Erik Piikkila displays some of the many books on forest sustainability that he carried in a box to augment his presentation about the municipal forest reserve at North Cowichan’s council meeting on March 20. (Photo by Robert Barron/Cowichan Valley Citizen)

“Deep and broad” public engagement wanted on municipal forests

North Cowichan to determine the scope of engagement

Erik Piikkila walked into North Cowichan’s council meeting on March 20 carrying a box full of books on forest sustainability.

In determining the future of logging and other plans for North Cowichan’s municipal forest reserve, Piikkila told council that it has more than 50 years of ecological science to draw upon in determining strategies, with much of that knowledge in the books he brought to the meeting.

He said there are many ecological and environmental opportunities by leaving the blown-down wood from last December’s windstorm in place.

“Research shows that about 40 per cent of wildlife species in the north-west need dead trees and downed logs as part of their life cycles,” Piikkila said.

“Downed logs are also huge water sponges that help keep water in the forests, which helps deal with both fires and floods.”

Piikkila was one of a number of speakers at the meeting advocating for environmentally friendly ways in dealing with North Cowichan’s 5,000-acre municipal forest reserve, and for more public participation in the future management of the reserve.

At a meeting earlier this month, council considered options for forestry operations within the municipal forest reserve in 2019, and endorsed just the completion of existing 2018 forestry contracts and harvesting of blow downs from the windstorm in December.

At the time, council decided to minimize logging in the forest reserve until experts are tapped for their input and the public has been thoroughly consulted on what people want for the future of the public properties.

Council also adopted a revised terms of reference for its forest advisory committee and decided to expand its membership to include a registered professional biologist, three community members, and representatives from local indigenous groups to broaden its scope and expertise.

The expanded committee’s mandate includes a full review of forest management practices, with short and long-term recommendations.

The question of just how much public input council wants in determining the future of the forest reserve was on the agenda at last Wednesday’s meeting.

Staff proposed that council discuss, confirm, and clarify how open or constrained future engagement might be.

“If council wishes to conduct community engagement on the municipal forest reserve, a decision statement should be developed to establish clear parameters for the decision that council intends to make,” a staff report said.

“Decision statements enable council and staff to determine the scope of engagement that the public will be asked to participate in.”

After a discussion, Coun. Christopher Justice proposed a successful motion, which was tweaked a little by council, in which council affirmed its desire to go ahead with a meaningful public engagement, “both deep and broad”, on the future management of the municipal forest reserve.

The motion goes on to say that council will decide on an overall vision for the “highest and best use” of the forest reserve that will emphasize ecological stewardship and promotion of biodiversity, and will build and enhance those values and interests the forest has for the community and forest experts.

The motion also said that this overall vision for the forests will be used to inform the development of a management framework and long-term plan for achieving the vision; and if harvesting is to continue, council will establish harvesting guidelines.

“This decision will preferably be made by January, 2020, but will not be rushed,” the motion ended.

In making the motion, Justice said he believes public engagement is critical in the future management of the forests.

“This is not optional,” he said. “It’s important that this public engagement be broad and deep and we have input from as many people as possible.”

Staff will now present a report at the next council meeting on April 3 with recommendations on how North Cowichan should move forward with public engagement with planning for the municipal forests.

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