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Stronger forest protection policy needed on the Gulf Islands

An aerial view of the clear cutting on the Gulf Islands.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Sidney, BC: In January, Raincoast Conservation Foundation enlisted the help of the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria to conduct a review of the legal mechanisms currently available to the Islands Trust to carry out their “preserve and protect” mandate. The ELC’s work resulted in a report synthesizing 10 regulatory recommendations for improving forest governance in the Islands Trust Area, but one overarching certainty emerged from the process: provincial law reform is necessary.

The Islands Trust area includes 13 major islands and more than 450 smaller islands in the Salish Sea. These islands are representative of the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimactic zone, the smallest and least protected of 16 such zones in British Columbia, characterized by giant tree species like Douglas-fir and Western red cedar, and iconic, culturally significant ecosystems like Garry oak meadows. Due to this exceptional ecology, the Islands Trust (Trust) was created by the provincial government in 1974 with the sole purpose of “preserv[ing] and protect[ing] the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the Trust Area and of British Columbia”.

“This was, and remains, an unprecedented move. The Trust Act created a governance structure unlike any other in the province, or indeed the country. The Trust qualifies as neither a municipality, nor a regional district. Instead it is identified as a unique special interest federation. This distinction is both a burden and an opportunity,” said Shauna Doll, Raincoast’s Gulf Islands Forest Project Coordinator.

This uniqueness from BC local governments means the Trust does not have access to the same legal tools that municipalities or regional districts use for tree protection. Attempts by local trustees to implement tree protection through Development Permit Areas (DPAs) have been denied in the past, and currently, the implementation of tree protection bylaws is outside the Trust’s jurisdiction.

“In essence, the Province has set the Trust up, if not to fail, then at least to flail, by charging them with environmental care without providing the tools to fulfill that obligation. However, according to the ELC’s report (PDF), the Trust mandate has court recognized legal effects and puts Trust Council, the collection of 26 local trustees from the 13 major Islands, in a unique position to protect some of the rarest forests and habitats in the county,” said Doll.

Addendum

On September 16, Raincoast made a delegation at Islands Trust Council’s Regular Business Meeting to formally present the ELC’s report and outline recommendations for Trust action. The recommendations are as follows:

Trust Council shall…

  1. Pursue Development Permit Areas to protect forest ecosystems and regulate forest practices on private lands
  2. Seek enforceability of Development Permits
  3. Pursue the implementation of tree cutting permits and forest management regulations
  4. Explore options for using zoning (i.e. “Conservation Zoning”) as an approach to regulating tree removal and retention on private lands.
  5. Prioritize the use of the current tools available for “preserv[ing] and protect[ing] the Trust area and its unique amenities and environment”, such as conservation covenants.
  6. Amend the Trust Policy Statement to reflect the dual obligation of Local Trustees, and the wider Trust federation, to uphold the Trust’s object.

These recommendations were met with support from many Trustees and resulted in two motions passed. This is the first step toward securing stronger tools for the Trust to protect CDF forests and associated ecosystems than has ever been permitted in the past. This news came during a week plagued by wildfires and thick smoke, and only days after the provincial Old Growth Strategy review was released to mixed reviews.