VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan travelled to northeast B.C. on Monday to admit the NDP government had botched consultations on a caribou rescue plan.
“I regret we didn’t start that consultation earlier,” Horgan told a news conference in Dawson Creek. “I regret we didn’t put more information before the public.”
The premier then announced consultations on the controversial plan would be doubled from one month to two.
He also appointed Dawson Creek councillor Blair Lekstrom to oversee the process and report by the end of May.
Lekstrom is a former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister with a reputation for independence. In 2010, he quit the Gordon Campbell cabinet and the B.C. Liberal caucus over the handling of the harmonized sales tax.
Getting things off to a good start Monday, he pledged to try to bring the community back together over a workable plan with First Nations. “We talk about us and them,” he said. “It’s not us and them. It’s all of us together.”
The premier also commended current B.C. Liberal MLA Mike Bernier for bringing the issue to the floor of the legislature last week by tabling a petition of protest with more than 30,000 names.
That marked a significant change of tone. When Bernier pressed him in question period last week, Horgan fell back on the NDP’s weary excuse for every issue gone sideways, blaming the previous B.C. Liberal government for failing to act on caribou protection.
Though Hogan took personal blame Monday (“my bad”) for shortchanging the community on consultations, his decision to step in constituted a backhand criticism of Forests Minister Doug Donaldson.
Donaldson spent months meeting in confidence with First Nation leaders on the rescue plan, something the government had to do for constitutional reasons. But all the while he rebuffed requests from local leaders for a window into decision-making that could affect their communities.
Then at the end of March, Donaldson took the wraps off two draft agreements — one for the northeast, the second for other parts of the Interior — and allowed a mere month to gather public feedback.
Those meetings soon turned acrimonious because, as Horgan noted Monday, they were presided over by provincial officials who couldn’t answer basic political questions.
Heading the list of concerns was the prospect that the plan for the northeast would entail a significant reduction in the annual allowable timber cut, coupled with the shutdown of one mill and the loss of 500 jobs.
Ironically, that news broke in the same week as Horgan, addressing the annual meeting of the Council of Forest Industries, called for “a new vision for forestry in B.C.’s Interior.”
He challenged the industry to partner with First Nations, union leaders and local government leaders to develop the vision.
“The solutions won’t come from on high,” said the premier. “The solutions will come from communities.”
This while his own minister of forests was presenting the northeast with a plan that threatened 500 forestry jobs and looked very much like a fait accompli.
Cut reduction is part of a broader effort to protect the higher wilderness areas that are the preferred habitat of the caribou. By closing off sizable areas to forestry and other development, the planners hope to make them less accessible to the wolves.
But recent research suggests that habitat protection is not likely to be all that effective in reversing the decline of caribou populations in the area.
“The classic solution of protecting habitat will not save most caribou populations because of the time needed to recover old forests and the continental scale of disturbance,” concluded a team of researchers headed by Robert Serrouya of the University of Alberta and including Dale Seip from the B.C. Environment Ministry.
Instead they recommend “saving endangered species through adaptive management,” to quote the title of the paper they published late last month.
The most promising results emerged from the management of a herd in B.C., where the combination of wolf removal and penning up pregnant cows to protect them “resulted in a near doubling of population size, from 36 to 67 animals, between 2013 and 2018.”
Not an easy sell with some environmentalists. But a defensible alternative to the loss of forest jobs in the short to medium term at least.
Horgan praised local First Nations for already making some progress with maternal penning and other methods. “The predator issue is one that is controversial in many parts of B.C.,” he acknowledged, “but (it) has demonstrated success here in B.C.”
He also fell back on the argument he made last week, that the rescue plan was imposed on the province by the federal government via an edict under the Species at Risk Act.
If British Columbians don’t act to protect habitat, says the premier, then Ottawa will step in and do it for them. “I didn’t want to take that risk,” he said. “We didn’t want to find ourselves in a position where the federal government would take it out of our hands completely.”
I doubt it would come to that, particularly in a federal election year.
B.C. probably has more room to manoeuvre on the forestry changes than Horgan allows. I also have think that Lekstrom, having been brought in to rescue the situation, has some leverage.
It would not be like him to take part in a sham consultation. If he recommends constructive changes to the plan, the New Democrats would surely have to listen.