Private logging upset on the islands illuminates provincial blindspot
Salt Spring’s Lions Hall resembled a mini-Clayoquot Sound last December when sign-bearing protesters rippled through and then completely overwhelmed audience seating at the Local Trust Committee meeting.
Some of those involved were veterans of the 1990s “War in the Woods” against old-growth logging on B.C.’s West Coast. This time the fight was personal, with 45 hectares of mature second-growth forest about to be clear-cut on Beddis Road.
Those who turned out for the local government meeting included four young students from the Stowel Lake Farm class, each of whom urged the trustees to maintain forest cover for the sake of biodiversity, climate action and the next generation.
“I think we need to protect the forest because trees have been a big part of our life and they help us, and if we get rid of them we’re just going to be a dead planet,” 11-year-old Sebastian Ralston summed up.
It may be some time since the dramatic arrests of the ‘90s occurred, but forestry practices in British Columbia are as divisive as ever. As the world rushes toward a climate tipping point, a dramatic clash between the resource economy and planetary survival is unfolding. And on Salt Spring Island, where virtually no old-growth remains, the fate of one 45-acre property has come to encapsulate a crisis that has local, regional and global levels.
“We have 10 years turnaround for climate disaster, and if we don’t do something about emissions and protecting the carbon sinks, we’ve had it,” said long-time Salt Springer Briony Penn, an award-winning author, educator and naturalist.
Preserve and Protect
On the practical side, forests are key to maintaining the global carbon balance. Natural Resources Canada lists a range of “essential ecosystem services” that forests provide, which include filtering pollutants from air and water, improving air and water quality, and reducing surface and air temperatures, among other benefits.
Trees also tend to inspire emotional connections. The Beddis Road situation has been especially heartbreaking for neighbours like Peter McAllister and Bernadette Mertens-McAllister, whose property backs directly onto the contested land. Peter is a veteran of anti-logging campaigns in Clayoquot Sound, the Carmanah Valley and Moresby Island, so the whine of the chainsaw and the crash of large timber is a painfully familiar sound. But it’s not something he ever expected to face in his own backyard in the Gulf Islands, where land-use is governed under a “preserve and protect” mandate by the Islands Trust.
Touring the edges of the by-now mostly cleared Beddis parcel this spring, the McAllisters mourned the loss of cedars and firs that may have been close to 200 years old when they were felled, with trunks spanning five to six feet in diameter. Based on the fact the timber was being removed for profit, while the property was zoned for agricultural and residential uses, a group of residents had asked and failed to have the Islands Trust get a court injunction against the logging. They were told the zoning bylaws do not preclude clearing the land of trees, and they were now pondering raising the funds for a citizen-led suit.
“We’re going to take the legal action that it’s the responsibility of the trustees to undertake. But since they’re abrogating their responsibilities, we’re going to have to do it,” McAllister said.
The Islands Trust was created by a provincial NDP government in 1974 with the specific mandate to protect the islands in the southern Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound from over-development. Its local committee meetings have been known to inspire riotous crowds when people are upset by land-use planning decisions, especially when more restrictive bylaws are contemplated.
The group of residents that has been protesting the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee over trees is unusual, though, in comprising those who normally align most with the Trust’s aims: the kind of people who voted in the nation’s first Green party MP in Elizabeth May, and then helped create B.C.’s Green caucus by electing Adam Olsen as MLA.
Many of them participated in the War of the Woods, on Vancouver Island and at home on Salt Spring. Battles for trees in the 1990s and 2000s included the locally infamous situation that would have stripped most of the timber from two mountains on land owned by the Texada Land Corporation. Islanders were moved to chain themselves to machinery and even take off their clothes for the cause. Penn pulled off a modern-day Lady Godiva act, horse and all, during a downtown Vancouver protest, and numerous island women and men took off their clothes for fundraising calendars.
In the end, the campaign was successful and conservation groups managed to fundraise enough money to partner with BC Parks to protect a large area that included endangered Garry oak ecosystems. The problem with local government’s inability to regulate forestry remains the same, however, while the urgency to protect the remaining forests has only increased.
“We can’t get naked every time we need to protect something,” Penn observed.
Nor is purchasing every parcel under threat a possibility.
Controversial logging of privately owned Salt Spring acreages over the past few years has included several agricultural properties that had reverted to forest and were cleared for new farming uses, and trees removed from the Buddhist retreat on Mount Tuam.
Residential properties cleared in the south end along Morningside and Beaver Point roads prompted heated community discussion on social media, while the Beddis Road situation has produced a campaign involving over 300 residents signing onto letters sent to the ministries of Environment and Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. Multiple delegations have now appeared before the Islands Trust, most recently at the Islands Trust Council’s quarterly session in June.
Trust Council chair Peter Luckham and Salt Spring Island trustees Peter Grove and Laura Patrick have repeatedly said they are sympathetic to residents’ concerns and indeed share them, but a combination of provincial laws that privilege forestry practices and limit local government ability to regulate tree-cutting has left them with few legal tools. Those that do exist have yet to be fully developed on Salt Spring.
“Precedents show that [Beddis Road] landowner is within their rights to pursue that authority [to clear the land] — as sad as that might be,” Luckham told the crowd who came back for the January committee meeting. “The LTC does not have the ability to interfere in that. Certainly looking ahead we may want to look into our bylaws and development permits to protect these delicate ecosystems in the future.”
Under the Local Government Act, local Trust committees can establish development permit areas for their communities and develop guidelines that would limit tree cutting in those areas, according to some specific parameters. They can also establish tree-cutting bylaws for areas that are subject to flooding, erosion, land slippage or avalanche.
“Unlike municipalities, however, Islands Trust does not have the ability to regulate, prohibit or impose requirements generally in relation to trees outside of the two situations mentioned above,” the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told the Driftwood in June.
And while many residents of the Trust area consider this a huge omission in preserve and protect powers, the ministry said the province is not considering amending the Local Government Act at this time.
“We’ve made strides with bylaws about excessive noise and intrusion, but we haven’t dealt with our collective responsibility for trees, and that they’re actually essential for our survival,” Penn observed. “It’s just not in the public consciousness. It’s not reflected in our legal system.”
Islanders of all ages have not ceased demanding the Islands Trust do more to stop clear-cut logging on privately owned properties. Though they’ve been informed again and again over the past year that clearing land is currently within property owners’ rights, many simply cannot believe that a local government agency formed to protect the environment has no ability to save its trees.
Twenty years ago, Salt Spring Islanders gave everything they had to stop a massive logging operation, putting their criminal records, bank accounts and modesty on the line to save 770 hectares once slated for clear-cutting by the Texada Land Corporation.
Similar battles were taking place on other islands with more tragic consequences. The name Mike Jenks — who has been identified as British Columbia’s largest private land logger — remains anathema to people on Denman after his company removed up to a third of the island’s forests in the late 1990s.
Local regulations enacted for environmental protection on Denman were powerless to stop the destruction. The B.C. Supreme Court upheld the rights of the private company to pursue its business and quashed a forest cover bylaw on the basis of jurisdictional over-reach.
“That was really the apocalypse here for us. That was the real struggle, and we really couldn’t stop him,” said Patti Willis, who won an Islands Trust Community Stewardship Award in 2010 for her work with the Denman Conservancy Association.
Considering the current climate crisis and the dwindling trees, she added, “Maybe it’s time to try to enact forest bylaws again.”
Legalities limit power of the Islands Trust
Clear and enforceable local regulations are needed to maintain the Islands Trust Area’s remaining forest, whether the threat comes from large forestry corporations or new neighbours who prefer a parklike estate to acres of trees. A look at recent history on Salt Spring and islands like Denman suggests that developing such tools requires political will and community support. They also have to be crafted very carefully to meet provincial laws and survive legal challenges.
Linda Adams, who was the Islands Trust’s chief administrative officer before retiring in 2016, was the senior planner on Salt Spring for many years. She has decades of expertise working under the Local Government Act.
“One of the misunderstandings I see is that people kind of think because the Islands Trust has this preserve and protect mandate, they can just go and tell people ‘Stop tree cutting, right now,’” Adams told the Driftwood. “But the local Trust committee can only tell people to stop tree cutting if they had previously put a bylaw in place that regulated tree cutting on that person’s land. They can’t just go and tell somebody to stop, and that’s the same with any government.”
Zoning could be used to establish setbacks that protect trees, for example by requiring that development take place a certain distance from the lot’s centre or that it take place in a certain area to keep building sites clustered together. Zoning cannot regulate tree removal by itself, however, because provincial law does not consider it to be a land use, but natural resource extraction.
Local governments, including the Islands Trust, can regulate tree-cutting to some extent with development permit areas, but those areas have to be defined with mapping in the official community plan. They are also permissive by definition, to be awarded as long as the applicant follows the guidelines, and they can’t restrict uses that are allowed by zoning. Another challenge of the development permit area is that it can only be established for specific purposes. The forest cover DPA established on Denman Island failed to hold up in court when challenged by 4064 Investments Ltd., for the very fact that it purported to regulate logging on private lands.
Denman Island’s cautionary tale
Prior to 4064‘s purchase, around one-third of Denman had been owned by a forestry company that wasn’t actively logging. The public was used to accessing the forest through unofficial community trails. After 4064 Investments bought the land, company officials implemented a business plan based on a rapid clear-cut. They also cleared large portions that had been reserved for covenant under the sales agreement. (A lawsuit by the Denman Island Conservancy eventually led to these covenants being registered at Komas Bluffs and the Railway Grade Marsh — after 80 per cent of the trees had already been removed from the latter site.)
“Now on Denman there aren’t a lot of forested lands left, partly because Jenks cut a swath through here. There’s really not all that much available to protect relative to what was available,” said Des Kennedy, a well-known writer and a former chair of the Denman Conservancy Association. “For years, every ferry that left the island had at least one logging truck on it because it’s such small capacity, so only one truck could go at a time.”
In the midst of community uproar, in 1999 the Denman Island Local Trust Committee created a suite of bylaws aimed at environmental protection, including a development permit area for forest cover and sustainable forestry that impacted much of the island. A professional forester was hired to draft the bylaw with community input.
When the bylaw was challenged in court, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Bauman found in favour of 4064 Investments. While Bauman conceded the Local Government Act permits DPAs that “protect the natural environment, its ecosystems and biodiversity,” he questioned the Denman LTC’s interpretation this could extend to the regulation of tree-cutting on private land.
“On its face, that conclusion seems a considerable reach, indeed it seems a considerable leap,” Bauman wrote in his decision.
He stated elsewhere in the judgement, “The fact that the legislature did not expressly give Trust Committees the broad tree-cutting regulatory powers found in [the Local Government Act for municipalities], leads to the further inference that it did not intend regional districts and Local Trust Committees to have these powers.”
In puzzling contrast to Denman, Galiano Island has a broad tree-cutting DPA that stretches across much of the island, and which has been in place since 2000. Adams said one reason the case may be different is the authors avoided taking a forestry approach.
Meanwhile, after a BC Supreme Court appeal, other environmental DPA bylaws on Denman were upheld, including one that determined a 50-metre setback for tree clearing on Komas Bluffs.
“The take-away from that is when we’re doing development permit areas we can still protect ecosystems and biodiversity, but they have to be really defined,” said David Marlor, who was Denman Island’s planner in 1999 and is now the Trust’s director of local planning services. He suggested a narrow focus, such as a DPA where Garry oak stands exist, would be more feasible.
Since the province has moved to protect contiguous areas of Coastal Douglas-fir on some Gulf Islands’ Crown lands in the past several years, the case could potentially be made for the ecosystem’s wider protection under a DPA. Some trustees suggested during the June Trust Council session on Gabriola Island that Trust-wide protection is in order. But as it stands, the legal precedent is still defined by Denman.
“If the Islands Trust were to argue the CDF is a sensitive ecosystem, that would have to be tried in court, and who knows if a judge would find that a valid argument, or be swayed by the Trust’s mandate,” Marlor said.
Salt Spring’s early attempts at forest protection halted
Public feedback to the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee over the past year suggests there is community appetite to develop forest protection tools; participants at an open house strategic planning session held in March named regulation of tree cutting among the highest community priorities.
If the LTC does move forward by making forest protection a priority project for this term, it will have to both work within the legal parameters and ensure political will meets the need.
People wondering how the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee failed to enact tree protection tools in the past can look back a couple of decades for the answer. Sensitive ecosystem mapping launched by the province in 1993 through the Conservation Data Centre catalogued over 100 species at risk and dozens of ecosystems at risk in the southern Gulf Islands, including the Coastal Douglas-fir zone, western red cedar sword fern swamps and coastal savannas.
The Salt Spring LTC incorporated some of the new information when it initiated a major overhaul of the official community plan in 1996. The first draft of the new plan proposed a development permit area for most of the island that restricted tree cutting on many unstable slopes, along the entire shoreline and in an extensive area around all the drinking watersheds and community well-capture zones.
“And that’s when the people went berserk,” said local naturalist Briony Penn, who worked on the original mapping. “They went ‘No way, you’re imposing, you can’t impose this on landowners, it’s an extra burden we have to care for.’ And so it got thrown out.”
Salt Spring’s former head planner Linda Adams said some of the guidelines were intended to prevent negative impact on neighbouring properties such as had recently occurred when steep lands on the side of Mount Maxwell were logged in 1994-95. But the trustees’ will to proceed crumbled in the face of public opposition, which included Driftwood editorials and one heated community meeting attended by 250 islanders.
“I think people often agree in principle with some of this stuff, and then when it starts affecting their own property, less so,” Adams said.
She noted there were also attempts in the late 1990s to protect Garry oak ecosystems on Salt Spring, with equally strong reaction.
“Some of the large property owners that had Garry oaks actually began to cut their trees down. I don’t think that bylaw even got first reading. People thought buffers would restrict their ability to develop their properties, so thought they’d just remove them before the bylaw took effect,” Adams recalled.
In the end the LTC decided to go with an educational approach and to encourage voluntary protection of Garry oaks because the proposed bylaw was having the opposite effect intended. A similar approach was taken with many of the measures drafted into the OCP. The review ended with much lighter restrictions. Tree cutting was regulated only on the highest-instability slopes and in a setback from the shoreline along just a few highly sensitive stretches.
Salt Spring Islanders joined people from 20 other communities throughout British Columbia on April 6 to rally in support of reforming forestry practices.
Forest March BC participants demanded changes to provincial legislation to ensure logging plans include ecosystem restoration, sustainable forestry and meaningful community consultation about forests. March organizer Jennifer Houghton had produced a documentary film and founded the Boundary Forest Watershed Stewardship Society after Grand Forks was hit by historic flooding in 2017 and 2018, which has been linked to clear-cuts in the local watershed.
“Our little group is just one of hundreds across B.C. working to make significant changes to forestry legislation and practices. Many groups are having the same experience: making very little progress when attempting to make changes to the forestry practices that are negatively impacting their communities,” Houghton said.
Individually, every community involved in the march had a local crisis needing to be addressed. Citizens were outraged to learn 109 hectares of Vancouver Island old-growth forest near Port Renfrew were about to be auctioned. In the Kootenays, community members were embroiled in a campaign to prevent the logging of 600 privately owned acres located on the steep hills above a prized lake. And the tiny village of Ymir (population 230) had pitched a massive campaign to stop logging in the watershed that provides that community’s only water source.
Given the cry for change coming from all across the province, a complete shift in the forest’s role is required to give local governments much-needed authority over lands in their jurisdiction.
Forestry regulation limitations in B.C. are stacked like the proverbial house that Jack built. The owners of fee simple private lots are not required to file stewardship plans or commit to replanting, whether they are logging 10 acres or 1,000. Regulations established by local government bodies that would restrict tree clearing — or even hamper forestry indirectly — can be completely overridden by the Private Managed Forest Land Act. Critics are asking that landowners registered with the PMFL program follow the same rules as Crown land timber lease holders, at the very least. Meanwhile, the Forest Practices Board, B.C.’s independent watchdog for sound forest and range practices, has found these rules are also insufficient.
“For more than 20 years, the board has called for improved planning and objectives at the landscape and watershed scales,” said Kevin Kriese, Forest Practices Board chair. “Recent board work has confirmed that forest stewardship plans, despite considerable energy and effort to develop and approve, do not address the need for planning for multiple forest values across the landscape.”
Frustrated efforts to reduce forestry impacts start at the community level. Islands Trust Council, the group of 26 trustees elected to represent 13 Salish Sea island communities, voted to prioritize Coastal Douglas-fir protection at their March 2019 session.
Denman Island author Des Kennedy, who is a former chair of the Denman Conservancy Association, said he thinks it’s wonderful the Trust is willing to view land-use applications with CDF protection in mind. However, he believes there is an underlying flaw in the entire system: even if the work is put in, it’s questionable how far local committees can get. Most remaining forests on Denman have been protected through purchase by the conservancy, an unreasonable solution to export as Gulf Islands land values continue to rise and development pressures increase.
“Most troubling is that a succession of provincial governments has refused to fully enable the Trust with the legislation that would allow it to carry out its mandate,” Kennedy said. “To me it is obscene and embarrassing that we should have an Islands Trust that is not empowered to have any control over the destiny of forests in one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country.”
Private Managed Forest Land review
The NDP government implemented reviews of B.C.’s two main forestry laws this year, with public comment on both the Forest and Range Practices Act and the Private Managed Forest Land Act capped earlier this month. During the spring legislature session, Green MLA Adam Olsen asked Forests Minister Doug Donaldson to put a moratorium on PMFL logging until the review was complete and decisions made on how to proceed. Donaldson replied that many provincial and federal acts ensure forestry practices meet water sustainability and environmental regulations, and investigations are made on complaints. While he acknowledged the importance of maintaining forests for climate regulation and biodiversity, he also raised the spectre of forestry job loss. No moratorium would be ordered.
Managed Forest is a BC Assessment property classification established in 1988 to encourage private landowners to manage their lands for long-term forest production on lots of 25 or more hectares. Stewardship plans for these lots are supposed to guarantee protection of key public environmental values, including soil conservation, water quality, fish habitat, critical wildlife habitat and reforestation. In return, landowners get property values assessed at a lower taxation rate, and they are assured the right to harvest trees unrestricted by local government bylaws. There is nothing to require landowners to be in the program, though, or to stay in it if they wish to withdraw.
According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, there are 5,125 hectares in 190 parcels of private land registered in the Private Managed Forest Land Program within the Islands Trust area. On Salt Spring, there are 32 parcels totalling approximately 997 hectares of PMFL. The program may pose the biggest challenge to planning on Galiano Island, where roughly half the island or 3,100 hectares was once owned by MacMillan Bloedel. Today, around 1,350 hectares are registered as PMFL.
Islands Trust Council unanimously passed a resolution in June to ask for an amendment to the PMFL Act that would require those landowners to uphold the same standards Crown land loggers are held to, and to give local governments the power to regulate activity on privately managed forest lands. Similar motions were endorsed by the Union of B.C. Municipalities last September. The UBCM has endorsed nine such previous resolutions dating back to 1991.
“Trust Council and other municipalities have approached the provincial government to amend the PMFLA numerous times as there are significant concerns with the legislation,” said Galiano trustee Tahirih Rockafella. “These include the lack of public consultation on stewardship plans, the submitting of management plans only after harvesting and road building has taken place, and the general self-regulating guidelines that do not ensure sustainable forestry and the protection of key environmental values.”
Minister Donaldson declined to be interviewed for this series. A response from the ministry said stakeholder groups were encouraged to provide a formal submission to the PMFL Act review process.
“The provincial government is committed to discussing how provincial legislation and local government jurisdictions can work together more effectively for all British Columbians,” the ministry stated in an email.
Paradigm shift needed
Olsen says his Saanich North and the Islands constituency office has received email representing 22,000 individual concerned citizens regarding B.C.’s forestry practices. People have called for help to stop old-growth logging on public lands and private land clear-cuts, including the 18 hectares on Beddis Road that first galvanized Salt Spring’s community last winter.
Olsen believes the B.C. government has critically failed to move beyond the resource exploitation-based economy of early colonial days. As a result, forest values such as carbon sink use, water purification and oxygen production are not being calculated.
“Forests are viewed as being only for our benefit, and only for their cash value — an asset that only has value if it’s liquidated,” Olsen said.
“The only calculation is for cash value and if the province is generating even a few dollars from that, that’s what we’ve always done as a province, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Olsen conceded the NDP government has made some recent amendments to the Forest and Range Practices Act. One bill opens up transparency around what is being cut and where logging roads are going to be on Crown land. Another bill makes it more possible to track forestry company tenure sales and transfers of cutting rights. But he categorizes these shifts as mere “window dressing.”
“What’s really disappointing for me is to hear the minister of the government that was so critical of the BC Liberals now basically rolling out the same rhetoric that every forestry minister has rolled out, at a time in which we don’t have the benefit of time that maybe past forestry ministers thought they had,” Olsen said. “We are now being told by scientists and the science community that we’ve got 11 years [before irreversible climate change] . . . We need a complete rethink on how we approach these issues.”
Local naturalist and author Briony Penn also argues the paradigm must shift on how forests are valued. To start with, the forestry industry’s real impact in terms of emissions and the loss of carbon sinks should be determined. Penn further suggests people should be rewarded for protecting forest cover, instead of profiting by cutting it down, only to cause problems whose impact has yet to be tallied.
“It’s world view: we haven’t got it in our heads that trees are important to humanity,” Penn said. “If we have trees, we have water; if we have trees, we have air; if we have trees, we are cooling the climate. And I think we’re slowly getting there, but not fast enough.”
This story originally ran as a three-part series in the Driftwood from July 10 through 24.