B.C. ‘shouldn’t have approved’ plan that failed to protect Nahmint old-growth forests: watchdog

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A three-year review by the forest practices board found the provincial government did not meet its legal objective to protect ecosystems and ancient forests in a treasured Vancouver Island watershed

The Narwhal
May 12, 2021

The B.C. government has put biodiversity and old-growth at risk in Vancouver Island’s Nahmint River watershed, which is home to ancient forests with some of the province’s largest Douglas fir trees, a Forest Practices Board investigation has found.  

The investigation, released on Wednesday, concluded the B.C. forests ministry erred in approving a forest stewardship plan put forward by BC Timber Sales, the government agency responsible for auctioning off provincial logging permits.

The plan failed to meet land-use objectives for biodiversity protection, including where and how much old-growth forest should be conserved in the 20,000-hectare watershed southwest of Port Alberni, the three-year investigation found. 

“BC Timber Sales’ forest stewardship plan did not meet the legal objective, and it should not have been approved,” Forest Practices Board chair Kevin Kriese said in a statement. 

“We looked at the remaining forest in the watershed and found there are some ecosystems that could be at risk if more logging takes place in them.” 

The investigation also found BC Timber Sales did not follow good conservation design, use available ecosystem mapping or ensure forest ecosystems were adequately represented at the landscape level through old-growth management areas. These issues have occurred “over a long period of time and are creating real risks to ecosystems,” the board found.

The board is B.C.’s independent watchdog for sound forest and range practices. It investigates public complaints about practices on public land, along with the appropriateness of government enforcement, and makes recommendations for improvement. 

“The evidence is irrefutable; BC Timber Sales is failing to adequately protect old-growth in the Nahmint Valley,” Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner Andrea Inness told The Narwhal. 

“There is such a lack of oversight and accountability inherent in B.C.’s forest system that companies and BC Timber Sales are failing to meet the already inadequate standards that are set for old-growth protection,” Inness said. “And it’s more or less gone unnoticed until now.”

Nahmin Valley old growth clear cut
Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner TJ Watt surveys a sprawling clearcut filled with old-growth Douglas fir trees in the Nahmint Valley. Photo: TJ Watt

The investigation was triggered by a complaint from the Ancient Forest Alliance, following a May 2018 trip to the Nahmint Valley by Inness and other alliance members, including photographer TJ Watt, as well as members of the Port Alberni Watershed-Forest Alliance.

Their fact-finding expedition discovered exceptionally large Douglas fir trees — including the fifth and ninth widest Douglas firs ever recorded in the province — scattered amidst the remains of an extensive clearcutting operation. The two groups also documented old-growth cedar stumps measuring almost four metres in diameter.

Inness said trip participants were amazed by the sheer beauty of the Nahmint Valley, which has some of the grandest and most intact ancient rainforests in B.C. outside of the Great Bear Rainforest and Clayoquot Sound

“On the flip side, we were struck by the sheer scale and pace of the old-growth logging that was happening there,” she said. “It was as though the trees could not be cut fast enough.” 

Following the expedition, the Ancient Forest Alliance submitted a complaint to the compliance and enforcement branch of B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Two subsequent investigations — the findings of which were obtained by the Ancient Forest Alliance through a Freedom of Information request — showed BC Timber Sales was not complying with rules designed to ensure sufficient old-growth forest is retained to avoid loss of biodiversity.

One investigation, conducted by a ministry compliance and enforcement officer, recommended that logging in the Nahmint Valley be halted, future harvesting tenures be put on hold and the agency be prevented from establishing Nahmint old-growth management areas — created to protect old-growth and achieve biodiversity targets — while problems were addressed.

The second investigation, conducted outside the ministry, came to similar conclusions, the FOI documents revealed.

Nahmint logging douglas fir
Before and after images of a massive Douglas fir tree in the Nahmint Valley. According to the B.C. Big Tree Registry, this Douglas fir was the ninth-largest of its kind in Canada. Photo: TJ Watt

The Ancient Forest Alliance also called for a halt to old-growth logging in the Nahmint Valley until the Forest Practices Board investigation was complete. 

“That plea was ignored and logging continued,” Inness said. 

She said it is very troubling that the investigation has revealed nothing was done to amend the forest stewardship plan developed by BC Timber Sales — even though the forest ministry district manager who approved the plan was aware of possible non-compliance issues.  

The investigation found the forest stewardship plan was inconsistent with a 2001 Vancouver Island land use plan order, which sets specific objectives for conserving biodiversity. 

It also found B.C.’s legal framework does not permit the government to amend forest stewardship plans approved in error. 

“…[T]hat does not give the public confidence in government’s compliance and enforcement,” Kriese said. “We are recommending government fix this gap in the legislation.” 

The board’s report comes as the BC NDP government drags its heels on implementing recommendations from an independent old-growth strategic review panel it commissioned in 2019. The panel, led by foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel, made 14 recommendations that the BC NDP promised during last fall’s election campaign to implement if re-elected. 

In the April 12 Speech from the throne, which lays out the government’s blueprint for the current legislative session, the government appeared to backpedal on the BC NDP’s election promise, saying only that it will “continue to take action on the independent report on old-growth.” 

Critics assert that very little has been done, with the Ancient Forest Alliance and two other conservation groups assigning the government a failing grade in a recent report card that examined progress on implementing the panel’s recommendations. 

In one recommendation, Gorley and Merkel said the government should immediately defer development in old forests “where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.” 

Brenda Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation said she wants to see an end to old-growth logging in the Nahmint. 

“The Nahmint Valley is not only beautiful, its ancient forests and biodiversity are critical to our people’s culture, our identity,” Sayers said in a statement. “Yet the B.C. government is sanctioning the destruction of these ecosystems through its own logging agency, which has shown itself to be incapable of responsibly managing our sacred lands.”

The government has until Sept. 15 to respond to recommendations from the forest practices board, which said the forest stewardship plan should be amended and the ministry should complete a landscape unit plan for the Nahmint. It also said the ministry should identify a mechanism to allow forest stewardship plans to be amended if they are inconsistent with government objectives.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said BC Timber Sales is addressing the board’s recommendations in its operations.

The ministry is also updating the Nahmint landscape unit plan and adjusting old-growth management areas “to better capture rare and underrepresented ecosystems and biodiversity targets at the landscape level,” the statement said.

The ministry noted the Nahmint Valley contains 67 per cent of its original mature and old-growth forests, “far more than required by the Vancouver Island land use order,” but it did not specify how much of that is old-growth.

“The board’s independent reports are an important check on forest practices in B.C. and highlight areas where we can improve,” the ministry said. “We take seriously the board’s recommendations and observations.”

Inness said the Ancient Forest Alliance is not interested in watching B.C.’s ancient forests and some of the world’s biggest trees continue to fall, even if the forest stewardship plan for the Nahmint Valley is brought into compliance with “our very inadequate laws.” 

“Those laws need to change,” she said, noting the B.C. government has not announced any new old-growth forest protections or policy changes. 

“It hasn’t even announced its plan for how to implement the [old-growth] panel’s recommendations. We’re calling on the B.C. government to stick to its promise and to deliver those things immediately. More and more of these endangered old-growth forests are falling every single day.”

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