An old-growth forest near Port Alberni that had been protected as critical habitat for wintering deer and endangered goshawks is being logged by Island Timberlands - even though newly released documents show Environment Ministry staff strongly disagreed with the company's harvesting plans.
The documents, obtained by Alberni-Pacific Rim NDP MLA Scott Fraser through a freedom-of-information request, reveal a pitched battle between government biologists and Island Timberlands over protections needed for McLaughlin Ridge, the headwaters for the main source of Port Alberni's drinking water.
McLaughlin Ridge is privately managed forest land and was removed from a tree farm licence in 2004 by then-owners Weyerhaeuser. The province insisted that critical winter habitat should be protected for two years and a committee should then decide levels of protection.
But the province and Island Timberlands could not agree and meetings were "terminated" by the company in 2009, with government biologists saying harvesting plans were not science-based.
"It is now apparent that it will not be possible to achieve consensus within the committee on how much protected wildlife area is required," says a letter from the company.
But a letter setting out provincial objections was never sent to Island Timberlands, which has since said its plans are based on ministry input.
That has Fraser questioning whether information was suppressed by the government.
"With all the concerns about the Harper government stifling scientists, it appears it has been happening in B.C. for years."
The list of objections was relegated to a memo or "note to file" that says Island Timberlands wanted to log in deer winter ranges and wildlife habitat areas "and [the Environment Ministry] could not scientifically rationalize how the quality of these areas could be maintained."
"This letter was never released, but does summarize many important opinions of MoE staff," it says.
Ancient Forest Alliance founder Ken Wu said that indicates political interference.
"These are huge revelations that may be a game changer on how Island Timberlands and the B.C. Liberals have to deal with the public" regarding how old-growth forests are managed, he said.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson was not available, but ministry spokesman Vivian Thomas said staff were not overruled.
"The Minister of Environment of the time did not prevent the letter from being sent, nor did he direct staff not to send it," Thomas said in an emailed response.
"The draft letter summa rizes differing points of view between ministry staff and Island Timberlands. However, sending it would not have served any purpose, since an agreement with Island Timberlands on managing critical wildlife habitat/ungulate winter range ... could not be reached," she said.
The company is bound by the Private Managed Forest Land Act, federal Species at Risk Act and Drinking Water Protection Act, Thomas said.
Island Timberlands spokeswoman Morgan Kennah said the company had not previously seen the memo, but it would not have affected logging plans.
"We know there were differing opinions on how the property should be managed. Ministry staff at the time thought the preservation model was the one to have and Island Timberland's perspective was to look at opportunities for ... harvest as well as habitat," she said.
Logging in McLaughlin Ridge has been completed for this year, Kennah said.
"Next year and subsequent years we may be harvesting, but we haven't finalized our long-term final strategy for habitat management in that area."