A handful of politicians should not have the right to forever destroy the non-renewable wonders that exist for the benefit of all.
I DREAM OF ONE DAY SOON being able to take a bus excursion to the rare and treasured old growth forest just north of Port Renfrew, in the Fairy Creek watershed and stretching all the way west to the Caycuse watershed. I dream of hopping off a Wilson’s electric bus at several stops in this spectacular new park, and walking quietly and contemplatively among the now-protected, ancient giants. I follow soft forest trails that languidly weave their way around massive, deeply-ridged trunks. Closer to the waterways I step on protective boardwalks over the tender lushness that is typical of a riparian ecosystem.
There is nothing typical about this place. I slowly inhale the world’s cleanest air and hear the songs of countless birds that make their home here, in the immense forest canopy that rises full of life to dizzying heights. Here and there along the path, carefully placed panels explain the science and the marvels of this magnificent place. I want to read every word.
I’m keen to hear the history too, from the local Pacheedaht and Ditidaht guides who are finally receiving adequate remuneration for the work they’ve been doing for centuries—protecting and stewarding their land and its resources. In their presentation, they will share how they lived before “civilization” befell their land, how the imposed colonial business model deliberately and persistently undermined their sovereignty, how it carted away entire old-growth forests and paid for them with the trinket equivalent of a stumpage fee. They will recount how decades of rapacious old-growth clearcutting and other accumulated tensions finally came to a head, in a David vs Goliath standoff at what has become known as the Fairy Creek Blockade in the time of the devastating pandemic.
We visitors are a rapt audience.
Photograph by Laura Mina Mitic
THE VISION FADES, but here in the present, I get history’s gist. The model that has worked for settler governments from coast to coast to coast for the last five centuries is this: Pay people just enough to keep them appeased but still dependent on the continued trade of paltry handouts for irreplaceable resources. Pretend to consult meaningfully. Continue talking about clean water (without mentioning that white towns have had this almost forever). Throw in goodies like a sawmill or community centre if you have to. Stir dissent in any number of ways, including covert interference with Indigenous government systems. Find individuals that you can pay off—money talks in every setting. Make backroom deals and swear everyone to secrecy. Use your law enforcement resources if you have to.
That’s the way it still works in 2021, and you can see it playing out at Fairy Creek and related blockades. Never mind that a standing ancient forest is worth untold millions for its capacity to combat climate change by capturing and sequestering vast amounts of carbon. (An 800-year-old tree typically stores 20,000 kg.)
Never mind that it is a complete, unique and endlessly diverse biome—from the soil way up to the towering canopy—and therefore a key player in keeping future pandemics at bay. Scientists agree that the rainforest treetops are teeming with species yet to be discovered. University of Victoria researchers, who liken that world to a hanging garden, recently discovered 20 of them.
Never mind that it has the power to heal. First Nations people have always known this, but the rest of us might finally be catching on. We keep hearing about forest bathing, and some healthcare providers, using resources developed by the BC Parks Foundation’s newly-formed ParX program, have begun prescribing visits to the forest for health and wellness. We’ve always loved our urban parks and forests but are beginning to realize that the wilderness beyond is even more crucial to our survival and wellbeing.
Never mind that ancient trees are lucrative magnets for world-weary locals and eco-tourists alike. Forget cruise ship revenue with all its carbon-laden drawbacks: An old-growth forest is a rare and benevolent living shrine that will bring back people from around the world, time and time again.
Port Renfrew knows that, and has called for a moratorium on old-growth logging in the region. Not so long ago, its few hundred residents were mostly loggers and other employees of the forestry industry. Now rebranded as Wild Renfrew, this “gateway to ancient forests, epic hikes and mighty surf” has become a busy tourist town, full of amenities for the steady stream of sightseers eager to experience the world’s oldest and tallest trees.
The BC Chamber of Commerce knows that too. In 2019, and citing the transformation of Port Renfrew as an example, it passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to increase old-growth protection, stating, “In many areas of the province, the local economies stand to receive a greater net economic benefit over the foreseeable future by keeping their nearby old-growth forests standing.”
I’m not sure, however, that Premier Horgan grasps that. Nor does he seem to get the irony—and tragedy—of some of his own doings. Last month in a chat with the CBC’s Gregor Craigie, he touted the improved cellular service coming soon to Port Renfrew and surrounding area. He specifically enthused that it would help bolster tourism. When pressed, though, he kept his distance on the Fairy Creek dispute. What seemed lost on him was the scenario that cable trucks carrying tourism-enhancing infrastructure might end up rolling in just as oversized logging trucks carrying our most lucrative tourist attraction are rolling out. All with his tacit approval.
The way we do forestry in this province is maddening. Last year, at the behest of the government, an independent panel produced a report titled, A New Future For Old Forests. The overarching message was the need to recognize that, “old forests are more than old or big trees. They are a product of ancient and unique ecosystems, and their characteristics vary greatly across the province. They can only be effectively managed in the context of broader public priorities, including the interests of current and future generations.”
And yet, the forestry industry always seems to find them, peg them for easy, top-grade lumber, and manage to wrangle a license out of the government of the day.
Not all old-growth grabs have been successful, however. A vigorous anti-logging campaign in 1990 in the Carmanah Valley, not far from the current blockades, resulted in the loggers being turned away for good and the establishment of the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. (Forestry company Macmillan Bloedel received almost $84 million in compensation for lost tree-farm licenses.)
A few years later and further north, Clayoquot Sound became the scene of a long and acrimonious War in the Woods. After some 800 arrests and the dumping by loggers of 200 litres of human excrement at the activists’ staging site, the Harcourt NDP government shut it all down and declared the region protected. That was in 1995. Five years later, Clayoquot Sound received designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
But that’s not how today’s government is doing Fairy and Caycuse Creek. Horgan seems to have stubbornly dug in his heels and—it has been speculated—played a hand or two in the deal-making backroom. There’s been no expressed interest in seeking internationally recognized status and protection for the valleys and watersheds where these giants thrive. Instead, the government and industry—the “mindustry,” as writer David Broadland refers to them in FOCUS—continue to assess old-growth trees solely for their value in board lumber that, according to a spokesperson for Teal-Jones, the logging company with the license, is mostly destined to become decking, fencing, and other utilitarian products.
That’s as ludicrous as tearing up rare old books to line the kitchen garbage pail.
Premier Horgan has asked for patience while the report recommendations are slowly being digested by bureaucracy. But in the meantime, he allows the rampant cutting of old-growth trees to continue. This borders on the farcical and almost certainly ensures there’ll be nothing left to steward when protection finally becomes policy. Small wonder public objection is persistent and growing.
Teal Jones had sought an injunction against the activists, and last month the BC Supreme Court granted it to them. It ordered the blockade gone and the roads opened for logging. Instead of complying, the activists have deepened their resolve and are appealing that decision.
I’m not surprised. Judge Verhoeven, who granted the injunction, seemed less than wholehearted in his decision. (He also seems to have been working with incomplete or incorrect information provided by the company.) He based his decision on the strict letter of the law, but seemed to concede that he was limited to assessing the issue in isolation and unable to take the larger critical issues of climate change and environmental degradation—the “broader public priorities” cited in the above-mentioned report—into consideration. Clearly, and perhaps inadvertently, he has added to the argument that it’s time to change that law.
And now in early May comes word that the activists have also served a Third Party Notice to the Province of British Columbia, thus drawing the government into a case it probably would have preferred to continue watching from the sidelines. It’s a gutsy move, but again, I’m not surprised. Its arguments have sharp teeth.
In Quebec the Magpie River was recently granted all the rights and protections of personhood. Our giant trees—for starters—must receive this too. A handful of politicians in any given era do not have the right to forever destroy the natural and non-renewable wonders that exist for the benefit of all.
NEAR THE END OF MY FUTURE EXCURSION, I learn that not all the trees could be saved by the blockaders, who braved months of public indifference and cold wet weather in rudimentary shelters before the madness was finally halted for good. Our last stop overlooks a barren valley dotted only with giant stumps that stand like stepping stones in a sea of destruction.
I spot former premier Horgan gazing wordlessly into the distance. I wander over and ask him who our real heroes were, back in those times.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a Victoria-based writer. She has had a life-long passion for the care and preservation of nature but never imagined it would become such a battle. She’s grateful to all of the old growth’s defenders for doing the hard work that will benefit us all.