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Deferral of old-growth logging signals paradigm shift for Cheakamus Community Forest

Board hits pause on old-growth harvesting for 2021 as it looks to other possible revenue generators 
n-CCF Old Growth 28.24 FILE PHOTO CMYK
Whistler’s Cheakamus Community Forest won’t see any old-growth logging in 2021, giving its managing partners the chance to reach a consensus on the future of old growth in the forest and explore alternative revenue sources.

Last week’s decision to defer old-growth logging for the year signals a paradigm shift in how the Cheakamus Community Forest (CCF) is managed, say forest partners and local ecologists. 

On Thursday, June 10, the CCF’s managing partners—the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Lil’wat Nation and Squamish Nation—decided to hit pause on old-growth logging for 2021 as they resolve “to work together on finding consensus on old-growth management in the CCF through a process of ongoing dialogue between the partners,” according to a statement. 

Acting board chair and Whistler Councillor John Grills (who replaced former chair Jeff Fisher following his recent departure) said there were a number of factors that went into the decision, between the dearth of commercially harvestable old trees, Whistler’s growing popularity over the years as a tourism destination, and the spotlight on old growth brought on by this year’s Fairy Creek blockades

The deferral means a project slated for this summer that would have harvested 11,440 cubic metres of old forest over a 17.4-hectare area of Callaghan Creek—which would have been the first old-growth logged in the CCF commercially since 2018—won’t go ahead.  

“I really do see it as a positive and I do see it as an opening to move beyond old-school, industry-focused resource extraction and talk about how to manage the land base better,” said forest ecologist and Whistler Naturalists co-founder Bob Brett. 

“I really do feel like the community forest is in a very different place than it was last year and I feel quite optimistic that we’re going in the right direction.”  

Thursday’s decision dovetailed with the Squamish Nation’s call for a two-year deferral of old-growth logging on its roughly 690,000-ha. territory “while the Nation develops long-term sustainability plans,” a release said. “[Seventy-eight-thousand] hectares of the Nation’s old-growth forest are at risk unless the Province immediately halts new clear cuts. These forests belong to the Squamish People and were never ceded.” (Requests for comment sent to both the Squamish Nation and Lil’wat Nation—which has been in mourning in recent days following two deaths in the community—were not returned by deadline.) 

As calls from British Columbians to end old-growth logging have grown louder this year, coupled with the renewed attention on Indigenous autonomy and land rights in the pandemic, Brett believes the province has also shifted its thinking.  

“In spite of what everyone says, I believe this provincial government, as much as they want to set the rules, are coming to a new reality where communities, especially First Nations communities, get to make these decisions,” he said. 

On Tuesday, June 15, Victoria announced it had started negotiations with the Tahltan First Nation in northwestern B.C. on the first consent-based decision-making agreement to ever be negotiated under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. The agreement would give the Tahltan greater authority and land-use predictability on its territory, where two mining projects are planned.  

The CCF partners will use the rest of the year in part to explore alternative revenue sources at the forest, which could include greater emphasis on ecotourism, recreation and Indigenous cultural tourism opportunities. 

Given how successful Whistler has been in monetizing forested areas throughout the valley, Brett said there should be no shortage of ways to generate revenue in the CCF. 

“I think we answer these questions as if the CCF is a monolithic area and of course it isn’t,” he said. “In terms of annual income that comes from our forests, there wouldn’t be anywhere else in the province that creates more tax revenue and more employment through our forests than Whistler. And it’s not logging; it’s recreation and tourism. So it’s about who gets the jobs and who gets the benefits. That’s where the discussion is right now. It hasn’t been equal that the benefits have accrued to non-First Nations communities and not First Nations communities, and that’s what has to be addressed.” 

Even still, there are several other hurdles to overcome if the partners do ultimately decide to put a permanent end to old-growth harvesting. With a current annual allowable cut of 20,000 cubic metres, foresters have struggled to find enough commercially harvestable trees given the long history of clear-cutting in Whistler Valley throughout the 20th century. (It’s worth noting that, generally speaking, the amount of timber harvested on public lands in B.C. regularly falls below the set annual allowable cut.) 

So CCF manager Simon Murray has floated two ideas, both of which would require buy-in from the board and the province: reducing the CCF’s annual allowable cut to 15,000 m3, and lowering the minimum age limit of harvestable second-growth trees through the CCF’s carbon credit program from 70 to 50 years. 

Since 2015, the CCF has had an agreement in place with the province to sell carbon offsets, independently verified credits for net greenhouse gas reductions that are used to compensate for the emissions of the buyer. Bringing in an average of around $100,000 a year, Murray said, the CCF is only permitted to sequester carbon from trees that are between 70 and 250 years old, which Murray said earlier this month would represent an estimated 10 per cent of the remaining trees in the forest. 

But continually harvesting young second growth doesn’t make much sense from a commercial or ecological perspective, posited Brett. 

“I just think it’s a very shortsighted way of creating jobs to log forest that not only has very low [economic] value, but by any professional forester’s analysis in past years, it would have been way too early to cut [young trees] because it’s not when they’re putting out the most volume and the most valuable volume. So even from a timber perspective, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. 

“From an ecological perspective, the areas that would most likely be looked at to log are among the ones that need to be recruitment forest that would at least help us come closer to restoring the historic level of old growth in this valley over the next couple centuries.” 

Brett also pointed to the Mount Currie log sort yard as a prime example of the type of “value-added” forestry work that can be done in the corridor.

“Right now, British Columbia creates the fewest number of jobs per cubic metre [of forest logged] in Canada, and within a community forest, it doesn’t make sense to me to cut logs that end up getting shipped overseas without any value added,” he said. 

Gaining a full view into the economics of the CCF can be challenging. There hasn’t been an annual report posted to the CCF website since the 2018 edition (Grills said the 2019 and 2020 reports would be posted soon), and while figures like total sales, expenses, and jobs generated are publicly available, the revenue generated for each of the three partners is confidential, Grills noted. 

“Transparency is really critical to finding out what people really want and what is really happening in the forest,” Brett said. “If we’re looking to create more jobs for First Nations, then we need to know how many full-time equivalents are currently being produced for First Nations—and I don’t mean the contractors they hire, but directly for band members … I think that once the numbers are out there, it’s easier to make choices that make sense for everyone.” 

In 2018, the CCF generated 5.2 full-time equivalent jobs, which involved a total of 38 people. Its total value of sales that year was $1,141,319, while its expenditures totalled $1,045,819. It had a rate of return of $7.85 per cubic metre of forest logged.