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North Cowichan internal email raises fears of talk-and-log policy on forest management plan

An internal email from North Cowichan’s municipal forester is fuelling concerns that a public consultation process into an interim management plan for the Municipal Forest Reserve is actually a talk-and-log show, freedom-of-information documents reveal.

“The overall intent of the interim plan was to allow some low-impact harvesting while the review was taking place which can still be done but not under the label of ‘interim plan,’” municipal forester Shaun Mason writes in the July 20, 2020, email.

One wonders whether public consultations into the interim plan are dead in the water.

Writes Mason: “I would suggest removing the interim plan altogether to save the confusion by the public about the interim plan that will be now condensed into a very narrow window compared to what it was originally supposed to be.”

The email was written three days after Mayor Al Siebring announced that public consultations on the interim plan would be suspended for 60 days, while separate consultations would continue with First Nations — behind closed doors, at the Mayor’s request.

Siebring’s announcement also said that due to the delay and the absence of an interim management plan, “Council may consider additional harvesting of blow-down salvage or removal of hazardous trees for fire prevention if doing so is aligned with the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and is recommended by the Forestry Advisory Committee and the UBC Partnership Group.”

The 60 days is about to expire, with no public update from the Municipality and no Forestry Advisory Committee meeting announced.

Council earlier suspended new logging in the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve — also known as the Six Mountains — pending a two-phase engagement process for an interim forest management plan covering the period Sept. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021, and a long-term management plan beginning on Jan. 1, 2022.

If Mason’s comment holds — that logging was a fait accompli all along — then what was the point in consulting citizens on an interim plan, except to give them the illusion that the Municipality was listening when, in fact, it was not?

And why should the opinion of the UBC Partnership Group — part of the forestry department, after all — hold sway over the opinion of North Cowichan residents?

On Feb., 11, 2020, council passed the following motion: “That Council direct staff to harvest the 2018/2019 contract obligations, and that Council will consider additional harvesting in 2020 after receiving the fire smart study and recommendations from the UBC Partnership regarding an interim forest management plan.”

In my opinion, a motion to “consider” falls far short of a done deal.

I sought out Councillor Rob Douglas, chair of the Forestry Advisory Committee, for clarification. “I agree with you — Council could decide to undertake more harvesting in 2020 or none at all,” he said.

The two-phase approach has been problematic from the start: virtual meetings due to the Covid-19 pandemic, interim consultations criticized for being weighted in favour of logging interests and the meetings of a citizens’ Working Group being held in private — even though a majority of the Working Group voted in favour of openness.

The appointment of a pro-logging municipal employee to the Working Group was revoked after a complaint from

Even consultants Lees and Associates warned council that the two-phase approach could result in public “confusion” and “engagement fatigue.”

The freedom-of-information documents also include a July 16 email from UBC forestry professor Stephen Sheppard, who is working with North Cowichan on a management strategy for the forest reserve. He confirms there is “confusion about the interim plan” and that if the decision is to keep it “then a coordinated press release…could also clarify what the interim plan is or isn’t….”

Sheppard adds: “The timeline issue perhaps raises again the value of retaining the interim plan as a deliverable: the overall engagement plan would be simpler without it, using what the team had planned to do as an interim step….”

It's disconcerting to think that while the public dutifully waits for the deep, broad and transparent consultation they were promised, others are working in the background to make those forestry decisions for them.

— Larry Pynn, Sept. 12, 2020


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