by Kerstin Auer —

The provincial government announced in a recent press release that immediate steps are being taken to help protect rare forest habitats, as well as expand forest management and planning through public engagement. The changes come after extensive consultation with First Nations, professional associations, and other stakeholders. 

Most notably, forest licence holders will be required to publish forest operations maps the public has access to. A digital version is currently being tested, with full functionality expected by 2024, according to the press release. 

“Providing people with an easy, user-friendly tool to view maps of local forest operations will help to promote transparency and information sharing,” said Jennifer Gunter, executive director of the BC Community Forest Association. “Forest operations maps have the potential to improve public confidence in our sector across the province.”

While no date has been given, the requirement for licence holders to publish forest operations maps will go into effect soon, giving the public insight into proposed cutblocks and roads. Feedback from the community will be invited, for the important conversation about protecting the environment and practising responsible stewardship while still being able to provide jobs in an industry that has been shaken up in recent years.

Whether these new measures and regulations will have an impact on the ongoing local issues with cutting permits and employment in the forestry sector, remains to be seen. Aspen Planers continues to struggle with obtaining cutting permits. Both AP Group, the parent company of Aspen Planers, and mill union leadership have said the issue behind the Merritt mill’s recent closures is a lack of cutting permits being issued by the provincial Ministry of Forests due to concerns by local First Nations with the applications.

In a letter sent to the Minister of Forests, Bruce Ralston, on June 9, several local contractors raised their concerns around the timber permitting process and barriers in the licence approval process, as the Herald previously reported. 

“The group met to try to understand the timber permitting process and the barriers in the approval process. There have been very few permits issued in the Merritt Timber Supply Area in the last six months, which is causing great concern from a financial standpoint and the mental health of the employees affected. An estimated $100,000,000 in logging machinery is sitting idle and therefore, approximately 350 direct employees are not receiving paycheques. These are taxpaying citizens that are considering moving out of the province to keep their livelihood. As a group of concerned forest workers and citizens, we would like to have a timeline on permits that are going to be issued for local employment,” reads the letter. 

While the changes for license holders, such as providing a forest operations map, have been developed by the Province in consultation with First Nations, it remains unclear if this will remove the barriers in the licensing process to ensure that many of the forestry professionals in the Nicola Valley who have been unemployed since February of this year, can get back to work.

New legal protection for rare habitats is also part of the immediate changes the province is implementing. The changes aim to better protect habitats for unique flora and fauna, some of which are only found within certain geographic areas in B.C. A new habitat category called Ecological Communities is being added to the Forest and Range Practices Act and any decisions concerning those communities needs to include environmental considerations. 

“Supporting healthy forests and improved forest management is important to people, workers and communities. We are boosting forest conservation to better support ecosystem health, including rare and critical habitat,” said Bruce Ralston, provincial Minister of Forests. “Opening the planning process to the public through the use of new digital tools will engender greater public trust and ensure forest resiliency.”

The changes, as announced in the press release, are part of a multi-year, phased approach in an effort to reshape forest management to better integrate with modern land use management, according to the Government of B.C.’s website. The province is committed to increasing Indigenous consultation and participation in forest management, as well as developing an action plan to address the realities of climate change.