Occupying 10 per cent of Canada’s land mass and almost two-thirds of the province under forest cover, British Columbia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

But the beauty of B.C.’s biological diversity is scarred by two ugly truths: B.C. is in a biodiversity crisis with over 1,800 at-risk species, and the province’s laws perpetuate this crisis by allowing big logging companies to treat public land as if it’s their private property.

This enables logging companies to maximize profits through unsustainable logging practices like clear-cutting while also limiting the public’s ability to monitor how these practices are impacting ecosystems and at-risk species. When scientist Royann Petrell tried to access B.C.’s old-growth forests within Tree Farm Licence 46 (TFL 46) to study the threatened western screech owl and marbled murrelet, she was met with gates and private security guards.

In 2021, B.C.’s Ministry of Forests granted multiple road closures throughout TFL 46, an old-growth forest area that includes the injunction enforcement area established by the B.C. Supreme Court against protests near Fairy Creek. After receiving approval to close the roads, Teal Cedar Products Ltd. (Teal Cedar), the company involved in logging in TFL 46, hired a private security firm to bar public access. Despite no involvement with the blockades or protests, Petrell was repeatedly denied access to the area, leading her to go to the B.C. Court of Appeal and subsequently the Forest Practices Board to challenge the road closures. However, in February, the board sided with the ministry and Teal Cedar in concluding that the road closures were authorized under the governing legislation.

Not only does the board’s endorsement unjustifiably prevent scientists from monitoring at-risk species before their habitat is destroyed by logging —something Teal Cedar is under no obligation to do under provincial law — it also represents an egregious infringement on the public’s right to access public land.

Who ‘owns’ the forests of British Columbia?

When considering public access to forests, we recognize that the concept of “public land” is inherently anti-Indigenous. Colonial provincial law recognizes two types of land: public (also called Crown) and private land. But most “Crown” land in so-called B.C. is unceded Indigenous territory. In other words, First Nations in B.C. never agreed to give over the rights and title of their territory, yet the Crown claimed it as their own. However, if B.C. is going to claim land is “public,” then industry should not have the discretion to block public access to that land, particularly when it comes to monitoring at-risk species and ecosystems before they are lost. We have a long way to go to ensure Indigenous rights and titles are recognized and uplifted in law and policy, and part of that work includes dismantling the current system that grants a disproportionate amount of control and discretion to industry.

The presumption of a public right to access, especially for those endeavouring to protect at-risk species amid a biodiversity crisis, should never be lightly interfered with. Unfortunately, through the ongoing authorization of road closures, the B.C. government is signalling these lands belong to industry. Forests will continue to be logged. Species will continue to die in darkness.

Why B.C. urgently needs to implement a biodiversity and ecosystem health framework

The TFL 46 case is but one example of how B.C.’s legal framework prioritizes exploitative industry practices over all other values that forests hold. While the forestry industry is a significant economic backbone for many communities across the province, private logging companies cannot be allowed to make executive decisions on how forests are managed and who has access to them for the sake of lining the pockets of company executives.

B.C. is in a biodiversity crisis with over 1,800 at-risk species, write @kpepsmith and @sarahkorpan #ClimateChange #ProtectNature #bcpoli

B.C. has explicitly committed to upending this system by promising to implement a paradigm shift that prioritizes biodiversity and ecosystem health in all government decision-making across all sectors. We are awaiting a critical milestone in this commitment: the release of the final Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework, which might outline a path toward achieving this commitment.

When logging companies are granted selective access to forests that hold so much ecological and community value during a biodiversity crisis, everyone loses. It’s not too late for B.C. to take broader, bolder action to ensure a future for all species and ecosystems currently beholden to industry exploitation.

Kegan Pepper-Smith is the managing lawyer at Ecojustice. Sarah Korpan is a legislative affairs specialist at Ecojustice’s office in the unceded territory of the Lkwungen (Lekwungen) peoples, and the Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations, known as Victoria.