How can privately owned forests in highly visible and visited areas be logged seemingly without regulation or community input? Journalist Jeff Davies explains the complexities of British Columbia forest-land classifications and how one Kootenay community rallied to take action.
Full disclosure: We strive for impartial, objective, and professional storytelling. Once in a while, a subject arises that challenges these principles. The plan to log private lands around Cottonwood Lake Regional Park, near Nelson, British Columbia, is one such topic, which is explored in this story. Cottonwood Lake Preservation Society (CLPS) is a part of this feature article, and our editor-in-chief and co-publisher, Mitchell Scott, is paid to provide communications services to CLPS. Other Mountain Culture Group staff have donated time or money to this non-profit organization. However, there is no connection between this story and the work or donations MCG owners or staff have provided to CLPS. Private-land logging is a highly complex and controversial subject. Cottonwood Lake Regional Park is a microcosm of bigger issues in forest land management in British Columbia, and we believe it is a topic worth further exploration. With that in mind, we hired Jeff Davies, a veteran journalist and retired CBC political reporter, to give us a balanced overview of these important issues.
Cottonwood Lake Regional Park sits in a steep valley on the edge of Nelson, British Columbia, its lake a slash of blue ringed by evergreen, with forested slopes rising steeply from the shoreline. In the summer, you’ll see anglers casting for trout from the dock, paddlers launching canoes, toddlers splashing at the beach, picnickers tucking into sandwiches. Mountain bikers and hikers stop for a rest at the lake’s edge while travelling the Great Trail, a nationwide trail system. In winter, people use the park to cross-country ski and they skate on the lake.
In 2018, when residents of Nelson and surrounding communities learned of a plan to log the park’s slopes, many were shocked, assuming the land was protected. The eight-hectare park is owned by the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), but the slopes directly above it are privately owned. “What was at stake was kind of a shattering loss,” says Andrew McBurney, a paramedic and spokesperson for the Cottonwood Lake Preservation Society (CLPS). “It was just a no-brainer. This is not a place where you go in and clear-cut.”
British Columbia’s Forest & Range Practices Act, which regulates cutting on Crown land, does not apply to privately owned land. Although Cottonwood Lake Regional Park is subject to local bylaws, the area around it is not zoned. There’s no limit on harvesting timber. There’s nothing to stop the owner, Mike Jenks, and his company, the Nelson Land Corporation, from logging the slopes above the lake and the corridors adjacent to the park. In fact, Jenks has already started logging on land east of Cottonwood. McBurney and others in Nelson are worried about the visual impact on a town that depends heavily on tourism and outdoor recreation; the first thing a visitor arriving to town from the south would see is a clear-cut. “It would look lunar, in contrast to the beauty of the lake,” says McBurney.
Conservationists fear logging would make the land unstable and subject to erosion, and that it would impact water quality downstream, because the lake drains into Cottonwood Creek, which flows through the outskirts of Nelson and into Kootenay Lake. They also worry about the impacts on fish and wildlife habitat. “The area just south of Cottonwood Lake, and Cottonwood Lake itself, is a very good grizzly-bear corridor,” says Michael Proctor, an independent bear research ecologist from Kaslo, British Columbia, who has worked on grizzly-bear conservation for 25 years.
In late 2018, community residents decided to act, calling a meeting at the local rod and gun club. “It was jam-packed capacity,” recalls McBurney. “There were people outside in the freezing cold, over 300 people there with just a few days’ notice, so it really showed us that we were right to care.” They formed the Cottonwood Lake Preservation Society with a goal of protecting as much of the land around Cottonwood Lake as possible.
In a way, it’s appropriate that the glassy surface of Cottonwood Lake reflects the forests above, for the debate here reflects a larger conversation in British Columbia that’s gone on for more than three decades. Back in the early 1990s, Nobletduring the heady days of the environmental movement, New Democratic Party (NDP) Premier Mike Harcourt was elected with a promise to double the amount of the province’s parkland and introduce a new Forest Practices Code that would limit the size of clear-cuts and ensure the industry operates in a sustainable way. But the reality soon set in. Even regulating logging on Crown land, which comprises most of the province’s land base, proved a formidable challenge, given the huge stakes, diversity of interests, and strength of opinions. The industry lamented the loss of working forest to parks, while also complaining about the amount of paperwork required to get harvesting plans approved. Environmentalists accused the government of making bold promises while bowing to industry and protecting too little forest. Harcourt had to face down both groups at noisy protests. Regardless, he succeeded in doubling the amount of parkland and making sweeping changes to the industry.
To understand the current issues more clearly, it’s important to wade through a forest of numbers. Although the province’s forestry industry is not the large economic driver it was 10 or 15 years ago, it still employs thousands of people, generating billions of dollars in economic activity and, in the current fiscal year, nearly a billion dollars in projected tax revenues. In 2019, the forest sector accounted for more than 27 per cent of the province’s total exports, with a value of $11.9 billion dollars. According to the provincial government, forest-related activities directly support nearly 7,000 businesses and employ more than 50,000 people.
BRUCE MORRISON, TREASURER OF THE COTTONWOOD LAKE PRESERVATION SOCIETY, SAYS HE’S FOUND LANDOWNER MIKE JENKS REASONABLE TO DEAL WITH AND WILLING TO GRANT EXTENSIONS. “THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE THAT LOOK AT THE VENDOR AS A VILLAIN, AND I TRY NOT TO DO THAT. [JENKS] IS OPERATING WITHIN THE LETTER OF THE LAW. HE’S FOLLOWING THE RULES AVAILABLE TO HIM.”
Then there’s the issue of ownership and tenure. About 60 per cent of the province’s land is forest. Ninety-four per cent of that forest is publicly owned Crown land (see sidebar, opposite). Another six per cent of British Columbia’s forest land is privately owned. While it may not sound like much, it’s almost the total area of Vancouver Island, about 3.2 million hectares. Furthermore, much of the province’s private forest is highly visible and in sensitive areas. “Often private lands are the places where people live, work, and play; they’re often the places people are more familiar with,” says T.J. Watt, a Victoria-based photographer and activist with the Ancient Forest Alliance, which works to protect old-growth.
Private forest land is further complicated because it’s divided into two categories: about half is classified as “private managed forest land” and the other half is private land owned in “fee simple.” Both categories are subject to provincial environmental laws. Private managed forest land is governed by the province’s Private Managed Forest Land Act and subject to basic environmental regulations to protect soil, water, and wildlife habitat, such as provisions to leave a buffer of trees to protect waterways. But this type of land has no limits on the size of clear-cuts or annual harvests and does not require old-growth management.
The main objective of the Private Managed Forest Land Act is to ensure the land remains working forest. Owners are offered a tax break in return for keeping the land in production for 15 years. However, by paying a fee, those landowners can change their status from “private managed” to private land owned in “fee simple” — and bid good-bye to a host of provincial regulations. The land surrounding Cottonwood Lake Regional Park owned by Jenks is fee simple private land, which is under the jurisdiction of local governments. The provincial government has no say over timber harvesting. Hans Cunningham, a regional director for the RDCK, says private lands like those around the park probably have less protection than a residential backyard.
Both types of private forest land have had their problems throughout the province. Watt notes there are highly visible clear-cuts on private land near Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, a popular tourist attraction he describes as the best-known old-growth forest in British Columbia. In the East Kootenay, new clear-cuts on private managed forest land have appeared along the Elk River and St. Mary’s River, both blue-ribbon trout streams that attract thousands of anglers. Eddie Petryshen of Wildsight, an East Kootenay environmental organization, says logging operations damaged a popular recreational trail and wildlife habitat in the St. Mary’s Valley. “What happens on this private land also impacts wildlife and water and all the things that are downstream.” This logging has generated heated opposition and demands for more oversight and tougher regulations. The man at the centre of the East Kootenay controversy is also Mike Jenks, who has operated several companies under different names over his lifetime in the industry.
Jenks gets positive press in forest-industry publications precisely because of his aggressive approach. A November 2018 story in Canadian Forest Industries magazine reports Jenks “has worked through the strong years and weathered the lean seasons as they came. He kept ahead of the game by correctly reading the trends and coming up with innovative ways to succeed in what can be a difficult industry at the best of times.” He is known for buying the assets of struggling companies and scooping up private land when it becomes available. “He noticed that many of the larger players were utilising private land to supply their mills,” the story explains. “Jenks saw that there was an opportunity to purchase acreages, which he would then log and sell the timber. Afterward, he could sell the land to buyers who were only too happy to acquire the already cleared property.”
Jenks usually declines interview requests from mainstream media, and when reached by phone for this story, he confirmed that is his general policy. An online search reveals a few pointed remarks he’s made over the years. In a 2018 story in the Creston Valley Advance, Jenks describes his critics in the East Kootenay as “hypocrites” who cut firewood and build wooden houses but want to shut him down.
BY PAYING A FEE, OWNERS OF PRIVATE MANAGED FOREST LAND CAN CHANGE THEIR STATUS FROM “PRIVATE MANAGED” TO PRIVATE LAND OWNED IN “FEE SIMPLE” — AND BID GOOD-BYE TO A HOST OF PROVINCIAL REGULATIONS
So, the debate continues: How much right should governments have to regulate harvesting on private land? What right does the public have to raise concerns about its impacts? These questions are still debated today, and Cottonwood Lake Regional Park is emblematic of the issues. “With private land development, the only one who is aware of the landowner’s intentions is the landowner, unless they have been explicit in what their plans are,” says a terse background document received in relation to this article from the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development. “FLNRORD is not consulted or notified of forest activities on private land.”
But in small-town British Columbia, people keep an ear to the ground. They talk. They organize. And in the case of Cottonwood Lake, they spread the word on social media, leaned heavily on local politicians, packed meetings, and vowed to protect their park.
Celeste Rayne lives on property down the road from Cottonwood Lake. She learned about logging plans early on when she was approached by Jenks. “I received a handwritten letter in the mail, and it was addressed, ‘Mrs. Farmer,’” Rayne says. “And he’s like, ‘I saw your property. I’ve driven past it. And I’m wanting to buy it for my sons.’” Rayne is not a farmer but a snowboarding instructor who hopes to develop an eco-tourism operation on her valley-bottom property. She was wary of Jenks’s intentions. “He’s bought from Cottonwood Lake all the way down the valley. And I heard that other people got very similar letters…looking to purchase properties that are key entry points to his property with the purpose of logging,” she says. “Not that that was ever disclosed to anyone.” Rayne was not interested in selling and set the price of her land high enough to deter Jenks.
Rayne says she’s not anti-logging, “but I most certainly am anti private-land logging, unless it’s being done by the landowner strictly to develop their property and build a home . . . not so that people can come and buy, like, 200, 300, 42,000 acres and clear-cut it because there’s absolutely no restrictions or regulations . . . . I’m really concerned about the level of destruction I see going on with private-land logging.”
Destruction? Two years ago, Jenks told the Narwhal, an online environmental magazine, that his critics’ arguments are based on emotion, not science. He wouldn’t even call what he’s doing clear-cutting. “It’s just trees growing back,” he said. “When you plant your garden and have your peas and potatoes and carrots, and if you don’t harvest them when they’re ripe, they just die, and it’s the same with the forest. It’s just a crop that, if it’s looked after and replanted, will just grow again and again and again.”
Bruce Morrison, treasurer of the CLPS and long-time community volunteer, chuckles at that description. “I don’t know how to describe it other than clear-cutting,” he says. “Is there another word for it? I’m not familiar with it.” To the point about a forest being a garden: there’s no requirement that owners of private forest land replant what they harvest.
The CLPS was incorporated in January 2019 with the goal of raising funds to purchase the property from Jenks. Members took up their cause with the RDCK. “As a result of our raising hell, they took notice,” says McBurney. The RDCK agreed to buy a strip of 21 hectares around the shoreline for $450,000, with $200,000 of that coming from the Columbia Basin Trust. The society then set out to raise $400,000 to buy another 49 hectares on highly visible slopes above the lake, with Morrison overseeing the fundraising effort. The CLPS has received donations ranging from $10 to thousands of dollars from individuals and local businesses. It’s also received some big donations, including $75,000 from an environmental foundation.
Morrison says he’s found Jenks reasonable to deal with and willing to grant extensions, as he did a few days after the December 31, 2020, deadline had passed without the CLPS securing the funds. “There are many people that look at the vendor as a villain, and I try not to do that,” he says. “He’s operating within the letter of the law. He’s following the rules available to him.” That is exactly Cunningham’s concern. Very few rules exist for private landowners who are not covered by the Private Managed Forest Land Act. Cunningham says in cities like Vancouver there are bylaws to restrict cutting to protect views. “But out here in the Kootenays there’s not much,” he says, “and we’ve had a number of complaints with regards to this. We’ve had people who have logged up above other people who have mudslides coming down and things like that. That’s the big fear with Cottonwood. The slopes are steep.”
Just up the road from the lake, near Rayne’s property, Jenks’s crews logged some land in 2019, leaving behind what Cunningham describes as a skinny row of trees. “Guess what happened?” he asks. “We had a storm [in fall 2019] and the storm blew trees all across the power lines and across the road, including the fibre-optic line that serviced everybody for electronic access.” Was logging responsible? It’s difficult to prove, but whatever the cause, Cunningham says, the public had to pay for repairs to the power lines.
Ramona Faust is another RDCK director who represents the Cottonwood area. “I’ve been around provincial forest politics since 1989,” says Faust, who has also worked in the forest industry. “I’ve been trying to bring private-land logging to any government that will listen. And there isn’t one that will, really.” Faust isn’t looking to regulate cutting on every rural acreage, only on larger pieces of land where owners plan to harvest commercially and there may be an impact on water supplies and soil stability. Otherwise, she says, those private operators are able to compete with logging operations on Crown land, where regulations are much more stringent.
Private-land logging regulation is something the RDCK would like to change. In the fall of 2019, they sponsored a motion before the annual convention of the Union of BC Municipalities asking that regional governments be allowed to regulate private-land harvesting to protect fish habitat, public safety, and local government infrastructure. Another resolution from the City of Nelson proposed the province introduce standards for commercial harvesting on private land that are similar to those Crown forest land users must adhere to. Delegates passed both resolutions.
Former NDP MLA for Nelson-Creston Corky Evans has heard these arguments before, back when the NDP was in power in the 1990s and forest reform was high on the agenda. Known in the provincial legislature as a passionate orator and a voice for rural British Columbia, Evans was a logger long before he got into politics, working mostly on private land. He believes they were practicing sustainable forestry long before the term came into common use. These days, he fears private operators are high-grading, taking the best timber and leaving poor-quality trees behind. At the legislature, Evans and the late Ed Conroy, a fellow Kootenay MLA, argued in favour of extending the new forest laws to private land, but they couldn’t rally the rest of their caucus to support the cause. “Where we live, the mountains are steep,” Evans says, “and when you go and high-grade a piece of property above people’s homes, you destabilize the soil or make further landslides or what have you.… In other parts of the province, the land is flatter and you can do that and no one will ever see.” Ideally, he’d like to see more land in the hands of small, private woodlot owners, as is the case in parts of Europe and Eastern Canada, where people live and work on their land, making a living and investing in the future.
That brings us back to Cottonwood Lake Regional Park. What about the argument that it’s a local gem and worth preserving, even if the public has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the surrounding land? Evans says it’s fine if the public wants to buy it, but he refused to support the effort or donate money. “I think it’s really sad that we, as a society, don’t give a shit if you log off 1,000 acres of the mountains that are 10 miles away from Nelson,” he says, “but we get all excited if the very same contractor, at the very same moment, wants to move next to a park that regular citizens visit more often.” He’s uncomfortable with the process and the precedent. “I’ve never supported blackmail,” he says.
Many observers have characterized the government’s reluctance to regulate logging on private land as an oversight or a loophole. But study the history and listen to the parties involved and it becomes evident it’s more of a calculated policy decision not to impose additional costs and responsibilities on powerful interests, such as large landowners and the forest industry. That leaves the issue to be addressed by regional and local governments through planning, zoning, and permitting, perhaps by implementing tree-cutting bylaws, as some urban municipalities have done.
Incidentally, NDP Kootenay West MLA Katrine Conroy is the current provincial minister of forests, and she respects the concerns of residents about the impact of private-land logging on the environment, including the Cottonwood lands. “I’m just glad they could carry this out and do what they needed to do to protect the land as they see fit,” she says. The minister also says the current review of private managed forest land, which is to be completed this year, will also consider the issues raised about private unregulated land. If that results in new regulations, it would be a major policy shift, but as experience indicates, it always takes time for a government to change direction.
That leaves people like McBurney and organizations like the CLPS to find their own solutions. “There’s been a lot of talk, talk, talk for 20-plus years about private-land legislation,” says McBurney. “Until the government steps in and does what they need to do, people like us are going to do what we need to do.”
On March 1, 2021, the CLPS announced it reached its goal of raising $400,000 to purchase the slopes adjacent to Cottonwood Lake Regional Park. Now it needs another $120,000, which it is confident it can acquire through a grant, to have the lands managed by an endowment fund in perpetuity.
Jeff Davies is a freelance writer and retired CBC political reporter who has written extensively about forest policy in British Columbia.