Public shut out of consultations on Municipal Forest Reserve

Council focus is now on First Nations

Citizens of North Cowichan — whatever their position on management of our Municipal Forest Reserve — should be concerned with Mayor Al Siebring’s written statement posted on the Municipal website on Friday, July 17.

 

The statement is only three paragraphs in length, but speaks volumes about the absence of so-called public consultation into an interim management plan for the 5,000-hectare Forest Reserve. It also shows that the Municipality’s priority is on consulting with First Nations, and confirms fears of a talk-and-log policy for the Forest Reserve. 

 

Siebring wrote that “Council has enacted a 60-day pause on the engagement process to facilitate a government-to-government consultation with local First Nations,” adding these consultations “could potentially change the scope and scale of the public engagement process.” 

 

The news release is deliberately silent on an important point. Where Do We Stand raised the alarm last week, presenting a slew of reasons why the public consultation process should be paused. Visit https://bit.ly/30tH69U. In response, Council received 18 letters from the public at its Wednesday, July 15, meeting. By not mentioning this, Siebring disrespects his constituents who took the time to participate in our democratic process.

 

What Siebring’s statement actually means is impossible to know, but it fits the Municipality’s modus operandi of keeping its citizens in the dark on First Nation issues.

 

Let’s be clear: this is not a criticism of First Nations, but of the Municipality’s lack of transparency and its citizens not having a say.

 

Note that Council months ago agreed to conduct consultations with First Nations that are separate from any public consultation. Siebring observes in his statement that the Forest Reserve is located on the traditional territories of seven local First Nations.

 

What has transpired to this point? Are all seven First Nations involved? How often have the parties met? Does the reference to “breadth and scale” of the engagement process mean that First Nations are raising issues greater than what the Municipality had bargained for?  Ask whatever you want and you’ll get the same empty answers.

 

One also wonders whether these consultations include recent revelations from University of BC forestry officials that North Cowichan stands to make as much or more from carbon credits by leaving our forests standing than cutting them down. Might there be an opportunity for First Nations’ lands to be included in such a win-win scenario?

 

The Mayor goes on to say in his statement that an interim forest management plan was to be implemented  this fall to guide forest management until December 31, 2021 — after which a long-term plan would kick in. 

 

Due to the 60-day pause and in the absence of an interim plan, he writes, “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.”

 

That sounds like talk and log, which is exactly what we feared the Municipality had in mind all along for the interim forest management plan. Removal of blow-down or hazardous trees may sound reasonable, but in the past has simply resulted in smaller clearcuts to generate cash — with most of the timber exported as raw logs. 

 

Appropriate thinning of the forests to reduce the urban fire risk can be a good thing, but could also simply be used as another excuse to keep logging the Forest Reserve — which is part of BC’s most endangered landscape, the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone.

 

That the public is being shut out of the engagement process, including First Nations consultations, is a real slap in the face to the people that Council is supposed to represent — and who are paying for the consultation process.

 

Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour has encouraged North Cowichan to keep its electorate informed. “I don’t have any objections to that,” Seymour said in an earlier interview with sixmountains.ca. “We’re community driven. We need their approval to move in a new direction so I have no issue with that.”

 

In a vacuum of information, one wonders when consultations become negotiations.

 

As Chief Seymour has said of the Forest Reserve: “Our first thought is, well, give it back to us and we’ll take care of it. But that’s a pipe dream.”

 

It’s important to note that Council has received no mandate from its citizens on this issue. Municipalities have no legal obligation to consult and accommodate First Nations; the courts have ruled that onus falls on the senior governments.

 

“Municipalities, unless it is specifically delegated to them, they are not considered the Crown,” Deborah Curran, associate law professor at the University of Victoria, has told sixmountains.ca. An exception, she noted, is the Local Government Act, which requires municipalities to consult with First Nations when developing official Official Community Plans, but these are considered policy documents with no specific requirements.

 

Who knows where this will all end? Certainly not the citizens of North Cowichan, whose interests continue to be marginalized at every step of the process.

 

— Larry Pynn July 21, 2020

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