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General News · 27th February 2012
Alexis Stoymenoff, Vancouver Observer, Feb. 25th, 2012

Foresters in Victoria for a conference this week were alerted to public concerns over logging on the small BC island. The struggles they face illustrate common challenges in today’s forestry industry.

Cortes Island youth met professional foresters at a conference in Victoria Friday, to voice their concerns about upcoming logging on the small coastal island.

Cortes is currently in the midst of negotiations with private landowner Island Timberlands, who announced last December that they were planning to commence logging in large swaths of the island’s forests—areas that are home to significant old growth stands and a number of rare wildlife species.

A group of high school students, including two Cortes Island natives currently attending school in Victoria, were part of an advocacy effort to reach out to forest experts gathered at the annual meeting of the Association of BC Forest Professionals (ABCFP). The youth were there to both explain the island’s situation and to ask for professional insights on how industry and government can work to balance economic and environmental considerations.

“We were just letting them know that [the logging] is happening in September, and that there are species at risk there, and asking if they thought that B.C. needed to protect them,” said 16-year-old Fairahn Reid.

“I’ve been in those forests and they’re amazing. I just don’t understand how they’re able to log them…I just want to change things. I’m a Cortesian.”

Logging operations were originally set to begin at the end of January, but intense community pressure and a 6,000-signature petition helped convince Island Timberlands (IT) to delay their plans until the fall. Company foresters met with Cortes representatives in Nanaimo on Wednesday, and agreed to further consultation regarding specific environmental concerns.

Carrie Saxifrage, a Cortes advocate who started the online petition, said this week’s meeting with IT resulted in a few tangible outcomes.

“It was a great opportunity for people from Cortes to pull out the maps that we’ve been working on for over 20 years now, that have really defined the forestry that we would like to see on the island,” said Saxifrage.

“It’s got a protected landscape network that looks at wildlife corridors, sensitive areas, old growth areas to be protected, and so on.”

Concerned volunteers and biologists on the island have spent countless hours mapping ecologies and wildlife habitats around the threatened areas. After presenting their maps at the meeting, Saxifrage said the company agreed to add the information to their own data, and to consider it in further assessments of their plans. If a compromise cannot be reached, residents have also expressed hope that they might eventually be able to purchase sections of land from IT.

“We think that they may be more open to purchase than they would have been in the past,” said Saxifrage, describing the impression she got from recent discussions.

“This meeting was an opportunity that is a result of people’s strong response—from the petition and all of the people who are doing work in support. It’s making a difference, and going forward we need to keep up the pace on our proposal for community ownership and stewardship.”

Ecosystem based forestry standards

Community advocates stress that they are not opposed to logging in general. Instead, they promote the idea of “ecosystem based forestry” and sustainable practices that save key old growth and wildlife habitats. Despite concerns over the company’s plans, Island Timberlands says their current practices already abide by government and industry standards for environmental protection.

“As far as certification goes, we have Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification, and we have ISO 14001 certification which covers the on-the-ground type of work,” Waugh said in an interview with the Observer.

“SFI is the forest management aspect of it, which gives us direction on things like biodiversity, water quality and wildlife. We also have at least 30 different government laws and regulations that we have to follow,” he explained.

The company’s environmental policy includes a commitment to protect key fish habitats, water sources, critical wildlife habitats and species at risk. It also notes Island Timberlands’ willingness to consider public feedback about their operations—a promise they’re intent to keep, given the ongoing discussion with Cortes residents.

The community’s concerns involve discrepancies between IT’s regulated standards and the more stringent rules recommended by scientists with the Coast Information Team. For instance, the Coast Information Team standards—currently being implemented in the Great Bear Rainforest—say logging plans should leave a buffer of 100 to 200 metres from sensitive streams. IT’s current standards leave only about 15 metres.

There are also discrepancies in deciding which trees constitute “old growth” (and which therefore require protection). The Coast Information Team defines old growth trees as 140 years or older, but provincial regulations are based on a different definition.

“There is some difference of opinion on it. The common definition of ‘old growth’ in B.C. is 250 years-plus. That’s the government standard,” Waugh explained.

But naturalists like George Sirk say protecting all remaining old growth is vital for the survival of local at-risk species. Sirk is a bird expert who lived on Cortes Island for 30 years, conducting research for a book he co-authored called Birds of Cortes and Mitlenatch Island.

He is especially concerned about the impact logging could have on the blue-listed bird species, the marbled murrelet. These coastal birds nest at the top of old growth trees, and they have reportedly lost up to 50 per cent of their natural habitat due to logging and development.

“If I had a hundred pennies and I just threw them down on the floor, those would represent all the old growth of Cortes Island in 1900. If I picked 95 of those pennies up, that’s what’s gone. There are five pennies lying on this floor, and that’s all that’s left. That’s why the people of Cortes are upset, and that’s why they should be upset. Because those five pennies are where the murrelets are nesting,” said Sirk.

The former Cortes resident wrote a letter to Island Timberlands explaining the potential threat to these rare birds. While he hopes the old growth will eventually be saved, Sirk says he’s glad that IT has at least agreed to postpone operations until after the spring, when most birds are nesting and would be particularly vulnerable.

"Logging in spring time when birds are nesting is like demolishing a maternity ward in a hospital while the moms and babies are still in their beds," he said.

Moving toward sustainability

As of their last meeting, both IT and Cortes Island representatives say they’re keeping the door open for more discussion.

“We’ve agreed to meet further and talk further, and go out in the field and look at these trees that they’re talking about. And that’s where we’re at right now,” said Waugh.

Though no firm decisions have been made, it’s a result Cortes biologist and educator Sabina Leader Mense believes is a step in the right direction.

“The fact that they’re going to take our information and meet us on the ground to ground-truth with us—this kind of dialogue from industry? Everybody’s on high moral ground here right now. It’s good,” she said.

From the community perspective, IT has a responsibility to address environmental concerns and ensure healthy ecosystems on the island. But the company’s private ownership means they have the right to make the decisions. From their perspective, they’re doing their due diligence by abiding by standards and allowing for public input. Waugh also pointed out that Cortes residents have enjoyed free use of the island forests for decades.

“We get a huge amount of mountain bikers and walkers, ATV guys (who we try to discourage). It’s one of those ideal situations where our neighbours can use it, but they get upset when that snapshot that they have changes,” he explained.

“When they go in there and see our flagging, they say, ‘what are these guys doing? Isn’t this a park?’ Well no, it’s our land. We’ve been growing trees on it, and paid for it.”

Big industry’s new forestry

The idea of community engagement and public dialogue was one of the recurring topics at this week’s forestry conference. It included sessions on non-statutory expectations, the “art of advocacy”, and dealing with Aboriginal peoples.

Speaking in a panel called “Big Industry’s New Forestry”, Waugh spoke about the ways that third-party certification (like SFI) can help communicate positive changes in forestry to key stakeholders.

“It provides confidence to investors, customers and the public that the employees and the environment are cared for,” he said during his presentation.

His remarks touched on the important link between public confidence and environmental considerations. With increasing public concern over climate change, sustainability and the environment, it’s no surprise that the forestry industry is taking some heat from critics.

It’s nothing new—these battles have been fought between environmentalists and loggers for years. The main difference now is the context.

Friday’s keynote speaker, sustainability writer Chris Turner, explained this context as a “three part crisis”: the economic crisis, the energy crisis, and the climate crisis. The key to overcoming these crises, he said, is “seeing opportunity in the push towards sustainability”.

“Whatever your business as usual is, it is no longer a valid way to keep going. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in,” said Turner, author of the book The Great Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy.

“As you look at that sustainability goal—that jump that you need to make or maybe are already making—where are the opportunities there? Don’t look at how much it’s going to hurt. Look at where the opportunities are, really focus on that and I think you’ll find some really amazing things happening.”