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22nd February 2019

North Cowichan residents discover they own six mountains and a logging company

The municipality owns 5,000 hectares of coastal Douglas fir forest. Now the question is: to log or not to log?

Daniel Pierce Feb 14, 2019 13 min read

When coloured logging tape appeared in a beloved forest on Stoney Hill in the district of North Cowichan on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2018, local residents naturally started asking questions.

Who owns this land? Who wants to log it? How are they going to log it? What will happen to the wood? Why hasn’t the community been consulted?

Residents were stunned to discover that in fact they own these lands. Or at least, the Municipality of North Cowichan owns these lands.

“People suddenly realized these mountains that everyone thought were owned by private industry were actually owned by the public,” says Icel Dobell, a fifth-generation resident of North Cowichan.

“No one knew this. I’m talking about people who have lived here all their lives — 70 years, 80 years — had no idea,” Dobell says.

‘A unique situation in British Columbia’

“In North Cowichan, that’s a unique situation in British Columbia,” says veteran Vancouver Island forester Ray Travers. “It is public land because it is owned by the municipality, but they own it [outright].”

This differs from most other community forests in B.C., which are either managed under provincial forest licences or are on lands purchased from private owners.

Totaling 5,000 hectares on six mountains (Mount Tzouhalem, Mount Richards, Mount Prevost, Maple Mountain, Mount Sicker and Stoney Hill) North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve is one of the largest municipally owned forests in North America, encompassing 25 per cent of the North Cowichan land base.

“[The North Cowichan municipal forest] came into the control of the municipality in the 1930s,” Travers says. “When the people who’d owned the land didn’t pay their property taxes, it reverted to the municipality.”

These lands were originally part of the E&N Land Grant, a federal land deal from the 1870s in which approximately 769,000 hectares of land on southeastern Vancouver Island were expropriated from Indigenous peoples and given to the E&N Railway Company to pay for the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway.

The Municipality of North Cowichan is part of the traditional territories of the Cowichan, Halalt, Penelakut and Lyakson First Nations. Upwards of 85 per cent of the Indigenous lands on southeastern Vancouver Island are now private, much of it owned by logging companies such as Island Timberlands and TimberWest.

A threatened ecosystem

North Cowichan is part of the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, one of British Columbia’s 18 ecological zones.

“It is one of Canada’s most threatened ecosystems,” says forest ecologist Andy MacKinnon. “It has less than one per cent original forest remaining, high percentages of urban and agricultural land, a relatively low percentage of protected areas and B.C.’s highest percentage of private land, by far.”

He adds: “Not surprisingly, the coastal Douglas-fir zone has B.C.’s highest number of threatened and endangered species and ecosystems.”

While the North Cowichan municipal forest would have all been logged at some point in the past 80 years, according to North Cowichan resident Dobell, these forests are uncommon on this part of the island.

“This is so rare,” Dobell says. “A forest that is 60 or 70 years old that was not replanted in a timber-lot sort of way. Back then, they didn’t log like they do now. They left the enormous arbutus and maple, they left the alder, they left trees that weren’t perfect, like big fir. So people who come into this area that haven’t been here before are shocked by the complexity.”

Citizens unite

The only thing more shocking to North Cowichan residents than the revelation that the municipality owns these forestlands was the realization that they were being considered for logging.

“I found out about the ribbons on Stoney Hill in September,” Dobell said. “And if I’m honest, at first I didn’t want to hear it.”

But one day she was struck by inspiration. Dobell felt compelled to write a story about the plight of the municipal forests. This writing became the basis of a video that she directed and narrated and which was produced by Arrowsmith Media.

“That was what triggered people, was the first article and the film,” Dobell says.

Word began to spread and pretty soon an informal community group formed. Another resident, Rob Fullerton, started a website and they came up with the name “Where Do We Stand?”

They started a petition calling for a pause to any further logging in the municipal forest until a public consultation can be done to reassess the values and priorities of the forest. That petition has generated more than 1,400 comments and signatures to date in support of a pause to the logging.

“We’re not a charity, we’re not a non-profit, we’re just a community,” Fullerton said. “It’s just been a three-month blitz to try and get a pause.”

‘I’ve never seen the chambers that full’

The public backlash in North Cowichan reached a crescendo on December 19 at a meeting of the newly elected mayor and council, with estimates of 200 to 400 people trying to get into the council chambers on a Wednesday afternoon.

“I’ve never seen the chambers that full,” said Mayor Al Siebring. “This issue is generating some considerable interest and that’s fair enough. An engaged community is always a good community, as far as I’m concerned.”

Travers is pleased to see this level of engagement happening. “I would say that [Dobell] struck a responsive chord. When you can get 200 people out to talk about forestry in any community, that’s a major accomplishment in my view.”

The video recording of the event reveals people packed shoulder to shoulder, wrapped all the way around the chamber. One by one, community members step up to the microphone to express their opinions about the municipal forest. Speakers can be broken down into two groups: the ‘pausers’ and the ‘anti-pausers.’ The pausers outnumbered the anti-pausers at least five to one.

Those arguing for a pause emphasized the need for community consultations. They talked about how forest use is changing, ecotourism is on the rise, climate change is upon us, forests provide valuable ecological services and that there are alternative forestry models to look to, such as Wildwood near Nanaimo.

Those arguing against a pause said there was no need to stop logging. They praised all the good the municipal forest has done for the community, such as land purchases, fire-fighting, educational opportunities and scholarships, as well as the sustainable practices that have been in place since the 1980s.

The community walked away from that meeting without any clear answers, other than a resolution from council not to move forward with any logging or road-building on Stoney Hill until they’ve had time to study the matter further.

A literal windfall

The night after the December 19 meeting, southern Vancouver Island suffered one of the most destructive windstorms in its recorded history. With gusts exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, large swaths of trees were blown down in the North Cowichan municipal forest.

Concerned residents see this literal windfall as an opportunity to cover some of the lost revenue that would result from a pause in logging operations.

Another council meeting is scheduled for February 15 to vote on a budget scenario for 2019. This means deciding whether to log or not to log. If council decides not to log at all, this could blow a $600,000 hole in the budget.

Harvesting the windfall would soften the fiscal blow somewhat and help fund a pause to logging, while public consultations are allowed to take place.

‘Our municipal forest has been severely maligned’
Mayor Siebring has been on council since 2008 and he does not mince words when defending the reputation of the North Cowichan municipal forest.

“Our municipal forest operation has been severely maligned and misrepresented by those who want to stop logging,” Siebring says. “They’re taking out full-page ads, articles in local media, where they talk about, ‘The municipality wants to clear-cut the six mountaintops.’ ”

Siebring takes particular exception to the term “clear-cut.”

...Continued in Part Two