Now is the time to make those steps forward."

Horgan's comments came after Prince George-based forest products producer John Brink spoke at the event. In order for B.C.'s forest industry to not only provide economic value but social value, he said there needs to be more secondary manufacturing. 

"It's not just about building products, it's about building local economies," Brink said. "By making more than dimension lumber, we can actually increase forest-relate jobs in British Columbia."

United Steelworkers wood council chair Jeff Bromley commended the government for issuing the intentions paper but also said he was "cautious about the impact" on the sector's good-paying jobs.

In a statement, COFI CEO Susan Yurkovich called the intentions paper important and that it is "time to recognize the challenges and opportunities we face along with the dynamic nature of forests and the forest industry."

B.C. Liberal interim leader and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond said caucus will "take the time to look at the intentions paper." 

"It is about finding a balance and it is a very complex process," Bond said. "We need to look at the inclusion of First Nations, we need to look at values on the land base, we need to think about this in the context of forest dependent communities."

She went on to criticize the NDP's go-slow approach to tackling the issue.

"We are four years in, a two-term government, and we get a intentions paper," Bond said.