Whistler is one step closer to getting into the forestry business with its neighbouring First Nations, despite concerns raised at the council table.
On Monday council signed a letter of intent outlining its goal to establish a Community Forest with Squamish Nation and Lil’wat Nation in the forested area surrounding the resort municipality. This letter is the precursor to the official application process.
But three councillors — Eckhard Zeidler, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Ralph Forsyth — were wary of aspects of the deal and voiced their opposition. It passed in a four to three vote.
“The devil is in the detail,” said Wilhelm-Morden, who used her legal expertise to back up her concerns.
She was referring specifically to one section of the deal, which addresses the botanicals and non-timber forest products within the Community Forest area — things like mushrooms and blueberries.
First Nations have negotiated a clause which states: “The traditional use, management and rights (including intellectual property rights) to botanicals and non-timber forest products will be recognized as belonging to the Lil’wat and Squamish…. Any harvesting of botanicals and non-timber forest products would be required to be consistent with the Squamish and Lil’wat land use plans…”
Some of the councillors in opposition called the issue a “show-stopper”. They worried what that clause would mean to local residents who want to collect berries or mushrooms in the Community Forest area.
“If we’ve signed that letter of intent with this language,” said Wilhelm-Morden, “we’re done.”
Despite calls to hold off on a decision until the matter was clarified, the majority of council voted to move ahead.
Other councillors did not share the concern, particularly Mayor Ken Melamed who has personally been involved with the negotiations with First Nations. The clause was an important factor for First Nations involvement he said and was not a “casual insertion.”
This deal, he reminded council, has been fraught with delay and has been years in the making.
He said he was “completely enthusiastic” about moving forward with the letter of intent, which both First Nations have already signed.
“I do not share some of the members of council’s hesitancy,” said the mayor. “This is a tremendous step forward. I don’t think it gives up anything.”
But the concerns didn’t stop at the botanicals.
“I have grave concerns about… the business plan,” said Forsyth. “It’s an enormous risk to move on.”
A business plan for the Community Forest will be developed in the first half of 2008. Council has set aside $105,000 in the budget to develop the concept further.
The staff report outlines that this business plan will determine if the venture is financially viable: “Due to the current depressed state of the coastal forest industry, the increased costs of implementing an ecosystem based management program, and a minimal amount of valuable wood available in the community forest land base in the short term (10-20 years), the profits generated will be small.”
The business will not move ahead if the plan determines that the partners have to subsidize the operation.
Councillor Gord McKeever said he had comfort in moving forward Monday night because the letter of intent was a non-binding document.
The Community Forest will stretch over 55,000 hectares (136 acres), giving the partners some management control of the land around the resort municipality.
The annual allowable cut for the partners is 20,000 cubic metres — the equivalent of 20,000 telephone poles. It will be harvested in small pockets of one or two acres across the landscape, rather than in one big clear-cut.