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Another long, hot summer in the woods?

Taking lessons from BC’s history of forestry conflicts and agreements – from someone who’s been on the ground for many of them.
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I keep asking myself: is this the “War in the Woods 3.0.” or just more of the same?

Is it just the same discussion that has hampered the combatants/players in “BC forests” from finding the necessary balance between economy, environment, and human wellbeing? After all, this has been going on since Stein Valley and Clayoquot Sound through the Great Bear Rainforest and onto Fairy Creek, with a few smaller but no less important dustups in between.

The situation in Fairy Creek will only escalate even more as COVID-19 restrictions start to ease. Without a doubt, we’ll see more hotspots, more GoFundMe accounts, and conflict will continue to rise along with summer temperatures.

We’ve got activists who are concerned (for good reason), an industry citing need for jobs and economic activity (with some truth), and a government caught between its own campaign commitments and an Old Growth Strategic Review and Intentions paper (a potential path forward).

And probably last but definitely not least, we’ve got First Nations communities ready to break past the colonialism that has kept our needs and wishes secondary.

Over my 25 years working on this issue, I’ve have been used by, tangled with, worked with, and even created some solutions with all the above groups. One lesson I’ve learned is that those who know what they want seem to have the most success.

Despite some deferrals in Fairy Creek, we haven’t seen the issue cool down and the battle lines grow deeper. When push comes to shove, will all the talk about sustainability, balance, and Indigenous rights turn out to be just lip service to help each group achieve their own goals and objectives?

Over the last six weeks or so I’ve done hours of media interviews with the full spectrum of outlets and reporters, only to be quoted as “I support the development of the forest industry but not at the cost of sustainability.” For that, I’ve received plenty of ire from all the above. So here’s a little more of a tale of the tape on each of the combatants, where come from, and where I think they may end up as this plays out.

Weighing in at over 200 arrests and growing support day by day, the activists/ENGOs. Their mastery of social media makes them punch above their actual weight. They will continue to post graphic pictures of logging and their supporters defying injunctions to slow any permitted harvesting – all while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to do more of the same.

Over the years, activists/ENGOs have been very successful in recruiting disgruntled First Nations members to validate their cause, saying it’s all about Indigenous Rights, and ending colonization on the oppressed communities. It all sounds good and helps with the cash flow. But the local Nations in Fairy Creek told them they to stay out of their affairs; and so the activists have lifted up disgruntled “hereditary chiefs” with little to no recognition or standing, and created a divide in the community.

I have personally experienced this. A few years ago, we asked to speak to a well-known environmental organization about old growth issues – only to be told they had no interest in talking to the group of six First Nations communities I work for. Ironically, we were developing a Large Cultural Cedar program, now en route to protect over 1,000 large cedar trees and the surrounding habitat – but I guess there’s no fundraising in being proactive without conflict.

The role and voice of true conservation needs to be part of the solution and at the table – but experience has taught most accountable First Nations leadership that while activists are vital to raising awareness, they’re simply not trustworthy to be part of any solution that requires patience, concession by all, and, most importantly, respect.

It will be up to First Nations to get beyond the activists and find a role for conversation to be heard. Knowing the great relationships evolving between First Nations and groups like Hakai, Nature United, Make Way, and others, I am confident that conservation and science will be part of the balanced solution we all need.

The reigning champion of these skirmishes has been the forest industry.

While the faces have changed and companies have morphed and merged, they have continually come out on top. For over 100 years the industry has helped build BC and strengthen the economy and local communities – but every time there’s pressure to change, the industry has used its influence with governments of all stripes to talk and log while leaving a path of destruction impacting First Nations and fish and wildlife habitat – all while saying it was only doing what was regulated.

Naturally, this has brought little change.

Even after the Timber Harvesting Land Base and Annual Allowable Cut has been reduced through protected areas and conservancies, the big players have been greatly compensated, and yet invest more in other markets and less in the communities that historically supported them.

The industry will have to continue to build relationships with First Nations, rebuild relationships with resource-based communities, and start to plan for a transition into a more ecologically sound future that no longer depends on old growth.

For years, leaders like myself have been telling the industry to give us some real skin in the game; we can no longer defend the unrealized potential the industry claims to offer. The recent developments with the local First Nations in Fairy Creek show the potential is slowly being realized; let’s hope the industry is paying attention and learning – and that it’s not too late to change.

For the most part, First Nations’ role in these disputes have been evolving with each flareup. This is partly to do with court victories like Delgamuuk and Haida that have created the need to consult, taken a step further with T’silquotin and  UNDRIP – but mostly, these just created opportunities.

The real evolution is due to hard work and capacity building in many communities that have resulted in traditional use studies and land use plans. There’s still a long way to go on the capacity building front, but many Nations have become and are becoming forces to be reckoned with.

Given that all the other combatants say a lot of good words about First Nations wants and wishes, the years of First Nations communities blindly taking sides without bringing anything to make them better places to live should be gone. But sadly, experience has taught me this is simply not the case.

Industry wants certainty; activists want protection; BC wants both. First Nations need to decide what’s best for their communities, and that discussion has to happen internally between elected and hereditary leadership, then onto the communities. We have seen this discrepancy before between hereditary vs elected before around natural resource issues; I’m left to wonder how many of these “hereditary chiefs” propped up by activists are asked about the social side of First Nations community governance: health, education, children and families, etc.

Do they have thoughts, and if so, do they discuss them with their own community? Or are they just simply caught up in the cause and the thoughts of those who share that one specific concern?

It’s good to be concerned about environmental conditions of your territory – it’s part of the responsibility of leadership – but to work only with external activists and not your family, community, and other leaders is a little strange.

Finally, the provincial government has been challenged on its handling of the Wars in the Woods. From the previous NDP government of the ‘90s when First Nations were not even an afterthought, to the beginning of the Gordon Campbell-era BC Liberals where First Nations were getting to the table, and through to the Christy Clark government that completed the Great Bear Rainforest, and onto this government that has introduced DRIPA and campaigned on Forest Industry reform.

Though the last 25 years, the focus has shifted from unions and workers to companies to activists – all while trying to meaningfully engage the same archaic forest policy that has had no real input from First Nations.

I have been fortunate to discuss these issues with every premier and forestry minister since Dan Miller. We all must do better and continue to raise the bar to better forest management that takes all these complicated factors into consideration.

While I’m hopeful the recent deferrals will buy some time for dialogue, the price of lumber and opportunities for activism and fundraising lead me to believe we’re in for a long, hot summer in the woods. That’s the bad news. The good news is I don’t believe it will stay hot – not with so many people working from First Nations, government, and industry to bring some control over where this discussion goes. And while I think Premier Horgan’s Intentions Paper is ambitious, it does bring a mandate to discuss most of the complicated issues that need to be part of a true step towards a transition to a new, more sustainable way of managing forests. It’s a place to start.

I am probably one of the last people those involved in the discussion would think would endorse the new direction, but I believe with the necessary investment of time, money, patience, and respect – it’s is a path that will work.

Dallas Smith is the President of Nanwakolas Council, a former provincial candidate and has over 20 years experience working for First Nations with government, industry and environmental groups.