A forest patch cleared by logging on North Vancouver Island. (Mark Worthing/Sierra Club B.C.)

‘Who’s keeping an eye on Vancouver Island’s forests?’

With no watchdog around during COVID-19, conservationists worry about old-growth logging activities

Who is keeping an eye on the forests?

That’s a question that environmental groups have been asking ever since COVID-19 put limitations on all major watchdog activities.

As logging continues amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, conservationists are worried that there’s no one around to monitor old-growth forest logging on North Vancouver Island.

RELATED: Protesters in Campbell River call for moratorium on old-growth logging

Logging companies have been allowed to function amidst the lockdown, and this is “deeply concerning,” said Mark Worthing from Sierra Club B.C., as none of the watchdogs or environmental groups are “out there” at the moment.

Even groups like the Forest Practices Board or the provincial Compliance and Enforcement office pursue rogue cases based on complaints. In the absence of those, these groups have no structure in place to keep a tab on old-growth logging.

In an email, the Forest Practices Board said it hasn’t received any complaints related to logging activities on Vancouver Island during the COVID-19 restrictions.

The forest sector was designated early on by the B.C. government as an essential service during the pandemic. This was done because forest products play a critical role in producing essential goods required in COVID-19 relief efforts, said Susan Yurkovich, president and CEO of BC Council of Forest Industries.

Forest products supply specialty pulp that goes into making face masks, gowns and other medical supplies, as well as building materials, energy products and tissues.

Yurkovich added that all companies carrying out harvesting activities must do so under government-approved cutting permits and are subject to compliance and enforcement inspections.

“We are not aware of any such (unchecked old-growth logging) activity taking place,” said Yurkovich, maintaining that audits are still occurring despite the pandemic.

RELATED: Western Forest Products and union confirm agreement

B.C. has a 24- hour hotline to report poachers and polluters which is functional during the pandemic. Illegal logging can be reported by citizens on the hotline, provided they are out and witness it.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development also said that natural resource officers patrol for logging infractions under the Forest, Range and Practices Act.

Old-growth forest logging has drawn criticism from communities on the North Island in the past. Concerns have especially escalated for areas with ancient and sensitive ecosystems in the Tsitika Valley, Naka Creek, Tessium Creek and Schmidt Creek.

Logging activities have begun up slopes after clearing out valley bottoms, and this can further lead to floods and soil erosion that will affect the watersheds in these areas.

Most of these environmental concerns will continue to persist in the absence of “modernized regulations” that provide sustainable solutions, said Worthing.

The logging industry has been the engine of the economy for many communities on the Island, however, operational changes need to be made to avoid environmental damage. Moving away from old-growth logging is one such vital change, said Worthing.

Environmental groups also want forest sectors, provincial and federal governments to help communities transition from dependency upon finite resources.

RELATED: Forest convoy snaking its way down the Island for legislature rally

In July 2019, the B.C. government appointed a two-person panel consisting of Gary Merkel and Al Gorley to provide a report on old-growth trees and forests after analyzing public perspective.

The ministry confirmed that the Old Growth Recommendation Report provided by Merkel and Gorley was received by minister Doug Donaldson’s office on April 30. The ministry will publicly respond to it within six months.

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