Model forestry: Q&A with BCCFA’s Jennifer Gunter
Q&A with BC Community Forest Association executive director Jennifer Gunter
October 16, 2023 By Maria Church
Jennifer Gunter has been with the BC Community Forest Association (BCCFA) since its inception nearly 22 years ago, translating her post-secondary research on the emerging concept of a community forest into a leadership role with community forests across the province.
As co-founder and executive director, she supports communities building a model of landscape management that advances their economic, social, and ecological sustainability goals.
CFI spoke with Gunter about the evolving role of community forests and how they factor into B.C.’s larger forest sector.
CFI: What drew you to a career in community-based resource management?
Jennifer: I finished a master’s in resource and environmental management at SFU and I did my thesis on community forestry. I studied the Kaslo Community Forest and I moved there to work with them after I finished my degree. Through that work, I was part of the group of people who came together back in 2002 to form the association. They needed a co-ordinator so I volunteered, and that job became a full-time job.
The community forest tenure is the licence that’s granted to community organizations to manage provincial forests. The licence can be held by a variety of legal entities: a First Nation, a municipality, a partnership between them, a co-op, a non-profit society. It’s always long-term and community based. It sets them up for a mindset around stewardship and investment in the land base.
I think that we see a lot of solutions globally to very complex environmental, social and economic problems when we look at that model of local decision making.
CFI: How have you seen community forests evolve over the years?
Thinking back to the beginnings of our community forest program and the foundation that we laid back then – our principles and objectives – it put us in a really strong position to implement the concept in the province. When I see where we are today, I think those still hold.
The province set out eight goals for the community forest program – things like creating multiple benefits, including social, environmental goals, promoting community involvement, innovation, and strengthening relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Those were foundational. The program was initiated in B.C. at the end of the 1990s. It was one of the responses to what was called then the “War of the Woods”. There were a lot of communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that wanted more control over how forests were managed around them. It was started as a pilot program, and then, in 2003, became a permanent fixture of the forest management regime in B.C.
When the association was formed, there were 10 community forests. Now we have 61. It represents just under three per cent of the province’s annual harvest. It’s always been challenging because most legislation and regulation is written more broadly for the larger players in the forest sector. We continue to find community forests are square pegs in a round hole. We’re trying to do something different, working in a framework designed for the majority of actors in the sector.
Right now, there is so much change in B.C.’s forest sector. Some of the positive change includes an increased focus on relationships with Indigenous nations and moving towards co-management and Indigenous-led decision making. Community forestry in B.C. has always included First Nations. About half of the existing community forests in the province are held by First Nations or a partnership. There are some good examples of partnerships that others are now looking to learn from.
Community forests can be tangible tools to advance reconciliation. Those of us working in community forestry are learning all the time, and I believe our understanding is increasing and improving.
The other big shift right now would be with respect to our understanding of climate change and ecosystem resilience. Our current forest conditions are so impacted by the history of fire suppression in B.C. Forest management practices really need to be looking at things differently and managing for ecosystem resilience. That’s a concept that a lot of community forest folks have really embraced.
CFI: How do you balance the goals of local economies with forest ecosystem resilience, and what role do community forests play in that?
In B.C. right now we’re talking a lot about shifting our focus to prioritizing ecosystem health, rather than timber production, and having timber production be an outcome of our focus on ecosystems. That’s an idea that a lot of people within community forestry have understood for a long time.
What I say to the question of balance, is that it’s imperative that we figure this out. And the solutions are at the community level – the local level. When communities are empowered to make decisions over lands and resources around them, they think about the future. They’re able to make decisions for today, but also for future generations.
We see this around the world. Research has found that when local people are more involved in decision-making, they do so with the long-term in mind, then they tend to promote sustainability. That balance is perhaps not easier, but it’s imperative.
CFI: What do you see as the biggest challenge B.C.’s forest industry at large?
We are all facing a lot of challenges. But what’s front of mind for me, certainly this summer, but always, is climate change and wildfire. Many community forests have been working for decades to reduce the risk of wildfire to their communities. I think now we’re seeing more and more how critical it is to take a landscape-level approach to wildfire. I think we’ll be talking about this even more in the weeks and months ahead: the idea that we need to work to restore landscape-level resiliency and find ways to co-exist with fire.
A lot of community forests are doing that work. They’ve created wildfire management plans for their forests. There is growing capacity and expertise in that area. As an association, we’re working hard to connect community forests with researchers and scientists and policy makers to help figure this out and find solutions to make it easier to do that kind of work.
One of the questions is: how do we pay for it? If we’re not necessarily focussing on timber production, there might be other kinds of residual fibre that’s coming off the land base through these treatments and how do we deal with that? Those are some challenges that everyone is grappling with right now. What funding models could work best to support this kind of activity on the land base? What are the markets and products that can be derived from these activities? And what are the best policies to truly support and promote this work?
It’s tricky to develop policies that will work for everybody. One size doesn’t fit all, and we’re constantly challenged as an association to advance provincial forest policy solutions that are going to work for community forests and give them the latitude to innovate and try new things and come up with local solutions.
CFI: What’s your take on the forest industry’s social license in B.C.?
It’s an interesting one for me because the concept of social license is integral to community forestry. It’s the idea that local people are making local decisions about local forests. They are set up to encourage participatory decision making. But it can be challenging in this model as well. Every community is different, and decisions are never going to please everybody.
Societal values and priorities are changing. It needs to be a sustained and ongoing effort to engage people, earn trust, and maintain that trust. We often say it happens one conversation at a time. It’s definitely an area that requires sincere investment of time and resources to cultivate. Having more inclusive decision making goes a long way, and through that, you get people with a better understanding of forest ecology, landscape ecology, forest management and the sector in general. Through that literacy, I think we can achieve a higher level of social license with more people on board.
Even how I view forest management today has changed in some ways from how I saw it in the past. I see it now as such a critically important tool for our work to adapt to and mitigate climate change. With active forest management, we’re talking about figuring out how to manage the landscape for wildfire, but also for biodiversity, and old growth, and healthier, more resilient forests and ecosystems. Logging is part of that. That’s the piece that I think more and more people are coming to understand. Active forest management is actually a really important tool for us to use to advance our common goals.
CFI: What inspires you as a leader in the forest sector?
It’s really the people. It’s the people who are committed and using ingenuity to help solve problems and to find practical solutions. And we’re seeing that you can create models or strategies that are able to create ecological, social and economic benefits. That’s what I find exciting, those places where people are figuring out how to make all of that work.
A few years back, the membership of the BCCFA decided to change one of the purposes of our association. We have a list of purposes and one of them was to promote community forestry as a tool for community economic development. They said, ‘We need to change that to be: as a tool for community economic development and ecosystem resilience.’ They said, as a group, this is what we want to advance, the concept that you can have both.
We survey our members every year on 18 different indicators of social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits. We collect that data to show that, yes, community forests as a model is working and here’s how it’s providing benefits to communities. Our annual Community Forest Indicator Reports have become an incredible storytelling vehicle. By telling the stories, we continue to support the evolution of the community forests program and its success.
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