First Nations reach historic BC forestry deal

Indigenous communities are recovering forestry leadership, yet questions remain about the industry’s future under new BC policies.

Wei Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts and Dallas Smith, president of Na̲nwak̲olas Council. Photo from the BC government.

There have long been promises of true First Nations partnerships in forestry in BC, and now we’re seeing some action alongside the industry.

In the latest move, the Klahoose Nation has signed a landmark deal with forest company Interfor to purchase a tenure of over 181,000 cubic metres of annual cut of forest lands on the Sunshine Coast, in the Nation’s traditional territory.

The Klahoose invested from their nation’s forestry revenue to add to the existing tenure of 115,000 cubic metres, resulting in a total of over 296,000 cubic metres in annual allowable cut under their ownership and management.

It all makes the Klahoose one of the largest First Nations tenure holders and forestry operators in the province.

“The Klahoose Nation is a forestry nation,” said Chief Steven Brown. “We see a bright future for forestry and it is time for us to manage the resources in our territory for the benefits to come to our members.

In the first quarter of 2024, four other nations on Vancouver Island aim to complete the acquisition of a 34% ownership stake in a new partnership with Western Forest Products. That deal involves an allowable annual cut of more than 900,000 cubic metres of timber.

The coming partnership with Western Forest Products means the K’omoks, Wei Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and Tlowitsis First Nations will operate on 157,000 hectares of forest near Campbell River and Sayward. They will manage an allowable annual cut of more than 900,000 cubic metres of timber.

Part of the $35.9 million deal comes from treaty agreements with the province.

The four nations are members of the Na̲nwak̲olas Council, which helped conclude the agreement in late October.

“This is a good day for everyone on Vancouver Island and the central coast,” said Dallas Smith, president, Na̲nwak̲olas Council.

“For far too long, the very people who are the reason there were healthy, abundant forests here prior to colonization were excluded from participation in their continued sustainable management and any ability to benefit from them.

“Today, we celebrate a significant step forward on the pathway to sustainable, effective resource management of our forests for the benefit of future generations.”

Premier David Eby said, “The partnership is an excellent example of working together towards reconciliation. . . . This agreement means opportunities are on the way for business, First Nations members and communities on northern Vancouver Island, proving that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Meanwhile, the provincial government is including First Nations delegates in a trade mission to Japan to push BC forest products. The mission will show how Japan can benefit from BC’s high-quality materials, from use in low-carbon homes to mass-timber commercial buildings.

BC is also pushing amendments to its Forest Act and other laws, to help address First Nations’ interests in how forests are managed. Part of that work has involved working with the BC First Nations Forestry Council, to help develop value-added forestry manufacturing in BC.

As BC moves to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), deals like these show how industry, government and First Nations can work together to advance economic reconciliation in forestry.

As First Nations pursue greater economic and land management opportunities in the forestry industry, it remains critical to ensure that new conservation programs truly balance environmental values with economic realities.

2005’s crown allowable annual cut (AAC) of just under 86 million m3 has fallen to 2023’s 62 million m3 and continues to weaken with successive government announcements, a decline of about 28% so far.

The Spar Tree Group’s May 2023 forest sector survey found three-quarters of timber harvesting and road building contractors for the BC forest sector were experiencing some amount of work reduction due to old growth deferrals, with at least 1,000 logging jobs lost and thousands more lost in the forest product manufacturers sectors.

Due to a combination of poor wildfire management, the mountain pine beetle epidemic of the early 2000s, and perhaps overly ambitious conservation policies, only 58% of the sawmills operating in 2005 remain in operation today.

"The evidence of the impact of such actions is in the industry’s statistics," writes forestry expert David Elstone. "After a mild rebound from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the provincial Crown timber harvest has since decreased by 16 million cubic metres or over -30%. For 2023, timber harvesting is down -23% year-to-date to August."

Writing on these trends, Elstone writes that BC may fall from its long-held position as the top lumber-producing province, to be replaced by Quebec as Canada’s largest producer.

“A smaller industry than today brings into question aspirations for a future value-added manufacturing sector if there will be less primary product being manufactured,” he writes.

Despite positive announcements like those of Klahoose, K’omoks, Wei Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and Tlowitsis First Nations, the impact of the BC government’s overarching forestry policies on Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike has largely evaded public discussion.

An invisible cone of silence has fallen on the industry, despite eye-popping losses. One wonders when the bubble will burst.

Indigenous peoples are taking control of their economic destiny, from forestry to LNG and beyond. As First Nations take on greater investments in the forest economy, expect to hear new debates about our shared future.

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