As the hereditary chief of the Kwakiutl First Nation, the forests and ocean waters off the north east coast of Vancouver Island are David Mungo Knox’s sacred responsibility.
He’s lived his life gathering fish for his community and restoring his great grandfather’s totem poles. But recently Knox has begun to fear for the forests.
“There’s active logging going on right now, taking our old growth out and leaving a big mess” said Knox. “When they put in the roads on the mountainside, and after they log there is erosion and it causes landslides into salmon bearing rivers.”
Western Forest Products has been harvesting trees in several areas in Knox’s territory and as a company has policies in place to minimize the environmental impact of its operations.
Conservationists along the south coast who have blockaded logging roads to try and keep B.C.’s ancient trees from being felled want a further commitment from the province to protect B.C.’s biodiversity. Communities that rely on the sector for their livelihood also want assurances new rules won’t put an end to life as they know it.
‘Silence so far’
In September 2020, the B.C. government released its Old Growth Strategic Review (OGSR) titled A New Future for Old Forests, which lays out an ambitious set of recommendations meant to help the province change its forest management policies on a systemic level to better protect endangered ancient ecosystems as well as support a sustainable, long-term forestry industry.
One of the first steps the report calls for is establishing a government-to-government relationship with First Nations by bringing them into the decision making process in a more meaningful way.
It’s something Ross Hunt, the elected chief of the Kwakiutl band had been waiting years for.
He wants the cutting of large old growth trees, which have cultural significance and economic value for First Nations, to stop until the province furthers embraces Indigenous communities.
“This isn’t reconciliation, what’s happening in our territory right now,” said Hunt. “The current [logging] practices are basically erasing our history.”
For decades Hunt says his people have watched as tens of millions of dollars in logs have been trucked off their land with little or no benefit to people living there.
He points to disproportionately high numbers of unemployment, children in care, mental illness and addictions in communities like his as tangible examples of how the wealth of their land is not benefiting their people.
“We’re not opposed to economic development at all, but we are opposed to it being ignored” he said. “And it’s been one hundred and seventy seven years of silence so far from Canada.”
‘Fostering health landscapes’
Garry Merkel, one of the co-chairs of the OGSR and a member of the Tahltan nation, has high hopes for the report he authored with Al Gorley, also a professional forester, but admits that its 14 recommendations won’t be quick or easy to achieve.
“Systemic change of this scale don’t happen overnight,” he said.
“We have to move to a different type of management style. One that focuses on managing biodiversity risk and trying to maintain ecosystem health at a bigger scale.”
The report asked that immediate action be taken to defer logging in areas where significant old growth trees are.
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.
When the province released the OGSR in September it also announced protections for 353,000 hectares of forests with old growth trees in them.
Merkel wants the government to go further, saying the initial commitment was more about optics than meaningful protections.
“Those are really just political stopgaps because, frankly, a lot of those areas weren’t that threatened anyways. And really, that’s not what the essence of our report is about,” he said.
“Our report is about fostering healthy landscapes through maintaining good representation of ecosystems and saving a few islands here or there doesn’t do that.”
Merkel remains optimistic the government will follow through on the report’s recommendations. He says he will be following their actions carefully over the next year.
No one from the Ministry of Forests was available to speak to CBC News for this story.
Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom says it’s a relief that the OGSR isn’t calling for an outright ban on old growth logging, which she says is one of the main economic drivers in her community.
The revenue generated from stumpage pays for social programs and schools and medical services like hospitals, she said. Wickstrom is not against changes in the industry, but wants to make sure they don’t create hardship for her community.
“If you’re going to readjust things, look at it in a measured and tempered way so that the community benefits, so Western can still operate and still have the jobs that they have and that we can find some sort of a balance that we can all live with.”
Wickstrom, along with Bob Brash, executive director of the Truck Loggers Association, are concerned that not enough attention is being given to how changing forest management regimes could affect worker and their families.
Brash says loggers in B.C. already face tough regulations, which affects their ability to be competitive in the industry.
“A lot of us would say right now that we are highly regulated and the rules that we deal with are sort of quite onerous and intense,” said Brash.
For B.C. to stay competitive as a timber exporter internationally, Brash explains, the government must be careful not to go too fast as it moves forward with new old growth policy in 2021.
“The investment climate in B.C. for the forest sector is not great. There is uncertainty in the land base,” he said.
Both Brash and Wickstrom agree the logging industry has had to reinvent itself multiple times over the last 100 years, and says with the right adjustments, the logging industry, which has been a major economic driver in the province, can remain strong.
The forest sector accounts for more than a quarter of B.C.’s total exports. It brought in $11.9 billion in 2019 and employs more than 50,000 British Columbians.
Wickstrom said, in 2018, $60 million in stumpage fees were paid to the province for timber cut in her region.
For Kwakiutl head chief David Mungo Knox, he hopes 2021 will be the year all stakeholders come together in a more meaningful way to mark the turning point for what the future of forestry will look like in B.C.
“We just got to take action. And what’s been done so wrong, let’s make it right and work together,” he said.