British Columbia

Island mayor wants B.C. NDP to guarantee local governments a seat at table for future forestry talks

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom says top of mind for her constituents is old-growth management and she wants the B.C. NDP to make sure local government leaders have a seat at the table to ensure local livelihoods are protected.

'We are the ones who have to live out the changes on a daily basis'

Gaby Wickstrom is the mayor of Port McNeill. She says discussions about how to manage B.C. forests must balance economic and environmental needs. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

It's been a rough year for many in Port McNeill, B.C., where the majority of residents depend on forestry worker wages and weathered a seven-month-long strike. It ended at the onset of the pandemic, which created another obstacle for the community.

Now, with a projected NDP majority government about to assume power in the provincial legislature, the town's mayor, Gaby Wickstrom, wants to make sure she's included in pending talks about the future of the industry.

An estimated 80 per cent of people living in the northern Vancouver Island community of less than 2,500 residents rely on a forestry paycheque, while union workers were on strike from July 2019 until February 2020.

In September, the B.C. NDP, then a minority government, released A New Future for Old Forests, a report meant to guide an overhaul of forestry rules. The government, acting on advice in the independent report, then announced it will protect 353,000 hectares of forest in nine old-growth areas

An estimated 80 per cent of people living in Port McNeill rely on a forestry paycheque. Unionized workers at Western Forest Products were on strike from July 2019 until February 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Wickstrom said the plan is to create a new forest management plan based off that report and she said the government plans to do so in collaboration with First Nations, industry, and environmental groups, but she has not been assured of municipal inclusion.

"We are the ones who have to live out the changes on a daily basis," Wickstrom told CBC's On The Island.

She wants to ensure decisions about old growth logging are made with the local economic needs considered equally alongside environmental and First Nations' concerns when it comes to logging old-growth timber.

Not only, she said, do resource communities need the income, but so does the province in the midst of an expensive pandemic.

The term "old-growth" in B.C. means trees that are generally 250 years or older on the coast and 140 years or older in the Interior.

"What we want is [number] one, input, and two, a balance and measured approach so we can transition into that second growth," said the mayor.

The term old growth in B.C. means trees that are generally 250 years or older on the coast and 140 years or older in the Interior, according to the B.C. Forests Ministry. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Newly-elected North Island MLA, Michele Babchuk, who is projected to have won the riding previously held by her since-retired NDP colleague, Claire Trevena, says she has no plans to exclude municipalities from forestry management discussions.

"I have every intention of making sure that local governments are at the table, in my riding anyway," said Babchuk, also speaking to On The Island.

She said for too long, a "patchwork approach" has been taken when it comes to old-growth management and the B.C. NDP are committed to talking to all stakeholders — including local government.

"We are getting closer to having those holistic discussions that are putting everybody at the table so everybody's opinion feels valued," said Babchuk.

Vancouver Island union members show their discontent with Western Forest Products in November 2019. (Facebook/USW 1-1937)

Tensions over forest management in the region are constant.

On Friday, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation blocked Highway 28, which runs from Campbell River to Gold River, to prevent logging company Western Forest Products' (WFP) use of the road to extract timber.

This is the same company that workers walked off the job on in 2019. 

In August, despite any lingering effects of a seven-month strike and an ongoing pandemic, WFP reported log revenue of $60.5 million in the second quarter of 2020.

In a media release, the company said it produced 1,224,000 cubic metres of logs from B.C. coastal operations in the second quarter of 2020.

With files from On The Island, Chad Pawson