A complaint by residents on Sonora Island has led to the Forest Practice Board recommending both TimberWest Forest Corp. and the provincial government review logging practices under an ecosystem-based management (EBM) plan for old-growth forests along the B.C. coast.

In a report issued in July, the board said TimberWest violated the spirit of the EMB by removing old trees from an area of mixed old-growth forest and at-risk plant species.

While noting TimberWest did follow legal requirements of land use orders, the Forest Practice Board report recommended the company provide information on its future EBM management approach. The board also recommended the provincial government clarify its definitions for old forest and for red- and blue-listed plant communities.

TimberWest has postponed harvesting in the Sonora cutblocks since early 2013 and has taken steps to develop an approach more consistent with the spirit and intent of EBM. But, the board noted, “All the details of this new approach are not clear.”

EBM is a forest management approach intended to maintain ecosystem integrity while providing for societal needs in the area known as the Great Bear Rainforest, which includes Sonora Island at its southern tip.

The legal basis for EBM is codified in the South Central Coast Order (SCCO), enacted by the government in 2007.

It sets minimum guidelines for preserving or establishing old forest (trees at least 250 years old) and at-risk plants, including an old-forest target of between 24 and 30 per cent of forests for the landscape encompassing Sonora Island.

Where forests are already below that threshold of old trees, licensees operating within the ecosystem must meet the target within 250 years.

However, the board believes the SCCO’s background and intent document provides  little guidance on how to achieve those targets, other than stating, “recruitment of oldest possible age classes first will allow for old forest representation targets to be achieved in the shortest time possible.”

In early 2013, residents of Sonora Island contacted the Forest Practices Board, concerned that TimberWest might be violating the SCCO in its operations in several cutblocks on the island.

Staff from the board attended a field inspection along with island residents, TimberWest representatives, staff from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and others.

“When the islanders first brought their complaint forward, all the parties met,” said Tim Ryan, chair of the Forest Practices Board. “We determined a good dialogue between the residents and TimberWest had been established, and they agreed to solve their issues on their own.”

But after making additional site visits in 2013 and 2014 and determining old trees were continuing to be cut, the residents, who are not named in the report, made a formal complaint to the board in March, 2014.

In researching for their submission, the residents counted and painted the stumps they determined to be 250 years of age or older in seven small areas within six harvested cutblocks.

They summarized their data and included photos in reports for each of the seven areas, and even hired a professional forester and a professional biologist to assess the cutblocks.

“The Sonora Islanders did spend some of their own funds to hire experts to give them an evaluation,” said Ryan. “They were diligent. They went about gathering facts that were representative of the situation and gave them to all parties in hope of getting a response and a change in prescription.”

In follow-up field visits, the board determined many of the ecological units in the area have less old forest than the targets set in the SCCO. Three of the cutblocks were not subject to the SCCO, while three others were found to be in compliance.

But in one cutblock, where 53 old trees were determined to have been removed, the two consulting professionals found a 5.6-hectare area “consists of old forest as defined in the South Central Coast Order.”

In its report, the Forest Practices Board noted “TimberWest told the board that it did not dispute this professional opinion nor does it agree or disagree with it.”

The report stated the board was unable to determine if the cutblock hosted a red-listed (at risk) or blue-listed (of concern) plant community prior to harvest.

“The board was unable to conclude if TimberWest’s activities were inconsistent with requirements in the SCCO for at-risk plant communities due to ambiguities in government’s definition of at-risk plant communities; the lack of further interpretive guidance; and the general challenges with identifying plant communities after they have been disturbed,” the report concluded.