Municipal Forest Reserve at a Crossroads

North Cowichan CAO Ted Swabey:  “We do not clear-cut as a harvesting practice:"

Not long ago, I asked Tourism Cowichan where I might go to see an old-growth forest. I was referred to Avatar Grove, a postage stamp of a protected area almost two hours away at Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Then I asked the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre near Duncan the same question and was told I might also consider MacMillan Provincial Park near Port Alberni, about as far. That neither organization could point me to an old-growth forest in my own backyard in the Cowichan Valley hints at a troubling legacy that has placed far more value on forest cutting than forest conservation.

I got involved to make a positive difference — and hope you do the same.
After selling my home in Tsawwassen and purchasing a view property in the Maple Bay area in May 2018, I soon noticed clearcuts appearing near and far, including on Mount Prevost and Mount Sicker, both within the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve. When I inquired, a municipal staffer informed me that the “municipality does not release logging plans for public comment before proceeding with any activities” and that the Forestry Advisory Committee is mainly comprised of “community members who are professionals in the forestry field.”
That concerned me as a citizen, a nature lover and proprietor of an Airbnb whose investment stands to be diminished by such clearcuts — an Airbnb, I might add, that brings in thousands of dollars to businesses in the Cowichan Valley.
Turns out I wasn’t the only person growing concerned about logging in the Municipal Forest Reserve.
Hundreds of people — the highest in recent memory — turned out for a council meeting last December to overwhelmingly support a change in management of the Reserve, which for too long has operated under the public radar.
Then, in March, a full-house of 700 concerned citizens turned out to the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre for an event sponsored by the grassroots watchdog group, Where Do We Stand, wheredowestand.ca (which, for the record, I do not represent).
A second event, The Magic of the Six Mountains, is now planned for 7 p.m., Oct. 2, at the same venue. Guests speakers include forestry ecologist and best-selling author Andy MacKinnon and University of British Columbia forestry professor Suzanne Simard. Today, North Cowichan is in a unique position to reverse its long-held logging policy and adopt a conservation ethic that recognizes ecological, recreational, and viewscape values. In doing so, the municipality might take a page from Port Renfrew’s book.
That small but forward-looking community at the end of Highway 14 has embraced old- growth forests, and officially calls itself the Tall Tree Capital of Canada.
Tourists today visit Port Renfrew for three main attractions: sport fishing, Botanical Beach and big trees — and the protected forests are a draw year-around, and don’t give a hoot about the daily tides.
“Strictly on a business basis, the attraction of an old-growth forest will last forever,” says Jon Cash, co-owner of Soule Creek Lodge and past-president of the chamber of commerce. “The benefits of logging will be very short-lived and you can’t take it back.”

Which is not an indictment of logging, but a cry for greater balance in our forests.
Will the winds of change make it to North Cowichan?
Freedom-of-information documents I obtained from municipal hall earlier this year reveal Ted Swabey, chief administrative officer, advising council to preserve the “logging mandate” and warned that the “divisive” issue could take staff away from other priorities and that logging trees in the forest reserve is “part of our cultural makeup.”

Well, Ted, let me inform you that North Cowichan is a fast-changing community, and not everyone agrees with you. Whether they are newcomers to the municipality or long- standing residents, people have seen too much logging on Vancouver Island and view the Municipal Forest Reserve as an opportunity to make a difference.

When Swabey further writes: “We do not clear-cut as a harvesting practice,” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Just drive up Mount Prevost and see for yourself.
Mayor Al Siebring has also been hawkish on the issue. Before the last election, I asked council candidates where they stood on the issue of the public having the right to review logging plans in the Municipal Forest Reserve before any decisions are made. Of those elected, only the Mayor refused to commit to the motherhood idea.

The vast majority also expressed support for a greater balance of interests on the Forestry Advisory Committee. Again, the Mayor refused to commit.
Since then, there have, in fact, been additions to the Committee, but it remains weighted in favour of logging. For example, one of the latest appointees is also operations manager for Khowutzun Forest Services, the forestry arm of Cowichan Tribes, which receives forestry contracts from the Municipality.

For the moment, council has put a hold on contracts for new logging within the Municipal Forest Reserve. Tomorrow, who knows?
The future of the Six Mountains — Tzouhalem, Maple, Stoney, Richards, Prevost, and Sicker — hangs in the balance. UBC forestry faculty is working with council on a management strategy for the reserve that may include saving forests for carbon-credit cash, but nothing is guaranteed at this point.
Council meets at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Ramada Duncan ballroom— and the Municipal Forest Reserve is on the agenda.
If you can attend, please do so. Council needs to know that the electorate demands a new vision for the Reserve, one that considers ecological values, recreation, and preservation of viewscapes to be the highest and best use of our forest.
Please encourage council to look beyond its four-year mandate to a time when people can once again walk amongst an old-growth forest in the Cowichan Valley.

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