Nakusp hosts BC Community Forest Association conference

While community forest managers say they are leading the way on sustainable forestry practices, they watch as major timber companies still take up most of BC's annual allowable cut. Community forests only get 3% of the allotted timber harvest, allowing big industry to cut the lion's share of trees.

This was the prevailing message at the BC Community Forest Association's conference held in Nakusp October 19-21.

"We talk about community forests demonstrating how to do that long-term stewardship on the landscape but we're unwilling to expand beyond the 3%," said Lori Daniels, director of the UBC Tree Ring Lab. "Frankly, in the timber harvesting land base where big industry is functioning, we're not seeing the kinds of quality forest stewardship that we want."

The assembly marked the 20th anniversary of the BCCFA and was the first in-person conference since 2019. Organizers expected about 120 attendees and ended up with close to 200. The conference brought together representatives of many of the province's 60 community forests to hear presentations from experts and provincial government officials.

The BCCFA invited leading experts to speak on such hot-button forestry topics as old-growth management, First Nations tenure ownership and wildfire resilience.

Old growth

Attendees and speakers expressed an overwhelming desire to end the old-growth deferrals that have been in place since November 2021. Always meant to be temporary until a better plan is developed, these deferrals set aside stands of old forest within an area of 2.6 million hectares identified as ‘at risk’ in the Old Growth Strategic Review commissioned by the provincial government – the Province's response to a wave of anti-logging protests, including the Fairy Creek blockade, and the resulting negative publicity.

The arrangement has not satisfied many stakeholders, with conservation groups pointing to areas where old-growth stands are left out of deferral zones and are actively being logged. The BCCFA president's report acknowledges this, saying many of the deferred areas don't match the criteria for ‘old growth,’ largely due to inaccurate data.

Representatives of the provincial government at the conference agreed. "We need to move off the deferrals and take a look at how we are managing old forests into the future," said Julie MacDougall, executive director for strategic initiatives at the Office of the Chief Forester.

The Province’s aim is now to design a plan allowing for old-growth trees to be managed as part of an intertwined ecosystem rather than putting wholesale area-specific bans on logging. The provincial government is trying to convince those interested in protecting the trees to get on board with this.

"In the early conversations with conservation-minded folks, they're nervous that industry's going to take this and do the wrong thing, and all this is a timber grab," Associate Deputy Minister of Forests Eamon O'Donoghue told conference attendees.

O'Donoghue said the Province is now working to implement all 14 recommendations of the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review, a major re-working of forestry planning undertaken by Registered Professional Foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorley. Merkel is also a Tahltan Nation member and leader in First Nations forest policy development. He was on hand to discuss the review and promote the new landscape management approach.

The main objective of the new approach is to create healthy forest ecosystems, emphasizing the need for a truly effective strategy with broad public support. The previous strategy from 1992 ended up generating skepticism from conservationists about the Province's sincerity after most of its proposals weren't fully implemented.

Merkel spoke of the need to maintain connections between areas of old growth, not simply fence them off in a patchwork fashion. The review recommends deferrals only in areas deemed ‘high risk’ and facing the immediate threat of loss to logging.

"I was up in Prince George and we've got little islands on top of the mountains," he said. "Turns out those darn caribou don't just live above 6,500 feet. In fact they go from this mountain to that mountain. They gotta think, how do I get down there, how do I get across there without getting eaten, with my baby."

The review goes on to detail how this island-like approach makes areas more susceptible to beetle kill and wildfire.

"If we take that approach, it is not going to matter, it's not going to work," O'Donoghue said of the current deferral areas. "They are literally going to burn or die."

The intention now is to maintain the health of the forests, particularly in the face of climate change. The review makes the case that forestry decisions must be made locally, with real monitoring and enforcement.

First Nations involvement

With the Province's commitment to reconciliation a high priority, First Nations involvement in these decision-making processes is now a must, delegates heard.

"We have to recognize that First Nations own vast tracts of the province – that it belongs to them," O'Donoghue said. "If First Nations are involved in the sector, there will be a lot more support for the sector." He added that community forests are taking the lead on creating working partnerships with First Nations.

Another flash point at the conference was the Province's plan to address the disparity between stumpage rates charged to community forests (known as ‘tab rates’) and those charged to First Nations on non-community forest tenures.

The tab rate charged to community forests takes into account the costs for community forests to maintain their land, and the fear is that if they lose these pricing supports, they would no longer be able to compete with major timber industry players.

BCCFA representatives were clear they do support First Nations getting an equal deal – they just don't want to lose out in the process.

Provincial officials at the conference sought to allay their fears. Doug Kelly, director of the Forest Tenures branch, said there is support for addressing the disparity but nowhere does the government's intentions paper on the topic say they are looking to change the arrangement for community forests. "That's not what it says. I want to be really clear on this," Kelly said. "Tab rates are important for community forests and woodlots – more important than the revenue generated back to the Province."

Wildfire resilience

The need to protect communities from wildfire is of critical importance in BC and presentations at the conference detailed some of the actions being taken and the work still to be done. Some of these efforts include thinning trees and removing debris, controlled burns and planting more fire-resistant tree species.

As community forests mostly exist near populated areas, it makes sense to focus risk reduction efforts within community forest tenures.

Lori Daniels and Kea Rutherford from the UBC Tree Ring Lab presented their findings from looking at wildfire mitigation projects done by the Nakusp Community Forest (NACFOR) and the Slocan Valley Community Forest (SIFCo). Results indicate less intense and less destructive fires occurred in areas receiving fuel reduction treatments.

They also compared treated and untreated areas near Logan Lake following fires in 2021, with similar results.

Funding for wildfire risk reduction projects is easier to attain when they accomplish parallel goals like improving recreation opportunities or wildlife habitat, according to Steve Kozuki, the executive director of the Forest Enhancement Society of BC. The FESBC allocates funds for these sorts of projects.

"The natural conclusion is you, community forests, are very well suited because you have been doing all these things for a very long time," Kozuki told attendees.

BCCFA President Brcko contrasted this with the efforts made by major timber companies that he said were simply focused on getting "loads to the mill" and "not practicing fuel reduction work at all."

Community Forest expansion

Many people at the conference expressed a desire to see expanded community forest tenures and new community forests. Provincial officials, however, cautioned not to expect large-scale expansion anytime soon.

"One of the most common questions I get is, 'How do I get a community forest?'" said Marley Chewter, the Selkirk District authorizations officer for the Ministry of Forests. "I've heard this from many, many communities in our district. I've also heard this a lot from First Nations in our district."

O'Donoghue said that with First Nations partnership, new community forest tenures could be granted but that the "timber supply is so tight" and "the ability to move and expand is limited." He said provincial government take-backs of tenures were highly unlikely at this point to expand community forests.

According to O'Donoghue, the Province wants to see more well-paying forestry jobs, better land management and more First Nations engagement in forestry. It was clear from the conference sessions that community forest managers believe they are leading in these areas while the rest of the timber industry lags behind. BCCFA President George Brcko said that though community forests continue to put out best practices, they still face the reality of being stuck with only 3% of BC's allowable cut.

"Major licensees are finishing off cuts as fast as possible," Brcko said. "We're trying to do the right thing with the minimal amount of money and smallest land base possible."

Mark Page, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice