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City of Powell River seeks legal advice on timber rights

Environmental lawyer questions purchase of Millennium Park trees
OWNERSHIP CONFUSION: City of Powell River is seeking legal advice about its purchase of trees from Island Timberlands in Millennium Park. Contributed graphic

City of Powell River is seeking legal advice on the ownership of second-growth trees in Lot 450 between Townsite and Westview.

The direction by city council for staff to look into the matter comes after Vancouver-based environmental lawyer Andrew Gage wrote a letter to land owners PRSC Limited Partnership last September.

Gage, staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law, began to look into the matter after Powell River biologist Andrew Bryant sought his advice.

Gage suggested in his letter to PRSC that the land owner petition to the Supreme Court of BC to clarify if Island Timberlands actually own the cutting rights to the trees there.

“If there is any legal question as to the strength of Island Timberlands’ claim to these cutting rights, [PRSC] has an obligation to clarify this question,” he states.

Gage states that PRSC has taken the position that Island Timberlands owns the cutting rights to this land by virtue of a 1998 licensing grant.

“PRSC assumed that Island Timberlands is entitled to harvest the standing timber, notwithstanding the concerns of many within Powell River arising from the ecological and recreational values associated with Lot 450,” the letter states.

PRSC is a partnership between Powell River Waterfront Development Corporation and Tees’kwat Land Holdings, corporations owned by the City of Powell River and Tla’amin Nation.

PRSC president Clint Williams said that the partnership has not yet looked closely into the matter.

“We haven’t spent any time or money really looking at it,” said Williams. “The documents that we’ve seen that make commitments to the trees are pretty clear.”

Bryant said he and West Coast Environmental Law did not receive a response back from PRSC. Last December, Powell River resident George Orchiston sent the city a letter inquiring about the city’s May 2015 purchase of the trees in upper Millennium Park and included the previous correspondence to PRSC.

Mayor Dave Formosa said that the city has had its lawyer provide an opinion. City clerk Chris Jackson said he is currently preparing information for the public.

“The issue is simple enough,” said Orchiston. “Do we own the trees or not? It’s a lot of money the city is talking about.”

Orchiston said the city may have unnecessarily paid Island Timberlands hundreds of thousands of dollars for the trees in upper Millennium Park. In total, the city paid $1.2 million for trees in upper and lower Millennium Park.

“They can’t blow this off,” he said. “We’re talking about the taxpayers’ money.”

Bryant said petitioning the court to make a determination on the cutting rights is a straightforward process that costs $200 to file an application.

Island Timberlands’ cutting rights for the trees on Lot 450 were part of Weyerhaeuser’s BC coastal assets purchased when the US forestry company folded in 2005. MacMillan Bloedel originally owned the rights, which were given to Weyerhaeuser in 1999, less than a year after ownership of the trees and the land were legally separated as part of a corporate restructuring between the logging and pulp and paper divisions of the company.

A clause in the 1998 timber-harvesting rights stipulates that the cutting rights are for a one-time harvest only.

According to Bryant, those rights may have already been exercised. He said that satellite imagery from September 1999 shows the beginning of logging inside the parcel and then an end in April 2000, with about 25 per cent of the second-growth trees being harvested.

“You can’t see the logging unless you wander through or you look at the satellite imagery,” said Bryant. “Everybody has been assuming that IT owns the trees. Some clarity is in order.”

Bryant said he thinks it should be PRSC that takes the matter before the court to clarify ownership, but if that does not happen he said he is prepared to do it himself.

“If government or the landowner is not going to do it,” he said, “ultimately, I will.”