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A BC Forest Policy for the 21st Century

New laws needed for balanced protection of a vital resource. Latest in a series.

Jessica Clogg 6 Apr

Jessica Clogg is the Executive Director and Senior Counsel at West Coast Environmental Law.

special series in co-operation with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria reveals what leading experts in environmental law say are needed improvements for protecting natural B.C. To read all their recommendations, download the free electronic publication Maintaining Natural British Columbia for Our Children: Selected Law Reform Proposals. Today: safeguarding the future of British Columbia's forests.]

The current crisis in our forests challenges each of us to consider what type of future we want for B.C.

What is the right direction, in a province where our identity is so closely linked to our vast forests, salmon rivers and diverse species; where some of our forests may hold their greatest future value as storehouses of living carbon and the source of critical ecosystem services like flood control and clean water; where First Nations are increasingly retaking their rightful role in decision-making about their ancestral lands; and where communities are tired of important decisions affecting their lives being made in corporate boardrooms far from home?

Regrettably, the policy options presented recently to a Legislative Committee were simply a super-charged version of the status quo: from strengthening corporate timber rights to logging areas reserved for biodiversity, wildlife and scenic values. This is a status quo where forestry laws are focused on maximizing the production of timber and where environmental regulation continues to be seen as "red tape" constraining the rights of licensees.

This can be observed in the continued dominance of clear-cut logging (96 per cent of harvesting today), and the dramatically elevated allowable annual cut in recent years to facilitate "salvage" logging of mountain-pine-beetle affected areas.

In 2004, the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA) stripped the Forest Service of its stewardship mandate and placed key decision making in the hands of industry. FRPA objectives for environmental and other non-timber values are too vague to be meaningful -- and may only be implemented to the extent that they do not "unduly reduc[e] the supply of timber from British Columbia's forests." Cutblock plans no longer require government approval -- a move that turned the clock back decades in terms of oversight of the forest industry.

Forestry laws principally oriented towards timber extraction have come at a cost to the natural life support systems provided by our forests, a cost which is becoming increasingly acute as a result of climate change. While the so-called "social contract" that required companies to operate processing facilities as a condition of access to timber supply is long gone, the rights held by timber companies have become even more secure.

For decades, the government's own analysis has forecast that harvest levels from second-growth forests in B.C. will be much lower than current harvest levels (which include logging our legacy of old growth forests). Yet BC has continued to careen toward this point as if the party would never end. But now climate change -- with the resulting rapid harvesting of beetle-affected areas -- has brought us to a moment where industry has set its sights on logging the small percentage of lands reserved for conservation of old growth forest, wildlife habitat and similar values.

If we do not pause now to consider the implications of the course we are on, our options for the future, and those of our children, may be irreparably harmed. Clearcutting the last remnants of forest reserved for non-timber values only takes us further down a path of no return.

It is time for us to take the future in our hands as British Columbians. There is no shortage of smart, well-researched and well-supported proposals for reform, from blue ribbon panels and citizen initiatives to the Forest Solutions for Sustainable Communities Act proposed a decade ago. There are consistent themes to these proposals over time: We'd be wise to listen:

Get to the root of the problem: the laws that give large companies control over most of our forests:

For example, the proposed Forest Solutions for Sustainable Communities Act called for redistribution of logging rights to create a new social contract in BC's forests and provide greater opportunities for First Nations, communities and local jobs.

Furthermore, in the 21st century, laws regarding logging rights and forest management need to keep pace with new economic opportunities, for example from carbon markets, and give due priority to the key ecological services provided by nature, particularly in the face of climate change.

Manage for resilient forests and resilient communities:

We need laws that best safeguard the long-term health of B.C.'s forest ecosystems from the cumulative effects of past, present and future resource development and climate change. The Forest Solutions for Sustainable Communities Act, proposed legislating a "public trust for sustainability," which would affirm that the provincial government holds our forests in trust for current and future generations, subject to the constitutionally protected rights of First Nations. It proposes entrenching a right to clean water, to clean air and to ecological integrity, in statute; requiring government to give effect to these rights; and providing mechanisms for citizens to directly enforce them.

No less important are effective public monitoring, planning and enforcement. To this end, one recent proposal calls for a more independent office of the Chief Forester, to oversee the well-being of our forests.

New mechanisms for local self-determination and community benefit:

Over the years, the benefits of forestry on "public" lands have slipped away from local communities. First Nations have rarely benefited. Reform proposals range from vastly expanding area-based First Nations and community tenures, to introducing new models of regional/local decision-making and the creation of transparent regional log markets located as locally as possible to where timber is harvested. The ban on the export of raw logs in Part 10 of the Forest Act needs to be honoured or strengthened.

Improve provisions for environmental stewardship, sustainability and accountability:

Management objectives for the environment need to be based on the best available science and Indigenous knowledge, take climate change into account, and be legally established rather than left to industry discretion. In turn, logging plans that give effect to these objectives need to have meaningful content so the public and governments, including First Nations governments, can tell what's going on.

Agencies need authority to approve and reject forestry plans, consistent with sound resource stewardship objectives. Accountability mechanisms should be available to businesses and citizens affected by logging, through more inclusive planning and rights of appeal to the Forest Appeals Commission or other tribunal. Forest practices standards on private land need to properly protect the public interest in water, fish, endangered species and other non-private environmental values. B.C. has a forestry law system that is stuck in the last century, and is no longer serving BC communities.

By way of contrast, a recent report from the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC), whose members include British Columbia and the states of California, Oregon and Washington, reported that the "clean economy" in the region is "the single most important global opportunity on the medium-term horizon with revenues expected to reach $2.3 trillion by 2020."

"Environmental protection and resource management" is flagged as one of three key sectors of the "clean economy" that stand out for their job growth potential. The PCC report finds that "emerging opportunities for employment gains in this sector "are linked directly to conservation, ecosystem restoration, and climate adaptation initiatives" [emphasis added].

These conclusions suggest that creating forest jobs for our children will mean rethinking forestry laws that put timber extraction first—and planning for more diverse community economic and business opportunities from forest lands that can be sustained over the long term.

The challenges faced by our forest sector are substantial, but keeping our heads in the sand for another few years will not produce solutions. It's time to move forward with reforming our forestry laws for the 21st century.

For more information, see:

Jessica Clogg. West Coast Environmental Law Submission to the Special Committee on Timber Supply. West Cost Environmental Law.

The Forest Solutions for Sustainable Communities Act: A Summary of Draft Citizens' Legislation. (website content is historical)

A Conversation on BC Forests. Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.

Failure to Protect: Grading Canada's Species at Risk Laws.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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