The first use of the B.C. NDP government’s new authority to intervene in long-term corporate forest tenures came when Canfor Corp. shuttered its Vavenby sawmill in 2019 due to dwindling timber supply and sold the cutting rights to Interfor for $60 million.
The transfer went ahead after former forests minister Doug Donaldson and his deputy, long-time industry executive John Allan, provided a payment of $2.5 million to the Simpcw First Nation to buy a share of the tenure. Documents obtained under B.C.’s freedom of information law describe difficult negotiations, with the Simpcw first demanding $1 million more to regain rights to their traditional territory in the Clearwater area north of Kamloops.
Premier John Horgan says that agreement led to the latest step in his government’s overhaul of Crown forest management. It came five years after B.C. saw Canfor and West Fraser close competing sawmills at Houston and Quesnel in 2014, exchanging timber rights to keep Canfor’s Houston sawmill and West Fraser’s rebuilt Quesnel mill going in the wake of pine beetle damage that reduced the annual cut.
The Vavenby transaction allowed Interfor to supply logs that keep its historic Adams Lake sawmill near Salmon Arm going. But Horgan’s government wasn’t about to see it happen without recognition of Indigenous title and resource rights in the regions
“Although it was difficult and hard negotiations, it was a template for where we’re going when it comes to compensatory take-backs,” Horgan said of the payment to the Simpcw June 1. “We need to look beyond the tenure holders to the people of British Columbia.”
Five big forest companies still control the largest portion of B.C.’s timber rights, and Horgan’s plan to double the Indigenous share isn’t based solely on using taxpayers’ money to buy it back. It includes strengthening the minister’s authority to decide on harvesting and road building, and the intention to “enhance legal mechanisms to allow tenure to be redistributed for harvesting.”
Forests Minister Katrine Conroy’s first demonstration of that came in May, when B.C.’s largest timber supply area around Prince George came up for renewal with a new, reduced cut set by Chief Forester Diane Nicholls. Conroy directed that the Indigenous share of that allowable cut would be increased four-fold to almost 15 per cent of the vast area.
The Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, whose members benefit from the decision, sees that as a start only. Speaking on behalf of the group at Horgan’s announcement June 1, Takla First Nation Chief John French said the 1.24 million cubic metres of wood apportioned to Indigenous tenure holders in the region is the biggest in B.C.’s history.
“As true partners, we need to have access to tenure volume equivalent to 50 per cent of what our territories contribute to the forest sector,” French said. “Equal revenues from shared forest.”
The allowable cut in the Prince George Timber Supply Area was reduced by a third in 2017, lowering it from all-time highs between 2004 and 2012 to allow salvage logging of beetle-killed timber.