In 2019, a strategic review was done by two professional foresters to determine how British Columbia might better manage old-growth forests. The resulting report, containing 14 recommendations and implementation timelines, was released in spring 2020. Despite accepting all 14 recommendations last year, the provincial government has made virtually no progress apart from piecemeal approaches, such as planting three million trees and protecting 2,000 square kilometres of what it claims to be productive old-growth sites (notably, none within B.C.’s endangered Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) zone).

While these steps are better than nothing, the current government continues to point to its predecessors, blaming previous regimes for failing to implement protective policies, and implying it will do better. However, its actions (i.e., replacing old-growth with saplings and protecting mere pockets of mature trees) are unsettlingly reminiscent of the failed approaches to old-growth forest management of governments past.

On June 1, Premier John Horgan and Forestry Minister Katrine Conroy made a public announcement revealing how the province plans to modernize forest policy informed by a newly released intention paper. This paper points to four consultation processes conducted since the NDP took office in 2017 (including the old-growth review) and commits to more conversations in coming years. It also sets 20 new intentions meant to direct development of future forest policy. So, in addition to the 14 (unfulfilled) recommendations made by the expert old-growth panel, the provincial government now has 20 new intentions to add to its list.

This announcement, and the paper that triggered it, are more of the same from a government that has spent nearly five years reinforcing its hallmark approach to forest management in B.C.: the so-called "talk and log."

“Talk and log” is a modus operandi that successive provincial governments have employed over the decades by feigning conservation action and allowing clear-cutting to continue in whichever forest flashpoint is occurring at that time.

Horgan and Conroy restated their commitment to implementing the recommendations of the old-growth panel, but both urged patience due to ongoing consultation. Meanwhile, industrial clear-cutting is ongoing and citizens trying to stop old-growth logging continue to be arrested. As reported by the National Observer’s Rochelle Baker, “the Pacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations formally announced a two-year deferral of old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek and Walbran watersheds on Monday, so they can develop stewardship plans in their ḥahahuułi, or traditional territories, on southwest Vancouver Island.”

The commitments articulated by the premier and forestry minister assume that gluing pieces of a broken system together is the pathway to reconciliation and reformation of a deeply flawed, unsustainable forestry sector.

Just how broken this system is was demonstrated by the premier when he defended the decision to continue logging old-growth forests by saying imposing deferrals “would be a return to the colonialism that we have so graphically been brought back by the discovery in Kamloops.” In an interview on the Capital Daily podcast, this comment was described by Chief Stewart Phillip from the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs as “a crass political statement … seeking to exploit the horrific tragedy in Kamloops for the political purposes of upholding logging at Fairy Creek.”

David Broadland, the publisher of Focus magazine, interprets these statements as the first steps into a new era of “post-colonial” talk and log, a transition that Chief Phillip says “holds … society hostage in regard to our collective efforts to preserve the environment, preserve old-growth forests (and) to provide strong measures of environmental stewardship of the land.”

The BC NDP's approach to protecting old-growth forests is unsettlingly reminiscent of the failed approaches to the management of past provincial governments, write @shauna_doll and Chris Genovali of @Raincoast. #bcpoli #cdnpoli

Indeed, the province seems unable to recognize that the agreements allowing logging in old-growth forest stands were themselves crafted within the directives of a colonial system. Adam Olsen, Green Party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, described this system best during a workshop hosted by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Transition Salt Spring in March: “Make no mistake, we are doing today what James Douglas brought with him on that boat: to hew wood and draw water on behalf of the Crown … to the benefit of the Crown.”

In addition to revealing this new post-colonial talk and log strategy at the June 1 press conference, Horgan went on to say, “the old chasing volume (approach) is no longer viable in a time of climate change. We have had unprecedented fire seasons … we have had infestations in our woods that have meant our woods are disappearing, not because of harvesting, but because of other natural disasters that are a result of climate change.”

Though moving away from B.C.’s outdated volume-driven forestry scheme is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago when this model initiated the liquidation of old-growth forests, the premier overlooks that ongoing global destruction of mature forests is directly contributing to climate change, and that their protection is directly linked to mitigating climate impacts.

While Horgan repeatedly stated that forestry needs to be done differently, no move to defer logging in the province’s most ecologically sensitive areas was made. This directly contradicts recommendation No. 6 made by the expert panel, which states: “Until a new strategy is implemented, defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.”

This recommendation was one of two intended for immediate response, the other being No. 7, which states that the province must “bring management of old forests into compliance with existing provincial targets and guidelines for maintaining biological diversity.” The province now says these recommendations will be implemented in 2023, which means two more years of logging in the last intact pockets of old-growth in the province.

Ultimately, the June 1 announcement was more of the same from a government that has continued to display political inertia in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises. According to the eye-opening report written by forest ecologists Rachel Holt, Karen Price and Dave Daust, “productive old forest has almost vanished across B.C.,” concluding that “without immediate action, we will lose these globally priceless old forests.”

The authors also noted that the forests of the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone (not included in any of the province’s recent logging deferrals) are most at risk. Some scientists have even characterized Douglas fir forests in B.C. as "functionally extinct."

There is no more time to talk as B.C.’s last ancient forests are felled, and critical fish and wildlife habitat continues to be degraded or lost; old-growth logging must end now.

Shauna Doll is the Gulf Islands forest project co-ordinator for Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a forester in training. Chris Genovali is Raincoast's executive director.