Sonora Island old-growth forests to feed pensioners?

By Brioney Penn, September 2015

Owned by government pension plans, TimberWest appears set to ignore a Forest Practices Board finding about its logging on the island.

It’s taken six years, but just about everything with the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) Agreement has been innovative. That includes new models for financing forest conservation; new ways of managing forests where the well-being of ecosystems and First Nations are the twin goals; new ways of resolving conflict where once-battling industry and environmental groups sit down committed to solutions; and finally, new ways to draft regulations through real BC-government-to-First-Nation-governments decision-making. 

With public reviews now all in, the final ratification of the GBR Land Use Order will unfold in the next couple of months. It will result in the provincial government amending laws to enable a plan painstakingly crafted by multiple stakeholders to “establish a Natural Forest of 3,108,876 hectares and to maintain old forest representation of each ecosystem at 70 percent.” The proposals include eight new areas fully protected from logging, covering about 290,000 hectares (an area larger than Clayoquot Sound). 

In addition, the new laws would increase the forest area set aside from logging outside of protected areas by approximately 600,000 hectares. Half a million hectares is planned as “Managed Forest” with an annual cut of 2.5 million cubic metres until 2025. Central to the plan is the intent “to protect and conserve First Nations forest and cultural values…and provide enhanced access to opportunities for carbon benefits and commercial forestry” under a new type of management called Ecosystem-Based Management. (EBM recognizes the importance of preserving habitats that wildlife need to maintain viable populations.) 

The only problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is western Canada’s largest private forestry company, TimberWest, and its behaviour in the Sonora/Thurlow region at the very southern tip of this huge area. These are the islands where the conservation and timber values are the highest, and the plan and relationships the weakest. As Dallas Smith, representative of the Nanwakolas Council (consisting of seven local First Nations), says of the Sonora/Thurlow region, “It is one of those litmus tests for engaging with the current process. Ninety percent of us have all agreed to play by the ground rules for some years and now TimberWest is finally being held accountable as well.”

Perhaps ironically, the bad boy on the block is owned by British Columbia Investment Management Corporation and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board which manage government pension funds—raising questions around the government itself being in a conflict of interest. Almost all of the calls for tighter legislative controls during the review process have been prompted by TimberWest’s dismal show in the southern region of the GBR. 

Smith is hopeful the process will bring the company into line, but others, like Jens Wieting of Sierra Club BC, one of the three environmental groups involved in the process under their banner of Rainforest Solutions Project, are more skeptical. They will be watching closely to see if government will close the loopholes to make everyone truly accountable. 

TimberWest has amassed a significant record of finding loopholes over the years (I have written about their actions in at least seven separate Focus editions over the past few years). In the Great Bear Rainforest, TimberWest has steadfastly refused to join other industry participants, like Interfor and Western Forest Products, who are playing by the rules. They have been “cutting as if there is no tomorrow” according to Sierra Club and allies who found TimberWest had overcut by a million cubic metres. While not technically illegal, their overcutting contradicts the spirit of the efforts being made by everyone else. It has meant that potential conservation areas were logged before stricter legally-binding agreements could be put into place. 

Ross Campbell, an independent ecotourism operator from Sonora Island, points to government as a big part of the problem: “Sonora is emblematic of the lack of oversight from government.” With legislative proscriptions stripped from BC’s old Forest Act to form the new Forest and Range Practices Act, reliance on self-policing by forestry professionals is all there is protecting the public interest. 

So in 2014 Sonora citizens stepped up. Campbell’s family and the Sonora Island community hired their own forester to prepare an independent report as part of their complaint to the Forest Practices Board (see Focus, Sept 2014). They catalogued recent stumps of old-growth trees and prepared maps of where TimberWest had clearcut old-growth forests. Those forests had contained communities of red and blue listed species—plants and animals that are extirpated, endangered, threatened, or of special concern.

Their complaint led the Forest Practices Board to conduct an audit of TimberWest’s Tree Farm Licence in the area. It recently finished its investigation and found TimberWest “did not meet the spirit and intent of Ecosystem-Based Management for old forest representation and management of red and blue listed plant communities.” TimberWest’s forester defined old growth forest as one where 50 percent of all the trees were over 250 years old. Labelled a “bizarre” definition by Valerie Langer of Forest Ethics, the Board stated more diplomatically: “This initial interpretation of the definition of old forest and red and blue listed communities as well as lack of caution in its old forest recruitment strategy, did not demonstrate the careful management associated with EBM to meet the goal of maintaining ecological integrity.” They also noted that the government district staff knew this yet didn’t raise any concerns, and that TimberWest was making some effort to change with a decision to hold off on a very small number of cut blocks starting in 2013. 

In its response to Focus’ questions, TimberWest’s Domenico Iannidinardo directed me to the website which states: “TimberWest continues to operate above legal requirements…As the Forest Practices Board acknowledges, assessing spirit and intent is a subjective exercise. Ecosystem-Based Management is a complex undertaking of balancing human well-being and ecological integrity. At TimberWest, we strive to continuously improve.” 

But many feel the company will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to improve and that it will take more than good will to finally bring them into the agreement.

According to Wieting of the Sierra Club, the industry (excluding TimberWest) and ENGO groups, focused on such improvements as how to protect red and blue listed ecosystems, provide more clarity for riparian protection, and set aside a forest buffer around black bear and grizzly bear dens. Wieting also notes the critical importance of getting the reserve designs in the south done right, where about 90,000 hectares of rainforest will be set aside in new “restoration reserves”—a special challenge in this part of the GBR with little old growth remaining and every old-growth Douglas-fir tree worth 15 times an old-growth hemlock in the north.

Campbell, working in the heart of this endangered ecosystem, is more critical of the plan and process in the south: “The draft shows government hasn’t really taken any lead on anything, and is passing TimberWest’s proposals straight through, verbatim. No one has ever stopped to see if there is any scientific analysis of their landscape design.” 

When TimberWest was asked if they would continue logging in the contentious cutblocks, it responded that their “harvest planning is being informed by the current iteration” which technically allows that. This is despite the Forest Practices Board’s recommendation that “surrendering declared cutblocks with outstanding conservation values and low levels of investment by the licensee could demonstrate a commitment to the spirit and intent of EBM.”

Rory Annett, executive director of Coastal Projects, Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, says it’s too early to speculate about government closing the loopholes: “All comments received will be screened and we will make final recommendations about what is next. It is very difficult to say what we will change. What I can tell you is that there has been a long discussion between environmental groups, First Nations and the companies and that is what led to the draft Land Use Order.” When asked what kind of technical experts would be working on the reviews, Annett commented that, “we cobbled together a team of government scientists and members of the consulting community, but it is not the Coast Information Team.” The CIT was an international scientific team that developed guidelines on Ecosystem-Based Management for land use planning processes on the coast. Disbanded well over a decade ago, there are few scientists left in government.

To complicate matters, TimberWest has contracted Homalco Forestry Limited Partnership, owned by the Homalco First Nation, to log the contentious southern cut blocks. Smith, from the larger First Nation alliance, however, is confident that the agreement forged by 90 percent of the stakeholders will carry the day. “Council are confident in the process. We are very happy that TimberWest will finally be accountable.” To close the loopholes, the Forest Practices Board made a key recommendation “that government clarify the definitions and guidance for old forest and at-risk plant communities.” Now it is in the government’s court to follow their advice and make everyone fully accountable—even the company that invests their pensions.

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since 1975. She recently wrote The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan. The book is scheduled for release in September.