In the summer of 2021, the fight over old-growth forests reached a fever pitch. Images of living-room-sized stumps and massive logs being hauled down the highway were going viral and arrests of blockaders around Fairy Creek were in the news around the world. The B.C. government was scrambling to make announcements and take steps to respond to the public uproar.
A year later, things seem to have quieted somewhat, but is it any calmer in the last remaining old-growth forests?
The war in the woods began long before last year — battles over ancient forests on the West Coast were among the foundational fights of the environmental movement on this continent. The case for conservation was serious in the late 1970s, and it has only grown in the decades since, as original unlogged forests have become scarcer.
By 2019, B.C.’s NDP government announced it recognized the need for change and launched its old-growth strategic review, a process conducted by a panel of two foresters that became the largest review of forest policy in the province's history.
The result, a groundbreaking report entitled A New Future for Old Forests, was finally released four-and-a-half months later. The report was widely celebrated, its diagnosis of status-quo logging as unsustainable and its call for a paradigm shift seen as vindication for an environmental movement that had long been echoing similar concerns.
Premier John Horgan called a snap election just 10 days after the report’s release and campaigned hard on old-growth, promising to implement all the report’s recommendations and save old-growth forests.
He won in a landslide. Hopes were high. But the months passed. Real action in the form of logging limits in the most valuable old-growth stands never came.
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Trees kept falling, photos of their stumps kept being shared. Blockades on southern Vancouver Island grew through the dreary winter months and then exploded in the spring of 2021 when enforcement and arrests began.
In some ways, old-growth conservation is a complex and layered challenge, but at the heart of this conflict was a perfectly simple contradiction: the government had promised to shift the paradigm and save old-growth, yet giant, 1,000-year-old trees continued to be cut down.
With weekly demonstrations at his constituency office and questions flying from reporters, Horgan popped the clutch, announcing in June 2021 that a second panel was needed. This one consisted of technical experts who would determine which ancient forests should be set aside.
More than a year after the first review recommended at-risk old-growth forests be deferred from logging within six months, the government would begin to determine which old-growth was at risk.
“Talk and log,” an adage coined in the 1990s, returned to popular use and cynicism was everywhere.
The concept of deferrals was a newer one many needed to get their heads around. After all, the public desire is for permanent protection, not temporary pauses.
But permanent protection must be agreed to and led by Indigenous Peoples and that doesn’t happen overnight. I met with the original old-growth panel in December 2019, to present to them on behalf of the Wilderness Committee’s tens of thousands of supporters and advocate for swift and meaningful protection of ancient forests. The panel members framed potential deferrals as an interim step, necessary to ensure there would still be enough old-growth left to protect should the First Nations whose territory it stands decide to do so.
I envisioned a tourniquet: not the solution for old-growth forests, but a device needed if the chance of protection is to survive.
By summer of 2021 though, the Horgan government had positioned deferrals as the end goal, to be reached only after a lengthy process and agreement from First Nations. It’s not that this standard is bad, but it is inconsistent because this same stringency isn’t applied across the board to logging.
The NDP also greatly oversimplified the problem, mentioning often that many First Nations benefit from old-growth logging but failing to admit that means deferrals, the government’s stated priority, would require funding and compensation to cancel out any losses for communities. Horgan pointed to deferrals as the solution to the public anger over old-growth, but refused to address or even acknowledge the financial barriers in the way.
Horgan’s government handed a campaign gift to Justin Trudeau’s, which during the September 2021 federal election, pledged $50 million to protect old-growth forests, criticizing the federal NDP for not doing the same.
This came to a head in November when B.C.’s Forests Minister Katrine Conroy announced the technical panel had completed its assessment and the government was prioritizing 2.6 million hectares for deferral — an area four-fifths the size of Vancouver Island and encompassing about a third of all remaining unprotected old-growth in B.C.
The province said First Nations would have 30 days to respond and indicate their intentions, and yet it still didn’t commit substantial funding to help make these deferrals happen.
In the six months since, a handful of specific deferrals have been announced by First Nations and $185 million was vaguely earmarked to support parts of the process in the 2022 budget. On April 1, Conroy announced more than a million hectares of the 2.6 million hectare target had been officially deferred from logging.
Scrutinizing this million hectares (for comparison, the Greater Toronto Area is 712,500 hectares) and holding the government accountable is difficult. The details are not public, meaning there’s no way to know if a specific area intended for deferral has actually been deferred.
This is a problem because logging continues across tens of thousands of hectares of the most at-risk old-growth forest. The quality of publicly available logging data is poor, but by tracking cutblock approvals, satellite imagery assessments done by groups like Stand.earth and making good old-fashioned visits to the woods show huge chunks of the endangered old-growth the NDP has promised to save won’t ever be protected because it’s being cut down in the meantime.
"Talk and log." This is the cold reality behind the public frustration over old-growth forests that continues to boil.
The Horgan government has made some nice promises and encouraging declarations about the importance of these ancient ecosystems. But the only score that matters is the one kept in the forests themselves. Because of the lack of immediate interim protection to ensure the best patches of old-growth don’t continue to fall and the absence of meaningful funding to make these protections possible, the B.C. government is still failing on that score.
Torrance Coste is national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee. Follow him on twitter @TorranceCoste.