BY BILL PHILLIPS
Premier John Horgan is worried about the ‘acrimony’ around Victoria’s southern mountain caribou recovery plans and admits that government should have involved local communities in discussions sooner.
Opposition to the province’s plan has been fierce in Interior communities as residents are concerned about potential job losses and potential backcountry access restrictions. Public information sessions have drawn huge, at times angry, crowds opposing the plans.
“My biggest concern is that a region that has, by and large, worked cooperatively on a whole host of issues over many generations, is coming to confrontation over the caribou question,” Horgan said from Dawson Creek Monday. “I believe everyone in the region wants to take steps to protect the caribou. I believe everyone wants to protect jobs as well.”
Horgan said that without an MLA sitting on the government side of the Legislature, the Peace and Central Interior regions haven’t had a direct line into government.
To that end, he has appointed former MLA and now Dawson Creek city councillor Blair Lekstrom as community liaison tasked with engaging residents of the Peace region on draft partnership agreements on caribou recovery. Horgan has also extended the engagement period to May 31 in order to give Lekstrom time to work with local leaders.
Horgan stressed that Victoria is being directed by the federal government to take action because the caribou have been listed endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. Failing to develop a plan could result in Ottawa simply imposing closures in the area, something Horgan said he didn’t want to risk happening.
He added the provincial government is obligated to deal government-to-government with the West Moberly and Salteau First Nations, which has resulted in a draft partnership agreement between B.C., Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations that proposes specific habitat protection and restoration measures to recover the central group herds of southern mountain caribou.
Those agreements are also a point on contention since they were negotiated before the province began engaging with local government, stakeholders, and the public. Horgan admits that wasn’t the best move.
“Now we’re starting into a broader consultation with the community,” he said. “I regret we didn’t start that consultation earlier. I regret we didn’t put more information before the public, but we are where we are.”
Horgan said there is a lot of misinformation about the plan and he said government takes full responsibility for that.
“We, as a new government, didn’t do enough work to prepare the public for this process,” he said. “We had a constitutional obligation to engage with Saulteau and West Moberly, and we did that. We also has a public obligation to weigh in with the community and that now is going to happen … The challenge is we need to protect the caribou. These are federal laws that we will be running afoul of if we don’t take action.”
One of the biggest concerns, voiced by the forest industry as public meetings, is the potential for job loss as timber cuts are possible reduced. Horgan, however, said reductions in allowable annual cuts were coming anyway.
“The beetle kill has come and gone, the annual allowable cut would have been coming down anyway,” he said. “Regardless of government changes, regardless of caribou, there is a dwindling fibre supply.”
He approached the Council of Forest Industries last week and challenged forest executives on how to come up with better value out of the wood that is harvested.
Forest Minister Doug Donaldson said the logging permits for the area are still in place, however that may change.
“The previous tenure agreements are fully in place,” said Donaldson. “As the agreements (with Ottawa and the West Moberly and Saulteau), with greater input through Blair (Lekstrom) and the communities, get finalized, then there will be a transition time.”
In his role as community liaison, Lekstrom will consult with community leaders and local stakeholders on the draft agreements, provide input into the economic impact analysis and advise how the province can meet its obligation to protect southern mountain caribou, while also protecting local jobs and communities.
“We’re all in together,” said Lekstrom. “We want to try and ensure that we can look after the caribou, at the same time maintaining the quality of life we have here. I’m confident we can do that … This is what our community asked for, we asked to be engaged.”
- Southern mountain caribou were listed as a threatened wildlife species federally in 2003.
- The federal minister of the Environment and Climate Change determined in May 2018 that southern mountain caribou were facing “imminent threats to their recovery.”
- In the absence of a negotiated agreement with the Province, a federal emergency order would not be able to consider socio-economic impacts and could result in billions of dollars of economic losses.
- The Province stepped in to negotiate agreements with the Government of Canada and West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations to protect jobs and caribou.
- The B.C. government has also commissioned an independent regional economic analysis to be completed with input from local governments.
- The Province is seeking feedback from people in the region on these agreements and engaging with local industry, First Nations and community members.
- Public engagement on the draft agreements to conserve southern mountain caribou populations taking place throughout April 2019 has been extended to May 31.
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