Conservationists demand fast action from B.C.'s new forestry minister on protection for old-growth trees

·4 min read

Stark photos released this week by a conservation group pushing hard for the province to protect what remains of B.C.'s largest and oldest trees is just one point of pressure the province's new forestry minister is facing as she comes into the job.

On Thursday, MLA for Kootenay-West Katrine Conroy was appointed minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, taking over from Doug Donaldson, who did not seek reelection.

Two days earlier, the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) released dramatic before and after photographs of massive cedar trees on Vancouver Island, where they were logged as part of a government-approved tree harvesting licence.

It's a technique the AFA has often used to illustrate the impact of logging in areas where trees can be up to 1,000 years old.

TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance
TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance

The term old growth in B.C. refers to trees that are generally 250 years or older on the coast and 140 years or older in the Interior.

The trees have significance to First Nations, they are good for the environment, help to clean air and water, store carbon and house other plants and animals.

But they are also prized by loggers for their monetary value.

Andrea Inness, a campaigner with the AFA, says the latest round of photos taken by TJ Watt have been shared hundreds of times on social media, with comments from people asking the province to end the practise of cutting down the large, iconic trees.

"[People] are sick and tired of seeing photographs like that," said Inness.

In taking on the forestry portfolio, Conroy — who has represented the West Kootenays for 15 years, and was minister of children and family development from 2017 — has clear direction in her mandate letter to give conservationists like Inness what they want, but maybe not in time to save the trees that remain.

The letter calls for her to implement 14 recommendations announced in September by a special panel, which travelled the province for months speaking with conservationists, unions, First Nations and the public to ask about the ecological, economic and cultural importance of old-growth trees and forests and how they fit into a new forestry strategy for B.C.

The panel's most time-sensitive recommendation was to defer the cutting of old-growth forests most at risk of "irreversible biodiversity loss."

In presenting the report from the panel, the province did announce the temporary protection of 353,000 hectares of forest in nine old-growth areas.

Conservationists like Inness and Jens Wieting, a forest and climate campaigner with Sierra Club B.C., were initially pleased with the move, but maintain such a small number of these special trees remain in the province that if more dramatic action is not taken immediately, an insignificant amount could remain by the time the province comes up with a new forestry strategy.

"We have to look at their willingness to quickly defer more old growth from logging," he said.

TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance
TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance

An independent ecological consulting firm used provincial data in the spring to determine that while old-growth forests make up about 23 per cent of forested areas in the province — or about 13.2 million hectares — less than three per cent, or around 400,000 hectares, support biologically significant old-growth trees.

Sierra Club B.C. estimates that more than 140,000 hectares of old-growth forests — those with trees at least 120 years old — are logged each year along the B.C. coast and in the Interior.

"We all know the data now, we all know that old-growth logging needs to come to an end," said Inness. "The government just needs to listen and start acting."

Money required

Both Wieting and Inness estimate the province would need to spend about $1 billion to meet the 14 recommendations, which include involving Indigenous leaders in future decisions and declaring the conservation of "ecosystem health and biodiversity" an overarching priority for the province.

That would need to include money to help First Nations assess the resources on their lands and transition away from logging old-growth trees, something the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs wants.

"For years, the government has enabled a debilitating and dangerous system that expunges the irreplaceable cultural value of old-growth forests, viewing not the immense roots these ancient and giant trees have set in our First Nation communities to sustain our cultures and livelihoods, but rather the pecuniary value of these trees that must be exploited in the short-term," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a release in October.

Financial support will also be needed for communities currently dependent on old-growth logging as they transition away from it, which could be tough for the province considering it's facing a more than $12-billion deficit due to the pandemic.

Back in her days as an opposition MLA, Conroy frequently spoke up for the embattled logging communities she represents, saying the B.C. Liberals should have done more to achieve fair stumpage rates, reform forestry management, and encourage reforestation to help keep the industry viable.

The new minister did not respond to a request for comment before publication of this story.