Indigenous leaders and experts in British Columbia outlined their concerns Wednesday over the provincial government's process to defer logging in old-growth forests, while underscoring the urgency to preserve at-risk ecosystems.
The province announced on Nov. 2 that an independent panel of scientific experts had mapped 26,000 square kilometres of old-growth forests at risk of permanent biodiversity loss. It asked First Nations to decide within 30 days whether they support logging deferrals in those areas or if the plan required further discussion.
Retired judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond told a news conference hosted by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs that the government's actions aren't consistent with free, prior and informed consent, a key principle of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
B.C. adopted the declaration through legislation passed in 2019.
The 30-day timeline is too short for many First Nations to make informed decisions, and the process lacks clarity on economic impacts and potential compensation for nations that elect to set old-growth forests aside from logging, Turpel-Lafond said.
In the Fraser Canyon, the elected council for Spuzzum First Nation is part time and there was "no way" they could have decided on the deferral within 30 days, although they want old-growth logging to stop in their territory, Chief James Hobart said.
B.C.'s plan includes about $12.7 million over three years to support nations through the process, but Hobart said he hasn't heard anything about receiving funds. In the meantime, he said Spuzzum doesn't have access to comprehensive mapping showing where forests have been logged and what's still standing.
Asked about access to the funding, the Forests Ministry said in a statement that it would have "more to say on this soon."
"It's like pulling teeth trying to get an overlap map of what's not in your territory anymore," Hobart told the news conference. "How can we even start the conversation in a month if we don't even understand what's gone?"
Khelsilem, elected chairperson for the Squamish Nation, told the news conference that 97 per cent of old-growth forests have been logged in Squamish territory and the nation has been fighting for years to protect the remaining three per cent.
"Asking for consent to defer, but not asking for consent to log, is a total about-face and a misalignment on (the province's) values when they say they want to partner with First Nations and they want to respect Indigenous rights," Khelsilem said.
The province recognizes there are a diversity of perspectives on old-growth and it's committed to working directly with Indigenous rights and titleholders to "get this right," the Forests Ministry said in its emailed statement.
First Nations were asked to tell the province what next steps they are interested in taking, whether that's immediate deferral or discussing the deferrals through existing agreements, or if they require further time and engagement, it said.
At the end of the 30-day period, the ministry said it would provide an update on the initial responses received, "while respecting that many communities have been impacted by the recent flooding and the ongoing pandemic."
B.C. has been following the recommendations of an independent review released last fall, which found inaction could result in permanent loss for the most at-risk old-growth ecosystems, Forests Minister Katrine Conroy said last month.
The initial deferrals would last two years, Conroy said, allowing for consultation with First Nations about old-growth management in their territories. After that, old-growth forests identified as being at risk would either remain off limits for logging or be included in new, more sustainable management plans, the minister said.
Under B.C.'s plan, forest licence holders may volunteer to stop harvesting in the deferral areas, or the deferrals would be implemented under the Forest Act, which allows for a pause of up to 10 years, with compensation required after four years.
In fall 2020, the province announced the temporary deferral of harvesting across 196,000 hectares of old-growth forests in nine different areas. In June, it approved a request from three Vancouver Island First Nations to defer logging across more than 2,000 hectares of old-growth forests in the Fairy Creek and Walbran areas.
One of those nations, the Huu-ay-aht, released a statement Wednesday, saying it has decided to defer 96 per cent of the old forest identified as being at risk by the scientific panel, while upholding its right to harvest in the remaining four per cent.
Chief Councillor Robert Dennis Sr. said much of the deferral area is protected under existing conservation measures or not slated for logging in the next two years.
The B.C. government also introduced legislation last month that would amend the Forest Act. If passed, it would allow the province to reduce the timber harvesting rights of existing forest companies, compensate them and redistribute the harvesting rights to First Nations, local communities and BC Timber Sales, it said.
The province has also appointed a new commission to provide advice on strengthening the long-term stability of the forest industry, with recommendations on how to protect workers affected by harvesting changes due in February.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press