VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, May 11, 2014 (ENS) – A British Columbia Supreme Court decision undermines government claims that B.C.’s forestry laws are among the strongest in the world, environment groups said Friday, after losing a court battle to protect the province’s last old-growth Coastal Douglas-fir forests.

In a case brought by two nonprofits, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the ForestEthics Solutions Society, the court ruled Friday that the B.C. government is not obligated by the Forest and Range Practices Act, FRPA, to protect the province’s remaining endangered old-growth Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems or any other species at risk.

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A newly logged Coastal Douglas fir forest in British Columbia (Photo courtesy Wilderness Community)

The province is currently governed by a second-term Liberal government, headed by Premier Christy Clark. The groups sued the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who is responsible for the Wildlife Act and responsible for designating Wildlife Habitat Areas under the act.

They alleged that the provincial government violated its own law by failing to protect the few remaining patches of Coastal Douglas-fir, CDF, forest from continued logging.

“The court has confirmed what conservationists have been saying for years, that the Forest and Range Practices Act doesn’t protect species at risk in any meaningful way,” said Torrance Coste, Vancouver Island Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.

The groups argued that the government is required under the Forest and Range Practices Act to issue notices that would, in effect, prevent logging operations that would impact the remaining 275 hectares of old-growth Coastal Douglas-fir forest in the coastal region.

The provincial government argued that nothing in the law obligates it to issue such notices, although the government has the power to decide whether or not to issue one at any point in the future, if they consider it to be appropriate.

The Supreme Court sided with the government, ruling that the issuance of these notices, known as Section 7(2) notices is discretionary. “The Minister has no legal duty, express or implied, that can be enforced.”

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This forest on Cortes Island, B.C. holds some of the last one percent of old-growth Coastal Douglas Fir as well as other red-listed and endangered species, 2012. (Photo by TJ Watt / Ancient Forest Alliance)

Coste said, “The B.C. government likes to say that it has strong laws and sustainable forest practices, but the court’s ruling has just exposed those claims as a sham.”

The Coastal Douglas-fir tree is one of the more than 1,900 at-risk plant and animal species found in British Columbia, one of the only provinces in Canada without a stand-alone endangered species law in addition to the federal Species At Risk Act.

British Columbia is inhabited by 75 percent of Canada’s bird species, 70 percent of its freshwater fish species and 66 percent of its butterfly species.

Currently, 87 percent of species at risk in B.C. receive no protection of any kind under provincial or federal laws.

“The court’s ruling indicates that we cannot rely on existing laws like FRPA to protect species at risk,” said Morgan Blakley, staff lawyer at Ecojustice, a public interest law firm that represented the petitioning groups in this case.

“It’s time for B.C. to introduce a standalone endangered species law to ensure our forests aren’t logged to extinction and iconic species like the mountain caribou and spotted owl are able to recover.”

Coastal Douglas-fir forest once dominated an area covering almost 2,600 square kilometres.

According to government data and evidence introduced in court, currently only 2.75 square kilometres, an area smaller than Vancouver’s Stanley Park, remains in old-growth condition.

“This judgement on Coastal Douglas-fir confirms the deep systemic problems in B.C.’s forest management and shows that it is anything but sustainable,” said Valerie Langer, Conservation Director for ForestEthics Solutions.

“Gone is any credibility with eco-minded companies that have been purchasing B.C. timber because of its ‘sustainability,'” Langer said.

In other British Columbia forest news, environmental groups Wednesday rejected the B.C. government’s proposal for forest tenure change that would increase the amount of land under the control of logging companies in the form of Tree Farm Licences.

The Ancient Forest Alliance, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society BC, Canopy, ForestEthics Solutions, Greenpeace, Sierra Club BC,  Wildsight and West Coast Environmental Law Association are calling on British Columbians to visit the government’s consultation website to reject the “tenure rollover proposal” and instead demand “a coherent action plan to restore the province’s badly damaged forests.”

The new provincial government website accepts public comments on a proposal to allow companies to apply for a change in their forest tenures from volume-based to more secure area-based Tree Farm Licences.

In a joint statement the groups said, “The proposed change would give companies exclusive logging rights over vast areas of forest land without meaningfully addressing the poor state of B.C’.s forests, the need for improved forest practices and regulation, or First Nations title and rights.”

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British Columbia Forest Minister Steve Thomson (Photo courtesy B.C. Legislature)

A similar initiative, Bill 8, was proposed before the 2013 election by MLA Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operation. It was withdrawn after being rejected by diverse community and economic interests, environmental organizations and in some cases, logging company executives concerned about the reputation of B.C. forestry.

“The tenure rollover proposal is an example of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Jens Wieting of Sierra Club BC. “It’s short sighted to lock in corporate control of our forests by a few large companies while we are running out of forest to harvest.”

Wieting said, “We are calling on Forest Minister Steve Thomson to exercise political leadership and take this proposal off the table and replace it with a comprehensive action plan for healthy forests and healthy communities.”

The groups say a coherent action plan should address a lack of government oversight and enforcement, continuing mill closures and job losses, unsustainable rates of logging, native and non-native community control over forests, insufficient protection for critical species habitat, raw log exports, regional monopolies, shortfalls in reforestation, lack of inventory and research as a result of cutbacks, massive forest carbon emissions and climate impacts like the Mountain Pine beetle and fire threats.

An example of a coherent long-term approach to achieve the goal of healthy forests and healthy communities is underway in B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, which will result in increasing conservation and a long-term timber supply based on Ecosystem-Based Management.

“Our world-class forests are deteriorating fast and business as usual is no longer an option,” said Stephanie Goodwin of Greenpeace. “We can and should expect more from our government when we have examples of comprehensive solutions such as the Great Bear Rainforest to draw upon.”

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