The Municipality of North Cowichan has enacted a 60-day pause in its public engagement process on the future of the 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve.
A press release from the municipality said the decision was made to allow time to facilitate a government-to-government consultation with local First Nations on the issue.
“I feel it is important that we respect the Indigenous right to self-governance and consult local First Nations in a meaningful way,” said North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring.
“Pausing public engagement will allow us to fully understand the issues and interests of local First Nations, which could potentially change the scope and scale of the public engagement process.”
Icel Dobell is a member of the Where Do We Stand group, which is part of a larger citizens’ Working Group established to help guide public consultations on the future of the forest reserve.
The WDWS had asked that North Cowichan suspend the public consultation process earlier this month, and Dobell said group members are very disappointed by the announcement about the 60-day pause in public consultations as it appeared to use consultations with the First Nations as an excuse not to address the group’s most important concerns about the process.
“The news release didn’t mention that there is a whole other government-to-government consultation process already happening with First Nations; at least we assume it’s well under way but we wouldn’t know because it’s a secret,” Dobell said.
“The press release came just after WDWS had just put out two weeks of warning letters (to the community) that public consultations were about to begin in a way totally contrary to what council had promised and the community had asked for. That being a transparent, accountable deep and broad process, including the ability for the public to hear and consult with diverse forest experts, and not just the municipal industrial forestry department.”
The municipality’s press release went on to say that the forest reserve is located on the traditional territories of seven local First Nations, and that North Cowichan reached out to each of them in March to determine which of the First Nations wanted to be consulted and what the consultation process should look like.
“Through this consultation process, it is important we continue to build a strong relationship with local First Nations, and we are taking steps to do that,” said Siebring.
As a result, the municipality’s Interim Forest Management Plan, which was to be implemented this fall to guide forest management in the reserve until the end of 2021, will be delayed due to the pause in public engagement.
The release said that in the absence of an interim plan, council may consider additional harvesting of blow-down salvage or the removal of hazardous trees for fire prevention if doing so is aligned with the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and is recommended by the Forestry Advisory Committee and the UBC Partnership Group.
Dobell said the biggest concern of WDWS has with the 60 day pause is that, like the COVID-19 pause of three months, it appears that when September comes, the race to complete the public consultation process could resume again with a biased misleading survey and discussion guide.
“The 60-day pause is a perfect opportunity for not only the Working Group but the whole community to see the survey and discussion guide before they are sent out,” she said.
“This would give time for all sides to come forward with their different perspectives on how to make this a fair, transparent, deep and broad consultation process as we had hoped it would be.”