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This month’s election could decide the fate of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests

In 1993, Vancouver Island was the site of the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The Clayoquot Sound protests saw the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and Ahousaht First Nation—supported by local residents and environmental activists—set up a series of blockades against clearcutting in the area.

This action was one of the first instances of demonstrations against old-growth forest destruction on modern Vancouver Island.

The provincial government at the time, an NDP majority led by Mike Harcourt, responded by introducing wide-reaching forestry regulations—but their work was quickly undone when the NDP lost to the B.C Liberal party in 2003.

Under the Liberal government, which held power from 2003 to 2017, the forest industry was deregulated, local paper mills were deprioritized, and old-growth forests were left defenceless.

Old-growth forests are typically between 200 and 2,000 years old. Unlike younger forests, the structure of an old-growth forest promotes a higher level of biodiversity—with increased natural sunlight, room for different species, and better moisture—and is a more ideal ecosystem for plant and animal life.

For example, bigger, older trees have been shown to have a better capacity for capturing carbon than immature trees, making them important players in regulating the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This also means that trees in old-growth forests are larger, healthier, and, if logged, can be sold at a higher price than newer-growth timber.

In 2017, a new NDP minority government came to power in the province and gave environmental activists on Vancouver Island hope that old-growth forest protection would be a priority once again.

Although new provincial leaders took a more well-rounded approach to forestry, with an emphasis on sustainable forest management, multiple old-growth areas on Vancouver Island continue to be logged and developed.

94 per cent of old-growth forests across B.C. are on crown lands and are therefore the provincial governments to either develop or preserve.

According to the B.C. government, there are currently more than 25 million hectares of old growth forests in the province. 840,125 of these hectares are on Vancouver Island.

As of 2018, Vancouver Island’s existing old-growth forests represent only 21 per cent of what originally existed on the Island.

Protestors block the road into Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island. Cars, seats, and tents line the side of the roads. Signs hanging from rope read, "Old growth action now," "worth more standing," "save fairy creek," and "ancient forests forever."
Protestors block the road into Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island. Photo courtesy of: Tyler Hay/Oceanside News

Environmental activism in favour of old-growth protection has ramped up in the past few months, with different demonstrations across Vancouver Island calling for government action.

Fairy Creek, the last intact watershed of Vancouver Island’s San Juan River system, has been blockaded by protesters since early August. In Nanaimo, BC, two environmental activists went on hunger strike for two weeks to demand an end to old-growth logging.

Public calls have also been made for further First Nations involvement in ongoing forestry decision-making.

Charlene Higgins, CEO of the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council, told Canadian environmental publication The Narwhal that the council hasn’t been involved in adequate consultations with the B.C. government regarding old-growth decisions.

Now, with the province embroiled in a snap election and old-growth forestry a concern for many Vancouver Island voters, provincial leaders are deciding the future of B.C. forestry one platform at a time.

Here’s what each provincial party has to say about forestry and Vancouver Island conservation.


The NDP

The NDP currently holds a minority government in B.C. and is predicted to win the upcoming Oct. 24 provincial election and form a majority government.

Leading up to the election being called, the NDP made moves to protect some old-growth areas across B.C. and on Vancouver Island. Specifically, they committed to protecting 353,000 hectares of forests with old-growth trees from logging in a two-year deferral.

Deferrals involve halting all development in an area to allow for consultation and planning. In this case, the B.C. government has promised to consult with Indigenous communities in certain regions about protecting old-growth forests.

Three of the nine newly-protected regions—H’Kusam Mountain, McKelvie Creek, and Clayoquot Sound—are on Vancouver Island.

These deferrals are based on the recommendations of an independent panel report called “A New Future for Old Forests,” released by the B.C. Ministry of Forests on Sept. 11.

In addition to announcing its protection of forests containing old-growth areas, the provincial government has promised to take “a new, holistic approach as a first step for the benefit of all British Columbians to protect old-growth forests.”

Environmental activists in B.C. have responded to these deferrals with criticism.

Jens Wieting, a senior forest and climate campaigner for Sierra Club BC, an environmental action group focused on protecting ecosystems and ensuring a stable climate, believes the B.C. government can do more.

“The initial steps that the B.C. government have offered […] are insufficient,” Wieting told The Pigeon in an interview. “We need additional deferrals for many of the remaining intact old growth areas that are threatened by imminent logging across B.C.”

Deferrals, Wieting explained, are only effective if they lead to in-depth explorations and concrete change.

“Deferral areas can be a really helpful mechanism to allow time for Indigenous decision makers and the B.C. government to identify long term solutions,” Wieting said. “But we also need to make sure that it will be sufficient time.”

“Two years will pass quickly. And it would be much better to have some buffer and allow for deferral for three or four years”

Wieting said the independent report on old-growth forests made concrete recommendations for immediate action, but the current provincial framework isn’t incorporating them.

“We have a really strong panel report with comprehensive recommendations,” he explained. “With leadership from [the] government, this can be an opportunity to address this crisis within three years.”

Moving into the election, the NDP has made broad commitments to furthering forestry protection in its platform.

“In collaboration with Indigenous leaders, labour, industry, and environmental groups, we will implement recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review to protect further old-growth stands—in addition to the 353,000 hectares we protected in September,” the platform document states.

Neither the party’s platform nor NDP leader John Horgan’s public statements have outlined concrete steps towards increased protection for old-growth areas.

The platform also mentions prioritizing forestry workers by keeping timber processing in-province, specifically to secure more B.C. forestry jobs.

“We will dedicate a specific portion of the annual allowable cut towards higher value producers who can demonstrate their ability to create new jobs for workers in B.C.,” it reads. 

On the campaign trail, Horgan has promised a “paradigm shift” in old-growth forest management.

Last week during a campaign stop, he told reporters the B.C. NDP was “committed to implementing the [old growth] report in its totality,” but has yet to define a timeline for government action going forward.


The Liberal Party

The B.C. Liberal party is poised to continue in its role as the NDP’s official opposition after this weekend’s election.

The Liberals have been staunch critics of the NDP government’s forestry decisions since losing their hold on the provincial government in 2017, and their 2020 platform reflects this.

Although some of their platform commitments—like enhancing the province’s tree-planting efforts and reducing greenhouse gas emissions—highlight conservation, the Liberal platform largely focuses on the economic needs of B.C. forestry workers.

“Under the NDP, since the start of 2019, there have been 45 full or partial mill closures in BC,” the platform reads. “Over 10,000 workers have lost their jobs in BC’s forest industry.”

In 2019, at a Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson told communities that lost sawmill employment that the NDP saw them as “expendable.” In the same speech, he said the provincial leadership needed to do more for the forest industry.

On Oct. 2, in a campaign stop in Merritt, B.C., Wilkinson buckled down in his support of the province’s natural resource extraction industries, stating that “permitted projects” like the Trans Mountain pipeline “should not be blocked by protesters.”

Regarding forestry, Wilkinson said that a Liberal government would prioritize using B.C. forests as a resource for economic growth, alleging the current NDP leaders have left forestry workers feeling unsure.

“We’ll introduce legislation to protect the working forest, because there’s no certainty in the B.C. forest industry these days,” he said.


The Green Party

The Green party has used this campaign period to pressure NDP action regarding climate change and ecological preservation.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Sonia Furstenau, the leader of the B.C. Green party, said the NDP needs to take concrete action to preserve old-growth forests in the province before it’s too late.

“We’re down to [having] very little old growth forest left,” she said. “Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back.”

This sense of urgency is reflected in the Greens’ platform, calling for “an immediate end to the logging of old-growth forests in high-risk ecosystems across the province.”

“Those old growth forests are a very significant factor in why people want to live in this province,” Furstenau said. “And if we wipe out the assets that are so significant, not only to us in British Columbia, but to people around the world, we’re abrogating our responsibility on so many levels.”

“We know what the future looks like. And we can either just carry on and wait for that future to arrive […] or we can make changes.”

Making said changes largely involves implementing the full slate of recommendations made in September’s old-growth panel report. Although the NDP says it will gradually incorporate these recommendations, Furstenau said the leading party’s inaction in its last term shows neglect.

“I cannot imagine how anybody thinks that it’s ‘governance’ to know that you’re doing an activity that is not only going to be the end of a very important natural asset […] but is also going to, in the end, make the industry obsolete,” she said.

“Despite promising to do things differently, the NDP have not changed, in any substantial way, the status quo of forestry management in this province,” the Green Party platform states. “Over the last 3.5 years, the cutting of old growth has continued as fast as it did under the BC Liberals, and they have failed to make any meaningful reforms to how forestry is managed.”

Furstenau explained that moving forward, the NDP should not only make a firmer commitment to protecting old-growth forests, but to prioritizing First Nations decision makers and industries, as well.

A growing number of First Nations are involved in the forestry processing industry, like the Pacheedaht First Nation situated along the southwest edge of Vancouver Island. The Pacheedaht have succeeded in taking ownership of neighbouring forests and benefit from the extraction of resources on their traditional lands.

According to Furstenau, the B.C. provincial government should support First Nations taking ownerships of other, more sustainable economic ventures, too.

“The NDP have basically decided that the economic support for the First Nations in coastal communities [comes] in the form of mills that can only handle old growth trees,” she said. “And so [they’ve] kind of limited the options with the economic support [they’ve] given.”

At the end of the day, Furstenau and the rest of the Green Party members hope to see a larger commitment to preserving B.C. old growth.

“We have to be clear about the future we’re trying to build,” she said.


The Conservative Party

Unlike other provinces, the Conservatives don’t hold much sway in B.C. This year, however, votes for them could mean a split vote in key ridings, making it important to understand how this party differs from the majority of provincial politics.

Although the B.C. Conservative party didn’t develop a platform document specifically for this election, its Feb. 2020 policy standards lay out how a Conservative government would handle the province’s forests.

With the goal of “optimizing benefits,” a Conservative-led B.C. government would “generate wealth through forest products including wood for industrial uses, wildlife, water, fisheries range and recreation.”

Some proposals for forest management and conservation efforts are included, but mainly with the goal to continue growing trees for industry processing.

The B.C. Conservative party is the only provincial party mentioned in this piece to not propose First Nations involvement in forestry-related consultations. Instead, they would conduct “comprehensive open consultations between government, industry and public users of forest land to develop long-term objectives for forest land management and its yield of differing resources.”

In a press release on the B.C. Conservative’s website, party leader Trevor Bolin reinforced his party’s commitment to forest processing, not forest protection.

“We must change old policies to be competitive, and we must form new partnerships and new ways to get finished products to market,” Bolin wrote.


A blue painted plank of wood leans against a tree stump. Written on the plank are the words, "Old growth," with a drawing of a heart underneath.
A sign at the Fairy Creek blockade. Photo courtesy of: Tyler Hay/Oceanside News

No matter who runs the provincial government, Wieting hopes to see old-growth forests preserved with more consideration that they’ve been given to date.

He told The Pigeon the conservation effort especially needs to come from a place of Indigenous decision making and forward thought.

“What we really need from the next B.C. government […] is a commitment to work with Indigenous decision makers to work through these recommendations [and] immediate steps to address at-risk ecosystems, particularly the 400,000 hectares of remaining old growth with big trees,” Wieting said.

“Without immediate steps, there will be not much left to safeguard for the future.”

Furstenau wants voters to remember that, while B.C. is proud of its natural resource workers, a transition away from resource extraction is the only way forward.

“Yes, 100 hundred years ago, B.C. was a very resource dependent economy,” she said. “We are not anymore.”

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Tegwyn Hughes
Tegwyn is a Queen’s University graduate with a BAH in History, and has previously worked as a staff member at The Queen’s Journal and as Editorial Director of Spoon University Queen’s. Her journalism interests include lifestyle, intimacy, and health. Most days you can find Tegwyn with 100 tabs open on her laptop and an iced coffee in her hand. She’s also a Virgo, which tells you a lot.