VICTORIA — The British Columbia government has worked with First Nations to defer logging across more than a million hectares of old-growth forests at risk of permanent loss, an area greater than 4,100 Stanley Parks, the forests minister said Friday.

A further 619,000 hectares of old-growth have been deferred at the request of First Nations in order to protect wildlife habitat, at-risk species, healthy salmon populations and cultural practices, Katrine Conroy told a news conference.

The minister said over 80 per cent of old-growth forests identified as being at risk of irreversible loss are not currently threatened by logging, either because they were deferred, they were already set aside, or they’re not economically viable to harvest. 

B.C. announced last fall that an expert panel had mapped 2.6 million hectares of unprotected old-growth forests at risk, and asked 204 First Nations to decide whether they supported the temporary deferral of logging.

Conroy said the province has now heard from 188 First Nations, of which 75 have agreed to the deferrals that will initially last two years, while over 60 have asked for more time to decide and incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the plans.

The Forests Ministry said in a statement seven nations didn’t support the deferral plans, while 11 nations either have no old-growth or no commercial forestry activities. Five nations had yet to reply to the request for a decision, it said.

The Wilderness Committee, an environmental organization, said the 1.05 million hectares of new deferrals amount to 40 per cent of the 2.6 million hectares identified as seriously at risk, leaving 1.55 million unprotected. 

“Logging companies are still targeting and cutting down ecologically threatened old-growth forests across B.C., despite the deferrals that have been completed,” national campaign director Torrance Coste said in a statement. “Many of these irreplaceable forests can only be protected on one timeline — right away.”

Conroy said 780,000 hectares of the at-risk old-growth forests that remain open to logging would “never be harvested” because it would be too costly.

The committee called on the province to be transparent about the location of old-growth forests that have and haven’t been deferred so far.

In total, the province said it has deferred logging across 1.87 million hectares of forests since September 2020, when it pledged to implement recommendations from an independent old-growth review panel. The government is currently working on a new old-growth strategy, to be completed next year, it said.

Under the province’s deferral plans, forestry companies may agree to voluntarily pause logging, or the minister may rescind approved permits under the Forest Act. 

So far, companies have agreed to the deferrals as requested and the province has not had to initiate any orders, the Forests Ministry confirmed.

Conroy said B.C. would ensure “no one is left behind” as it moves to a more sustainable approach to managing forests, pointing to $185 million announced in the budget to support communities affected by the old-growth deferrals.

The funding will support programs to provide forestry contractors with short-term employment opportunities, connect workers with skills training and education, help older workers into retirement and support economic diversification and infrastructure projects for forest-dependent communities, Conroy said.

Carl Archie of the Canim Lake Band told the news conference that caribou had once sustained his people and their way of life in what’s now B.C.’s central Interior, but the caribou are nearly gone in a decline largely blamed on habitat loss from logging.

“Where there were mass herds numbering in the thousands as far as the eye could see, they now hover near 100 animals in the Wells Gray park.”

The band is participating in the deferral process and has developed a forest stewardship plan that was recently approved by the province, Archie said.

“Our caribou rely on old-growth forests for their very existence and it’s our responsibility to bring them back.”

— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2022.

The Canadian Press