The last of the ancient trees on Southern Vancouver Island are being protected by some very determined and capable people.
AT THE FAIRY CREEK BLOCKADE “headquarters” and intake centre on a sunny but chilly Easter Monday morning, breakfast is being served by Rupert Koyote and his mom Alison. Rupert is a farmer in the Cowichan Valley. He and Alison have brought eggs, bacon and hot cross buns and melon slices and are doling out platefuls to the many camp organizers and volunteers.
Everyone is well-masked except when in their small pods. People stand at a distance from each other as they eat. COVID-consciousness is evident everywhere. Intake volunteers ensure COVID protocols are followed.
Farmer Rupert Koyote and his mom Alison (Photo by Leslie Campbell)
This is the entry to River Camp, the largest of the camps referred to generally as the Fairy Creek Blockades. There are five blockades in all near Fairy Creek Valley, north of Port Renfrew and, to the east, the Caycuse watershed. They are protecting a tiny fraction of the “working forest” in TFL 46, a 45,533-hectare tree farm licence held by Teal Cedar on publicly-owned Crown land in unceded Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territory.
The blockades are the hot frontlines on the coast in the growing BC-wide battle to save what little remains of old-growth forests. It’s estimated that 2.7 percent of BC’s original forests that contained very large, old trees remain.
Over the past eight months activists have successfully blocked logging of old growth in the area. But now Teal Cedar Products has been granted an injunction by the BC Supreme Court, meaning that at any moment the company’s logging trucks could show up, along with the RCMP to enforce their access, arresting anyone standing in the way. (See David Broadland’s analysis of the injunction.)
The stories of the activists, both the long-term committed and their many supporters, make evident their determination to succeed in their cause. They understand the issue and what is at stake. Many are fully prepared to weather discomfort and to sacrifice careers and income in order to prevent the destruction of any more old-growth forests in the region. They have broad support in the province and beyond, and their Go-fund-me campaign has raised over $260,000.
They emphasize they aren’t against all logging, just logging of old growth. And they acknowledge being in Pacheedaht territory. Many view Bill Jones, a Pacheedaht elder, as the spiritual leader of their movement.
This holiday Monday it’s estimated that there are about 150 people camped—just at this one blockade—along the 7-kilometre road to its main gate. Many are here for the weekend; many will return, especially when things heat up. Though it’s exactly what organizers want, it does increase the pressure and work.
Rainforest Flying Squad forest defenders and camp organizers Shambu and Shawna Knight (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
The camp population goes up and down, explains Shambu, one of the original Rainforest Flying Squad members. But now with the injunction, he expects it to grow overall. “The last time this happened, with War in the Woods 1.0 [at Clayoquot], it wasn’t until the injunction was served, that you had a massive ground swelling. You have sleeper cells of dissent. People who are upset, who do not agree with the last two percent of the ancient forest being cut down. And so with that, they were waiting for the injunction to happen.”
Shambu normally runs yoga workshops and retreats in Victoria. After eight months on the blockades, he says he feels upset and strained but, also inspired and vigourous. “It really is a combination of all those things. We are people that are maintaining this in the wild for months and months. So that, in and of itself, is a strain. Imagine trying to arrange a festival while camping!” With no electricity, cell service, or wifi. During a pandemic.
He gives a lot of credit to what he calls “the matriarchs,” a large number of women involved in the non-hierarchical leadership and logistics of the blockade camps. “Since the very beginning this movement has been led by women,” says Shambu.
And many of them have sacrificed for the cause. Shawna Knight, one of the long-term Rainforest Flying Squad organizers, had to let go of her small business, a food truck; she sold it recently to pay the bills. “It’s taken over my life for eight months,” she says, “but some things are worth fighting for.”
Molly Murphy is a member of the MudGirls building collective, but she’s too busy building camp structures to earn money building elsewhere.
Morgaine Longpré, a documentary filmmaker, showed up last fall thinking she might make a film after her shoots in Italy were cancelled due to COVID. Though she still is collaborating on a film with others here, she tells me her background in negotiation, including working with police, was more in need, so she’s been helping train volunteers.
Of course it’s not just women. Jeff Butterworth, a substitute teacher from Courtenay, has made a bed in his vehicle and been staying at the camps more often as time goes on, giving up work offers—or missing them due to the lack of cell and internet. Last week he tells me, he couldn’t even call his wife on their 34th anniversary.
He tells me he’s signed all sorts of petitions over the years and called politicians—to no effect. With all the knowledge science has provided, with all the government reports and promises, the only hope left for the old growth is, he feels, for civilians to put their bodies on the line.
Butterworth and many others have taken training as “police liaison” volunteers. When arrests happen, these observers will monitor and document the arrest. Others will act as support, getting word to families and lawyers about what has taken place. Butterworth was also tasked with figuring out encrypted communications platforms to keep strategizing discussions private. Asked if he’d had any background in that, he laughs, “None!” But he figured it out.
Jeff Butterworth (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
When photographer Dawna Mueller and I eventually leave the intake area and drive towards the upper blockade, we pass dozens of vehicles, parked at COVID-safe distances from each other, with small campsites beside them. People have come from all over the Vancouver Island (with a preponderance from Victoria) and the Gulf Islands. A reporter for the Guardian is here (from Vancouver), as is CTV. The world is beginning to pay attention.
We are not allowed to proceed past the blockade, where a large gate has been built. Preparations are being made that are best kept from media eyes. I content myself with talking to volunteers, including Emily, who has been here since September with her two sons, forest sprites with energy to burn. Asked what they like about camp life, one of the boys says, “Well, we get a sugary treat once a day.” I also chat with Peter, a trained ecologist and business owner in Tofino, and Eddie, a farmer and carpenter who says, “I couldn’t ignore the call…We can’t eat or breathe money.”
Emily and sons (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
The blockade at River Camp (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
On to Eden
We have been escorted around the camps by Duncan Morrison, a young man who grew up in Sooke watching logging trucks cart away huge trees from the area. He needed to stand up, he says. When he’s not helping out here, he works in deliveries, but he’s also completed training to be a wilderness guide and plans to launch a business soon.
Morrison leads us to Eden Grove Camp on the Edinburgh Main logging road, which crosses an impressively deep ravine through which the Gordon River flows. This river is a favourite with fishers.
Duncan Morrison in Eden Grove (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Tourists mostly come here to check out Big Lonely Doug, which is Canada’s second largest Douglas fir, the saving of which is the subject of a whole book. The forest around it was logged in 2012. The forest protectors let visitors through to see it and suggest they travel just a bit further to take in the aptly named Eden Grove; this will help them picture the forest that once surrounded Big Lonely Doug. A beautiful trail has been made by the protectors, winding through the grove’s moss-carpeted floor and magnificent trees, both cedar and fir. The area is home to many species, including elk, deer, bears, wolves, cougars, and some of the finest and last valley-bottom ancient red cedar stands left on Earth. It’s quite a contrast to the 8-year-old clearcut Big Lonely Doug stands in.
Eden Grove forest (Photo by David Broadland)
According to the Ancient Forest Alliance, all of the grove is included within a 2,100-hectare Wildlife Habitat Area—but that “still legally allows clearcut logging in almost 90 percent of the designation itself.” The Alliance found that in 2010 and 2012, some of the very largest trees in Canada—some 13 to 16 feet in diameter—were logged within this Wildlife Habitat Area.
A new logging road through old-growth forest on Edinburgh Mountain has been approved. So far, work on it has been blocked by the defenders.
Jenn Neagle, who is coordinating things at this camp, exhibits calm professionalism. The yoga teacher, wild mind guide and birthing companion has been out here for over a month. Like many of the young activists, she has discovered her strengths in this grassroots organization.
Jenn Neagle (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
As firewood and food are delivered by other volunteers, Neagle checks her satellite texting device. There’s often hours-long delays in information transfer. Communications pose a huge challenge out here. There is no cell service at all. For wifi, the Port Renfrew Library, a good 30-minute drive away, is it. The distances between the five blockades are considerable, often on bumpy gravel roads meant for logging trucks.
Other challenges include keeping warm and dry. The sun today means the longer-term campers are washing clothes and hanging them to dry. At all the camps, volunteers in charge of “infrastructure” are busy building rudimentary outhouses, teepees, and cook shacks.
Cook shack at Eden Grove (Photo by Leslie Campbell)
As in the other camps, COVID is treated as serious business. They certainly don’t want to endanger their main goal of defending the forest. They only remove masks when we ask for a photo without them, at a safe distance. Campers are asked to keep apart in their COVID-safe pods.
Rhea has been coming out since December because of her “care for the land and non-human life. We’re all connected whether we know it or not,” she says. The student in forest ecology at UVic tells me that one of the studies referred to in the BC government’s own old-growth strategic review noted that this area would be worth more left standing. “I believe it,” she says, noting the high number of tourists that come to the area.
Bob Sorour and his friend Michaela, both studying at Salt Spring Island’s Wisdom of the Earth Institute, came out for the Easter weekend after asking for and receiving a large donation of food from Earth Candy Farm. “The owner said take whatever,” says Sorour.
Sorour had been out to River Camp two weeks earlier. He’d rather not get arrested given his school program, but “If they keep arresting people, I would jump in,” he says.
The Artists-in-Residence program is situated at the Eden Grove blockade. Today Kyle Scheurmann is working on a large painting. He tells me he has a gallery exhibit called “Witness” in Toronto right now, and since he cannot be there due to COVID, he’s especially glad he can be here. He spent a year documenting forest destruction around the Nanaimo Lakes area by Mosaic, so he is no stranger to clearcuts.
Martin Melendro, an engineer from Columbia who is a sustainability consultant in Victoria, tells me he’s working on “a project that aims to bring block chain and conservation financing together.” It involves rendering 3D images of trees to create digital art NFTs that can be sold to raise funds. (A separate story on the Artists-in-Resident program, curated by Jessie Demers, is in the works. Meanwhile, see eden_grove_air on Instagram.)
Michael and Matthew Muller and Asia Koughan (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Towards the end of the day, I speak with new arrivals Matthew and Michael Muller and their friend Asia Koughan. All from Qualicum, Matthew works on a tugboat, Michael as a carpenter, and Asia has a cleaning business. The twin brothers are both willing to get arrested, with Asia’s support from the sidelines.
Two young women from Sooke have also arrived. Jordan Olson-Lyons is a preschool teacher in Sooke and Saralyn Deslaurier works as a wilderness guide in the Great Bear Rainforest. Deslaurier says there’s a need for real protection, noting that logging is still allowed in much of the Great Bear Rainforest. “There’s no comparison between an old growth and second growth forest,” she says.
Walbran Protection Camp: Injunction served
The next day, on April 6, travelling along roads to Walbran Protection Camp, we pass active logging of a second-growth forest. About half of Teal Cedar’s logging in TFL 46 is supposed to be conducted in second-growth forests. The old-growth defenders are not impeding such logging. And while the company claimed in its application for an injunction that the blockades had done it “irreparable harm,” forests ministry records show that Teal’s harvest in 2020, the year the blockades started, was its third largest since 2011, even higher than the TFL’s approved allowable annual cut. The company has admitted in the past that its operations wouldn’t be economically viable without cutting old-growth, but since the old growth is quickly disappearing, it seems evident that Teal’s business is not sustainable.
A Teal Cedar contractor working in TFL 46 (Photo by Leslie Campbell)
Soon after passing the logging equipment at work we cross paths with two white trucks. On arrival at Walbran, the small camp is abuzz: it turns out it was Teal Cedar employees in those trucks who came bearing copies of the injunction, meaning that everything defenders do that contravenes its lengthy set of terms (e.g. standing on the road) is now arrestable. They have been served.
Injunction served at Walbran Protection Camp (Photo by Leslie Campbell)
Here I meet Donna, a bird biologist who came from Belgium five years ago for BC’s wilderness only to find us hellbent on destroying it. She’s lived in camp since last October. “It’s important to me; the Earth is in danger, the old growth is an ecosystem we need to preserve,” she says.
In the background to my conversation with Donna, I hear others going over plans if the logging trucks start rolling in: “Don’t be aggressive, even in taking photos of arrests…find something to chain yourself to to block the trucks…logging can start at 5am so be up at 4.”
The nearby creek runs into salmon habitat and Carmanah-Walbran Park. Any logging on the slopes causes silting of the watercourse thereby endangering fish habitat. “Any square inch of old growth ecosystem lost is lost permanently—to the world,” someone points out.
A small business owner, known only as D, says her employees are holding down the fort and will continue to do so as she is willing to face arrest.
Bird biologist and camp organizer from Belgium, Donna (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Before we leave, I ask Donna, the bird biologist, about the birds she’s seen lately. A Pygmy Owl visits every day and now migrating Rufous Hummingbirds are coming through; Pileated Woodpeckers, Varied Thrush and the Pacific Wren are also on her list. She’s been studying the latter’s migration for three years and notices its population is decreasing.
They’ve also had Pine Martens in their cook shack and noticed cougar tracks in the snow. No wolves though. The habitat is so fragmented now.
Caycuse Camp and a really big cedar
Further along backroads, we land at Caycuse Camp. The injunction servers have been here as well. This is a larger, more populated camp than Walbran despite only being established recently after loggers started clearcutting behind it. They’re anxious due to the injunction being served, but also excited to see the bag of greens we’ve delivered—some haven’t had anything fresh in days.
Bobby Arbess, who’s been involved since the early days with the Rainforest Flying Squad, is here. He says, “This isn’t just about Fairy Creek headwaters. It’s about putting the brakes on old growth logging. We’re establishing blockades on all the frontlines...”
While they are mobilizing people, especially Victorians, to participate in what is now a civil disobedience campaign, he emphasizes that “There are many roles that do not require people to risk arrest.”
Camp organizers, Arbess continues, “are really excited about how many people are showing up, and all the skills and the talents and the spirit that people are bringing forward because people for so long have felt an annoying sense of frustration with the way that successive governments have mismanaged the forest.” And now that we are in a climate emergency and facing a biodiversity crisis due to unbridled resource extraction, he continues, “people are at a breaking point and are no longer prepared to accept the normalcy of this situation that has unfolded, which has reduced some of the most beautiful and productive forests on Earth to literally be the very last stands.”
Bobby Arbess (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Arbess believes the onus is on government and industry to justify why even one single ancient tree should be felled at this point: “Because we have come too far, the world’s climate scientists have told us and we have to reduce our collected carbon emissions by 50 percent and protect all the planet’s natural carbon sinks.”
Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee is also here today. He reviews recent history around the BC government’s old growth strategic review. While it was the most comprehensive review that’s been done on old growth in BC, and made excellent recommendations, he says it wasn’t really necessary given what was clearly known already. And during its year-long process, old growth was coming down at a fast pace. It’s only in very limited places—like Fairy Creek and the Walbran—that aging trees pack on as much carbon each year and grow to magnificent sizes, he notes. So when the Horgan government brags about having deferred logging on 353,000 hectares, it’s more like 3,800 hectares: “Just over one percent of what the government deferred was actually what the public identifies as old growth and what is valuable to the people of this province,” says Coste. And because it’s also so prized by logging companies, the few big trees remaining are threatened.
He notes neither Teal Cedar nor the government seem truly concerned about their workers: “If the company is dependent on cutting these last forests,…what’s their plan for their workers? If they can’t switch to second growth now, are they going to be able to when the old growth has gone or do they just pack up and that’s it?” It’s only a matter of a few years till the big, valuable old growth is all gone if logging continues, says Coste. Blaming job losses on blockades is hypocritical when they don’t have any plan for the workers anyway.
Jessica, Caycuse Camp organizer (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Jessica, a dynamic young woman, is one of the main organizers here. She’s come prepared to stay for two months. A wilderness guide and music teacher, she says she was working at Walbran when they heard about logging going on in this area, so they decided to set up a blockade here. “We’ve had interactions with loggers every single day since we came here…Yesterday, we had two individual trucks come at separate times…We’ve been setting up this community and trying to do what we can to hold peace here and be respectful of what’s going on and do everything we can to protect these ancient forests.” This morning, after the injunction was served, she calmed herself by applying her “war paint.”
We’re now in Ditidaht territory. Neither Ditidaht nor Pacheedaht band councils have supported the blockades, but neither have they come out against them [until April 12—see comment section for updates]. If they did, the activists would have respected their wishes, they say. They recognize that because industry and government have, in effect, bribed and muzzled the bands through revenue-sharing agreements—with very strict rules about what can be said without endangering any benefit they receive from the logging in their territories—that they are in a difficult place. It is just more colonialism at play, they say. But conversations are ongoing and individuals like elder Bill Jones have spoken against the continued logging of old growth in the First Nations’ territories.
As we walk down to the main barricade, we pass numerous campers like Diana Mongeau, a retiree from Errington, and her friend Christophe, a gardener from Errington. He says, “I was just blown away to find out there was so little old growth left but that logging companies got permission to log here. My dad was a logger; he would have stopped if there was so little left. I am embarrassed and disgusted.” Christophe is willing to be arrested.
I also meet Laura Mina Mitic, the daughter of long-time FOCUS writer Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, but known more famously as the singer for the critically-acclaimed indie band Carmanah. She’s volunteering as police liaison with the blockade, and says, “It’s empowering being here. But there’s a good chance things won’t go the way they should.”
Further down the road, a large teepee is being constructed, as is a particularly impressive outhouse. Construction of the outhouse relies on activist Will O’Connell’s salvaging of huge chunks of cedar left as logging waste along the roadside.
Pablo, another builder, demonstrates one of the secret strategies they will employ to stall—and add a bit of theatre to—any arrests that are attempted. Enough said.
We’re now a long walk from the camp entrance, but would still like to see the forests—and recent clearcuts—beyond this blockade. Delee McDougall, who arrived from Saskatchewan a month ago, offers her Jeep. After she pulls out her bedroll and all her earthly belongings, there’s room for four of us and her dog Sparrow. O’Connell has drawn us a map of the twisty road with directions to some big trees, for now still standing.
The vast scraped hillsides of forest along the way are depressing. But eventually we park and head up into the woods, and, just as O’Connell had described on his map, we find a majestic old cedar. We each pose willingly for a portrait with it.
Clearcuts in the Caycuse watershed (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
Ancient cedar, Delee McDougall and Sparrow, beyond the Caycuse blockade (Photo by Dawna Mueller)
A few days later there’s news: RCMP helicopters are circling above. A showdown appears even more imminent. During the 1993 Clayoquot War in the Woods, 900 people were arrested. These rare and precious forests on Southern Vancouver Island could well attract even more willing to risk arrest.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of focusonvictoria.ca.
Dawna Mueller is an award winning environmental photographer and speaker, currently documenting the ancient old growth forests on southern Vancouver Island. She combines a documentary style photojournalistic approach with the visual depiction of black and white fine art.