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Feds promise $500M to ‘fast track’ old-growth, habitat protection work in B.C.

The announcement was made at a gathering of First Nations leaders in Vancouver
B.C. Premier David Eby speaks during a news conference in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, June 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Environmentalists are cheering what Premier David Eby calls a paradigm-shifting conservation agreement worth $1 billion with Ottawa and First Nations, while promising to hold governments accountable about currently missing details.

Eby joined federal ministers Steven Guilbeault (environment) and Jonathan Wilkinson (energy) as well as Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, Robert Phillips of First Nations Summit and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs to make the announcement in Vancouver. Several provincial cabinet ministers also attended the announcement.

Eby said the money will help B.C. fast-track the protection of old-growth forest and habitat for at-risk species on the way while recognizing the historic and future stewardship of First Nations.

“This is a paradigm shift in our province about protecting ecosystems, about recognizing the integrated nature of what we want to protect on the land and how we use the land to make sure it is there for generations to come… and it’s about the prosperity of British Columbians today,” he said.

Eby added the agreement will also help Canada and B.C. meet their mutual conservation goals. Both have committed themselves to protecting at least 30 per cent of their respective lands and water by 2030. Just over 15 per cent of B.C.’s landmass and just over three per cent of its marine area are protected.

Guilbeault said this agreement will help “halt and reverse the decline of species and advanced protection and restoration of habitats in B.C.” He pointed specifically to old-growth forest and species at-risk, such as the spotted owl.

The agreement see the federal government commit $500 million over eight years with the province matching that figure. Guilbeault added that Ottawa could put up another $200 million for a specific conservation project involving the Great Bear Sea outside the agreement.

The agreement itself builds on a previous agreement by Victoria and Ottawa by including First Nations.

Teegee said joining the agreement was never easy, but First Nations need to play their part after the unprecedented wildfires across Canada and B.C., which also experienced wide-spread drought conditions.

READ MORE: B.C. judge ‘wrestling’ with 8-month spotted owl protection gap

B.C.’s Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen said the province has already been working with First Nations on Indigenous-led conservation projects through the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area mechanism.

“We have a long list,” Cullen said. Many First Nations have already done the groundwork and have “great ambitions” for more.

“This (agreement) is about the ability to resource those desires and dreams of First Nations rights and title holders,” Cullen said.

All of the money under the agreement comes from previously announced measures dating as far back as 2019, according to the Wilderness Committee of B.C.

The organization praises the general direction of the agreement and some specific aspects. They include the explicit goal to partner with First Nations and the formal removal and protection of areas from logging through Indigenous leadership.

But the Wilderness Committee group pairs this praise with criticism.

“It’s a positive development, but different than a $1 billion dollars of additional funding,” Torrance Coste, associate director, said. “The hope is this can be used to leverage further needed funding from third-party sources.”

Coste added that the group is more concerned around the lack of interim measures in today’s announcement to protect threatened ecosystems, noting that logging today will destroy some spotted-owl and southern caribou habitat among other threatened ecosystems.

The group also expressed concern about language that leaves room for industrial activity in protected areas, while lacking clarity about which areas will actually be protected.

Cullen said Indigenous-led conservation will be a discussion between “ourselves (and) the rights and title-holders, First Nations in this province” in partnership with the federal government in acknowledging what he called “modified activities.” But he also pointed out that conservation efforts will include efforts to recover and rebuild nature damaged through industrial activity and climate change.

Cullen added that the province will work with First Nations and the federal government when asked about at-risk old-growth forest as identified by a technical advisory group.

“We want to walk step-wise with the rights and title holders to make sure that the protections are happening at the right place at the right time and in the right way,” Cullen said, adding that the province has announced $30 to map the entire province to identify the health of the forest.

“We have already set aside 2.4 million hectares…but we know getting to the granular level, stand-by-stand, is the next work that we have to do,” Cullen said.

BC Greens also applauded the agreement as a step toward what BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau called a “restoration economy” for the province, while echoing concerns.

“We are in an emergency — the evidence of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss is all around us — and this agreement is desperately needed to reverse this trend,” she said.

But time and additional details are of essence.

“Missing from the agreement are ecosystem-based targets for protected areas, something we have pushed the province for,” she said. “Missing too is clarity on what activities will be permitted within protected areas.”


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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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