Michelle Connolly recently spoke with three grassroots activists to learn why they are involved with a forest conservation effort. Here is her interview with Taryn Skalbania, Sarah Newton and Carole Tootill.
TARYN SKALBANIA is an animal lover, farmer, grandma and activist who made Peachland (Syilx territory) her home 30 years ago. She is one of the co-founders of the Peachland Watershed Protection Alliance (PWPA) and an active member. She holds a similar role in the BC Coalition for Forestry Reform and is also part of her District’s Healthy Watershed Committee.
Sarah Newton is an elementary school teacher who taught in Fort St. James (Nak’azdli territory) and currently teaches grade 6 in Revelstoke, (Sinixt, Syilx, Secwepemcúl'ecw and Ktunaxa territory). She was raised and educated in Nova Scotia (Mi’kma’ki territory). Sarah loves exploring wild places with her husband and two teenage children.
Carole Tootill is a mother, educator and concerned citizen. Born in Victoria (W̱SÁNEĆ territory) in the early 60s, she has lived as far east as Toronto (Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Anishinabewaki and Haudenosaunee territory) and as far north as Whitehorse (Kwanlin Dün territory). Moving back to the Island in 2014 came with a shock: the forests she grew up with were gone.
From left: Sarah Newton, Carole Tootill and Taryn Skalbania
What inspired you to become a grassroots activist?
Taryn: Originally it was a selfish motivation. I found that my favorite long-distance hikes, horseback rides and fishing lakes were being wiped out by logging. Secondly, the inconsistency between how forestry is regulated compared to mining and recreation, for example, pissed me off. As I started talking to others in my community, I realized that they had no clue what was happening to the land, and they had no idea that the land was not in good hands. Forestry was on a pedestal when I grew up. At UBC, the MacMillan Bloedel building was next to the Sauder School of Business, near the Jimmy Pattison Pavillion and the Canfor Theatre. I’m angry now. So that’s my motivation right there.
Sarah: I have always been involved on some level, whether that was with the North Columbia Environmental Society/Wildsight, writing politicians, sitting on committees. To stand on that road and blockade at the Bigmouth/Argonaut Creek was the last thing I wanted to do. I did it because as a parent and teacher, I couldn’t look kids in the eye anymore, knowing the flora and fauna will not be there for them if I didn’t step up. It was kind of like live on your feet or die on your knees at that point. For me, the only way to defy despair was to take action. Members of the activist community form deep connections in a very short time, feeding each other hope and inspiration.
Carole: Necessity. We’re losing wildlife because of habitat loss from logging. “Fiber supply” is prioritized over the free services of intact ecosystems. Old-growth forests with big trees not only store carbon and provide clean air and water, they keep us cool and moist when it is hot and dry. The NDP created the facade that it would protect old-growth forest, won the election and has fooled the public; the NDP has increased old-growth logging and paved the way for near-complete liquidation of our grand forests. Most people have not experienced an old-growth forest, so they do not understand the direct and indirect impacts of logging. The government is killing wolves and cougars to protect caribou, but loss of old-growth habitat to logging is the real issue. Numerous First Nations’ communities have been forced to rely on forestry and sign agreements with gag clauses to keep community members quiet and disallow dissent. The NDP continues this and calls it reconciliation.
Argonaut Creek forest defenders blocking the Bigmouth logging road in 2021
What are the advantages of grassroots activism?
Taryn: It has no advantages; we don’t have money. [Group laughs]. The advantages are that you can speak the truth and be irreverent without anything to lose. There is nothing else other than the community voice that makes change. We must do the work ourselves; we can’t wait for ENGOs, government and industry. I don’t see that there’s any other way. There will be more civil disobedience in BC.
Sarah: We have the opportunity to do the right thing at the right time. Maybe that’s blocking a road or doing other things that aren’t so polite. And of course, what’s polite changes over time and all of a sudden these things that everybody used to think were extreme aren’t any more because what’s happening to Mother Earth has become a horror show.
Carole: I’ve made decades worth of monthly contributions to ENGOs to finally realize that it was a poor investment. They operate within a mandate of complete safety. This has worked well for government and industry. Government has protected very little of the most biodiverse forests because they are the most commercially desired. In the 1990s during the Clayoquot protests, more than one-third of our ancient old growth ecosystems still stood. Now we are down to about 2 percent of what we once had. Time is running out; government will continue to steal our energies through engagement surveys, false promises, and other distractions while logging continues under the protection of publicly funded police militias. Only direct action will work at this stage, but last summer’s and more recent police brutality and going through the courts has worn people out. People have been seriously physically and psychologically injured for trying to do what the NDP promised to do. We now have small pockets of big-treed old growth surrounded by a sea of clearcuts and biologically void tree plantations.
A blockade of Teal Cedar Products logging in the Fairy Creek Rainforest in 2021
What have you learned since you started doing grassroots work?
Taryn: We formed as a society in 2016 because we had to do the job ourselves; we are responsible for watershed and forests. We realized that industry was lying to us and the provincial government could not possibly have our best interests at heart. Also, the professional corruption among some foresters became clear because, really, to survive in that profession you have to be either morally bankrupt or bought off. Willing to serve two masters, and neither of those masters is the natural world. Many foresters are embarrassed by their profession and have spent their retirement trying to improve the system.
Anthony Britneff explained in an Evergreen Alliance article last year that former premier Gordon Campbell gave the forest industry a prominent role in the writing of forest legislation. The Council of Forest Industries lawyers were actively engaged in the drafting of the Forest and Range Practices Act to replace the Forest Practices Code of B.C. Act. Not reviewing the legislation—they drafted the legislation. This law does not need to be tweaked, it needs to be shit-canned.
Sarah: I’ve learned that my generation is almost invisible in the fight for conservation and climate action. When at the Bigmouth/Argonaut Creek blockade over those ten months (fighting to protect the last valley bottom old growth inland temperate rainforest in the world), it was mostly all people in their 20s; missing from these actions was a huge chunk of society. The other thing I learned was from a course on climate education at Cornell University. We can use the same psychology that’s used on us by media, and that we must truly listen, be confident with what we know, and find commonality with others.
Carole: It is very difficult to change laws, and there is no time to do so. Judges, crown prosecutors, and police exist to uphold the status quo—their lifestyles and pensions depend on it. The conflict of interest is obvious. Yet we have to chip away at this front or laws won’t change. We need more radical action or we lose everything.
Fairy Creek Rainforest defenders confronted by RCMP in 2021 (Photo by Alex Harris)
What advice would you give to others who want to start a grassroots group to protect nature and their communities?
Taryn: Effective negotiations with industry and government to protect forests and change the practice of forestry will not occur without a balanced playing field. Effective negotiations require that participants have relatively equal legal and political power, backed by adequate financial resources. In the absence of this balanced negotiation structure, all that may be expected from “collaborations” are half-baked compromises that err on the side of protection of industry and government interests. This means that forest exploitation will continue to trump forest protection. Herb Hammond imparted that wisdom.
Sarah: We need to support grassroots Indigenous communities. We need to be there together. We also need to join forces with the working class. When I look at forestry workers who are losing jobs or economic migrants coming to my community, we’re all trying to do our best independently, but it’s not enough. We are all fighting against the 1 percent that dominate resource extraction. The bonus for me was finding community with the other blockaders. It has really kept despair at bay. As grassroots activists we are not free to abandon this work and so we need to find others to do it with.
Don’t use the language of industry and forestry because embedded within it is the belief system that created the predicament we’re in where living ecosystems are a commodity. Don’t use their own weapons to fight them, because they are more skilled at using them. We need to use our own language that speaks to peoples’ hearts.
Carole: Just do it, or we lose it.
Taryn Skalbania with Syilx Elders at a Water Ceremony on International Women’s Day
Michelle Connolly runs Conservation North in Lheidli T’enneh territory/Prince George.