North Cowichan owns imperilled Douglas-fir forest that other organizations pay millions to acquire
‘You’re in a really great position. It just needs leadership to pull it all together.’
There is common agreement that the coastal Douglas-fir forest is the rarest and most at-risk forest type in the province. A coalition of 40 conservation organizations and all levels of government — the B.C. Forests Ministry among them — is consistent on that point.
But when it comes to protecting this landscape —or biogeoclimatic zone, as it’s officially known — there are dramatic differences on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
While North Cowichan owns its 5,000-hectare-plus Municipal Forest Reserve outright — in theory, making it easier to protect — others must raise millions of dollars to acquire much smaller parcels of the same forest type from private landowners.
Case in point: The community of Cumberland, a former coal mining area in the Comox Valley and site of some of the region’s early logging operations. “It was a very important part of B.C.’s economic history, the complete decimation of the Douglas-fir forests in this part of the world,” says Meaghan Cursons, executive director of the Cumberland Community Forest Society.
The coastal Douglas-fir forest lies in the rain shadow of the Vancouver Island and Olympic mountains. It features warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Western red cedar, grand fir, arbutus, Garry oak, and red alder can also be found in this forest type.
Formed in 2000, the Cumberland society has raised about $6 million, including project costs, to purchase more than 220 hectares of coastal Douglas-fir from private timber companies around the village.
Money came from sources such as private individuals, trusts and foundations, and various levels of governments. “We actually had people put a second mortgage on their home to fund these acquisitions,” Cursons said.
Fund-raising activities and special events also played a role, including the annual Cumberland Fungus Fest, trivia nights, and providing logistical support for cross-country trail races.
“We are a conservation organization, but also a party-throwing machine, which I would highly recommend as a strategy if you’re trying to figure how to bump out of that standard, typical, conservation-community audience,” Cursons said.
The forest helps protect biodiversity and drinking water, serves as a carbon sink, while “recruiting” old growth and providing recreational opportunities. Cumberland has become a destination for mountain biking on Vancouver Island, attracting tourism dollars.
The community — with a population of 4,500 in 2021— is “punching above its weight” in terms of forest protection, Cursons said.
Note that because the Cumberland community forest lands were purchased specifically for conservation without any intention to harvest the trees, they do not qualify for carbon credits.
“It puts us in this very funny position where we don’t fit the formal offset market…” Cursons said.
That does not apply to North Cowichan (population 32,000) and its Municipal Forest Reserve, which can apply for carbon credits.
The UBC Partnership Group has told North Cowichan it stands to earn millions of dollars more in carbon credits than logging over a 30-year period. https://bit.ly/42mt1KL
Some recent examples of people, organizations and governments coming together to acquire coastal Douglas-fir forest:
— Since 2020, BC Parks has acquired about 15.6 hectares, including the 2021 purchase of two properties totally 9.6 hectares at Tribune Bay on Hornby Island for $11.2 million.
— Galiano Conservancy Association partnered with Nature Trust of B.C. to purchase 26.5 hectares on Galiano Island's east side in 2021 for close to $2 million.
— On Salt Spring Island, 30 hectares have been acquired as a community park on the slopes of Mount Maxwell at a cost of $1.75 million — money raised from a private donor, a donation by the landowners themselves, a public fund-raising campaign, and funds from the Capital Regional District.
— With federal and provincial help, Denman Island Conservancy purchased 32 hectares of forest and wetlands in 2021 for $980,000 from Raven Forest Products Ltd.
— Raincoast Conservation Foundation in partnership with Pender Islands Conservancy purchased five hectares for $350,000 in 2021 and 18 hectares for $2 million in 2023, both on North Pender Island.
— B.C. Parks Foundation has, through crowdsourcing and larger donations over the last three years, “acquired or contributed" to seven purchases totalling more than 200 hectares. Among them: West Ballenas Island, Saturnina Island, and French Creek estuary.
— Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2022 acquired 35 hectares on Mayne Island, including mature Douglas-fir and arbutus, pockets of coastal meadow, a wetland and more three kilometres of shoreline.
— Ecoforestry Institute Society near Cedar is seeking to raise $856,000 to add another 8.5 hectares to its existing 33.6-hectare property at Wildwood, founded by the late Merv Wilkinson.
As noted earlier, North Cowichan’s forest reserve is already owned by its citizens. Imagine that. We don’t have to pay anyone a dime, much less millions of dollars to acquire rare forest for conservation.
“For me, it’s a dream scenario if these are already publicly held lands,” Cursons says. “You’re in a really great position. It just needs galvanizing…leadership energy to pull it all together.”
It has taken four years and a two-phase public consultation process to show North Cowichan what everyone else already knows – that the coastal Douglas-fir is at risk and people want to save it.
Clearly, the era of status-quo logging our forest is over. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and plan for a conservation future for the Six Mountains.
Be creative, look for new ways to acquire funding — including, potentially, to assist with a transition to carbon credits. There seems to be limitless possibilities for those determined to seek them out.
Read more about the coastal Douglas-fir forest: https://www.cdfcp.ca/
(Photos: Cumberland Community Forest Society; The Nature Trust of B.C., Galiano Isand; Larry Pynn photo of Barry Gates, Wildwood director)
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— Larry Pynn, Mar. 23, 2023