The long-delayed public engagement process to determine the future of North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve could soon be back on track.
Staff informed council at its meeting on Aug. 18 that the Memorandum of Understanding with Cowichan Nation has been signed after months of government-to-government consultations with the First Nations to better understand their interests in the future of the MFR have recently been successfully concluded.
The MFR is located on the traditional lands of Cowichan Nation, which consists of Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Stz’uminus First Nation, Penelakut Tribe, and Lyackson First Nation.
The public engagement process began in January, 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to its postponement soon after and, last summer, council voted to continue the pause on the process to accommodate the talks with Cowichan Nation, which have been ongoing since then.
At its meeting on Aug. 18, council voted to invite Lees & Associates, the firm chosen by the municipality to be its community engagement facilitator in the public engagement process, to present an updated engagement plan and options for the future of the management of the MFR, which include amended timelines, prior to council resuming the public engagement process on the MFR.
It’s expected Lees & Associates will make their presentation at a council meeting in September.
Lees & Associates’ mandate is to “go broad and go deep” in gathering input from as many different people and groups on the issue as possible.
Many in the community had been demanding for some time to have more say in management plans for the MFR.
In February, 2019, council endorsed just the completion of existing 2018 forestry contracts and harvesting of blow downs in the forest reserve in 2019 until experts were tapped for their input and the public had been thoroughly consulted on what people want for the future of the public properties.
No harvesting in the MFR has taken place since then, and the municipality has lost substantial revenues over the last two years.
At Aug. 18’s meeting CAO Ted Swabey assured the public there will be no sudden resumption of logging in the MFR now that the MOU with Cowichan Nation has been signed.
“We want to make sure the public understands there are no plans to harvest and no direction from council to harvest,” he said.
“I know that there has been a lot of comments about [resuming] harvesting, but nothing has been decided. At this point, we’re just seeking guidance on how to re-engage with the public.”