February’s grey weather did not deter the more than 150 people who attended a packed evening session for West Coast Environmental Law’s “Dialogue on Law Reform for Nature, Climate and Communities”, the second in West Coast’s Dialogues for Legal Innovation series, held at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver on February 16th.
Nine invited Dialogue participants representing a broad spectrum of society, including industry, First Nations, the provincial government, the scientific community and environmental organizations were present. Throughout the evening, speaker after speaker from this diverse group brought home the urgency of the need to manage the land in BC in light of climate change, and the fact that we will have to reform our laws and policies to make this possible.
After a round of introductions, Dr. Hebda of the Royal BC Museum began the evening with a short presentation that highlighted our dependence on forests and natural ecosystems as our vital life support systems—systems that are at risk from climate change. Dr. Hebda painted an urgent picture, emphasizing that changes in forest structure and biodiversity predicted in climate change models are already happening in BC’s forests; he held up the example of the iconic Western Red Cedar, which is “getting hammered” by climate change. Exhorting us all to trade our “suits for boots”, Dr. Hebda made a strong case for reinvigorating the forest-climate change file by developing a closer relationship with the natural ecosystems we’re hoping to protect. As Dr. Hebda explained, it’s not only rural communities and First Nations whose lives are linked closely with BC’s forests, but also city-dwellers, who need clean, fresh water and air (i.e. healthy watersheds and forest ecosystems), just like everyone else.
While our current legal framework in BC focuses on how to get things out of the forest, that is to say, it primarily enables resource extraction, we were reminded by another Dialogue participant, Deborah Good, Chief Siidok of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs that there are alternative models that value sustainability, developed by First Nations through generations of experience living closely with, and depending on, the land. As she said:
The ultimate responsibility of a Gitanyow Hereditary Chief is to protect and practice conservation because ensuring the ecological integrity and function of the ecosystems provides all essential life support for the Gitanyow.
Deborah Good explained how the Gitanyow have worked to transcribe their traditional laws and practices with respect to conservation and protection of the resources on their lands into a land use plan. Presently the Gitanyow, after many years of negotiations, are in the final stages of achieving recognition for this plan in a government-to-government agreement with the province of BC which will include mechanisms for shared decision-making and economic benefit-sharing. Economic benefits are likely to nclude potential revenue linked to forest carbon as a result of enhanced protection, conservation and restoration on Gitanyow lands. It was clear that the Gitanyow model resonated strongly with a number of the other Dialogue participants as well as with many in the audience.
Deborah Good described the Gitanyow lands as “decimated” by activities carried out by resource extraction companies licensed under provincial laws. Sadly, this situation is common throughout BC. Even without climate change there are tremendous stresses on the land in BC. According to the provincial government there are currently more than 260 different provincial rights, tenures, interests and designations for public lands in BC. Add climate change to these existing stresses that primarily exploit natural systems and resources, and you begin to see problems with respect to the long-term resilience and adaptability of BC forests.
I was the third introductory speaker for the Dialogue, giving a legal perspective on why BC’s land use laws don’t currently address the challenges of climate change. One key problem is that we lack a mechanism to manage the impacts of all of the different legally permissible activities across a given area of land. What’s more, our current laws ensure that the top priority in managing forests is producing timber, rather than ensuring that our natural forests and other ecosystems have the diversity and resilience to adapt to climate change, as well as continuing to absorb and store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
While we have a strong legacy of strategic land-use planning in BC, that process didn’t take into consideration climate change, including climate change adaptation, nor did it assign any value to the natural carbon stored in our forests. And politicians have arbitrarily restricted the amount of wildlife habitat and other lands that can be protected from logging, instead of relying on science to determine what is needed to protect environmental values. On the bright side, more recently land-use planning in some areas of the province has been undertaken through government to government engagement with First Nations, and we are seeing some innovative and visionary models emerging with the Coastal First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest, and the Gitanyow, as presented by Deborah Good, Chief Siidok.
The Dialogue then moved on from the introductory presentations to an actual dialogue, with Jessica Clogg, Executive Director at West Coast facilitating, as experts from a range of backgrounds discussed what land use laws that addressed climate change might look like. Dialogue participants (and subsequently audience members in the question-and-answer session) touched on a range of important points and challenges:
- There was agreement on the need to find solutions that work for the rural and First Nations communities whose livelihoods are directly dependent on forests.
- Ben Parfitt, Dirk Brinkman, Dr. Suzanne Simard and Bill Bourgeois all drew on their experience to explore the challenges presented by our current system of tenures and land designations, and how to ensure community resilience in light of climate change.
- Participants also discussed some of the issues associated with assigning a value to natural forest carbon, carbon financing mechanisms, and the environmental safeguards that need to be in place.
- Jessica Verhagen, from the Climate Action Secretariat, provided important context in terms of the strategies already in place in BC to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, and the critical work that has been undertaken in BC in terms of putting a price on carbon in the BC economy.
A consistent theme running through the evening was the urgency of the need to respond to climate change and its impacts on forests in BC, coupled with the fact that, despite significant progress in dealing with fossil fuel emissions, we are lagging behind in developing an integrated nature and climate strategy for BC, and addressing the shortcomings in our current legal framework. You could perhaps sum this up as:
- there is a big problem, and
- we need to do something about it, right away.
As Jens Wieting from Sierra Club BC put it: we need to get on with what really needs to be done, and not be held back by what we think is politically possible.
Huge thanks to all of the Dialogue participants:
- Dr. Bill Bourgeois, RPF, President, New Direction Resource Management Ltd.
- Dirk Brinkman, CEO, Brinkman Forest Restoration Ltd.
- Deborah Carlson, Staff Counsel, West Coast Environmental Law
- Deborah Good, Chief Siidok, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs
- Dr. Richard Hebda, Curator, Botany and Earth History, Royal BC Museum
- Ben Parfitt, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
- Dr. Suzanne W. Simard, RPF, Professor, Department of Forest Sciences, UBC
- Jessica Verhagen, Director, Business Development, and Lead Negotiator in the Western Climate Initiative, Climate Action Secretariat, Ministry of the Environment, Government of BC
- Jens Wieting, Forests Campaigner, Sierra Club BC
Thanks also to the very engaged audience, who themselves were a diverse bunch, and shared their experiences and observations from the Cariboo, Prince Rupert, and north-eastern BC, to name a few.
We at West Coast Environmental Law were not only participating, but also listening carefully. We will take into account what we heard at the Dialogue as we build on several years of research and discussions with a variety of people engaged in this area to prepare several forthcoming law reform proposals.
By Deborah Carlson, Staff Counsel