By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Amid calls to protect jobs and old-growth ecosystems, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson leaned away from any drastic harvesting changes that would negatively affect forestry jobs, reserving judgement until the Old Growth Strategic Review findings cross his desk.

“I don’t want to presuppose any of the results that come out of the independent strategic review,” said Donaldson in an interview with The Goat in Victoria last week.

Last year, the provincial government hired a two-person panel to review the province’s old-growth strategy. The review called for submissions from British Columbians, asking what old-growth meant to them in terms of value, benefits, uniqueness, what was being managed well, and was not.

Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development in Victoria. /FRAN YANOR

“We want to understand the attributes of old-growth forests that people think are important and manage them accordingly,” said Donaldson, also the Minister of Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development.

Old-growth harvesting is a hot topic. More than 18,000 British Columbians filled out an online survey, and thousands more emailed and presented in-person to the province’s review panel. The input stage ended Jan. 31 of this year, and the panel is now sorting through a diverse array of perspectives from individuals, groups, companies, and local governments.

Of the many submissions posted publicly, opinions range from maintaining the status quo, expanding old-growth harvesting, to a full ban on logging trees older than a certain age.
“We need to”¦ shift away from logging these old-growth forests while we still have them.” said Michelle Connelly, director of Conservation North, a volunteer-run wildlife, plant, and habitat advocacy group based in Prince George. Conservation North has called for legal protection of old-growth trees of 250 year or older, and a moratorium on logging high biodiversity cedar forests of the Interior Rainforest, some of which extends through the Robson Valley.

“The stuff that I would call high-productivity is the old-growth that you imagine in your head as classic if you go to the Ancient Forest Park,” said Connelly. These are mainly bigger trees, such as Cedar Hemlock, some as old as 1,000 years-plus, often located along the lower slopes.

“We think this is one of the province’s obligations to just have ‘no-go’ zones,” said Connelly, whose group also recommends continued harvesting in non-old-growth forests. “And to absolutely not cave to this idea that ” everything that’s not currently in a protected area ought to be some kind of zone where industrial harvesting takes precedent over all other values (including) wildlife, climate change, traditional cultures, foraging for berries, any other sustainable economic options like tourism.”

Careful not to commit to a position ahead of the review results, Donaldson did seem to indicate a total ban of old-growth harvesting was off the table, “We could not transition to second-growth forests immediately without a tremendously negative impact”¦” he said. “People would lose their jobs, mills would shut down.”

Currently, about 27 per cent of the 200,000 hectares of forest harvested annually in B.C. is classified as old-growth. The interior north region harvests the most old-growth by area, at about 27,000 hectares per year, followed by the southern interior at 20,000 hectares, and the coast and Vancouver Island, harvesting less than 10,000 hectares each annually. About 3.6 million hectares of the total ‘timber harvesting land base’ in the province is old-growth. The timber harvesting land base represents the area considered economically feasible and permitted by the province for harvesting. It covers around 30 per cent of the total public forest in B.C.

“To us, if you cut the [old growth] cedar out and told us we can’t do it anymore, I guess you would take the remainder of our harvesting areas and… jobs out of the area,” said McBride mayor Eugene Runtz.

“This is not like old-growth on the coast where you get these really really old stands. Because of the fact that we have a much drier climate,” said Runtz. “You can’t compare coastal climate, coastal conditions to the interior.

It’s completely different.”

Without continued access to old-growth, Runtz fears for the survival of the McBride forestry sector. The village population is about 660 people. The closure of its largest mill 14 years ago still cuts deeply.

“When you start taking timber away for one reason or another the impacts are monumental,” said Runtz.

Forestry workers, particularly those relying on jobs in their own communities appear to hold sway with the government. Last month, several hundred people descended on the Legislature in Victoria to present Donaldson with an 8,000-signature petition demanding protection of a ‘working forest’ for loggers.

“We’re here to ask for the protection of our working forest in perpetuity,” Port MacNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom told demonstrators gathered on the Legislature lawn. The petition asked for current harvesting levels to be maintained, and the people in surrounding communities allowed continued access.

“We’re petitioning the government so our voices can be heard. Don’t turn your back on the people who work in the industry that provides so much,” Wickstrom told the cheering crowd, citing the billions of dollars through taxes, fees and stumpage that provide services for all British Columbians. “We need it protected not only for the jobs it provides but for the revenue it generates for the entire province.”

According to the B.C. government website, the forestry sector employs more than 50,000 people, supports 7,000 businesses, and is responsible for about one third of the commodity exports. In 2018, the forestry sector exported nearly $15 billion of total exports.

Addressing the foresters after Wickstrom, Donaldson said, “First and foremost, it’s the workers in the communities that have to benefit from the forests, the publicly-held trust that is the forest.” He promised to gather input from rural communities before implementing any of the old-growth review recommendations.

That message played well to the forestry workers, but less so to environmental groups listening from afar.

“There ought to be other things we can do besides wiping out our last old growth forests even for jobs,” said Connelly. “An old-growth forest is a really complex set of living and dead trees, light and dark, standing and fallen and it’s that complexity that gets eliminated when you log an area.”

“There’s many thousands of hectares of old-growth already set aside from industrial activity,” said Donaldson, who also cited new legislation in the works which will enact “landscape-level planning”¦ (to) manage the forest for a large number of values versus what happens now.” Currently, Donaldson said, the government receives forest stewardship plans from each licensee on the much smaller scale of a timber supply area.

Upcoming legislation aside, Connelly says while some old-growth is protected, it’s not enough. Old growth forests harbour pockets of biodiversity which protect water integrity, wildlife, and mitigate climate change, she said.

“You can grow a tree, but you can’t grow back an old-growth forest. They’re not replaceable, they’re not renewable.”

Views also differ on how much carbon old-growth forests capture and reduce from the atmosphere versus new seedlings and forests. But most stakeholders do agree forests perform an important function in fighting climate change and all the perspectives will be included in the review.

It seems impossible for the review panel to find a middle ground between such strong-minded and divergent views, but Donaldson seems undaunted. “That’s what I’m looking forward to,” he said, “hearing more in depth about not just people’s perspectives but their solutions around those two ends of the spectrum.”