When the government of B.C. agreed in 2006 to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, it won widespread praise and the Gift to the Earth award from the World Wildlife Fund.

The deal covered more than six million hectares of rugged coastal terrain that sweeps from near the north end of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle.

Under the Great Bear agreement, large tracts of forest would be set aside and the remainder would be subject to a newly developed ecosystem-based management (EBM) plan.

EBM logging was developed as a tool to preserve ecosystem diversity, and environmentalists had high hopes it would protect the dwindling supply of old-growth forest in B.C. Although the policy is applied province-wide, it was expected to be showcased in the Great Bear Rainforest.

It sounded great, but when it hit the ground on Sonora Island, which is at the south end of the Great Bear Rainforest, residents began to wonder.

Hiking through the clear-cut patches that started to spread along the island a few years ago, Ross Campbell and his family began to see a disturbing number of huge stumps that were obviously old.

Some of the trees being felled by TimberWest, they thought, were 700 years old. Many were certainly over 250 years old, which on the B.C. coast classifies them as old-growth. Under EBM, logging companies are supposed to protect old-growth forests like that.

When the Campbell family questioned the practice, TimberWest and the government said the company was not cutting old-growth forest. So the Campbells hired a forest consultant to take a look.

In 2013, Madrone Environmental Services Ltd. produced a report for the Campbells that confirmed that old trees, “certainly well over 250 years,” were being cut on the island.

Using that report, and after compiling a catalogue of old-growth stumps, the Campbells filed a complaint with the Forest Practices Board.

In a report handed down last week, July 23 the board reached a surprising conclusion. The Campbells were right. Old-growth trees were indeed being cut under EBM. But TimberWest was right, too, at least when it said it was not cutting old-growth forest.

Old trees yes, but not old forest.

Vaguely worded forestry regulations, the board concluded, let TimberWest define old-growth forest in a way that allowed it to chop down more than 400 old-growth trees legally.

“The forest inventory does not necessarily classify small stands of old trees as old forest,” the Forest Practices Board report says. “These stands may be lumped in with areas of young forest. In addition, groupings of older trees within a matrix of younger forest are often classified as young forest, since the stand age is an average of the age of all trees present.”

One might say the regulations allowed the company to look at the forest and not see the old trees. But while TimberWest did not break any rules in logging that way, it did not get off without criticism.

“The investigation found that TimberWest’s approach to identifying and maintaining old forest and rare and endangered plant communities on Sonora Island met legal requirements, but in the board’s opinion, did not meet the spirit and intent of EBM, and their approach needs improvement,” the report concluded.

The board calls on the province to “ensure that the meaning of the term ‘old forest’ is sufficiently clear” in regulations and to provide more “guidance” to logging companies.

The board also praised the Campbell family, whose research pointed out a significant flaw in logging practices that the world thinks are protecting the Great Bear Rainforest.

The praise is deserved – but the government should really reimburse the Campbells for the money they spent doing research the province should have done itself.