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Sea to Sky old growth: it's a matter of balance

Vancouver Island isn't the only area where old-growth logging is happening but why here and why now?

Despite calls for protection elsewhere in the province, Sea to Sky old-growth logging continues.

After a fiery, destructive, deadly hot summer in B.C., climate change is on everyone's minds and the battle for old-growth forests has taken on an even more urgent tone as police and protestors face off in Fairy Creek.

But Vancouver Island isn't the only area where old-growth logging is happening on a daily basis, say some Sea to Sky activists. It's a province-wide practice, with old trees are being cut right in our own backyard.

It's a lack of public awareness that keeps the big logs coming out of the woods, they say, as well as a history of overlogging.

How much is logged

According to a statement from the B.C. Ministry of Forests to The Squamish Chief, 200,000 hectares of forest is harvested in B.C. each year, 27% of which is old growth.

In the Sea to Sky specifically, there are approximately 464,000 hectares of Crown forest, 203,000 of which are considered old growth.

Almost half of the old growth is protected or falls within areas where harvesting is prohibited (about 96,000 hectares).

Of the total forested area, the Timber Harvesting Land Base – the area legal and economical to harvest – consists of about 113,000 hectares. Old-growth forest makes up 14% of that, or approximately 28,000 hectares or one-quarter of that.

"Old-growth forest protections in the District include Old Growth Management Areas, parks, ungulate winter ranges, wildlife habitat areas, and riparian area reserves," stated the Ministry.

"Our government committed to doing things differently to protect vital old-growth stands while supporting workers and communities. That's why we commissioned an independent panel report from two respected foresters and began the work to implement that report began almost immediately. To ensure we're using the best science and data available to identify at-risk ecosystems and prioritize areas for deferral, we've brought together an independent panel to support our science-based approach to old-growth management."

Community advocate, writer and graduate student studying ecological design Nick Gottlieb spends hours comparing provincial geographic datasets and B.C. timber licence sales with satellite Earth imagery to track old-growth logging.

Because of incomplete government and industry data, he says it is the only way to get a true sense of what is being logged, and where.

"It's because of a mix of factors, but basically, huge amounts of old-growth are being logged here in the Sea to Sky and across the province, like right now, and over the last year and a half especially," said Gottlieb. "Provincewide, old-growth logging approvals were up 43% in 2020," he said.

Twin One Creek, Twin Two Creek, Zorro Bay, Britannia Beach and Alpen Mountain are just a few old-growth areas Gottlieb named as being currently or recently cut.

Also, he says the Meager Creek area north of Pemberton, recently closed to the public due to landslide hazards, has been a free-for-all of timber gathering.

"They punched a new road into that area about three years ago," he said. "And since then: firesale. Huge amounts of old-growth have been cut there despite the fact that Meager Creek already poses a debris flow and flooding risk to Pemberton."

Rising timber prices as well as a push to harvest ahead of stricter logging regulations are causing an increase in old-growth logging, Gottlieb says.

Jared Areshenkoff, a graduate student in environmental management, forest carbon and ecology, thinks that public awareness and education need to be improved in order for real changes to be made in the forestry industry.

"I feel like the public, especially in Whistler, would be absolutely outraged if they knew that we were logging old-growth this entire time," he said. He also sits on the Whistler Forest and Wildland Advisory Committee which advises the Cheakamus Community Forest (CCF) on its logging plans and practices. The CCF, which is governed by the RMOW and the Lil'wat and Squamish Nations, protects about 15,000 hectares of forest, some of which is designated as old-growth. It has an annual allowable cut of 21,000 cubic metres and recently passed a motion to defer old-growth logging for the rest of 2021.

B.C. defines old growth as being 250 years old or older in coastal forests. But Areshenkoff explains that the line can be hard to define, meaning some trees that maybe shouldn't be are still being harvested.

"We can roughly figure out how old the tree is, but it's not exact. So, when you see some of these big logs driving down the road, they may, in fact, be old growth. They could be 250 years old or older."

Although the Sea to Sky has a large proportion of old-growth forest currently protected in provincial parks and other conservation areas such as the community forest and riparian reserves, a long history of no-holds-barred logging before government regulation means that the resource is thinning.

After decades of over logging of first- and second-growth forests in the Sea to Sky, forestry stakeholders turn to older growth timber in order to meet provincial annual allowable cut requirements and to keep the industry flowing.

"A lot of the area around Squamish was logged by the 1970s, right up to the Garibaldi Park boundary," said Eric Andersen of the Sea to Sky Forestry Centre Society (SSFC).

"And then the logging companies went to Pemberton and they started the same process there. Now, the logging companies are moving back from Pemberton – Squamish logging companies — and coming back to log second growth around Squamish.

"And so what we have today is about 60 to 65% of the logging, the timber harvest rights in the Sea to Sky area is old growth. The rest is now second-growth harvesting and that is increasing, it is increasing quite fast."

Although old-growth timber is not the highest quality product, Andersen says, it is necessary to harvest some of it in order to allow the second-growth forests to mature into a more valuable product for a more sustainable industry in the long run.

"It's poor quality, and it's hard to sell," he said. "So why do we harvest the old-growth cedar hemlock when it's such poor quality and when it's so hard to sell? The reason is we want to have a sustained harvest over time and not to keep taking out the best. That's what we've been doing too much of. That's what we've been doing worldwide, in fisheries, in forest management, and wildlife management.

"Our problem is balance."

Achieving that balance is what local forester and consultant Sterling Angus thinks about every day when he arrives on the job, for example, when he assesses future logging sites for the CCF.

Following forestry management plans and government regulations make each new cut block a different challenge.

"The community forest is a pretty special place, in that they really are managing all sorts of different values, including carbon, and trying to get their old-growth management just right," Angus said. "Trying to also ensure they don't diminish their recreational value. Finding trees that meet their criteria, that allows them to be harvested in areas that are not environmentally sensitive, and also that are economic, that will pay the cost of logging and yield a profit."

The province, in addressing new heightened public demand around old forest protection, is caught between a rock and hard place, Angus believes.

"There's quite high environmental standards here. We…all the professional forces, including the government, are saying well, we set aside a lot of old-growth in the Sea to Sky corridor over the last 100 years, whether it be provincial parks, or ecological reserves or riparian areas, or all those management areas. We put aside a lot of land for other than timber harvesting . . . if the public or government asked for more to be satisfied, where are those areas? Because we kind of thought we had it all covered."

In 2020 the provincial government commissioned an Old Growth Strategic Review to reassess the status of old-growth logging in B.C. and recommend strategies for old-growth management going forward. In response to the recommendations, 11 new old-growth logging deferral areas were established. These are not meant as permanent protection but rather as placeholders while the government consults with First Nations leaders and other stakeholders on how to proceed. This consultation includes the Sea to Sky area as moratoriums on old-growth logging in the area were demanded by the Squamish First Nation on June 10.

"The province also works with First Nations to protect old-growth stands in First Nations Wildlands, in Land Use Planning Agreements and through the Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan," the province told the Chief.

"Approximately 60% of all harvesting rights in S2S are controlled by First Nations licensees. Decisions on deferrals will continue to be made at a government-to-government level with First Nations rights and title holders."

The Squamish Chief reached out to Squamish Nation, but amid a council election, they could not meet press deadlines.

*Please note, we have updated this story since it was first published to better clarify what is and isn't logged in the Sea to Sky according to the province of B.C.