SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001



by Ian Lordon

For weeks, months, even years, it was an indispensable if innocuous part of the routine for the fifteen or so members of the table charged with planning the future of the Tlell River watershed - Cacilia Honisch's lemon bread. Four nights a month, when table members gathered at Cacilia's bed and breakfast to review information and argue the details of the Tlell Local Resource Use Plan, lemon bread was always there for the asking - a welcome accompaniment to a cup of coffee and nearly four hours of often mundane, at times controversial, debate, discussion, and decision-making.

But on March 20 acting district manager Calvin Ross dropped something of a bombshell on the table when he announced the Ministry of Forests was suspending the process indefinitely for lack of funds. That the LRUP, months from completion after more than four years of work would no longer continue, and that the following night's meeting could very well be the last of the lemon bread.

When table members reconvened March 21, after a day to consider the implications of Ross' announcement, many were upset over what they felt was a lack of commitment on the part of the Ministry to a process it helped initiate through the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Islands Community Stability Initiative in 1996.

"I'm really discouraged and disappointed," Simon Davies, representing the Gowgaia Institute, said. "To me this is a real indication that the Ministry of Forests has no commitment to these islands."

In addition to calling a halt to the process, Ross clouded the table's future even further when, without offering any concrete funding prospects or a date when work on the plan might resume, he refused to pull the plug on the LRUP entirely.

"It's not a final decision at this point, we want to continue to explore some options around it," he said. "That's kind of a wishy-washy answer I suppose, we're not closing the door on it completely, but for the time being the answer is no."

Until the announcement the LRUP had been rolling along smoothly. In almost five years since the process began, table members were closing in on a completed first draft of the plan. Even more significantly, there was a sense of optimism among many members that they could all agree to support it. Tlell Watershed Society representative Leandre Vigneault was concerned that in a process marked by several interruptions and delays, many of them the fault of the Ministry, this latest could undo much of the hard won progress from the past year, and that a break of even a month or two could result in a considerable setback.

"A couple of months will back us up an awfully long way," he said, "because we're going to lose the momentum we've got right now."

Amid the Ministry's pleas of impoverishment, tight budgets, and fiscal inflexibility, lies the unheralded fact that nearly all of the money supporting the LRUP to date came from the interest earned by the South Moresby Forest Replacement Account, a $24-million fund awarded to the islands from the federal and provincial governments when Gwaii Haanas was first established to help smooth South Moresby's transition from working forest to National Park Reserve / Haida Heritage Site.

Last year, SMFRA officially expired as a source of funds for Haida Gwaii, and while there is some hope the $24-million could yet again be available to fund local projects, the political negotiations which will decide the uncertain fate of the money are far from over.

Until now the Ministry's primary contribution was staff sitting at the table and logistical support to the process, and with the completion of the LRUP in sight (many involved estimate a draft plan was four to six months away) table members were frustrated with the Ministry's inability to come up with less than $60,000 to finish the plan.

"We're not talking about an awful lot of money," Gowgaia representative John Broadhead remarked. "I'm angry about this. I think it's disrespectful, cavalier, and dismissive towards the people who've put a lot of effort and work into this. It's not the kind of behaviour or attitude I want to see from a government ministry towards the people of our island."

The fate of the Tlell watershed itself, like that of the table, is also up in the air thanks to the Ministry's decision. Public resistance to pressure from Weyerhaeuser and the Ministry's Small Business program (the two entities with logging rights in the watershed) for access to wood in the Tlell sparked the process to begin with. With the LRUP parked for the time being at least, table members wondered if it opened the door for development interests to apply for cutting permits in the Tlell.

Ross assured the table that because there are no existing applications for cutting or road building permits in the Tlell there is no immediate threat of development.

"There's nothing on the table right now," he said, but later added that the situation may change once Weyerhaeuser and the Small Business program submit their new Forest Development Plans (FDP) later this year. "Weyerhaeuser has nothing on their FDP at this time, but whether they put something on there or not is up to them."

The Small Business program had included four cutblocks in its last FDP, provoking a furor among several table members who complained they undermined the process. Nevertheless the cutblocks were approved with the FDP, however Ross said follow up on the blocks was stalled pending the outcome of the LRUP.

"Small business will have a new FDP coming in sometime this fall and we'll have to make a decision on what to do at that time," Ross said.

Weyerhaeuser's representative at the LRUP table, Dave Trim, said although the company has not taken a position on the Ministry's decision to halt the process, he would have liked a little more time to complete the plan.

"Personally, I'm disappointed," he said. "I've taken some ownership in the process, and I've had my misgivings on and off, but I think it was getting somewhere. In the last two six-month sessions we've put a lot more concerted and constructive effort into it. To me, it's a better conclusion if the group's given enough time to decide for itself whether it can come to a consensus or not, rather than having somebody else decide it."

The announcement also compromises efforts to establish Haida Gwaii's community forest which the Ministry committed to in the same Memorandum of Understanding that sired the LRUP. The Tlell was earmarked as the staging area for the community forest - pending the successful completion of the LRUP before it could begin to plan operations.

"The community forest and the Islands Community Stability Initiative are depending on the LRUP to guide their plan in the watershed," Broadhead said. "The communities are going to be left high and dry without a plan."

With so much hinging on the outcome of the LRUP and the Ministry's refusal to spend the money to finish the job, it's safe to say Cacilia's lemon bread wasn't responsible for the bitter taste in the mouths of many members of the LRUP table March 21. That taste is likely to linger for quite some time as Ross said he can't predict when a final decision on the matter can be expected.

"I'm going to continue trying to talk to the folks down south about this," he said. "It's a hard time of year to deal with some of these issues. With the election and the end of fiscal, everybody's scrambling."

And while confusion reigns among the Ministry's senior bureaucrats, locals are left to grapple with the uncertainty created by a government with so little commitment to Haida Gwaii it balks at paying less than $60,000 to secure a clear direction for the Islands' community forest, its small business operators, and the Tlell watershed itself.

SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001

graphics - InHouse/SRs