Gov’t seeking public input on Ancient Forest

The Ancient Forest has its own aura.

At least that's how Nowell Senior explains the special connection volunteers and visitors have with the temperate rainforest an hour east of Prince George that boasts giant red cedars, representing some of the largest in the province.

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"It's a globally unique site," said Senior, president of the Caledonia Ramblers Hiking Society, which spearheaded the drive to protect the area and make it a public site.

"People do not expect to come across an inland temperate rain forest between two mountain ranges so far from the ocean or so far north."

In the last two years, more than 200 volunteers have helped construct 4,500 feet of plank pathway to make the trail more accessible after the wear and tear of so many visitors.

Last year, there were 15,000 visitors, a tally the group tracks through trail heat sensors - a huge jump from the few thousand that visited when it launched in 2006.

Visitors signing the guest book span 43 countries, 38 states, and blanket Canada, Senior said.

They can take the loop or use a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, completed in 2013.

This September marked the end of the trail's second phase, a labour-intensive project that saw workers carry 120 tons of material by hand to finish the loop.

That feat coincided with the start of regional public consultations organized by the provincial government.

The public consultation events are as follows:

Oct. 8, 5 - 7 p.m. at the Lheidli T'enneh band office.

Oct. 13, 5 - 7 p.m. at the Robson Valley Community Centre.

Oct. 14, 4:30 - 6:30 p.m. at the Dome Creek Community Hall.

Oct. 15, 7 - 9 p.m. at the Prince George Civic Centre.

The public can also email comments to ancientforest@gov.bc.ca before 4 p.m. on Nov. 2.

The October meetings follow a July agreement between the province, Lheidli T'enneh First Nation and the Caledonia Ramblers.

"It's really to get feedback from our community on how they feel about the Ancient Forest, about its potential, why it is unique, what the ramifications are going to be for our region should the area become designated as a provincial park or as a protected area," said Senior, whose ultimate goal is to have the forest, with its 1,000-year-old trees, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"The first step is to obtain a greater degree of protection for that area and that's exactly what the provincial government is doing."

"Chun Toh Whud U Jud is part traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation, and we appreciate the community interest in helping us preserve this important part of our cultural heritage," said Chief Dominic Frederick in the release. "We invite people from across the region to help us protect the natural splendor of the forest and continue to celebrate and honour it."

Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond said protection was a "community effort" in the consultation announcement from Forests Minister Steve Thomson.

"We want First Nations and community partners to have a real voice in the management and protection of the Ancient Forest," Thomson said in Tuesday's release. "The public meetings will make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and help preserve ecosystems, wildlife habitat and cultural values of this remarkable ecosystem."

Said Senior of government: "They've listened and they've realized it does qualify (as a heritage site) and that would be a wonderful thing for the region."

Next year, Senior said the group will widen the existing trail, and add more wooden pathway leading to the waterfall.

"We have a 900-foot stretch going up to the falls that's badly eroded - it's full of slippery rocks," said Senior.

Senior estimates some 6,500 hours of volunteer labour has gone into the last four years and said no matter the intensity of work, it always gets done.

"The feedback we get is so positive. People are just in awe of the place, and equally in awe of the volunteer work that's being done. They just shake their heads when they see just how much material is being carried by volunteers day after day."

Even so, they're hoping to lighten the load next year.

"We're getting a little tired of carrying so we're really hoping to get the help of the helicopter next year to drop the material at two high spots."

Sponsors have given close to $300,000 in grants and donations, including McBride Community Forest Corporation, which donated the shipping of lumber costs.

The story has been updated to include the revised public consultation times. 

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