North Cowichan intends to move forward with its plans for meaningful public engagement on the future of its 5,000-acre municipal forest reserve.
But while council committed to a “deep and broad” public engagement on the issue to determine the “highest and best use” of the forest reserve at its meeting on April 17, it left out sections of a motion that was tabled by Coun. Christopher Justice at its meeting on April 3.
Some of those sections called for emphasizing ecological stewardship and the promotion of biodiversity in the reserve.
Mayor Al Siebring explained that if the municipality decided to focus on biodiversity and the environment in the forest reserve, it would prejudge the outcome of the upcoming public consultations on the future of the reserve.
“There’s a broad section of the community that want a focus on the economic benefits of the forest reserve and to consider the other side of the equation,” he said.
“I’m glad that council decided to back off of those sections of the motion.”
The decision was made after a lengthy discussion and debate on the issue of the forest reserve and public engagement.
At the committee of the whole meeting earlier in the day, council asked staff to organize a presentation from Dr. Stephen Sheppard, a professor of forest resources management at UBC, on his work with other communities in developing sustainable forest management plans.
Before the vote on public engagement on the future of the reserve at the council meeting, CAO Ted Swabey asked if it was council’s intention to move forward with the vote, or wait until after Sheppard made his presentation.
“The professor has experience in how to consult the public on forestry issues,” Swabey said.
“If staff is to do work on proceeding with public engagement on the issue now, we could have to start over again after Sheppard’s presentation, which would cost money and could confuse the public.”
Coun. Rob Douglas said council is just interested in setting the broad parameters of its policy for the municipal forest at this time.
“The professor might give us advice, but I can’t see how this motion impacts that,” he said.
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie said she’s of two minds on the issue and while she wants to see the issue moving forward, she doesn’t want to waste staff’s time if a decision is made to change course after Sheppard’s presentation.
“Is it possible to move the motion forward with the understanding that the plan wouldn’t be completed until we heard from Professor Sheppard?” she asked
Justice said he can’t see why waiting for Sheppard’s presentation would slow council down.
“The professor would likely just refine what we’re doing rather than us having to start all over again,” he said.
Coun. Tek Manhas said he’s also concerned that if the municipality is far into its plans and Sheppard suggests a different track, it would be a “waste of time” for staff up to that point.
Coun. Kate Marsh said she’s starting to feel too much time is being spent in meetings, and council is not being as decisive as it should be on the forestry issue in its municipal forests.
“I’m sure Professor Sheppard is wise and knowledgeable, but we have people here that are knowledgeable on these issues as well,” she said.
Coun. Debra Toporowski said council must decide on how to proceed.
“Whatever we decide today, we need a balanced approach to engage the community,” she said.
It was decided to move forward with the amended motion, and also to invite members from UBC and the Coastal Douglas Fir Conservation Partnership group to attend an upcoming forestry advisory committee meeting to provide a presentation and answer committee member questions.
Council also decided that a resident survey should be considered as part of the public engagement on forestry.
Council still has to confirm the budget and timeline for the public engagement at an upcoming meeting, and then the planning for the process can finally begin.