North Cowichan council is taking steps to deter tree poachers by increasing fines for illegally cutting down trees in the municipality’s forest reserve amid high lumber prices.
The municipality has seen an increase in trees cut and removed without permission in recent months from the 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve, home to Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock trees. In February, they found a spot where at least 50 trees had been cut down in the Mount Sicker area.
Councillors voted last week to increase several fines meant to deter tree poaching, with the highest penalty set at $50,000, up from $2,000, for an offender convicted in provincial court.
Shaun Mason, North Cowichan’s municipal forester, said the burden of proof is high to prosecute bylaw infractions under North Cowichan’s Offence Act, and the municipality does not often go this route, but it provides an option to recover costs in the case of significant poaching where there is strong evidence of who is responsible.
“There were a few areas [of poaching] that if we would have caught them, and we could tie it to the same person doing all the damage, I think we probably would have thought about, or at least talked to our legal counsel about, pursuing charges under the Offence Act,” Mason said.
Fines for removing trees were increased to $1,000 and $500, from $200. Offenders could also be hit with multiple fines related to the same incident if they commit additional infractions while poaching trees, such as damaging streams or vegetation, driving a motor vehicle off-road and littering, Mason said.
Poaching has noticeably decreased since the municipality stepped up patrols and added signs to increase public awareness, he said.
The previous fines were too low to discourage people from cutting and removing trees from the forest, said Mayor Al Siebring.
“This is intended to act as a deterrent to say, look, we’re serious about this and stop,” he said.
The poaching comes while logging is currently on pause in the reserve as the municipality determines whether to preserve the trees as a carbon sink or resume logging, Siebring said.
Maple Bay resident Larry Pynn, who drew attention to the issue earlier this year after discovering western red cedar and Douglas fir stumps that had been freshly cut, said the increased fines are a good first step to put an end to tree poaching in the reserve.
Pynn, a former environmental reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recently found a new site where trees had been freshly cut, and has been documenting illegal campsites, defaced municipal signs and litter in the area. He collected 119 drink containers in less than an hour on Mount Prevost.
“We really need to have enforcement, and I think we can’t just leave it to the bylaw officers, for example. I think people have to get out there and you know, just try to keep an eye out for this violation,” he said.
Many are pointing to the high prices of lumber as an explanation for the increased poaching.
Prices spiked in B.C. this year to about $1,600 US per 1,000 board feet in May, from an average of $570 in 2020, according to provincial data.
The soaring prices — the result of increased home building while real estate prices climb — have “basically set up an incentive to poach trees,” said Cornelis van Kooten, a University of Victoria economics professor and Canada Research Chair in environmental studies and climate, who tracks lumber prices.
Van Kooten said it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to set up a small sawmill to handle poached wood as long as they have some land and a big saw. On a small scale, it’s likely people are using the wood themselves or selling to friends, he said.
North Cowichan councillors are expected to ratify the increased fines at a July council meeting.