Cumulative impacts a serious problem for Gulf Islands forests

Ongoing habitat loss, land degradation, and continued development, are a threat to biodiversity and the future of Coastal Douglas-Fir forests.

In 2019, the Islands Trust issued a “Climate Emergency Declaration” that committed them to “intensifying… efforts to better match the urgency of the climate change emergency.” Unfortunately, meaningful action associated with this declaration has yet to materialize. Considering that Coastal Douglas-Fir ecosystems within the Islands Trust Area store 82% more carbon and have 43% higher carbon sequestration potential than other parts of the region, ecosystem protection must be prioritized as a climate change response. 

The Gulf Islands represent 33.2% of the provincial extent of Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats which are among the most biodiverse in the province. Yet, this region is also the most degraded. According to the BC Conservation Data Centre, there are 43 ecological communities at risk within the Coastal Douglas-fir zone. Even prior to the current climate and biodiversity crisis, the Islands Trust was uniquely mandated to “preserve and protect” the habitats and ecosystems of the Trust islands and ensure the sustainability of their communities.

An Oxford University publication from 2019 stated that coastal regions, islands and ecosystems “exist in a delicate balance at the land-sea interface” making them exceptionally vulnerable to climate change impacts. The loss, degradation and conversion of native habitats, forest canopy, forest understory, and wetlands, reduces water storage, perpetuates water shortages, increases soil desiccation and erosion, increases flood and fire risk, increases temperatures and heat waves, perpetuates declines in biodiversity and weakens community resilience.

A Nature series publication this spring expanded on the implications from such risks, noting that habitat and climate induced threats to biodiversity could have ripple effects from extinctions that can cascade beyond just a single species, impacting whole food webs and services that humans rely on. In light of the fundamental need for functioning food webs and the regional, national and international recognition of a global climate and biodiversity crisis, the Trust needs to act. 

There appears to be no recognition of cumulative impacts on, or the carrying capacity of, the Gulf Islands.

The loss of forest habitat on Trust Islands is occurring because, despite the Trust’s “preserve and protect” mandate, there are few to no constraints on the development of single or multi-unit properties, footprint of houses, or house amenities, nor are there limits on the extent of habitat conversion per lot, the extent of impervious surfaces, limits on water and other resource demands, limits on extensive tree removal, or limits to development and growth on finite islands. In addition, there appears to be no recognition of cumulative impacts on, or the carrying capacity of, the Gulf Islands.

As part of the Trust Policy Statement review process, Raincoast Conservation Foundation submitted a document reminding the Islands Trust that there is no place for a pro-development, urban planning approach in the Gulf Islands, which by definition are rural and by law were intended to be protected and managed for ecological and conservation value above all else. Whether “green” or not, more development is not the answer to mitigating climate change and creating ecological resilience on the Gulf Islands. Developers and development interests often exploit climate change, using it as an excuse to keep building in rural landscapes and green spaces which should serve as regional refugia, and not be subject to further incursion.

Even prior to the current climate and biodiversity crisis, the Islands Trust was uniquely mandated to “preserve and protect” the habitats and ecosystems of the Trust islands and ensure the sustainability of their communities.

Trust Council needs to follow through on its Climate Emergency Declaration. Making such commitments without active implementation of substantive mitigative action renders the declaration nothing more than a public relations exercise. Arguments can be made that most Islands have reached their development limits and additional anthropogenic pressure will exacerbate the climate change related issues the Trust claims it has prioritized. The Policy Statement in its current form leaves too much open for interpretation and despite a plethora of commitments and recommendations, very little is actionable via operational strategies or plans. 

According to the IPCC, we have 9 years to avoid the impacts of 1.5°C global warming above pre-industrial levels. The Trust must move toward implementing innovative environmental policies in collaboration with Island communities, First Nations, scientists, and policy experts. Land use and policy decisions affecting the rural landscapes of the Gulf Islands cannot continue to be shaped by urban planning perspectives. These decisions should be filtered through an ecological lens. The most recent Trust Council meeting demonstrated a pervasive hesitancy to fully commit to the Trust’s mandate and instilled little hope that consequential climate action will be taken. Time is running out as business-as-usual practices strip the Gulf Islands of its forests and ecological resilience. The exigencies of the climate crisis are undeniable. The time for political bravery is now.

A version of this article was first published in Gulf Islands Driftwood and the The Province

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.