Advocates say loggers aren't doing enough to save old-growth forests near Revelstoke, B.C.
The unique area is home to trees that are hundreds of years old and to threatened mountain caribou
Standing among a series of stumps in the northern Selkirk Mountains, Eddie Petryshen pointed to a long, thick hemlock log on the ground.
"These trees are likely going to go make toilet paper," he said. "This tree right here, I would estimate about a metre and a half in diameter ... anywhere from 500 to 600 years old."
The Selkirk Mountains are a subrange of the larger Columbia Mountains, which houses the Interior Wet Belt — containing one of the world's only temperate inland rainforests, and a large ecological melting pot that contains thousand-year-old trees and protected caribou.
Petryshen, a conservation specialist at B.C.-based advocacy group Wildsight, is one of hundreds of activists that are trying to stop old-growth logging and habitat destruction in the area.
"We've had five caribou herds go locally extinct since 2014," he said. "We should just, potentially, stop logging some of these forests at the rate we're logging them."
The conflict between conservationists, First Nations and logging groups has been going on for decades near Revelstoke, about 570 km northeast of Vancouver. And in the past two years, it's ramped up amid a wider protest movement to protect old-growth forests.
Logging companies in the area say they're working to transition away from cutting old-growth, but advocates say it's not happening fast enough to save the habitat. Meanwhile, an old-growth logging deferral process from the B.C. government remains on the books.
The corporation that manages the forests around Revelstoke says they're only able to log around half of the area they've bought. And within that area, they say they're not logging two-thirds of the old-growth.
"We do want to manage the forests, we do want forestry. So avoiding harvesting doesn't really answer that," said Mike Copperthwaite, general manager of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation (RCFC).
"In the next 20 years, our harvesting won't include old growth. Our harvesting is going to be solely in second row stands. But we've got this transition period where these younger [trees] have to get to a certain age."
Logging still allowed
In Revelstoke, logging is big business, despite the potential threat to wildlife and old-growth forests.
The city owns and manages 1,200 square kilometres of forest under the RCFC.
Three forestry companies — Downie Timber, Joe Kozek Sawmills and Cascade Cedar Products — have the rights to log those forests, of which they say only 590 square kilometres is usable. The RCFC states that the corporation is the town's biggest employer, with more than 350 people involved in the operation.
The Okanagan Nation Alliance released a statement on Aug. 23 demanding that old-growth logging stop in their region. According to the government, deferrals went into place shortly before that.
But Petryshen said 100-year-old trees are still cut away from deferral areas.
Copperthwaite said the deferrals were undoing "18 years of work" for the corporation.
"We are very focused on doing an environmentally sound job. We want to create beautiful forests for future generations in Revelstoke to benefit from," he said.
In a statement from earlier this year, the RCFC said they're not cutting 66 per cent of the old growth forests near Revelstoke.
One-of-a-kind caribou habitat
Researchers called the Interior Wet Belt and the temperate rainforest "one of the world's most imperilled," in a 2021 study published on MDPI, a Basel, Switzerland-based publisher of academic jounals.
The forest stretches over 160,000 square kilometres — all the way from Idaho in the U.S. to the north of B.C., straddling the Alberta border and containing numerous national parks including Glacier National Park.
Dr. Robert Serrouya, director of the caribou monitoring program at the Edmonton-based Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, said the lichen that grows in the cool forests — especially at higher elevations — provides food for the endangered mountain caribou.
Serrouya said it's crucial that the caribou population survives in the region — not just because they're important to the local First Nations, but because their habitat is protected by both federal legislation and provincial Government Actions Regulation.
"If the caribou disappears, there would be a lot more pressure to cut down all those trees," he said. "We don't have federal legislation to protect old growth."
There are just over 1,200 southern mountain caribou in the region, according to the B.C. government's latest census, and the species is listed as "threatened" by the province.
Those numbers are down from more than 2,500 in 1995, and over 40,000 in the century prior to logging activities beginning in the early1900s.
Advocates remain skeptical
Petryshen said he wants the logging industry to "move beyond the rhetoric" that the industry would be decimated by deferrals.
"They can evolve and they can move forward as we make transitions," he said. "We can also build a more sustainable forest industry for workers."
Serrouya said research showed that timber supply curves are approaching a "precipice" in B.C., and that current harvest rates are simply not sustainable.
The RCFC said earlier this year that they would release community consultation plans about the future of their corporation going into 2023.