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B.C. forests ministry says flooding, pandemic has affected First Nations consultations on old-growth deferrals

·4 min read
A couple are dwarfed by old growth tress as they walk in Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew, B.C., on Oct. 5, 2021. Early in November the province advised logging deferrals for two years while a more fulsome plan could be devised, and asked First Nations to decide within 30 days whether they support the deferral or if the plan required further discussion. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A couple are dwarfed by old growth tress as they walk in Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew, B.C., on Oct. 5, 2021. Early in November the province advised logging deferrals for two years while a more fulsome plan could be devised, and asked First Nations to decide within 30 days whether they support the deferral or if the plan required further discussion. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A 30-day deadline for B.C. First Nations to respond to a plan that calls for the deferral of old-growth logging in forests at risk of permanent biodiversity loss has passed while the province says the process has been affected by recent emergencies.

"Many communities have been impacted by the recent flooding and the ongoing pandemic," said the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in an email to CBC News.

On Nov. 2, the province shared the work of an independent panel of scientific experts that had mapped 26,000 square kilometres of at-risk old-growth. It advised logging deferrals for two years, while a more fulsome plan balancing conservation and industry could be devised.

At the time the province asked First Nations to decide within 30 days whether they support the deferral of logging in those areas or if the plan required further discussion.

The province is providing $12.7 million over three years to support First Nations through the process.

TJ Watt
TJ Watt

The elected chief of the Spuzzum First Nation, in the Fraser Canyon, which was cut off by landslides caused by catastrophic flooding over the past two weeks, said his nation has not seen any of the financial support promised for old-growth logging deferrals, nor has it had much time to consider what the deferrals may mean for the nation.

"It's been tough," said Chief James Hobart. "The deadlines are ridiculous. We can't keep up with what's going on."

Hobart says the nation is supportive of stopping old-growth logging in its territory, but doesn't have access to comprehensive mapping showing where forests have been logged and what's still standing.

"To us the $12 million is a drop in the bucket to all of the money that has been taken out of our unceded territories," he said. "It would be nice to hear from somebody to come to the table with us, but we haven't had that yet."

The province has not said how many responses it has received from First Nations in the past 30 days, but that it will be providing an update "on the initial responses it received," it said. New deferrals will be made public "as they are implemented," according to the ministry.

The Huu-ay-aht First Nation said in a statement on Wednesday that it will defer 96 per cent of the old forest identified as being at-risk by the scientific panel, while upholding its right to harvest in the remaining four per cent.

Since the announcement in November, First Nations and advocates have said the province's approach is too short to make informed decisions, and lacks clarity on economic impacts and potential compensation for nations that elect to set old-growth forests aside from logging.

Logging in areas marked for deferral

Meantime, new mapping from the conservation group Wilderness Committee shows that 50,000 hectares of old-growth forest the province has targeted for deferral have been approved for logging, are pending approval, and in some cases have already been logged.

It also said that around 2,000 hectares of cutblocks have been approved or applied for in the last month since the government's announcement about the at-risk areas.

"This is the tragedy of talk-and-log," said Torrance Coste for the Wilderness Committee in a release.

The province said that licensees with previously approved cutblocks within the 2.6 million hectares are legally authorized to harvest timber within the cutblocks.

"However, as deferral decisions are reached with First Nations rights and title holders, government will work with licence holders to temporarily halt timber harvesting in approved areas," said the province.

A harvesting permit can take on average 12 to 18 months to conclude, it said.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, along with organizations like the Wilderness Committee, want the province to immediately defer logging in all at-risk old-growth forests, compensate First Nations for any lost revenue in the short term, provide funding for long-term planning with nations, and provide immediate support for workers.

In fall 2020, the province announced the temporary deferral of harvesting across 196,000 hectares of old-growth forests in nine different areas.

In June, it approved a request from three Vancouver Island First Nations to defer logging across more than 2,000 hectares of old-growth forests in the Fairy Creek and Walbran areas.

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