A trio of independent experts who had for years advised the B.C. government on forest management has released new mapping aimed at spurring the province to quickly defer logging in at-risk old-growth forests.
The mapping identifies about 1.3 million hectares of old forests with high ecological value, which the experts say fits the criteria for deferral outlined in a report on old-growth management led by a provincially appointed panel.
A smaller portion of that area overlaps with existing cutting permits and the province has the tools to temporarily defer logging in those forests at immediate risk, said biologist Rachel Holt.
The mapping based on publicly available provincial data shows where the biggest, tallest old forests are protected and the much larger areas where they are not, said Holt, who has served on B.C.'s Forest Practices Board.
It also shows the vast area of forested land across B.C. that's already been harvested, she said, leaving behind tiny pockets of the best old growth.
"Less than three per cent of the old growth that remains is the high, big productivity, big forests that people think about," she said. "And more than 80 per cent of the old growth that remains is the low-productivity, small-treed, small-statured forest (at) high elevation, or it's bog forest."
The same goes for protected areas that are "highly biased toward the lower-productivity forest, not the higher-productivity forest," Holt said.
The mapping should serve as a blueprint for the province as it figures out which at-risk old growth should be set aside from logging while it shifts its management of old forests into a sustainable system, she said.
Holt worked with researcher Karen Price and registered professional forester Dave Daust to produce the map and she said all three have been part of working groups and advised the province on old-growth forests.
The researchers suggest their map should be augmented with old-growth areas identified as culturally important by Indigenous nations.
The Forests Ministry said in a statement it is currently reviewing the mapping and exploring further deferrals "through engagement with Indigenous nations, and in alignment with the old-growth report."
B.C. has pledged to implement the report by the panel that it received last year, which urged the government to act within six months to put harvesting on hold in old forest ecosystems at the highest risk of permanent biodiversity loss.
Last fall, it temporarily deferred logging in 196,000 hectares of old-growth in nine different areas.
But Holt said those deferrals tended to cover lower-productivity forests that were largely not at risk and didn't meet the old-growth panel's criteria.
The initial nine deferral areas were identified "where conflicts had occurred in the past," the ministry said in an email. Forests Minister Katrine Conroy has said previously the province was able to act quickly in those areas because it had already been working with nearby Indigenous nations.
Squamish Nation councillor Khelsilem said the province is not offering First Nations the option to defer first and then begin discussions on how to pivot to sustainable forestry and ecotourism opportunities, for example.
The nation was recently able to secure an interim deferral in one cutblock in its territory on the Sunshine Coast after an assessment of cultural, archeological and ecological value, Khelsilem said.
The province should support nations that don't have the resources to conduct such assessments over vast areas, the councillor said.
The new mapping will be considered as part of the province's analysis to help determine further deferral of old growth, the ministry said.
"Our initial observation is that this map takes a different approach to the identification of old growth areas for possible deferral than was recommended by the old growth strategic review panel," it said.
B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau reacted to the expert mapping in a statement Wednesday, saying the NDP government has the tools it needs to take action to protect ancient forests and "all that's lacking is political will."
"Deferrals are an essential tool to maintain options in a time of crisis," she said. "You can't build a new framework for protection while you log the last of what's left."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press