By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

B.C.’s new forests minister will introduce legislation this year to make ecosystem health and biodiversity an overarching, legal priority, and said sector stakeholders must move past divisiveness to work together, while some Indigenous leaders wonder what changes lie ahead for First Nations.

“We have to…make sure we find consensus on the future of old growth forests in BC, so that not only will we have old growth for generations to come, we will also have an industry for generations to come.” said Katrine Conroy, minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development. Pictured here in October 2016. / BC NDP photo

“We have to have a break from that divisive past where companies in some ways did what they wanted. Well, they can’t now; we need to all work together,” Katrine Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource

Operations and Rural Development, said in an interview with the Goat in January. “Everyone I’ve talked to recognizes that. We need to involve everybody in the sector to make sure that it’s being done properly.”
Legislating the conservation of ecosystem health and biodiversity as a priority across the sectors was one of 14 recommendations from an independent review of old growth management released by the government in September 2020.

The report—A New Future for Old Forests—noted a paradigm shift had occurred in how society viewed the natural environment, and forestry management needed to adapt accordingly. Instead of managing forests for timber, “subject to constraints,” they needed to be managed for ecosystem health, the report stated.

“We’re going to implement the report,” Conroy said, echoing a commitment made by Premier John Horgan last October that his government would implement all the recommendations.
Legislation will be introduced in the spring or fall 2021 session. Forest sector policy and legislation needs to ensure sustainable futures for all stakeholders, Conroy said.

“We need to protect the vital biodiversity that the old growth represents, but we still need to support workers and communities,” said Conroy. “We have to have the full involvement of our Indigenous leaders, the industry, the environmental groups, to make sure that we find consensus on the future of old growth forests in B.C.”

The number one recommendation of the report called for the full involvement of Indigenous leaders and organizations in reviewing any policy, strategy, and implementation that flowed from it.

“That’s critical,” said Conroy. “We’ve started to book those meetings, making sure that we have those really important government-to-government discussions.”

Indigenous nations should have been involved before the recommendations were developed, not after, said Dr. Charlene Higgins, CEO of the BC First Nations Forestry Council.

“That’s not how you involve rights holders,” Higgins said. “Nations want to be heard as part of the process, not after the fact.”

Indigenous governments and communities were invited, along with other forestry stakeholders and British Columbians in general, to participate in the old growth review, which ultimately garnered feedback from almost 30,000 people or organizations.

The forestry council’s 2019 forest strategy called for a collaborative approach between the Province and nations on forest governance and stewardship, including First Nations’ involvement in policy development and any legislative or regulatory review. Forestry management should also shift from “timber-centric” to “values-based,” according to a recent forestry council report.

“The whole framework of (forestry management practices) was set up to manage for timber supply first,” said Higgins. She wondered whatl the new legislation will include. Ideally, the legislation will give Indigenous people the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the use of their lands and resources, as per the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, she said.

Going forward, the forestry council wants to work with government to engage nations directly for their recommendations on a new old growth management regime, Higgins said. “Many nations have their own strict policies for protecting old growth.”

In Saik’uz First Nation, near Vanderhoof, the last 20 years have seen a high uptake in logging, and biodiversity has taken a hit, said Acting Chief Jacqueline Thomas.

In 2018, Saik’uz Council decided to preserve the biodiversity it had left. Relying on scientific analysis and local knowledge, it pinpointed the areas of highest biodiversity and the places of greatest risk. Then the nation asked forestry companies to avoid those spots.

“(Some) industry people will meet with us and take that time to do it,” said Thomas. “We will work with them to change the shape of the block… to protect certain areas.”

The biggest forestry companies are less cooperative.

“I’m calling on the government to work with us, so we can engage the nations to truly get their input on a new approach to old growth management,” said B.C. First Nations Forestry Council CEO Dr. Charlene Higgins. / TANGERINE PHOTOGRAPHY

“We’ve had discussions, to no avail, never mind trying to meet block-by-block,” said Thomas, not wanting to name specific companies. “I try to work with everybody.”

Still, getting information is like pulling teeth sometimes, she said. “But it’s been like that for decades. It’s not anything new.”

“That’s concerning,” said Conroy when told of the situation. After a couple months as minister, she’d met with some of the major industry players. “I didn’t have anybody that said they weren’t willing to work with nations in the communities where they are actively practicing.”

Industry understands that Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People Act (DRIPA) is a legislated part of our government, Conroy said. “They recognize that this is the 21st century, and we need to move forward on this; it’s not something they can stall on.”

Lheidli T’enneh Nation Chief Clay Pountney says his members are divided on what’s best for forestry in their territory, which stretches east of Prince George, but he’s optimistic the new provincial government is listening.

“I think we’re in a weird time where we’re both learning from each other, learning how the government works with industry, and learning how First Nations fit within that,” said Pountney, whose goal is to retain 50 per cent of stumpage rates on trees that leave Lheidli territory. Currently, many northern B.C. nations get one to three per cent, he said.

“Government is starting to talk to us about these issues,” said Pountney. “We have to work with industry partners, and also the ministry, to ensure that our values are looked at as well.

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]