The Sonora Stump Reports

By Briony Penn, September 2014

Evidence of destruction of old-growth forest on Sonora Island appears set to shake up BC’s South Central Coast forest policy.

Over my years of reporting on TimberWest, there has been virtually nothing that could bring the company’s inexorable liquidation of their forestlands to heel. Being named in a case before the Inter-America Commission for Human Rights, for example, hasn’t slowed the company down; nor has being the focus of a wide-spread media campaign by Greenpeace in 2011. Nor has being challenged by shareholders. Nothing seemed able to slow TimberWest’s relentless pace. 

That is until two pairs of siblings, all born and raised in the shadow of the last of the old growth on the Discovery Islands, took to the woods of TFL 47 to investigate if TimberWest’s logging had transgressed rules protecting endangered old-growth ecosystems.

The Sonora Island foursome—Farlyn Campbell, her partner Jody Eriksson, Farlyn’s twin Tavish, and Jody’s brother Cam—have helped convince TimberWest to put a moratorium on the logging of old growth in one of the most threatened regions of the Great Bear Rainforest (parts of the Thurlow, Gray and Fulmore Landscape Units) while the company rethinks its approach. 

It all started in February of 2013 when TimberWest flagged a cutblock in seven hectares on Sonora Island. This cutblock contained 160 old-growth trees, some with six-foot diameters and heights of 200 feet. The Sonorans obtained the cutblock plans from TimberWest and laid them down over Google Earth, discovering that numerous other planned cutblocks on Sonora’s Crown lands coincided with the last of the old growth on the island. Under existing rules, the company should have avoided any of the last remaining (four percent) old-growth Douglas-fir. 

When they initially took their complaints to TimberWest, the Sonorans were given a variety of excuses. The most egregious justification for the locals was TimberWest’s claim that these were “second-growth” forests and they had a right to log them. It appears that TimberWest’s definition of old growth was “forest with more than 50 percent of the stand volume over 250 years old.” As Valerie Langer of Forest Ethics stated in her blog “How did they pull that off? By using a bizarre, technically-unheard-of definition they made up.” 

So the Sonorans commissioned their own professional forester to come up with an opinion on that definition. Registered Professional Forester Doug Hopwood was “unable to find any documented scientific basis” for TimberWest’s definition of old growth. The Sonorans took the definitions to the Forest Practices Board (FPB), asking them to intervene, but the Board can only respond to a complaint once a violation has occurred. 

The FPB told them, “Go talk to TimberWest and come back to us if they chop them down.” Throughout the rest of 2013, the company and the Sonorans did just that. Sonorans talked and TimberWest cut. TimberWest’s Chief Forester and VP for Sustainability Domenico Iannidinardo assured the Sonorans that TimberWest would be “precautionary” while the Forest Practices Board, the government, and First Nations developed their final ecosystem-based management agreement and definitions. 

TimberWest’s definition of “precautionary,” however, seemed to be as shaky as their definition of old growth, and trees of great stature continued to fall. So in January of this year the Sonorans decided to collect evidence of violations of the “South Central Coast Order” for a formal complaint to the FPB. They mapped out where the company’s cutblocks were in the Thurlow Landscape Unit on Sonora and where endangered (red and blue listed) ecosystems overlapped. Then they packed some tents, a couple of bicycles and $500 worth of spray paint into their boat and set off to assess the situation on the ground. They had little difficulty finding huge stumps from recent logging; these they identified and marked with bright red paint. 

Anyone can now see the painted stumps as they fly over Sonora Island at the southern edge of the Great Bear Rainforest. Each tree has been catalogued by the team, with its age and geographic location. Catalogues of seven cutblocks, which the foursome calls “Stump Reports,” document the cutting of close to 500 old-growth trees with an average age of 300 to 400 years old, with some as old as 800 years. 

The team then made a formal complaint to the Forest Practices Board, which is now exploring whether TimberWest fulfilled the objectives of the South Central Coast Order. This legal order, passed to (temporarily) satisfy the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in 2009, has obligations to maintain biodiversity, protect 30 percent of the old growth of each forest type and protect red- and blue-listed plant communities. The FPB has stated that it will be investigating whether the company “physically adhered to the spirit and intent of the Agreement,” which required them to use “ecosystem-based management.”

Ecosystem-based management recognizes the importance of preserving  habitats wildlife need to maintain viable populations. For example, the red-listed (in BC “red listed” means extirpated, endangered, or threatened) marbeled murrelet can nest only in old-growth trees. Their population continues to decline in BC.

With the Sonora Island old-growth trees having a monetary value of up to $10,000 each, depending on their size and condition, the temptation for TimberWest to overlook its obligation to practise ecosystem-based management was perhaps too great.

Formerly in BC government foresters told companies where they could log on Crown land, and government foresters monitored the cutblocks. But the Liberal government argued company foresters could monitor themselves through their professional organization by a process known as “professional reliance.” It’s now evident this system is not working. 

Lately, when professional foresters fail to protect endangered ecosystem or species, the responsibility has fallen on citizens to file complaints, but that requires discovery of the offense and the collection of evidence—a challenging proposition, especially when cutblocks are as remote as that documented on Sonora Island. That’s one weakness of “professional reliance.”

A second is that such self-policing requires a robust disciplinary process. In 2009, the Association of BC Forest Professionals committed to “improve the transparency of the discipline process” and started to publish case digests. We now know that from 2010 to 2013 there were only seven complaints of failure to protect endangered ecosystems/species or riparian areas. Only one of those was investigated and no citations were issued. Although transparency is improving, there’s still no real deterrent for bad practices. 

All that remains to keep companies honest is the Forest Practices Board, which has been gutted by the provincial government. The Board now does only one random annual audit of a TFL each year. At that rate, the odds are good a TFL won’t get audited more than twice in a century. 

So it’s encouraging that, as announced this past month, the Board is conducting an audit of all of TFL 47. That audit, as well as a report on the Campbell-Eriksson complaint, is expected at the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, with the threat of a judgement looming, everyone appears to be leaping into action. The Province, in conjunction with First Nations and licence holders, is finally redoing the 2009 Orders for the Great Bear Rainforest with the stated intent of “achieving low ecological risk” and a higher percentage of protected old growth. TimberWest has voluntarily made significant changes to their 2014 logging plans and, in fact, is going one step further than is required by the rules, creating restoration planning areas because of the extent of the damage in this region.

But would any of these moves towards accountability have occurred without the hundreds of hours devoted to documenting TimberWest’s misdeeds by four young Sonora Islanders?

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows. She lives on Salt Spring Island.

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