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North Cowichan commitment to First Nations talks creates budget concerns

Carbon credits could be a win-win solution

North Cowichan's decision to suspend public consultations on the future of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve pending secret, open-ended talks with First Nations could be backfiring.

During a Committee of the Whole budget discussion on Tuesday night, councillors expressed concern at how long these talks with First Nations might go on — perhaps even to the 2022 municipal elections — and the financial repercussions of the process.

"We could be in a bit of a pickle if we don't get that government-to-government consultation done," said councillor Kate Marsh. "Now, it's anyone's guess if we're going to be done with the review before our term is over."

Municipal forester Shaun Mason is recommending that council take $591,820 from the $1.145 million forestry reserve fund to make up for the absence of logging income during the consulation process. That would leave $553,180 in the reserve fund.

Mason predicted 2021 forestry expenses of $800,970, which include $110,000 in fire-smart costs, $100,000 for the forestry review as well as two staff salaries and non-logging forestry activities.

Municipalities have no legal obligation to consult with First Nations on projects — the courts have determined that onus falls on the senior governments.

One can appreciate North Cowichan for reaching out to our Indigenous neighbours to canvass their concerns. But should that have led to a complete shutdown of the public consultation, silencing the very residents who first rose up and called for logging changes?

Know that a win-win answer may be there for the taking.

The University of BC forestry department has been working with the municipality on a new management plan for the forest reserve, also known as the Six Mountains. UBC says the municipality stands to earn as much or more by selling carbon credits than by logging — but that process is also held up by First Nations talks.

Council is left to struggle with the financial uncertainties.

Councillor Christopher Justice questioned what has been done to reduce forestry operating costs and whether all those costs should be borne by the forestry budget. Mason said that road maintenance had been reduced, along with non-essential silviculture activities.

Councillor Rob Douglas, who is also chair of the Forestry Advisory Committee, said he would like a more detailed breakdown of forestry expenses. He also expressed concerns at depletion of the forest reserve and the potential for a tax increase if the consultation drags on.

Marsh took a shot at Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey: "I guess I'm curious because we've been advised by Mr. Swabey for the last two years not to do any logging except the blowdown, so what were you thinking about that because you would know that after two years we'd be in this position?"

As has reported, Swabey two years ago advised council of the importance of continued logging, according emails obtained through freedom-of-information. In April this year, he told council that logging should not continue while consultations were taking place. Only Councillor Tek Manhas has supported a talk-and-log policy.

At Tuesday's meeting, Swabey reiterated his position to Marsh: "It was my belief that you shouldn't harvest because there was so much criticism that we were continuing to harvest as we were doing public engagement and it was my belief that that was a very disingenous way to approach the public. That's the context in which I was giving you that advice."

Swabey added: “It’s all in council’s hands about whether you want to continue with the government-to-government discussions, whether you want to reinitiate the public consultation, whether you want to harvest again this year....”

Council voted to delay further discussion until the next budget meeting on Dec. 15.

In July, council announced it had paused the public consulation to facilitate a government-to-government consultation with First Nations.

In October, council agreed to extend the pause "until an agreed-upon way of moving forward is reached during the First Nations consultation process."

— Larry Pynn, Dec. 9, 2020


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