Province’s caribou plan threatens forestry restart in the Northern Rockies

The economic viability of the Northern Rockies hangs in the balance as the province’s new push to protect boreal caribou impedes the region’s planned rejuvenation of its forestry industry.

The province has launched a draft Boreal Caribou Implementation Plan, which protects vast swaths of forest, including areas the regional municipality had targeted for timber harvesting, and where locals say caribou don’t live.

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“I’m speaking to you from a community that, quite honestly, without exaggeration in many ways is fighting for its economic life,” said Mike Gilbert, community development officer for the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM).

The once vibrant community of Fort Nelson, heralded as the forestry capital of B.C. in 2006, now has a 70 per cent vacancy rate for commercial properties. For residential rental accommodation, the vacancy rate exceeds 40 per cent.

“There is the potential for a significant impact on our ability to restart the forest industry here because certain areas that would be excluded (from harvesting under the plan) would really make it difficult for industry to re-establish, just because of where they’re located,” Gilbert said. 

The Northern Rockies was hit hard in 2008 when the U.S. housing market crash led to the closure of two large-scale timber-processing plants in Fort Nelson. Since then, the municipality has been working to restore its forestry sector. Many loggers turned to the oil and gas industry for work, but oil and gas activity has slowed considerably with the economic downturn.

A concerted effort to restore forestry in the region was launched in 2013, called the Forestry Rejuvenation Project, which was designed to address the issues that led to the collapse of its forestry sector. Those efforts are now in jeopardy with the province’s release of the BCIP—deemed by the NRRM to be unsatisfactory—for public commentary. 

“I urgently request your government stop plans by Ministry of Environment staff to release a draft copy of the Boreal Caribou Implementation Plan (BCIP) for public comment later this month,” Mayor Bill Streeper told Premier Christy Clark in a March 21 letter.

Although the province and the Northern Rockies had been negotiating the BCIP for more than a year, the municipality wasn’t satisfied enough was being done to protect its socioeconomic interests.

“No substantive changes to address our concerns in the BCIP have resulted, and key information and data promised have yet to be forthcoming. It is our opinion that, in its present state, the plan is not ready for release for public comment,” the letter continued.

The Northern Rockies wanted the plan to reflect a balance between conservation and regeneration as well as socioeconomic values, “which, in our estimation, were lacking,” Gilbert said in an interview.

“We think that can be done, there’s compatibility there, one does not preclude the other. But that requires then that we go back and look at the science,” he said, stressing a need to determine how much of the dwindling caribou numbers is attributable to human activity and how much to other factors.

Former logger and current NRRM Coun. Danny Soles believes predation—wolves and bears eating caribou calves—is one of the primary factors impacting the population, and that restricting land access is not the solution.

“It’s a plan that doesn’t really have the potential to address the problem,” he said, particularly because it doesn’t take predation into account, and also because some areas slated for protection, and which were formerly logged, did not and do not support caribou.

“In order for caribou to survive they need grass, they are a grass eating animal...the forest that the logging has historically taken place in had no grass growing under it,” he said, adding that it therefore was not caribou habitat.

Soles, who holds the forestry portfolio for the NRRM, was a logger in Fort Nelson from 1979 to 2008. He believes the ministry hasn’t looked into the issue carefully enough.

“As a logger, what’s relevant to me is that the original plan didn’t even recognize that the Northern Rockies had a forestry history, and therefore the map was overlaid as though there were no forest activity in the past, which is just crazy because we were the forestry capital of B.C. in 2006,” he said.

“The woodland caribou don’t inhabit the forest lands we harvested, they don’t inhabit it at all, so why would they exclude it as though that is a measure to preserve caribou?”

The BC Ministry of Environment, not able to provide comment for this article due to the writ period of the election, released the plan for public commentary despite the NRRM’s wishes, but agreed the NRRM would be involved in the preparation and review of the final product, according to Gilbert.

In the midst of these talks, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations committed $50,000 for the creation of a joint community forest, with the funds being handled equally by the Fort Nelson First Nation and the regional municipality.

It will be a working forest, including harvesting, tree planting and related activities, according to Soles. The boundaries of this forest have not yet been determined. 

Anyone interested in reading the plan can do so on the engage.gov.bc.ca website. Public comments are being accepted until May 31, 2017, and can be emailed to CitizenEngagement@gov.bc.ca.

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