With the summer has come a new government and a chance for progress when it comes to the environment in British Columbia. Compared to the past 16 years, the new minority-government situation looks hopeful for the majority of us who oppose destructive projects such as the Site C dam and the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
It’s also an opportunity for improvement in a sector that has languished under the previous government: forestry.
A protectionist administration in the U.S. has created a climate of uncertainty in the B.C. forest industry. The new government must address this uncertainty while ensuring the respect of Indigenous rights, local production and jobs in our communities, and the protection of all remaining original coastal rainforest.
In the past few decades, the mismanagement of coastal forests has led to the loss of dozens of mills and thousands of community-supporting forestry jobs. Rural communities have been left behind, and Indigenous nations haven’t received fair benefits from the forests in their territories.
Meanwhile, a handful of corporations continue to profit while employing fewer and fewer people and damaging ecosystems up and down the coast.
Other than the step forward marked by the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, the ecological state of B.C.’s coastal rainforest, especially on Vancouver Island, is grim. The equivalent of 25 rugby fields of old-growth is logged every day — a pace that surpasses the rate of deforestation in tropical rainforests.
In addition to scraping these irreplaceable ecosystems off the landscape, logging corporations and the past provincial government have hollowed out the coast’s value-added sector and dramatically ramped up the job-killing practice of raw-log exports. Since the late 1990s, raw-log exports have exploded from a fraction of the annual cut to over eight million cubic metres of logs per year.
If those logs were loaded onto logging trucks and those trucks were lined up end-to-end, they’d stretch from Vancouver to Montreal.
For years, a growing chorus has called for better management of B.C.’s coastal rainforests.
Part of this is the conservation of remaining old-growth, and in the past year, forest industry workers, Indigenous leaders, municipal governments, environmental and community organizations, business interests such as the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and thousands of citizens have advocated for these forests to be protected.
Protected so they can continue to fuel B.C.’s growing ecotourism sector. Protected so they can provide habitat for endangered species that live nowhere else. So they can preserve the medicines and traditional resources vital to Indigenous cultures. So they can purify water and store more climate-changing carbon than any other forests on the planet.
From the Walbran Valley to Clayoquot Sound to East Creek, Vancouver Island’s original rainforests are simply worth more standing than they are as two-by-fours or pulp.
There can be no environmental progress without environmental justice, and that means respecting the rights and authority of the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded these forests since time immemorial.
The new government has promised to implement the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and keeping that promise is critical to ensuring justice in the woods.
We must also ensure justice for the workers and communities dependent on forestry: The transition to a truly sustainable modern second-growth forest industry must centre on both healthy ecosystems and healthy communities.
Currently, every jurisdiction in Canada gets more jobs and more dollars per tree harvested than does B.C., and this is unacceptable. What if the indicator of good forestry wasn’t bottom-line corporate profit, but the amount of employment and community benefit derived from logging?
Through my work with the Wilderness Committee, I’ve had the privilege to spend time in forestry communities on Vancouver Island. The knowledge and the desire to make local forestry work for local people exist on this coast.
Powerful lobbyists and giant corporations have controlled the conversation and the agenda for too long. Why not return power to the people whose lives and livelihoods — not just share prices — are impacted by forest-policy decisions?
Sure, this will take a great deal of work, and will look different than the status quo industrial model. But a new kind of forestry that respects Indigenous authority and protects endangered ecosystems can still be a vibrant and healthy part of the economy if we want it to be and we strive together to get there.
This is a challenge for the new premier, but it’s also a huge opportunity to rebuild this important part of the West Coast economy and identity.
It’s up to us to encourage him to take it.
Torrance Coste is Vancouver Island Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.