Community Forest advocates struggle against Ministry's double standard

[co-written by Mary Desmond]

Last summer we wrote about signs of renewed support within government for community forests [link]. Events of the past few months suggest that the signals from the Ministry of Forests were just spin after all. This isn’t a great shock to land reform advocates, but the Ministry’s failure to live up to its hype is discouraging. Once again the message is clear: gaining more control of land use is an almost impossible task for communities, unless they have some powerful leverage.

The story of the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch is a pointed example of how government is failing communities. Here, a determined group of hundreds of local people are seeking a community forest licence. They want to improve economic and environmental conditions for the whole community, preventing reckless logging and development that will ruin the local environment without even conferring any lasting economic benefit on Shawnigan residents.

Sadly, the Ministry of Forests is blithely continuing to promote this unfortunate status quo of industrial logging. And Land and Water British Columbia (LWBC), the agency that develops and sells public land, has been encouraging this status quo, always looking for development opportunities. For example, until community opposition grew too strong, LWBC had its eye on two South Shawnigan cutblocks for a large golf-resort development, once the logging company is finished clearing them of trees.

Mary Desmond and the other members of Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch have struggled valiantly to gain the government’s notice and support. Until the late summer of 2004, the Ministry of Forests was unresponsive. The Shawnigan people received a generic e-mail from the Deputy Minister of Forests in the summer, and a cursory telephone call from one of his staff.

This silence could either mean the government had no intention of supporting this local initiative for a community forest, or that it was preparing a package for community forests, and was delaying its response until the plan was ready. During a meeting Dogwood Initiative had with the Deputy Minister in September 2004, it seemed like the latter was the case. Doug Konkin said this government is going to develop policy to help foster the community forest movement. The plan is to transfer more cutting rights to community initiatives, and creating structures for local people to exert more control over logging practices. We advised the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch that they could expect to hear positive things from the Ministry shortly.

Mary Desmond followed up on these signals, restating her group’s wish for a meeting with the Minister or Deputy. By this time, Mary had the local MLA’s support (thanks in part to a feisty example of local organizing, in which members of the community inundated MLA Brian Kerr’s office with calls for support, on a designated day), and she knew she had the attention of the Deputy Minister. All the effort and commitment from the community had brought them to the brink of success.

In early November, Mary received a call from Jack Dryburgh, the Ministry’s new District Manager for the South Island. He wanted to meet. The Shawnigan Lake group leapt at the chance, and soon sat down with Mr Dryburgh and Emma Neill, the Ministry’s administrator of the local woodlot.

It was a classic no-substance meeting. What had been done since Shawnigan Lake last heard from the Ministry? Nothing. What was going to be done to help the local community? Nothing. How will the takeback of 20% of corporate logging tenures help Shawnigan Lake? Not at all.

The Ministry officials didn’t put it in so many words, of course. The meeting was an exercise in PR. Mr Dryburgh and Ms Neill offered the usual negative platitude: all the land in Shawnigan has been pre-allocated, they said. Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch knows this is not true, that it’s an artificial obstacle put up to avoid the fact that government doesn’t have the will to mess with the corporate tenure holder.

The only valid obstacle to a community forest tenure is the need for settlement of treaty lands. But treaty is not the reason the government is resisting. For one thing, the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch would be happy to collaborate on a community forest with the local First Nations. For another, the Ministry of Forests is doing as much to resist a fair settlement of treaty as it is to resist a community forest. The people of Shawnigan Lake have come to conclude that the real barrier is a simple matter of personal preferential decisions. The conversation that unfolded at that November meeting affirmed this conclusion:

Having given Mary Desmond and her colleagues the bad news, Emma Neill rubbed salt in the wound by mentioning she’s looking at three forested Crown lots (300-400 acres each) in the area for possible expansion of the two existing woodlot licences. Mary asked, do you mean that only one of the three areas might be added? No, all three. Mary said it would be better for the community if several hundred households benefited (from a community forest on these lots), not just one or two (the woodlot owners).

Mr Dreyburgh said the rules for community woodlots are changing in January, so why doesn’t the Shawnigan group apply for a Community Woodlot Licence instead of a Community Forest? But that, Mary said, would only allow them to get volume that’s not pre-allocated to the big tenure holders–the scraps from the table.

Mr Dreyburgh said they could supplement to bring their cutting volume up to the required size by leasing adjoining private lands from TimberWest or Weyerhaeuser. In effect, he was suggesting that, to meet the required quota for the Community Woodlot classification, the community group should bolster the size of their woodlot with fictitious plots of private forestland. Mary pointed out all the good stands within easy to moderate access are long gone, and the companies would charge exorbitant rates for anything else.

Once again, the outdated forestry rules don’t fit a community’s needs. Instead of changing the rules, the government suggests ways to wiggle around them, ways that don’t serve the community’s goal of a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment.`

That’s where the conversation with the Ministry ended. Instead of making an effort to help them establish lasting stewardship of their local forests, and their local forest industry, the Ministry tells communities to eat cake.

After the government’s words of support for communities and community forestry, when the “forestry revitalization” package was announced in March 2003, this meeting was a bitter pill for Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch. After all their letters and e-mails to the Ministry, they’ve received only a standard-form message in an e-mail, and, eventually, the standard line of “no” from the two Ministry officials.

Instead of giving up, however, the community’s involvement in its own future is intensifying. Last March, local opposition stymied a proposal for a golf-resort town on two South Shawnigan cutblocks once they were logged. The opposition included the “contact MLA Brian Kerr” day mentioned above.

In the wake of that opposition, Pacific Northwoods tried to push forward a development on Mt Baldy and Mt Wood, including one Crown cutblock over which the community has been seeking control for a long time. Local citizens weren’t impressed with the development proposal. Almost 500 people turned out at a recent community meeting on growth and development issues. Following that meeting, the proposal was changed to exclude the cutblock.

So, while the Cowichan community’s activism has achieved some success, it seems that communities and community forests continue to run into a double standard. As Mary
puts it, “government programmes such as woodlots and Timber Sales receive greatly preferential treatment to the Plain People of BC, the ordinary citizens of rural communities, who would likely treat their woodlands with much more care.”After all, we have to live with the results.”

They do, indeed. Since the November meeting with the Ministry of Forests, TimberWest and Weyerhaeuser have been aggressively liquidating every last stand of value in the area. The people of the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch have reduced their estimates of remaining good-quality, mature woodlands to less than 20%in the Shawnigan/Koksilah region. In Mary’s words, the rest is “just stubble or ‘salad greens’.”

The Dogwood Bulletin will keep watching the efforts of the Shawnigan community. And we will keep supporting the efforts of local people to take control of their future. If you have a story about a local struggle to take control, please e-mail us.

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