UBC expert sees need for improved viewscape policy in Municipal Forest Reserve

Reprinted from Larry Pynn's Blog - SixMountains.ca

As North Cowichan embarks on a public consultation on the future of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve — better known as Six Mountains — one of the key issues is the need to protect important viewscapes.

North Cowichan’s Official Community Plan states:

  • The Municipality will protect North Cowichan’s visual appeal by undertaking integrated forest management planning and encouraging managers of privately held forest land to practise small-scale sustainable timber harvesting and to engage in logging practices that consider visual impacts.
  • The Municipality will use its Visual Landscape Inventory (2001) to assess forest harvesting plans, paying particular attention to areas visible from highways, scenic roads, residential areas, and travel corridors on water .
  • The visible faces of Mt. Prevost, Mt. Tzouhalem, Mt. Richards, Maple Mountain and Mt. Sicker, together with the landforms visible from Sansum Narrows, Maple Bay, Osborne Bay, and Chemainus Harbour require specific attention to protect the visual values of the Municipality.

Clearly, these guidelines are not being met, since the growing number of visible clearcuts is what led the public to rise up against harvesting practices in North Cowichan more than a year ago.

Which begs the question: what are some of the key considerations for a modernized viewscape policy for North Cowichan, one that has some teeth and an ability to be monitored in the field?

To find some answers, I sat down with Cam Campbell, an expert in this field who is also a member of the municipal Forestry Advisory Committee. Campbell is a resident of Maple Bay and a former visual landscape specialist with the British Columbia government who is currently an adjunct professor and lecturer on landscape planning in the Faculty of Forestry at University of British Columbia.

The need to protect visual landscapes from logging, including for tourism and recreation, started to evolve in B.C. around the late 1970s, and became formalized in provincial legislation, including the former Forest Practices Code and the current Forest and Range Practices Act.  Visuals are one of the 11 resource values in the act that the government may set objectives for on Crown Land, Campbell says.  

A multi-step process is involved. First, the visible landscape is inventoried and mapped, and an evaluation made of its sensitivity to change. Visual quality objectives (VQO’s) are then established where considered appropriate setting out the level of landscape change. Five VQO classes range from “preservation,” where alterations are very small and not easily distinguishable from the natural landscape, to “maximum modification,” typical of large clearcuts.  

First Nations, industry, and local communities are typically consulted during the objective-setting stage. To achieve those, forest managers use design techniques to tailor the cutblock shape and level of tree retention, and prepare visual simulations to evaluate whether these meet the VQO.

An important part of the B.C. approach includes research into public acceptance for the visual impacts of different forest practices. Campbell says the research shows that “in general, regardless of where you live, people prefer natural forest scenes to those showing forest harvesting, and selective harvesting over clearcutting or variable retention. Tourists are less tolerant of harvesting than residents, and the public is generally less accepting of harvesting than are forest professionals, he says.

North Cowichan is not obliged to follow the provincial model, since its lands are held privately, but the Official Community Plan does acknowledge the importance of protecting viewscapes for its citizens.

Going forward in North Cowichan, Campbell says “what’s needed are clear objectives for visual quality that are grounded in community input, and a more strategic and longer-term approach for forest development in scenic areas.” At present, he asks, how can North Cowichan evaluate whether operations are achieving the desired level of visual quality if there are no formal objectives or criteria against which to judge success or failure? He remains hopeful these issues will be properly addressed as part of the forthcoming public consultation process. At the same time, he recommends that the municipality provides citizens with 3-D visual simulations showing how their viewscapes might look under different forest management and harvesting scenarios as part of the consultation and planning process — including complete retention of the forests.

Anyone who drives around Vancouver Island knows that the forest landscape has been heavily clearcut, especially on private timberlands. As I see it, that puts North Cowichan in a unique position to make a difference, to forge a new progressive future for the Six Mountains that recognizes the importance of standing trees.

North Cowichan council is expected to review a draft for a public consultation process for the Municipal Forest Reserve/Six Mountains at its Jan. 29 meeting.

— Larry Pynn, Jan 14, 2020

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