British Columbia’s government proudly announced this past week that logging of old-growth forests in the province, once nicknamed “Brazil of the north” for its vast clearcuts, has declined to a record low in the past six years.
Not low enough, critics responded. The movement against cutting ancient forests has seen protests and sit-ins from Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, where 1,200 people have been arrested, to Argonaut Creek north of Revelstoke in B.C.’s interior rain forests. The R.C.M.P. has spent $9 million (Canadian) policing the Fairy Creek protests.
Incoming B.C. Premier David Eby has listed the protection of old growth trees as one of his top priorities after being sworn in on November 18. Under outgoing Premier John Horgan, the center-left New Democratic Party government launched an Old Growth Strategic Review, promising change. It has deferred, for at least two years, logging in such places as the incomparable Incomappleux River valley, where storms from the coast run up against 10,000-foot peaks of the interior Selkirk Range.
“Our vision for forestry is one where we better care for our most ancient and rarest forests: First Nations are full partners in sustainable forest management and communities and workers benefit from secure, innovative jobs for generations to come,” B.C. Forests Minister Katrine Conroy said in a statement.
The government reports that logging of old growth has declined 42 percent, from 63,500 hectares in 2015 to 38,300 hectares in 2021. The cut, it says, amounts to .03 percent of the estimated 11.1 million hectares in the province. (A hectare equals 2.471 acres.)
The B.C. Wilderness Committee, which successfully fought to save Canada’s tallest trees in the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island, is not reassured. “The NDP government has been asked repeatedly to tell the public where old growth logging is taking place and they have refused, instead providing misleading updates like the one we got yesterday,” said Torrance Coste, leader of its old growth campaign.
“At the end of the day, there are only two numbers that matter: the amount of planned logging in threatened old growth forests that’s gone ahead, and the amount that’s been stopped,” he added. “We spent the summer driving out to sites where logging plans overlap with at-risk forests the government says it intends to defer: In almost every instance, we found massive clearcuts filled with giant stumps.”
Along with Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, British Columbia is home to the world’s greatest remaining temperate rain forests. Old growth is defined as trees more than 140 or 250 years old along the B.C. Coast, and 140 years old in the interior, depending on the type of forest. Old growth covers 12 percent of the province and – after years of cutting – 20 percent of the forest base.
British Columbia gave away vast tracks of ancient forest during the period of 1950-90. It bestowed “tree farm licenses” on Canadian and multinational corporations in exchange for the promise to build pulp mills. Summing up the government’s philosophy at the time, B.C. Cabinet minister Phil Gaglardi declared: “Air pollution is the smell of money.” One pulp mill was in Gaglardi’s bailiwick of Kamloops.
What resulted were vistas appealing only to connoisseurs of ugliness. Eroding, ocean-to hilltop clearcuts were the scene at Kyuquot Sound on Vancouver Island. An enormous clearcut in the Bowron River was visible from space. Hamber Provincial Park, on the west slopes of the Canadian Rockies, was reduced by 95 percent and given over to logging. The valleys of Depot, Slesse, Tamihi, and and Maselpanic Crees adjoining our North Cascades National Park were stripped to timberline.
The current B.C. government is committed to an old growth management system that “prioritizes ecosystem health and community resilience,” in words of Josie Osborn, B.C.’s Minister of Lands, Forests and Resource Stewardship.
The New Democrats, when in power, have vastly expanded British Columbia’s provincial parks and protected areas. Created after protests – the Wilderness Committee established a research station high in the forest canopy — the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park protects the country’s tallest trees. Ancient forests of the Megin River were added to Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island.
The NDP defied the mining industry to create the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park at the province’s northwest, a legendary rafting stream where two rivers carve a path through some of the world’s greatest coastal mountains. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, in southeast B.C., protects interior rain forests, alpine areas, and prime grizzly habitat.
Still, Coste of the B.C. Wilderness Committee raises an essential question: What is being logged and where? The Wilderness Committee was once a rag-tag outfit, until a young cartographer-writer named Randy Stoltmann discovered trees of the Carmanah. A movement was born, publicizing threatened places and deploying direct action. A summer-long sit-in campaign in the early 1990s preserved forests around Clayoquot Sound, least logged of the five great inlets on Vancouver Island. Demonstrators at the Kennedy River Bridge sang “O Canada” while being cited by R.C.M.P. officers.
Meares Island, off Tofino, drew American celebrities as First Nations activists fought to save its ancient trees. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was carried ashore on a native canoe. Tom Hayden took his third (post-Jane Fonda) bride to shores of the island.
The New Democrats have tried to accommodate. The party is political home to many of the province’s environmentalists, but also its forest unions. “I tell my guys if they see a spotted owl to shoot it,” crusty International Woodworkers of America leader Jack Munro told The New York Times.
The times, however, are changing. What was once a resource-based economy has diversified, and British Columbians have fallen in love with the outdoors. Lineups of cars along Highway 99 north of Whistler, at the Joffre Lakes trailhead, rival larch season backups in the North Cascades. Quotas have been needed, from the Lifesaving Trail on the west coast of Vancouver Island to the Berg Lake trail in the Canadian Rockies, which circles 12,972-foot Mt. Robson.
The New Democrats still represent pulp mill towns, but their governing caucus in the B.C. Legislative Assembly consists largely of urban and suburban members. Incoming Premier Eby represents tony Point Grey, a riding (electoral district) that includes the University of British Columbia and Pacific Spirit Park.
As well, ancient forests are home to endangered species. The Incomappleux is a migration route for the critically endangered mountain caribou, a species now extinct in Washington. Just 1,200 southern mountain caribou remain, down from 2,500 in 1995 and 40,000 a century ago.
The New Democrats have a political competitor from the left,, at least on Vancouver Island. Votes from the three Green Party legislators put the NDP in power as a minority government after the 2017 election. An old growth protester recently tried to run against Eby for leadership of the governing party. She was disqualified when it turned out that Green Party members were signing up to vote in the NDP’s leadership election. (Premier Horgan is relinquishing power to contend with a bout with throat cancer.)
Once obdurate, the timber industry is now striking an accommodating posture, pointing to deferral of logging plans in critical caribou habitat. But, it argues, we cannot go cold turkey on the logging of old growth. “In the next 20 years, our harvesting won’t include old growth,” Mike Copperthwaite of Revelstoke Community Forest Corp., told CBC News. “Our harvesting is going to be solely in secondary timber stands. But we’ve got this transition period where these younger trees have to get to a certain age.”
Even in the resource-dependent B.C. Interior, however, the pressure is on. A Revelstoke group called Old Growth Revolution twice blocked the Trans Canada Highway at the Columbia River bridge this spring. A citizen-led blockade, of locals and Aboriginal First Nations stopped logging in Argonaut Creek last year.
In December, the provincial government removed the three remaining cut blocks in the Argonaut Creek valley, part of what’s called the Interior Wet Belt and source of the lichens vital to mountain caribou. All 14 cut blocks in Argonaut Creek are now off the chopping block, at least until the government decides what it will do to save the caribou.