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This impressive carved gateway is on Maple Mountain, near the Osborne Bay Road park entrance, and forms part of North Cowichan’s community-owned forest.

If a tree falls in the people’s forest...

North Cowichan’s forestry decision shows what democracy can look like.

On Feb. 15, residents of North Cowichan gathered to have a final say before council decided on the fate of its forests. The municipality of North Cowichan owns about 5,000 hectares of forest land (that’s one quarter of its land base) including large parts of Mount Prevost, Mount Sicker, Mount Tzouhalem, Stoney Hill, Mount Richards and Maple Mountain. Few municipalities own their own forests — these lands reverted to North Cowichan in the 1930s and 1940s from companies that logged the land and then left it, rather than paying ongoing property taxes. Since 1987, North Cowichan has harvested about 30 percent of the municipal forest lands, with the revenues supporting recreation and education programs, as well as general revenue.

Late last year, community members came together to form Where Do We Stand, a loose organization of people asking the municipality to pause all logging activity until after a broad public consultation on how the forests should be managed into the future. Hundreds of people turned out to a council meeting in December, and the vast majority were in support of this initiative. Residents asked the council to consider the impacts of climate change and if there might be better, more sustainable ways to manage the forest. The movement has attracted media attention, including from The Discourse’s friends The Narwhal, a digital news magazine which published an in-depth article about the municipal forests last week.

December’s North Cowichan council meeting was so packed that some stood behind the councillors. The gallery and an overflow room were full.

 

These recent events left council in an unenviable position: Residents were asking the municipality to halt a significant revenue stream. And they needed to make a call at last week’s meeting in order to get the 2019 budget ready in time.

Here’s what they settled on:

  • This year, North Cowichan will allow for the completion of logging contracts issued in 2018, and will also issue new contracts related to clearing trees that fell during the big December windstorm. No new contracts beyond those will be issued.

  • Council also agreed to expand its Forest Advisory Committee, which had previously been comprised mostly of professional foresters, to include representation from Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, recreation groups and interested community members.

  • The expanded Forest Advisory Committee will review the municipality’s forestry practices and make short and long-term recommendations towards the goal of  “sustainable forest practises that give priority to ecological stewardship and promoting biodiversity.”

  • The municipality plans to make up the budget shortfall from reduced logging activity by dipping into the Forestry Reserve Fund (for about $25,000) and making up the remainder (approximately $125,000) through yet-to-be-determined budget cuts elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect compromise. Those who asked for a pause in logging get a promise that no contracts for new patches of clear-cut will be issued this year. And yet, because of contracts previously issued and the unanticipated (literal) windfall, some logging in the forests will continue. And, the council has demonstrated a willingness to listen and respond to public feedback on forest management and increase the diversity of voices at the table.

Not everyone is happy. Some who showed up to the recent meeting argued that a review of best practices can happen without dialling back logging activity. But what struck me, as I sat through the public input section of the meeting, was the extent to which people were on the same page. Whether residents spoke in favour of continued logging or against it, the themes were similar: North Cowichan has a responsibility to take care of its valuable forest resources, and it should strive to be a leader on innovative and sustainable forest management.

There’s agreement on the big picture; the details will take a little more work. Fortunately, North Cowichan is blessed not only with control of its own trees, but with residents willing to show up, listen and learn from one other. There are six-mountains-worth of reasons to feel hopeful.

Mount Prevost is one of six mountains within the boundaries of North Cowichan’s community-owned forest.

Let’s gather

  • Feb. 21: 🏠 Remember when the Cowichan Valley Regional District voted to collect a new pot of tax money for affordable housing initiatives? You can provide input on the use of those funds in the Cowichan Lake region at a planning workshop hosted by the Cowichan Housing Association and Social Planning Cowichan, taking place at the Riverside Inn.

  • Feb. 22: 🎥 Watch out — here comes the notorious RBG. Head to the Hub at Cowichan Station to catch a screening of RBG: Hero. Icon. Dissenter, an acclaimed documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The event is hosted by the HUB Film Club in partnership with the Cowichan Valley International Women’s Day Festival.

  • Feb 23: 🚶Celebrate the Coldest Night of the Year with an evening community walk through Ladysmith. The family-friendly fundraiser supports the efforts of the Ladysmith Resources Centre Association to provide food and shelter to those in need.

  • March 8: 🚸 Don’t forget to register for The Discourse’s event, Child Welfare and the Media: A Community Conversation, an evening in collaboration with the Cowichan Valley International Women’s Day festival. All are welcome, and we particularly encourage journalists and people involved with or affected by the child welfare system to attend.The event takes place at Duncan United Church from 6 to 8:30 p.m. 

News of the week

  • The City of Duncan and the Municipality of North Cowichan are collaborating on a plan to address crime, littering and loitering along the commercial highway corridor, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reports. Some business owners say they are increasingly dealing with the consequences of social issues downtown, such as homelessness and opioid drug use.

  • North Cowichan is considering options to deal with invasive parrot’s feather in Somenos Marsh, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reports. The aquatic plant, popular in aquariums, has completely choked out sections of the creek since it was first spotted there in 2015. Management options are not cheap, easy or permanent.

  • Crofton’s Catalyst Paper mill is a step closer to new ownershipMy Cowichan Valley Now reports. The major pulp company Paper Excellence agreed to purchase Catalyst last year. The deal has now been approved by the Canadian Competition Bureau.

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