A ceremonial trip into grizzly territory with the Kitlope’s elder watchmen.
IT’S 6 AM AT THE DOCK IN KITAMAAT VILLAGE. The spiders are busy weaving their last webs around the dock lights before the winter storms catch up with them. It’s drizzling and the morning light is just beginning to creep under the blanket of cloud. Cecil Paul, Waxaid, a Xenaksiala elder, clambers aboard the fish boat despite his recent broken foot and an illness that has reduced his solid frame to a lean one. He looks more like a young grizzly in March than the grandfather bear that he should be at the end of salmon season.
Next to board is Gerald Amos, Haisla elder, who also shows a surprising agility, given his recent cardiac arrest from extreme sepsis that robbed him of much of his mobility and his famous oration skills.
The two men, with family and friends, are taking their friend, Bruce Hill, back to the Kitlope where their work together on a coastal grizzly moratorium first began over 25 years ago. The voyage was originally planned to unite the three of them in a last trip to Qos Lake. Bruce Hill’s cancer overtook him, so they are taking their friend’s ashes in a glass jar to Qos to be watched over by Paul’s ancestors. Otherwise known as Kitlope Lake, Qos translates to sanctuary, or cathedral, in Paul’s Xenaksiala language.
Bruce Hill, telling a story
Hill died on September 18, 2017, one month after the grizzly bear trophy hunt was banned in the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who, to quote Paul, “put his power saw away and came aboard the canoe.” Paul is referring to what he calls the supernatural canoe that he launched with Amos and his sister, Louisa Smith, in 1990 to guide the protection of the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world—the Kitlope or Huchsduwachsdu. The metaphor of the supernatural canoe captured the idea that no matter who came to save the Kitlope, there was always room for them.
Bruce Hill, a one-time logger, sawmill operator and sport fisher guide was one of the first non-native people to turn up to help the Haisla—an unlikely ally being a “hippy ex-logger,” as Hill described himself. The Kitlope Agreement that established the Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees/Kitlope Heritage Conservancy was eventually forged with the provincial government in 1996, the genesis for the later Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. It followed a ban on grizzly bear trophy-hunting, which was the forerunner to the ban in the whole Great Bear that is in place today.
In the late 1980s, the impetus for the grizzly bear moratorium started with the elders, people like the late hereditary Chief Kenny Hall, coming to the Kitamaat Village Council with reports that the grizzlies of the Kitlope were disappearing due to trophy-hunting and poaching. Grizzlies are considered the guardians of the forest, so the Haisla started training band members as guardian watchmen to monitor and enforce the protection and stewardship of their Kitlope territory. They also started a children’s rediscovery camp, introducing a new generation to culture and science and providing hope for a community in crisis. The programs were run under the banner of the Nanakila Institute, which was the brainchild of the Haisla, along with Ecotrust, a group that joined the magic canoe early on. Nanakila Institute invited Hill to be its first executive director.
A tipping point came very early on when Paul was with a group of children from the rediscovery camp. A grizzly-hunting guide, angered at the presence of children in prime grizzly area, threatened to shoot through the kids if a grizzly was there. Hill brought a deep understanding of how the trophy-hunting lobby and resource industries thought and worked. He helped point out that the Wildlife Branch had no capacity to accurately count the grizzlies in this huge remote watershed, monitor for poaching, or enforce regulations. Hill and the Haisla argued that, given so many unknowns, the grizzly quota, according to their scientific habitat modelling, should be brought down to zero.
The next strategic step of the Nanakila Institute was to generate its own data by hiring independent wildlife biologists to do an inventory, with the Haisla watchmen to help. The inventory was the final bit of evidence that convinced the government to ban trophy hunting in the Kitlope, which met with international support on one hand, and threats of litigation from the trophy hunting lobby on the other.
The Kitlope was one of the first places in BC to have trophy-hunting banned, and it helped precipitate the first-ever provincial grizzly management strategy. Hill, Amos and Paul continued to work for the protection of indigenous culture and the land, welcoming a growing community of British Columbians who stepped into the canoe to join them. The fledgling watchmen program has since spread to the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, an alliance of the coastal First Nations, one of the big success stories of the coast.
Bruce Hill went on to help in every major campaign in northwestern BC from the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena (the river he lived beside), the Nass and the Stikine, to Lelu Island. His obituary describes his ability to “foster unstoppable alliances between First Nations and non-indigenous conservationists.” Those alliances were formed in the magic canoe that Paul attributes to the teachings of his granny and matriarch of the Xenaksiala people, Annie Paul, born in the Kitlope in 1870. She lived to the age of 96 and weathered every arrow that came her way, from influenza to tuberculosis, and her grandchildren being taken away to residential school.
IT'S AT THE VERY PLACE WHERE ANNIE'S GRANDSON CECIL PAUL was abducted in 1941 by government representatives that Amos, Paul and I arrive in our boat at dusk: the old village of M’skusa, at the mouth of the Kitlope River. At M’skusa is a replica of the Gps’golox pole, from which a supernatural grizzly bear looks over us as we load everyone into a smaller boat to get up the river to the watchman cabin before dark. The original pole was carved when Chief Gps’golox lost all his children and many members of his clan to smallpox, which was brought by white traders in 1863. Cecil Paul’s great grandfather was one of the carvers. As we trade boats, a real grizzly stands up close to the pole to see who has arrived in the estuary, and his well-beaten stomp trail around the pole marks his territory in the estuary. Diggings for rice root and browsed sedges are everywhere.
The next morning, we travel the rest of the way up the Kitlope River in the smaller boat, layered up in wool and rubber raingear. Getting to the lake, Qos, is never guaranteed; the channels shift and get blocked with huge spruce trees and debris during seasonal floods. In Xenaksiala there is a word for the person who steers the canoe, dla laxii layewy. To be a true steersman requires skill and judgement.
We come round the huge granite cliffs, cloaked in mist, that form a portal where the vista opens up to a lake flanked by ice-capped mountains that plunge into the milky blue water. We get to one of the old village sites that has a fine golden sand beach and unload the precious cargo.
A fire and lunch are prepared, and then Paul begins the ceremony to ask his ancestors to welcome his brother, Bruce Hill, back to the Kitlope and watch over him. Paul is the last male fluent speaker of his language; his two sisters and a cousin are the last three fluent matriarchs. His beautiful language floats out over the lake like birdsong.
Paul asked his ancestors for a sign that they will welcome a non-Xenaksiala man to the valley, and at that moment the skies parted, a beam of light lit up the group, and a rainbow appeared. A red-necked grebe swam by too, the last little joke from Bruce Hill that there is room for everyone, even rednecks, in this canoe.
The ban on the grizzly trophy hunt will generate much more than many of us will ever understand. It is part of the process of reconciliation for culture, nature, the survival of humanity and rich ideas—beautiful ideas that will continue to help us all get in the canoe and paddle together with skill and judgement through the troubled waters of our time.
The new grizzly ban in the rest of BC excludes grizzlies hunted for meat. Consultations are being carried out with the Haisla, other First Nations and other stakeholders like Raincoast Conservation Foundation, which bought up coastal guide outfitting licenses to stop the hunt.
Briony Penn’s most recent book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.
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.
For more background on the origins of the Fairy Creek blockades see Bobby Arbess’s story here. Keep up to date on developments by checking here.
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.
THE SCIENTIFIC ANALYSES that have led to the provincial government’s recently announced old-growth logging deferrals were first developed by Dr Karen Price, Dr Rachel Holt and forester Dave Daust. Their 2020 peer-reviewed study, BC’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity, estimated that 33 of BC’s 36 forested biogeoclimatic zone variants have 10 percent or less remaining forest containing large or very large trees.
Because of the physical and biological characteristics of old-growth forests containing large trees, they support high levels of biodiversity. But Price, Holt and Daust have pointed out that when the extent of such old forest in a biogeoclimatic zone variant falls below 10 percent, that zone falls into a high risk category for loss of biodiversity. The result? Most of BC is now teetering on the brink, beyond which extinction of plant and animal species will surely accelerate. (Story here).
The three are also founding members of the Science Alliance for Forestry Transformation (SAFT). SAFT’s public outreach includes video presentations on the subject, including the one below in which Price explains why we need to end logging of old-growth forests containing large and very large old trees.
A Last Stand For Biodiversity (2020).pdf
Ken Wu has been fighting to protect old-growth forests on Vancouver Island for over two decades. In 2007, Briony Penn interviewed him for Focus Magazine. At that time, Wu hoped that the provincial government was on the verge of protecting old-growth on the Island. 15 years later, little has changed.
Ken Wu in 2007 (Photo by David Broadland)
AN ANIMATED KEN WU leans towards me as he describes the awakened consciousness around climate change among the public. “For those of us in the environmental movement, it’s like being on a surfboard with a tsunami coming. A big wave is building and this is our chance to get real institutional changes for the protection of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests.”
We are in a coffee shop next door to the store and headquarters of the Wilderness Committee, of which Ken Wu is the executive director. The rising tide of awareness about climate change, he tells me, has led to an increasing interest in the long-term role forests play in the carbon cycle.
The institutional changes he is excited about are those heralded by the provincial coastal old-growth forest plan, to be released in the fall, a plan that could spell the end to logging of old-growth temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island—the focus of some of the most important environmental protests in Canadian history from Clayoquot to Carmanah and Walbran to Cathedral Grove.
With less than one percent of old-growth Douglas-fir forests left on eastern Vancouver Island and less than a quarter of old-growth temperate rainforest (also called Coastal Western Hemlock forest) on the rest of the Island, the decision to phase out old-growth logging can’t come soon enough for Wu. “Our goal right now is for immediate old-growth closures on the east and south island and all the valley bottoms [where only 10 percent of old-growth rainforest remains], and a phase-out by 2015 throughout the rest of the island.”
Saving the Island’s old-growth forests is a goal that Wu has held central to his convictions since taking the ED post eight years ago in his mid-20s after several years of ecological research and activism in the forest. He’s also convinced of the urgent need to convert the second- growth forest industry to a more sustainable one.
Raised in Saskatchewan, Wu became fascinated with big trees as a child while pouring over picture books about the West Coast and on early holiday trips to the region. It was this love that brought him out to UBC to study ecology where he cut his scientific teeth studying the Pacific giant salamander, a rare amphibian in BC that spends most of its life in the Chilliwack River valley bottom, among the sword ferns of old-growth forests.
Wu’s academic background in ecology is evident in his outpouring of research statistics while building his case for forest preservation: “One big argument for preservation is the role of temperate rainforests in storing carbon. US researchers, Harmon, Ferrell and Franklin in 1990, found that the conversion of old-growth rainforest [to tree plantations] in Washington/Oregon west of the Cascades has resulted in a new influx of 1500 to 1800 megatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in the last century.”
Wu urges me to “compare that to BC’s goal of greenhouse reductions under Premier Campbell’s new climate change plan to reduce emissions by about 23 megatonnes each year by 2020.”
He also cites a 2007 Oregon State University study that showed that over half of the annual fossil fuel carbon emissions of the state were offset by the storage of carbon by state forests, where the harvest rate has fallen dramatically. The Oregon/Washington data is comparable to BC’s rainforests in the degree to which carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere by the huge trees and lush understorey of plants, then stored as carbon from the needles at the top of the canopy through the leaf litter and topsoil to the roots.
In fact, nowhere conjures up a vision of the extraordinary qualities of an old-growth rainforest more than nearby Castle Grove, Wu’s favourite place—and under immediate threat. Located in the Upper Walbran Valley, it is slated for logging within the year by Teal-Jones, a logging company from Surrey. They are pushing a road across the ridge above the grove and are now one kilometre away. Wu is planning to head off to the Grove after our interview to monitor the company’s progress and confirm with professional foresters the measurements of two giants in the forest—the Castle Giant and the Tolkien Giant which are the sixth and seventh widest trees in Canada at five metres (or 16 feet) across.
“Castle Grove is the most spectacular grove of giant cedars in Canada. There are hundreds of near-record cedars in this stand, forming an incredible canopy,” says Wu. Some of the most unusual scientific discoveries of the last 25 years have been found in these canopies, including hundreds of insects new to science; the nesting habitat of the endangered marbled murrelet on the broad mossy branches; and the role of amphibians that have been found to be the biggest predators in the forest in terms of collective weight.
Says Wu, “The multi-billion tourism argument and the need to save this rich ecosystem aside, I’m betting there is more carbon stored in these trees and the soil per hectare than anywhere else in Canada.” He naturally wonders if, given the province’s commitment to addressing climate change, the government is going to grab this “opportunity to curb further emissions” by stopping the clear-cutting of Castle Grove and other old-growth forests.
Carbon, forests and Kyoto
Is it possible that the carbon storage argument is persuasive enough to save BC’s remaining old-growth forests?
No one has thought more about forests and carbon than Natural Resources Canada research scientist Dr Werner Kurz.
Kurz, like Wu, arrived on the West Coast as an adult from a very different landscape, and was no less enchanted. Raised in western Germany, he was introduced to forests by his grandfather, who was the chief forester for an ancient woodland estate in Hessen that had been harvesting its trees for over 750 years. “It was a very different forest than our West Coast ones. It was oaks and beeches with very little understorey. My grandfather knew every tree on the estate—a different experience than Canadian foresters who are expected to manage tens of thousands of hectares alone, with little time in the bush.” Kurz did forestry training in Europe, then came to UBC to do his PhD, where his first research was on the foothill forests of Alberta.
His original research looked painstakingly at the capacity of those forests to store or emit carbon under different harvesting techniques. It demonstrated that slowing the rotation of harvesting, amongst other things, greatly enhanced the ability of a forest to store carbon in the long term. Certainly results one would expect, but until Kurz they had not been quantified down to the tonne.
Now one of the leading lights at the Pacific Forestry Centre on Burnside Road, Kurz has received international attention for his 20- year research into the long-term dynamics of the “carbon stock” (the total amount of carbon stored in a forest stand at any one time) in Canada’s forest—investigating factors of rising temperatures, insect predation and fire.
I ask Kurz if the US study, which Wu referred to, suggests that there is a strong carbon rationale for preserving the island’s old-growth.
“Carbon at present won’t be the clincher for Canadian forests,” answers Kurz. “The difficulty in putting the entire rationale for not logging old-growth onto carbon credits is that it is a highly complex issue that involves a large number of factors.”
Those factors range from what type of forest it is, to the alternatives of using wood. And those factors all play into what Canada has agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol. Canada has currently elected not to include reporting carbon stocks from forest management under Kyoto. Kurz states, “The fate of old-growth forests is only an issue under the protocol if they are deforested.”
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada, as an Annex 1 country, is obliged to report forest carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from both land-use change activities and forest management activities since 1990. The primary reporting requirement in the land-use change category is “deforestation”—defined as “the conversion of forests to other land uses, such as urban or agriculture”—which is a “carbon source” (i.e. more carbon flows out of the forest than into it).
Deforestation accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions, not too far behind the use of fossil fuels for transportation. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in its recent report that preventing deforestation is a top priority in climate change mitigation because it protects both carbon stocks and the capacity of the forest to take up more carbon—carbon sequestration. Everyone agrees, including Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist, that we must stop deforestation both to prevent carbon emissions and for the significant biodiversity, soil and water conservation benefits. Changing land uses like agriculture back to forestry through “reforestation” and “afforesta- tion” (differing by the length of time the land has been out of forestry; and not the same as replanting a forest that has been recently clearcut) is also acknowledged as mitigation through forming carbon sinks (i.e. more carbon flows into the forest than out of it).
However, none of these land-use changes, at least as the Kyoto Protocol defines them, are prevalent on Vancouver Island. According to the rules, only eastern Vancouver Island is experiencing deforestation as our Douglas-fir forests are converted to urban settlement. The conversion of old-growth to second-growth tree plantations does not constitute deforestation, as defined, nor does the replanting constitute reforestation; it is, instead, a “forest manage- ment activity”—defined as a system of practices for stewardship and use of forest land aimed at fulfilling relevant ecological (including biological diversity), economic and social functions of the forest in a sustainable manner.
Under the Kyoto Protocol (the muscle of the UNFCCC), counting the net carbon emissions land-use changes (deforestation, reforestation and afforestation) since 1990 is obligatory, but there is a discretionary clause with regard to evaluating changes in carbon due to forest management (including e.g. both replanting and not logging). Canada elected to opt out of this discretionary clause, which means we can’t presently count the carbon that could be saved from not logging our old-growth forests. I ask Kurz why we did this.
“Because it was apparent that, taken as a whole, Canada’s forests [from the boreal to the rainforest] were shifting from being a sink of carbon to a source, due to the increase in fire, insect predation and other effects of climate change.” When they started to factor in harvesting practices as well, scientists discovered that carbon is leaving Canada’s forests faster than the trees can absorb it. We would be on the hook for those extra megatonnes for the Kyoto reporting period starting next year.
Carbon accounting in the forest
Kurz and a team of scientists are currently developing the National Forest Carbon Monitoring, Accounting, and Reporting System to improve the understanding of the role of Canada’s forests in the global carbon cycle. The two key elements of this system are the Carbon Budget Model—essentially a carbon accounting tool that can be applied to any forest stand in Canada—and a National Forest Inventory. These two elements allow us to determine what our carbon budget would be before and after any forest activity in any given forest stand in Canada’s managed forest. It should enable us to evaluate the carbon benefit of saving our last patches of old-growth.
“Canada’s forests vary in their capacity to sequester carbon for lots of reasons,” explains Kurz; “It really boils down to looking at each particular forest stand and determining what is the best action to benefit the carbon sink.”
The Carbon Budget Model takes into account, firstly, what type of forest it is. Stands like Castle Grove, for example, have much greater carbon storage capabilities over a long period than fire-dependent, insect-ravaged lodgepole pine forests of the Interior, or even the coastal Douglas-fir forest in the rain-shadow region of eastern Vancouver Island.
Different aged stands also have different carbon uptakes. While older trees become less productive than young trees (they grow more slowly and are taking up less carbon on an annual basis), they may well be accumulating large amounts of carbon in their litter, woody debris and soils.
Finally, different forests have different natural disturbance regimes over time and space. For example, fire might go through one type of forest stand every five years and release carbon, while Castle Grove might only get smaller disturbances, like wind, with much less frequency that barely disturb the carbon in the forest soil.
The Carbon Budget Model calculates the carbon stock changes of the forest over time, as well as before and after disturbances, including logging, insect predation and fire. It can show how much carbon is released through the soil and the trees from different harvesting techniques and rotations. This provides a baseline against which to evaluate management options (including leaving it alone) and possible carbon credits.
Clearcuts, carbon release and complexities
The carbon budget models have been showing increasing rates of carbon leaving Canada’s forests since climate change impacts have risen correspondingly. However, the major exception to this trend is BC’s old-growth temperate rainforests, which remain as large carbon sinks.
Ken Wu puts it this way: “Per hectare, old-growth temperate rainforests store more carbon than even tropical rainforests, and they’re not subject to major fires or pine beetles—logging is their main cause of carbon release. Conversion of old-growth rainforest to tree plantations is not only a gross simplification of the ecological system, in terms of impoverishing biodiversity, but also greatly diminishes its carbon stores.”
Referring back to the same US research, he notes that it takes over 200 years for a replanted forest to store the carbon that was released by the initial disturbance (or clearcut) in the coastal temperate rainforests.
“Time is not on our side when it comes to climate change,” warns Wu. Recent studies in China and the US have also shown that conversion of old-growth forests into second-growth forests results in a net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as carbon sequestered in the soil, needles, branches, and trunks of trees is released after logging. A clearcut in a temperate old-growth rainforest has no parallel in natural disturbances and many argue doesn’t “fulfill relevant ecological functions” (as per Kyoto).
But the complexity of evaluating carbon stores and ecological functions of forests and their management options means we’re a ways off from international agreement on an accrediting system.
“You have to have a system that is transferable and verifiable,” explains Kurz. “Someone could come to the carbon market and claim carbon credits for all the carbon locked up in Goldstream Park. But that forest is already protected against harvesting and no one can make the claim that they planned on harvesting it, so why should someone get a credit for not clear-cut logging Goldstream Park? On the other hand, if Joe Blogg’s Timber Company has a timber lease somewhere else and is legally entitled to harvest at a certain rate, but decided...to set it aside or reduce the rate of harvest by lengthening the rotation period, they might under a future carbon trading scheme, collect such credits.”
Governments are still in the process of developing domestic carbon trading or offset rules around forest management, but we don’t know when they will be announced or what these rules will include. International discussions have focused primarily on ways in which deforestation rates can be reduced in the tropics where the land-use pressures are immense—13 million hectares per year are deforested and converted to other land uses.
There’s yet another catch in the carbon argument: International accounting rules assume that carbon removed from the forest is released to the atmosphere, but many argue that a portion of the carbon will be stored in long-lived prod- ucts like houses and some of it could be used for bioenergy to replace fossil fuel emissions.
Kurz and his team are tackling that challenge too by building into their models a “full life cycle analysis” of the harvested material—an obviously complex and time-consuming task.
Then there is the even fuller cost of accounting on a global scale. If we don’t use the wood from the forest, what other options do we have to meet demands for building products, paper and energy? And what would be the emissions from those alternatives, such as concrete and steel? By limiting the wood supply from BC’s forests, are we putting more pressure on tropical woods?
So what to do?
In response to this last point, Wu argues, “The growth in problems elsewhere shouldn’t prevent us from doing the right thing for the environment or social justice here in BC—it means that we support efforts for sustainability and justice everywhere, as opposed to nowhere!”
Much of the argument comes back to the need to create verifiable models to test these assumptions and see which options contribute most to climate change mitigation. If we do want to make educated and quantitative choices surrounding the carbon debate, it all takes accurate data and time.
But even Kurz points out carbon is not the only reason we should protect old-growth forests: “There are other important considerations, such as biodiversity, which can’t be assessed in a model about carbon dynamics, but are of critical importance.” Our telephone interview from his home is interrupted by the cries of his two small girls as they prepare for a trip out to French Beach. “One of the drawbacks of being a modeller is that I don’t spend enough time in the forest with my work anymore. Instead I spend it staring at computers, sitting in meeting rooms and airplanes going to international conferences. In my spare time now I take my family and head out to the west coast.”
Wu agrees with Kurz that it is the twin arguments of carbon and biodiversity that together are “the clincher” in our treatment of coastal forests. “My first motivation to protect old-growth forests has always been for biological reasons,” says Wu. “But what adds to the arguments for keeping them standing is counteracting climate change.”
Wu notes that in New Zealand and southwest Australia logging of remaining native old-growth forests has been banned. There are also some exciting new initiatives, like the New Zealand Emissions Biodiversity Exchange, which gives landowners carbon credits for restoring native forest as a way of combining biodiversity and carbon store objectives. New Zealand, says Wu, “is more progressive than BC in these specific goals, and it could happen here if we bring pressure on the BC government right now.”
The urgency, Wu stresses, is two-fold. Castle Grove could be logged within months and similar stands are being logged at a rapid rate. The other urgency is for public input into the BC government’s coastal old-growth forest plan, before its release this fall. Wu’s organization suggests writing MLA’s, Minister Coleman and the premier (see www.westernwildernesscommittee.org).
Minister of Forests and Range Rich Coleman announced in May that he would be shifting the timber industry’s focus away from old-growth logging toward logging second-growth. Though not available for an interview with Focus, he said in a June Times-Colonist article that his job is to strike a balance between protection and enabling the harvesting of “some old growth on the Island that’s still viable for forestry.” Coleman also said protection of the massive trees at Castle Grove “would be something we would look at,” but stated any details on specifically what old growth on the Island would be protected or harvested wouldn’t be available until well after his Coastal Recovery Plan is released.
Wu is in favour of any plan to phase out old-growth forest logging but notes there need to be specific short-term timelines and targets. “If there aren’t targets and deadlines, then the issue will just keep smouldering and we will still lose all our old growth incrementally over time.”
Unfortunately, the most threatened old growth on the Island is the Douglas-fir forest of the southeastern Island, which is being rapidly converted to urban settlement. It is mainly privately-owned, so Coleman’s plan won’t have much effect on this forest. Still, there could emerge some economic incentives to keep it as forest with a carbon trading system similar to New Zealand’s.
Wu is also concerned that the government has indicated it will increase the rate of cut of second-growth forests by reducing the rotation from 80 years on public lands to 50 (already the case on private lands). The older second-growth forests are the most biologically rich, supporting salmon and many other species.
Arguments for biodiversity have been around a lot longer than carbon arguments, but biodiversity is even harder to quantify, place a value on, and trade. Still, the arguments are even more compelling in the face of climate change.
The ability of forests to withstand more than a two-degree temperature rise is a major question in itself. Says Wu, “For our forests to better survive an unpredictable future, we need to protect their genetic diversity to help their adaptability. The best place to source this genetic diversity is in old-growth forests.”
As my interview with Wu is winding up, we discuss Kurz’s work and the possibility of applying the Carbon Budget Model to the Castle Grove stand. The model would provide some hard data on the carbon stock of the stand. According to Kurz, that would take three days work by a professional forester. The model itself can be downloaded off the web.
As comfortable talking carbon numbers as ecology or policy, Wu’s ready to bring every bit of data to bear on the discussion and is already thinking of which forester to contact to gather the data and work the model. His enthusiasm is infectious and I feel like getting the old surfboard out myself to jump on the wave.
If the provincial government actually does commit to phase out old-growth logging on the coast, and with people like Kurz creating tools to evaluate carbon stores so that carbon trading can occur, the Island’s last old-growth might have a chance. Perhaps even some day, Wu could be out of a job protecting wilderness.
I ask him if he is worried about that and he replies that, first, he would have to make sure there are firm targets and deadlines on the old-growth—and that second-growth logging is sustainable. But if all that panned out, he would be happy. He could get back to his first love— studying the Pacific giant salamander amongst the towering trees.
Briony Penn PhD is an award-winning environmental educator, a naturalist, mother and artist and author of several books.
Finding the Mother Tree: ecologist Suzanne Simard offers solutions to BC’s forest woes
EVERYTHING IN AN ECOSYSTEM IS CONNECTED. A tiny sapling relies on a towering ancient tree, just like a newborn baby depends on its mother. And that forest giant needs the bugs in the dirt, the salmon carcass brought to its roots by wolves and bears and the death and decay of its peers. It thrives not in isolation, but because of dizzyingly complex connections with other trees and plants through vast but tiny fungal networks hidden below the forest floor.
It’s here, in the soil, that forest ecologist Suzanne Simard found her calling. Simard is a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of hundreds of peer-reviewed articles. She recently published a memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, about her life journey to discover what makes the forest tick. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal bought the movie rights to the book and Adams is set to play Simard in a feature film based on the memoir.
As a child, Simard’s relationship with the forest was simple. Spending her summers in the old-growth forests of the Monashee Mountains in southern B.C., she and her siblings did what most kids do in a forest: run, play, build forts. She also had a habit of snacking on the soil.
“I ate dirt all the time,” she tells me from her home in Nelson, B.C. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna study dirt.’ I ate it. I threw it. I dug in it. I rode my bike through big holes in it.”
Suzanne Simard (Photo: Brendan Ko)
Simard’s connection with the forest goes back generations. Her grandpa was a horse-logger, which means he chose one good tree at a time, cut it down, dragged it out of the bush with horses and launched it down a steep hillside into a lake where it could be floated downriver and sold. As those trees were taken from the forest, their selective removal let in new light that young plants greedily turned into photosynthate, sugars spurring their growth. The old trees provided shade and protection as the new trees filled in the gaps and the ecosystem continued to function as it had for thousands of years—cycles of warmth and growth, cold and decay.
When she followed in the footsteps of the loggers before her and entered the male-dominated industry in the late 1970s as a forester, Simard found herself working in a system that looked nothing like the horse-logging operations of her grandparents’ generation. Rough roads winding along valley bottoms and switchbacking up mountainsides led to big open spaces—clearcuts— where chainsaws, feller-bunchers (heavy machinery capable of cutting down and moving smaller trees, sometimes two or three at a time) and logging trucks able to navigate those roads worked efficiently and at a breakneck pace to take as many trees as possible, feeding mills and markets with the promise that those clearcuts would be replanted and when the trees were big enough, the process could begin all over again.
“I got my first job in the forest industry in Lillooet,” she says. “I loved the work because I love the bush and I love the danger of it all, the excitement of it all. But I was also conflicted because it was so different [from] what I understood, what I grew up with. It wasn’t careful—it was just exploitation.”
In those massive replanted clearcuts Simard found a sea of dying saplings, not the promised green gold. She set out to learn why.
Finding the mother tree
The first clues the young forester found were wrapped around the roots of saplings. Healthy baby conifers uprooted from the dirt would reveal roots dangling a tangled web of fine fungal thread—mycelium—varied and brightly coloured. In contrast, the roots of sick seedlings, plucked from the hard, dry soil compacted by the machinery that had extracted the tall, old trees, were black and devoid of any mycelium.
As a young woman in an industry resistant to change, she found herself struggling to apply her observations to the work she was tasked to do: feed an industry increasingly hungry for trees while finding a way to make sure that hunger would always be satiated. Her suggestions to plant multiple species in clusters, mimicking the natural succession of healthy forests, instead of the preferred monocrop plantations of pine in neat little rows, were dismissed. While frustrating, she says coming face-to-face with the problems of entrenched forestry practices fuelled her curiosity.
“I think in some ways having that experience in industrial forestry and being part of the clearcutting machine myself was essential to the development of the questions I eventually asked,” she says. “I had conflicts and regrets, but it was also formative for me too.”
After working with logging companies, reluctantly flagging ancient forests for harvest, she got a job with the B.C. Forest Service and started conducting field experiments, fighting for funding and recognition of her work.
She eventually learned the mycelium were part of an extraordinary mycorrhizal network that was working with the trees to mutual benefit, carrying resources like carbon and nitrogen back and forth through the underground forest ecosystem. She popularized the term, Mother Tree, explaining the ecological connections between trees is like the nurturing connection between mother and child. She discovered that old trees feed new trees a cocktail of nutrients necessary for survival and change the ingredients of the cocktail in response to climatic conditions. She even found old trees recognize their own kin, preferentially distributing nutrients to their offspring over seedlings that took root in their shade carried there by wind or dropped by a bird or animal.
She also demonstrated the connection between different species, such as birch and fir, alder and pine, and proved through multi-year experiments that the forest management practice of eradicating deciduous species both manually and through the use of herbicides like glyphosate was in fact detrimental to regrowth, in some cases catastrophically so.
Yet, even when she’d proved that trees share resources and communicate through the mycorrhizal network, publishing her findings in peer-reviewed journals, she found there was another network at play, a network of politicians, policy-makers and corporate interests. Her theories and discoveries were scoffed at, discredited and mostly ignored by the people who needed to listen.
“When I published my first work on connection and forests, I just got slaughtered,” she says. “Honestly, it was too much for me. I didn’t have the strength. I was raising my kids at the time. They were little tiny babies, and it was just too much.”
She persevered and shifted into academia, taking a position at the University of British Columbia, juggling her work with motherhood, grief after her brother was killed in an accident and, later, breast cancer.
“I got really depressed about climate change and then I got sick with breast cancer,” she says. “So I stopped reading about the details of climate change, because I understood it enough. And I started looking at how systems work more. I just said, ‘I’ve got to focus on these positive things.’”
B.C.’s forest policies still perpetuate clearcutting
Fast forward to 2015 when Simard, now well-respected and her work widely accepted and the inspiration for a character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory by Richard Powers, started The Mother Tree Project to continue her research on how trees communicate with each other in the hopes that the discoveries can influence change, not only by increasing our understanding of forest ecology but also by presenting solutions to the problems facing B.C.’s forests as provincial policy continues to perpetuate destructive clearcutting practices.
“I’d done all this fundamental work on forests as social places, that forest trees are connected, that they share resources, they’re communicative, they’re regenerative, they’re interdependent on all these different ages of trees, between the old trees and the young trees,” she says. “And yet the work was never really applied.”
Partnering with a team of ecologists, foresters and researchers and leveraging her professorship to catalyze graduate students to tackle different aspects of the ambitious project, Simard started by establishing experimental sites in nine climatic regions across the province, sites that were chosen to better our understanding of how climate change will impact the success of forest regeneration.
“How do we protect these old trees and still be able to harvest some trees?” she asks. “And what would the patterns be as the climate is changing? As we have to migrate trees, what do they need? We’re finding out that survival of new migrants is about 30 per cent higher when they have the cover of old trees.”
It all comes back to the soil and the trade network that exists between forest organisms.
“It really is about bootstrapping up the new generations with as many fungi as it can support for a productive ecosystem,” she says. “The way to do it is to leave these old trees spread through the forest in clusters so that the old trees are protected against wind and infestations and just shock from being left alone.”
With enough old trees left behind to distribute resources where (and when) they’re most needed and shelter new growth, the next part of the process is stimulating and replicating natural systems. She explains encouraging native plants to remain builds the soil structure and adds diversity to the fungal species that help transfer resources from tree to tree.
Public pressure backed by solid science is recipe for change
Simard says the experiment is starting to gain traction with the likes of logging companies and BC Timber Sales, the government agency responsible for managing about 20 per cent of the province’s forests.
“They were reluctantly, grudgingly drawn into the project because they saw it as contributing, I think, to their social licence,” she says. “Now, those licensees are going, ‘Wow, this actually worked.’ I was just on a call with BC Timber Sales yesterday at this little conference and they’re saying, ‘Well, the public is pressuring us to shift to partial cutting, so we need to know about partial cutting.’ They’re talking about leaving 40 to 60 per cent of the basal area. That is a huge, huge shift.”
While partial cutting has yet to land in provincial policy, she says change, while slow, is gaining momentum through a combination of public pressure and the marriage of Western and Indigenous science.
“I’ve worked in every sector—I’ve worked in industry, I’ve worked as a consultant, I’ve worked in government and academia—and I’ve pushed and pushed and pushed from inside. And the change you can make is just this tiny little incremental change, or nothing at all, or backwards. The civil disobedience [and] the protests are absolutely essential,” she says, referring to the movement to protect old-growth forests on southern Vancouver Island, where more than 200 people have been arrested, adding, “but they need the science to back it up.”
That science is what she dedicated her life to, finally coming to fruition with the Mother Tree project, but Simard warns of the urgency to protect those ecosystems for their role in fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity. Reforestation and adjusting harvest techniques is only one part of the shift needed, she says, explaining we also need to cut less and consider ecosystem values like carbon sequestration, water and biodiversity, not just the price a two-by-four will fetch on the market.
“We still need these big decision makers at the policy level, like Minister Conroy and the chief forester, Diane Nicholls, and we need [NDP Premier] Horgan to stand behind them, to make these changes. Either we do partial cutting but we spread it over a bigger landscape or we do more concentrated clearcutting, which people don’t like and isn’t good for the forest. We need to make those two things happen at the same time: reduce the cut and save the old-growth forest and reforest what we do cut right away, but leave these old trees.”
The stakes are higher than ever, and grow exponentially as the extraction of the last of B.C.’s remaining productive old-growth continues.
“We need these old-growth forests, like at Fairy Creek, for their ability to store carbon [and] for species at risk that live there,” she says. “And these old-growth trees, we need them because the genes of those trees, the seeds, have seen many, many climates in the past. We need that legacy in order to deal with climate change in the future.”
“I healed myself”
Simard says the solutions—and hope—can be found in the forest itself.
“In an ecosystem, all the creatures (the biotic) create the trees, the plants, the fungi and so on. The way they have evolved is for resilience. They’ve evolved to be efficient, they’ve evolved to recover [and] they’ve evolved to regenerate. You can look at a system and say, ‘Well, there’s not much happening, it’s not really doing anything.’ I know that at some point it starts to build momentum. And it is just that all these creatures are working at small scales and it builds and builds like a nucleus that’s growing, and then the system can suddenly recover very quickly. That gives me incredible hope.”
She says returning now to the forests where she spent her childhood summers eating dirt is heartbreaking—because they’re gone. From above, the patchy clearcuts on the hills and mountains around Mabel Lake look like a 1990s haircut gone horribly wrong.
“When I drive by the brand-new clearcuts around my town, I feel sick to my stomach,” she says. “But then I go to the forest and I recover myself and I’m able to go back and do the fight again.”
“We have no choice but to remain hopeful, to continue to push and push and push as much as we possibly can in our own capacities and not exhaust ourselves,” she continues. “Get all the people around you that support what you’re doing, and you support them. Then you can survive this.”
She adds ecosystems have an inherent ability to recover, in the same way humans can recover from adversity and disease with help from a network of relationships, family and friends.
“I was meant to recover from breast cancer—I healed myself. And forests can heal themselves.”
Matt Simmons is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter based in Smithers, B.C., unceded Gidimt’en Clan territory, home of the Wet'suwet'en/Witsuwit’en. This was originally published in July 2021 in The Narwhal.
Watt’s dramatic images of coastal forests—before and after logging—have helped everyone better understand what’s being lost.
THERE WERE A FEW TIMES, as TJ Watt slogged through a sea of stumps and barren clearcuts, that he questioned whether anyone cared that trees, which had grown for centuries and supported intricate networks of species, had been destroyed forever.
“You sometimes wonder ‘why am I even doing this? Is it really making a difference,’” said Watt, a photographer and campaigner for the Ancient Forest Alliance whose dramatic before-and-after pictures of old-growth logging in BC recently went viral.
International shockwaves from his photographs of giant western red cedars in the Caycuse River watershed on southern Vancouver Island, strategically placed with after-logging images of massive stumps, helped focus attention on BC’s already controversial old-growth logging policies.
All photos above were taken in the Caycuse area of Vancouver Island by TJ Watt
The reaction proved that, indeed, people do care.
“It says we are on the right track,” Watt said.
The images appeared in several major magazines and were recognized in three international photo competitions. Then, in October, Watt was named as a National Geographic Explorer and Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer.
Watt will also receive a Trebek Initiative grant, which will help fund more expeditions into remote areas where, out of sight of the general public, old-growth is being logged.
He hopes the recognition will allow him to reach a wider audience. “I think it just goes to show that this is truly a globally significant issue. These are some of the Earth’s largest and oldest trees and, here we are in a first world country, and it is still legal to cut them down,” said Watt.
The Trebek Initiative is named after Alex Trebek, the Canadian host of the popular television show Jeopardy, who died earlier this year. Trebek was an honorary president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the grants, awarded for the first time this year, support explorers, scientists, photographers, geographers and educators who use storytelling to ignite “a passion to preserve.”
The recognition comes shortly after Watt’s latest release of photographs that are breath-taking for all the wrong reasons.
The pictures of scalped hillsides along the upper Mahatta River on northwestern Vancouver Island immediately drew horrified condemnation of BC’s old-growth forestry policies.
Scalped hillsides along the upper Mahatta River on northwestern Vancouver Island (photo by TJ Watt)
The destruction on the ground at Mahatta River (photo by TJ Watt)
About 50 hectares around the Mahatta River, within the territory of Quatsino First Nation, was auctioned off by BC Timber Sales, and the photos show the raw reality of of clearcutting, with slopes and the valley bottom denuded of old-growth trees, leaving only giant cedar stumps.
“[The photos] really struck a nerve with people. A lot of people see those images and think ‘didn’t we stop clearcutting like that back in the 1990s?’” Watt said.
The trees were cut last year and this year—after the Province received the Old Growth Strategic Review which called for a paradigm shift in the way BC manages ancient forests.
“This is one of the most atrocious examples of logging that I’ve seen in more than a decade,” said Watt, 37, who has worked on photography projects for the Ancient Forest Alliance since 2010.
The Province has committed to implementing the panel’s 14 recommendations, but, in the meantime, old-growth logging has accelerated and Forests Minister Katrine Conroy confirmed last month that, out of a total annual cut of about 200,000 hectares, 55,000 hectares are old growth.
Historically, before commercial logging, there were about 25-million hectares of old growth and government figures now put BC’s total forest at 56.2 million hectares of which 11.1 million hectares is old growth (not the 13.7-million hectares that government previously estimated).
The definition of coastal old growth is a forest with trees that are at least 250 years old and, in the Interior, trees that are at least 140 years old.
It’s too late for the Mahatta River forest, but Watt is holding out hope that people will no longer put up with such destruction elsewhere.
“The world is watching right now,” he said
“I’m hoping that the pressure of these images and the rest of the photographs we have been sharing are enough to push the government in the direction of doing the right thing.”
Recent BCTS logging at Mahatta River (photo TJ Watt)
From skate-boarding hippie to making a difference with pictures
Watt’s interest in photography, which morphed into his crusade for old growth, started when he was a skate-boarding teenager, sporting dreadlocks and living in Metchosin.
“Like every young photographer, I figured I wanted to travel the world and shoot photos of far-flung places, but after a few months doing that and then coming home I realized the landscape in the forests right in my own back yard on Vancouver Island, are second to none and I decided to really focus my efforts here,” he said.
That commitment was cemented by a stint at the now-defunct Western Academy of Photography.
“It gave me a year to focus specifically on photography instead of doing all the construction and landscaping jobs I was doing. I knew I wanted to do photography related to nature and photography with a real purpose,” he said.
It was a decision that worried his family, Watt admits.
“If you tell your parents that you’re going to be an artist that saves trees and that’s how you’re going to make a living, they definitely roll their eyes at you and look concerned and worried,” he said.
“But, I can say, more than a decade later, they’re some of the proudest people around. You sometimes really do have to follow your gut, follow your dreams and believe it’s all going to work out.”
Andrea Kucherawy was program manager at the Western Academy of Photogaphy when Watt arrived as a student and she watched his potential develop.
“He definitely stood out for me,” said Kucherawy who has avidly followed his career.
Watt’s interest in environmental photography paralleled his interest in sports such as skateboarding, said Kucherawy, who is pleased he took the environmental route.
“I honestly don’t think we would be where we are now without the work he has done,” she said.
“People need a visual, a comparison and his before-and-after work often includes a human element to give a sense of scale and I think that’s what’s really empowering for the cause,” she said.
Ken Wu, who co-founded the Ancient Forest Alliance and is now executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, first met Watt when he (Wu) was executive director of the Victoria chapter of the Wilderness Committee.
“He was this skateboarding hippie who always had a camera with him and he liked to take pictures of all the protests we were organizing,” Wu said.
“Then I sent him into the woods to take pictures of the old-growth forests and to build trails and it turned out that he had a great aptitude for trail building and outdoor activities in rugged landscapes,” he said.
When Wu split from the Wilderness Committee, one of his first moves was to hire TJ as the Ancient Forest Alliance’s first staff member.
One of the most celebrated early campaigns was sparked by the duo’s discovery of Avatar Grove, near Port Renfrew. TJ’s photos of the huge, gnarly trees and untouched forest, which was slated to be felled, sparked massive public interest.
Avatar Grove (photo by TJ Watt)
Avatar Grove (photo by TJ Watt)
Avatar Grove has now become a tourist attraction and was pivotal in the transformation of Port Renfrew from a logging town to a destination for people who want to see big trees.
It was the right time in history, noted Wu: the movie Avatar—which has a story line about saving a forest on another planet—was taking the world by storm; and TJ’s growing camera skills, combined with the rise of Facebook, allowed his photos of the discovery of a spectacular grove of trees in an accessible area to be shared around the world.
“I recognized that TJ’s photos could be news media in and of themselves because they could be shared on that new platform,” Wu said.
“They really hit home. It’s a visual shock. It’s like harpooned whales or rhinos with their horns cut off, you get it a lot more quickly than all of my emails about productivity distinctions and tenure regulations,” he said.
Edward Burtynsky, one of Canada’s best-known photographers, who focuses on global industrial landscapes, came across TJ when he was looking at photographing big trees and BC’s northern rainforest.
All his research led to TJ and a loose collaboration started, said Burtynsky, who was impressed with the power of the photographs and the direction of the Ancient Forest Alliance campaigns.
“When you name an area and name a tree it’s a really powerful way to save them,” he said.
Now, in the age of iPhones, images have become one of the most powerful and fluid forms of communication, putting eyes on parts of the world that most people cannot witness first-hand, Burtynsky said.
“Those before-and-after images I believe really drive the point home. You look at a tree that is 500, 700 or even 1,000 years old that sprouted before the medieval age and is now going to be sent somewhere else—not even here—to be cut into boards for decking. There’s something terribly wrong with that image,” he said.
“I can’t see a more compelling way to tell that story than letting people look at that majestic tree and then [look at it again] after the loggers have been in.”
Before and after images of logging of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island (photos by TJ Watt)
Sonia Furstenau, leader of the BC Green Party, said Watt’s photographs illustrate the gap between logging practices on the ground and the story that government tries to tell.
“Thirty years ago, the world was paying attention because we were clearcutting old-growth forests. Well, nothing has changed,” she said.
“We have accepted this approach to forestry that puts mechanization and efficiency above, not only ecosystem protection, but also above jobs,” said Furstenau, pointing out that increasing volumes of timber are being cut with fewer and fewer people working in the industry.
“When you see these images that TJ has so beautifully captured of before and after, what he shows is the real devastation of these logging practices,” Furstenau said.
A huge emotional toll in witnessing the destruction
The accolades for Watt come at a pivotal point as the provincial government announced in early November that logging will be deferred on 2.6 million hectares of old growth for two years while it consults with the province’s 204 First Nations.
The deferrals are based on new mapping, identifying areas of old growth where there is imminent risk of biodiversity loss. BC Timber Sales, the government agency that hands out logging contracts for 20 percent of the province’s annual allowable cut—and which has been heavily criticized for auctioning off some of the most controversial areas of old growth—will immediately stop advertising and selling parcels in the deferral areas.
It is positive that government is now using independent mapping, based on science, to identify old-growth forests at risk and that mapping confirms that many of BC’s forests are at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss, Watt said.
However, details and provincial funding are missing although the federal government has committed $50-million to help protect BC’s ancient forests, noted Watt.
“Without a matching provincial commitment of several hundred million dollars in conservation funding, with a primary focus on First Nations economic relief linked to deferrals, the full scale of the deferrals and eventual permanent protection will be impossible to achieve,” he said.
“We have the road map in hand, but we’re missing the gas in the tank,” he said.
That means the clock is ticking as the ever-shrinking remains of BC’s old-growth forests are continuing to fall and Watt suspects it will be impossible to avoid more before-and-after pictures—and they are never easy.
The chance to inform the public about forestry practices in the hidden corners of the province is a privilege, but it leaves scars, Watt admits.
“There’s a huge emotional toll and compounding ecological grief to witnessing the disappearance and destruction of these truly irreplaceable forests,” he said.
“It even causes a lot of anger, because I know that every day there’s a delay in ensuring these forests are protected, some of them are gone forever. Trees may come back, but never the ancient forests that are so humbling and awe-inspiring.”
As an example, he described how retracing his steps through the Caycuse after the machines had done their worst, was like looking at the death of old friends.
The idea of irretrievable loss when old-growth forests are cut was echoed by Gary Merkel, one of the authors of the Old Growth Strategic Review and a member of the technical advisory panel on the recent deferrals.
Speaking at the news conference Merkel emphasized the importance of the underlying ecosystems in old-growth forests: “Some of our ecosystems in British Columbia remain relatively undisturbed since the last ice-age, more than 10,000 years,” he said.
“We can grow new trees, they are renewable. These ecosystems, in most cases, are not renewable. They will never come back in a lifetime and possibly ever because of climate change,” he said.
Watt’s photographs have helped make British Columbians aware of what was happening in the remote reaches of Vancouver Island. Despite the toll, Watt is committed to continuing his work on behalf of the forest: “Unless we go on these trips to try to expose them, the forests would disappear without anybody knowing about it.”
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.
I MET WITH VICKY HUSBAND, doyenne of the BC movement to defend BC’s forests, in November 2021. We had a good chat and I was impressed with her deep knowledge and continuing energy for the cause. At 81, despite over 40 years of activism, she shows no sign of slowing down on the forestry front. Certainly the need continues. She is blessed with the type of personality—and a like-minded network of friends and associates—that allow her to largely avoid discouragement and cynicism. “There’s work to be done,” she says simply.
Vicky Husband at her home in the Highlands, Victoria, November 2021 (photo by Patrick Pothier)
My recent meeting was not the first time I have interviewed Husband. That occurred back in 1989. I dug out that interview and found it remarkable for a few reasons: First, she could explain well to a then-novice like me, the issues arising from forest destruction in BC. Second, the concerns she relayed then continue 33 years on: the increasing rate of cut, the liquidation of old growth, the poverty of second-growth plantations, job losses, and a “shortsighted and gutless” provincial government.
She didn’t mince words then, or now. Here’s the interview from June 1989 in Focus on Women, followed by an update based on our November 2021 conversation.
(1989) She’s fighting for our forests—and our planet
IT’S HARD TO KNOW where to begin a profile of Vicky Husband. She’s not one to talk about herself. Or rather, as she says, “I have no personal life.” She talks (fast—fortunately I have brought a tape recorder) about the crisis situation of our forests and other environmental concerns and the necessity for change, rather than about herself.
Focus chose to interview Husband because the first week of June is Environment Week and who better to talk to than a woman who has made the causes associated with the environment her life. Last year, Husband received the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Global 500 Award for her outstanding environmental achievements.
Her role in convincing the federal government to make South Moresby a national park is only part of the story. As president of the Friends of Ecological Reserves, she and her organization have helped defer logging for at least another three years in the Khutzeymateen Valley near Prince Rupert, where grizzly bear habitat will be threatened if logging proceeds as planned, and have raised over $100,000 for collection of wildlife and forestry data needed to preserve the valley as Canada’s first grizzly bear sanctuary. For her efforts she earned the appropriate nickname “Mama Grizzly.” And currently, she’s crusading for the protection of old-growth forests in the Carmanah Valley and Clayoquot Sound, as well as for numerous other concerns. She’s conservation chairperson of the Sierra Club of Western Canada and an active member of other environmental organizations.
Husband, born in Victoria, obtained a BA from UBC and thought she’d be an artist (her paintings were in a one-woman show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1965) or a filmmaker (she has made a few), but she got sidetracked. After her mother died 18 years ago, she was able, through an inheritance and through living simply, to devote herself—and her tremendous energy and passion—to environmental concerns. She receives no money for the exhausting schedule she keeps.
She’s often in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and in other parts of BC, meeting with politicians, bureaucrats, forest industry and union officials and members of the media, or giving slide presentations to community groups. She feels driven by the considerable knowledge she has acquired about what we are doing to our planet.
What we are doing is destroying it, at an ever increasing rate. As an example, she cites our forests: “The rate of cut in BC is now three times what it was in 1960…In 1987, 260,000 hectares were cut; compare that with only 186,000 hectares of old growth forest that we have protected in parks and reserves on the coast. We could cut all the forests in our parks in less than a year at the current rate of cut…It’s happening so fast, we don’t know what’s left,” says Husband.
A few minutes later she’s pointing out areas on a map, saying, “that’s all gone, that’s gone, that too…” Areas representing a large part of our province. And 95 percent of what is cut is old-growth forest which, she argues, is irreplaceable, a non-renewable resource. A second-growth forest is short-term, lacking in both diversity and wildlife.
Husband has little patience with the defences that the forest companies and the government marshal to explain the depletion of one of our greatest resources. The industry claims that despite the clearcutting, the scarred, mutilated landscapes will “green-up.” But Husband says the methods used in clearcutting often destroy the soil. What we’ll end up with, she says, is “match stick forests” or “pulp plantations”—“fibre farms,” not a complex, diverse ecosystem.
As for the argument that the industry is trying to preserve jobs, Husband dismisses it: “In the last 10 year, MacMillan Bloedel’s cut rate and profits increased greatly, yet they still laid off thousands of workers.” She says the logging equipment used now (such as grapple yarders) allows the industry to employ fewer people while causing more damage to the environment.
Husband gives a lesson on multinationals when asked why the forestry companies don’t take a more long-range view. “Money grows faster than trees. The faster they can take down trees, the more money they can make to invest elsewhere. They aren’t spending it on the mills which they’ve amortized and there’s no need to upgrade because they’ll be no large trees left soon. And they aren’t going to wait 60 to 80 years for a forest to grow. In one study done near Prince George on a poor growing site, the trees grew only six feet over 48 years.”
She accuses the industry of arrogance. “They are cutting down trees given to them by nature and leaving a mess. They plant single-species forests which means the biodiversity is disappearing, and along with it the fish and wildlife habitat. What future is there for the grizzly, the cougar, the mountain caribou or the bald eagle?”
What she means by biodiversity are the many lifeforms that thrive in or along with an old-growth forest—wildlife, vegetation, fish, insects. Clearcutting wipes it out. Possibly forever.
The provincial government also has Husband on their case for being shortsighted and gutless. She wants to see a Royal Commission established to look into forest management and land use and, ideally, a Ministry of Conservation set up to protect all forest uses, not just timber, which are now controlled almost totally by the Ministry of Forests, whose only old-growth forest management policy is, she claims, liquidation. “Ninety-eight percent of their budget goes to cutting forests.”
The irony is that our Ministry of Tourism is running big glossy ads featuring the headline: If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. Says Husband, “You sure are, because there aren’t going to be any woods there!” She has met tourists at Long Beach arriving in tears at the mutilated landscape they’ve just witnessed en route.
Husband feels time is running out, not just for our forests and their wildlife, but for the planet. Everything is connected. If forests disappear, the climate will change. Watersheds are disappearing too because of the soil erosion from clearcutting near lakes, rivers and oceans.
Asked if she gets depressed because of the extremity of the situation, Husband says, “occasionally, but generally I’m too busy.” She adds, “I meet a lot of good, committed people in my work and that really helps.” And so does walking into Windy Bay [Hlk’yah G̱awG̱a in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve] and knowing that she played a part in saving it.
“But everyone has got to get involved if we are to save the planet.”
—by Leslie Campbell, June 1989
BACK TO THE PRESENT, at the end of November 2021. Though much of what she said in that 1989 interview is echoed by her still, I have additional questions, including “what is different now?” and “what do we need to do?”
Among the new challenges that have evolved over the ensuing 30-odd years, she tells me, is the “captured mainstream media.” Captured by the forestry industry/ministry and hobbled by cutbacks. In the old days—she mentions Clayoquot and South Moresby campaigns—the media were far more accessible. Husband says she could, and did, walk into the Times Colonist regularly to chat with the editor. She or other activists were appearing on local TV channels regularly. She knew excellent reporters she could easily contact. But since the early 2000s, such doors to media have closed. The mainstream press seldom does investigative reporting, she says. She names some longtime provincial commentators with derision.
Another obvious difference is in policing practices at protests. What’s happening at Fairy Creek and Wet’suwet’en territory is worrisome, says Husband. She rejects the claims by provincial officials that they have no control over the situation. “The government is not looking after the public interest.” The system whereby private companies operating on public land can get injunctions and have the RCMP behave brutally towards peaceful forest defenders, she says, “is like in a police state, not a democracy.” Many protesters have had to go to hospital—and it’s not getting reported, says Husband, clearly upset.
Indigenous rights are also rightly more central. Husband says “colonialism is alive and well within the Horgan government,” which tends to use First Nations rights as an excuse for logging, while offering them no other economic alternatives. They only really consult with those First Nations they know will feel they have no other choice but to endorse government plans. In a Tyee op-ed she wrote: “All of my life I have supported Indigenous rights and title. But using First Nations’ rights as a weak excuse for logging the last vestiges of biological diversity in this province and removing our best defence against climate change is morally wrong. It is also an insult to First Nations.” She accuses Horgan of turning reconciliation into a political shell game and ignoring the fact that these are public forests that belong to everybody.
This brings us to the recent deferral of logging on 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forests in BC. The Indigenous consultation period, all of 30 days, is nearing an end.
Husband is not hopeful. She condemns the off-loading of responsibility, without consultation, to First Nations. “The government is not respecting UNDRIP,” she says, citing Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. After the recent announcement about old-growth deferral areas, Phiilip said: “If BC really wants to make good on its commitment to implement the UN Declaration and tackle climate change, it needs to provide comprehensive financing for Nations to end destructive resource extraction on their lands and waters.” Says Husband: “The government has offered only short-term money, with long-term destruction, province-wide.”
Of the recent landslides and flooding, Husband asserts that there is a clear line between massive clearcutting and road building, especially on steep landscapes, on the one hand, and both the wildfires of summer and catastrophic flooding. “The damage from the recent atmospheric river was entirely predictable and foretold—we’ve seen earlier examples of it.” Here she mentions the May 2018 flooding of Grand Forks, much earlier landslides on Mt Paxton near Kyuquot, and others on Haida Gwaii, all resulting from logging of forested hillsides.
Vicky Husband at Ninstints Village , Haida Gwaii, about 2016
“There’s been no leadership,” Husband says. “There is no recognition by this government of what we are doing to the land, no concern for wildlife and ecosystems, no real action on the climate emergency.” A climate emergency that forests, left intact, can help address. In a recent op-ed, she compared John Horgan to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Husband says the government is not genuinely considering forest-dependent communities. “If they really cared about jobs, they wouldn’t be cutting old growth and exporting raw logs.”
She notes that tourism, providing far more revenue and jobs than forestry, depends on nature remaining healthy: “The millions of visitors didn’t come here to view clearcuts, flooded valleys or destroyed salmon habitat. They came to see the very same ‘super, natural’ beauty that the government seems dedicated to erasing on behalf of a few special interests.”
So what needs to be done? “We need laws that protect all forest values, not just timber,” says Husband. We need a species-at-risk law. Forests are, she has noted: “groundwater regulators, carbon holders, medicine makers, water filters, biodiversity bankers, fungal communicators, salmon guardians and rainmakers.” Yet our laws and government act as if forests are simply suppliers of fibre.
And we need to get the truth out there, so the public have a better understanding. About, for instance, the subsidization of logging; about the poverty of second-growth plantations; about the continuing use of glyphosate to kill unwanted flora. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods that these second-growth plantations are a forest—that is a disastrous misrepresentation of the truth. A lot are dying even without heatwaves.” And when they do survive, they tend to be cut at age 40. “There is nothing sustainable about our forestry.”
Husband has called for a moratorium on the logging of the province’s remaining old-growth forests and a reduction of the scale of the industry. The AAC, she agrees should be cut dramatically. And we need to pay First Nations and other communities to protect and monitor the health of our forests.
At 81, Husband still spends most of her time on forestry issues (and the rest on other environmental issues). She says, “I can’t retire now; I have too much knowledge and I care too much.”
How does she keep her spirits up in the face of the decades of mismanagement that have resulted in the sacrifice of BC’s most magnificent natural treasure?
“I live in a forest,” says Husband, referring to the home she and her husband of 47 years built in the Highlands. “I realize more and more how important it is in keeping me grounded.”
Leslie Campbell is the longtime editor of Victoria’s Focus Magazine (now at www.focusonvictoria.ca). She and David Broadland gave up printing the magazine on paper out of concern for the forest.