Good News Stories: Celebrating Positive Changes in Environmental Law
As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration, we’re sharing a series of Good News Stories that were inspired by the 2021 Research-a-thon. The goal of Research-a-thon 2021 was to share stories of positive change in public interest environmental law. The exercise virtually brought together students with environmental leaders who shared stories about public interest environmental successes, many of them involving ELC work. The topic was inspired in part by Filipino lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., who spearheaded the Good Stories Movement with the intent of providing hope and inspiration to those who sometimes feel like environmental changes are not happening quickly enough (or at all.)
When the time is right, we’ll meet in person to celebration 25 years of training the next generation of public interest environmental lawyers and providing legal assistance to communities across BC. Until then, we hope you can share our celebratory spirit through these stories.
IN THIS GOOD NEWS STORY:
Melinda Skeels, now a Partner at Ratcliff LLP, spoke with Research-a-thon 2021 students about her work in 2007 as one of the first articled students at the ELC, when she helped initiate a BC Auditor General investigation into the provincial government’s release of privately held Tree Farm Licences.
The amount of land we’re talking about is equivalent to a line of football fields stretched from Victoria to Nova Scotia.Ray Zimmerman, Sea-to-Sea Greenbelt Society
In early 2021, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) and the Sea-to-Sea Greenbelt Society (Sea-to-Sea) celebrated the 11th anniversary of a major victory for southern Vancouver Island’s Wild Coast: the creation of well-loved parkland that includes Jordan River and Sandcut Beach on Pacheedaht First Nation territory and region around Sooke Potholes in the T’Sou-ke Nation’s territory.
But it almost didn’t happen. Instead of parkland, Victoria’s much-celebrated Regional Growth Strategy could have been steamrolled, and there might now be more sprawling development than public access to wilderness hikes and beaches along Vancouver Island’s south coast from Sooke to Jordan River.
When Melinda Skeels, now a partner at Ratcliff LLP, joined as one of the ELC’s first articling students in 2007, Sea-to-Sea had recently applied to the ELC for help.
“Sea-to-Sea was concerned about a recent forest ministry decision to remove over 28,000 hectares of privately held land from three Tree Farm Licences on Vancouver Island,” says Melinda. “The deletions included lands around the Sooke Potholes and extending from Sooke to Port Renfrew along the southwestern Vancouver Island coastline. Vast tracts of other lands were deleted on the northern Island as well as two small parcels on the Central Coast.”
Tree Farm Licences (TFLs) were created in the 1940s in response to concerns about the sustainability of BC’s forest industry. Companies could place private lands into a TFL in exchange for exclusive access to logging on vast areas of the Crown land in that TFL. Landowners also received the enormous benefit of paying little, if any, land taxes while their private lands were in a TFL. The intention was that the province would manage TFLs in perpetuity to ensure long-term sustainable forestry for the benefit of all British Columbians.
Historically, both government and industry had recognized that compensation to the public is appropriate when private lands are removed, or deleted, from provincial TFLs.
But in January 2007, the provincial government deleted thousands of hectares of private TFL lands without any compensation from the licensee.
In a media release at the time, Ray Zimmerman of Sea-to-Sea said, “The amount of land we’re talking about is equivalent to a line of football fields stretched from Victoria to Nova Scotia.”
When deleting the lands, the government could have imposed environmental protection requirements, or required the establishment of new parks or lands to replace lost habitat and protect watersheds. They could have required compensation for the loss of forestry jobs and removed the right of the company to continue to benefit from logging on Crown land.
Instead, the deletions were allowed without restrictions or compensation. The effect of this decision meant that the forestry company could pursue development of the privately held lands, including selling them off for development, while retaining all the same rights to the Crown lands within the TFLs. This meant a huge windfall to the company, for which the government, and the public, received nothing in return.
Once made public, this decision stunned communities.
“A critical issue was the fact that there was little to no engagement with Indigenous groups or the public before the land was removed from the TFLs,” says Melinda. “There was a serious lack of consultation with directly affected communities, including First Nations and other people whose livelihoods depend on the forestry industry in the areas where the deletions occurred, and the public more generally, all of whom were impacted by the Minister of Forests’ decision to remove the lands from the TFLs and open them up for sale and private development.”
In response to the decision, the ELC submitted a request on behalf of Sea-to-Sea in October 2007 to the BC Auditor General seeking an investigation into the TFL deletions. The Auditor General has the power to investigate, in the public interest, government management of finances and assets.
The request was widely supported by residents, unions and forestry workers, recreational and environmental groups, and Indigenous organizations. Hundreds of people showed up at public meetings to discuss the issue and to voice their concerns about the need to preserve wild and sensitive areas and to avoid urban sprawl by developing communities strategically.
Looking back, Melinda says, “As an articling student, it was inspirational to work alongside people from different communities and backgrounds who shared the same concerns about the government’s failure to protect or even consider their interests, whether they were First Nations, environmentalists, loggers, or other members of the local community.”
In July 2008, the Auditor General released a scathing report that concluded the government had approved the removal of the private land without sufficient regard for the public interest and had prioritized the forest company’s interests over other public interests.
The report had a cascading effect, triggering public outrage and causing the Capital Regional District (CRD) to scramble to deal with zoning issues and pending development applications brought about by the deletions.
Days before the lands were to be placed up for sale, the CRD and The Land Conservancy (TLC) purchased the 2,300 hectares along Sandcut Beach, Jordan River’s surfing beach and townsite, and near Sooke Potholes regional park and areas that buffer to Victoria’s water supply’s catchment.
This was welcome news, but it wasn’t the end of the story.
In 2011, it looked like much of the land along the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail would be flanked by a luxury resort with hundreds of housing units. The ELC made submissions about how the proposal did not fit with the Regional Growth Strategy, and concerned communities again rallied to speak out against the proposal in newspapers and at a public hearing in Sooke.
Fortunately, the CRD rejected the proposal.
Thanks to the work of concerned communities (and at least nine ELC Clinic students and ELC staffers), the lasting outcomes of this success story include key pieces of land to the Sea-to-Sea Greenbelt, which links parklands and marine areas from southwest Saltspring Island to the Sooke Basin, and the long-term preservation of important and iconic parts of the southern Island’s Wild Coast.
This Good News story was inspired by the Research-a-thon 2021 interview with Melinda Skeels, with additions and edits from ELC staff. Contributing law students were David Gill (interviewer), Lydia Young (writer), and Alexa Powell (editor).