Demonstrators carry placards outlining concerns about North Cowichan forest practices. (Photo by Robert Barron/Cowichan Valley Citizen)

Demonstrators gather to demand a voice on North Cowichan municipal forest reserve

Demand more public consultations in decision making

With the growing impacts of climate change, forestry practices in North Cowichan’s municipal forest reserve must change, according to Chris Istace.

Istace of Chemainus was one of numerous speakers to address an enthusiastic, placard-waving crowd of about 100 people that gathered at North Cowichan’s municipal hall on May 29 to protest council’s plan to harvest trees that blew down or were heavily damaged during last December’s windstorm in the 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve.

Of particular concern are plans for the harvesting of wood in the ecologically sensitive Stoney Hill area.

Istace said the people gathered at the hall are not against North Cowichan’s council and staff on issues regarding the forest reserve, but are there for them as they make fundamental decisions regarding the community property.

“We want to look at doing things differently and try to find the right balance in ensuring the reserve is dealt with in a sustainable manner,” Istace said.

“It’s been 22 years since the last management plan for the reserve was written and the climate has changed a lot since then. We don’t know everything but the science and the will is there (to do it right).”

In February, council endorsed just the completion of existing 2018 forestry contracts and harvesting of blow downs from December’s windstorm in the municipal forest reserve in 2019 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.

But activities within the reserve since then, particularly plans to remove the blow downs on Stoney Hill, and the fact there still has been no significant public consultations on future plans for the reserve with just months to go before the new year, has raised concerns.

With work now beginning on harvesting of thousands of cubic metres of blown down and/or damaged trees in the reserve, including 1,800 cubic metres on Stoney Hill, concerned citizens decided to hold the demonstration on Wednesday.

Icel Dobell from the Where do we Stand group, said the consequences of harvesting wood on Stoney Hill are clear.

“Where we have logged for the past 12 years there are now clear-cuts full of four- to six-foot high Scotch broom, small trees and tall grass that are a recipe for fire,” she said.

“We may not be able to change the world, but we can change how we manage the community forests here and now before the contract is signed for the salvage logging of Stoney Hill.”

Sierra Robinson, from the Cowichan branch of the Earth Guardians, said people need to use their voices to be heard and advocate for change.

“The power of the people is more powerful than the people in power,” she said.

North Cowichan councillor Christopher Justice advocated in December for the municipality to stop its logging plans in the Stoney Hill area until a community discussion is held on the issue.

He said Wednesday that while he feels that Stoney Hill should never be logged for profit again, that’s not to say that it should not be managed and that management may necessitate cutting and removing some trees for certain purposes.

“Until all the evidence and opinions are considered and we have agreed, as a community, that we are prepared to accept whatever enhanced risk of disease and forest fire that accrue from leaving the blow down where it lies, I think it would be irresponsible of council to not follow the advice of our professional forester,” Justice said.

“For this reason, and at this moment, I think removing the blow down is the right decision and one that needs to be hastily acted on.”

Mayor Al Siebring said he acknowledges the people who demonstrated at the municipal hall were fully entitled to protest and express themselves.

But he said he believes the demonstration was largely a result of a misunderstanding.

“We are committed to engaging in consultations with the public on the future of the reserve, but not for planning in 2019,” Siebring said.

“We are looking at longer-term planning; from 2020 and beyond. A staff report on how to proceed with community consultations is coming soon and we’ll see what that looks like in regards to the highest and best use of the reserve’s forests. In the meantime, we made a decision not to just stop everything.”

Siebring said council has been advised by its recently expanded forest advisory committee that taking out the blown-down trees in the reserve is the best way to deal with forest fire hazards, beetles and safety issues related to recreational uses in those areas.

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