Calls are out for the council in the Municipality of North Cowichan to suspend its public consultation process on the future of the 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve.
The Where Do We Stand group has recently expressed concerns about the public consultation process being conducted online during summer holidays and amidst lingering fears about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Group spokeswoman Icel Dobell said the WDWS is now officially asking council to suspend the process to allow time “to rethink and reset” the current process.
She said members of the WDWS have read through the draft engagement materials sent to them by the consultants Lees & Associates, the firm hired by the municipality to conduct the public consultation process, and have deep reservations.
“Even if Lees & Associates were to suddenly understand what our community has been asking for and council promised, which was transparent, deep, broad consultation with public input, and even if Lees & Associates were to change direction now to include education and consultation with diverse experts of the forests, there is insufficient time to pull it off before the arbitrary deadline looming in the first week of August,” Dobell said.
“Furthermore, there in insufficient time in the three weeks given for the public to digest all the information. Lees & Associates was hired in November, but the public consultations have not begun and it’s the middle of July. Suddenly we are in a race against an arbitrary deadline.”
In fairness to the consulting firm, Dobell said three months of consultations were lost due to the COVID-19 crisis, but those three months are not coming back.
“I don’t understand why,” she said.
“What I can say is that without the education we asked for, we are about to be presented with a survey that I personally believe is a waste of our tax dollars and valuable time.”
North Cowichan said earlier this year that it intended to reach as many people and stakeholder groups for input on the forest reserve as it can as the municipality works toward short and long-term strategies for the municipal-owned MFR.
Many in the community had been demanding for some time to have more say in management plans for the MFR.
Last year, in response, council considered options for forestry operations within the MFR in 2019, and decided to endorse just the completion of the existing 2018 forestry contracts and harvesting of blow downs from the windstorm in December of 2018.
At the time, council also decided to minimize logging in the forest reserve until experts are tapped for their input and the public has been thoroughly consulted on what people want for the future of the public properties.
Spokespeople for Lees & Associates confirmed to council in a meeting in February that the main goal of the community engagement strategy was to satisfy council’s mandate that it “go broad and go deep” in gathering input from as many different people and groups on the issue as possible.
Dobell said the WDWS and members of the general public hoped and believed Lees & Associates would put out an open and inclusive invitation to the whole community to submit all their concerns, comments and questions about the future of the forest reserve and they would be dealt with in an open forum.
“The exact opposite has been happening,” she said.
“Public consultation is racing ahead in the ways these things do where there is no visionary at the helm. The process lacks inspiration and feels secretive.”
North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring said a report on the MFR is scheduled to be on the agenda at council’s next meeting on July 15.
He said it will be council’s decision as to whether the majority of its members wishes to suspend the public consultation process on the forest reserve.
“But people must be careful of what they are asking for,” Siebring said.
“There would be financial and other implications for the municipality if we decide to suspend this process.”