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On April 3, I took a road trip with my 11-year-old son to the Fairy Creek Blockade, the current site of a struggle over the uncertain future of what small patches of old growth trees remain on Vancouver Island.
It’s an issue I talked about in last week’s newsletter when Nanaimo city council waded in to pass a motion calling on the provincial government to immediately defer logging in old-growth forests. They have since been joined by the city councils of Victoria and Port Moody.
Though it’s not a Nanaimo-based story, it’s one that many locals are invested in, and have asked me to investigate further. On April 1 an injunction was granted to allow logging company Teal-Jones Group to move protesters who have multiple blockades on roads leading into what they say is the one of the last intact old-growth watersheds on Vancouver Island.
At present, about seven separate camps of protesters are holding their ground, demanding the province put an immediate and permanent hold on old-growth logging and “transition to an ecologically and economically responsible forest economy.” The RCMP could attempt to remove them any day now.
I ended up driving there in a caravan of people mostly from Nanaimo, led by organizer Ilan Goldenblatt, a former local restaurant owner who is now the chief of staff for Green Party MP Paul Manly. A representative from the Fairy Creek camp estimates about 1,000 people went to visit the area over the long weekend.
The drive was enjoyable, a little over two hours from Nanaimo through the town of Lake Cowichan then northeast of Port Renfrew, on a road that became a little more than a gravel path filled with potholes and rocks, so rough that most who don’t have 4×4 vehicles eventually pull over and walk.
It’s an area that is in turns idyllic and apocalyptic, the verdant forests interspersed with swaths of clearcut stumps and charred remains from the forest fires that have become a staple of summer life on the Island.
First up in our stops along the way to the blockade is Avatar Grove, which boasts what is claimed to be “Canada’s gnarliest tree,” a contorted and burled Western red cedar that is 11 metres circumference at its base.
Further up we visit Big Lonely Doug, a massive 66-metre tall tree whose story was immortalized in The Walrus magazine (and later became a book). It’s just what you might think: the second largest living Douglas fir in Canada and the lone survivor of a fully-leveled cutblock, saved from the fate of its neighbouring trees by logger-turned industry engineer Dennis Cronin.
Last on the stop (at least for me) is a patch of old growth dubbed Eden Grove, recently made accessible by new trails built by the volunteers who stream in and out of the area to support the blockades.
As we walk along the logging road, there are cars arriving and people coming and going—couples, whole families, groups of friends. Ilan asks some of them if they are there to support the blockades and many respond that no, they are there simply to see the trees.
“If there’s this many people out here when this place is largely unmarked, with no tourist signs and barely on a map, can you imagine how many would be visiting if it was preserved?” he says, incredulously. By comparison, the relatively small 390-acre old-growth stand of Douglas firs at Cathedral Grove gets an estimated 500,000 visitors per year, according to the provincial government.
The public clearly have an appetite for visiting large trees, prompting Premier John Horgan himself to say last year that “many of the old-growth stands on Vancouver Island are worth way more standing up than they are on the back of a truck,” referring to the Old Growth Strategic Review from an independent panel struck by the previous government and whose 14 recommendations the NDP pledged to implement prior to the election. However critics say that recent logging deferrals announced by the provincial ministry of forests have been vastly overstated and misrepresented.
In its ruling on the injunction, the judge wrote that while the blockaders argued that the protection of old growth is in the public interest to justify their stance, “that concern is a matter of public policy to be decided by government, and can play no part whatsoever in my decision to grant or refuse the injunction.”
It’s not hard to see why the attraction to old growth exists. The quality of golden light filtering through the heavy shrouds of green moss as we descend into Eden Grove feels surreal. Even the air seems different, clear and heady, and I drink it in as though thirsty for oxygen. There’s something that just happens when you’re dwarfed by the presence of massive trees that are both so much bigger and so much older than you can really even grasp; it’s not unlike where your mind goes when lying under a huge carpet of stars. It feels like a certain deep-rooted balance of perspective is restored.
I feel pulled to view the issue through an emotional lens, as many do. Emotions run high, and the story is often presented as a war between forestry workers and environmentalists, even though many loggers have just as much of a love for the natural world and protesters insist they’re not anti-logging, and support sustainable forestry practices.
In sifting through all of the information and the recent injunction ruling, I also find many details confusing. Pacheedaht First Nation, on whose traditional territory the blockades sit, had been notably absent from the debate. They share in revenue from logging with the province, and because of this, have “agreed not to interfere with provincially authorized forest activities,” according to the recent ruling. Yet others, including one Pacheedaht citizen who spoke to Ha-shilth-sa, feel the Nation was not adequately consulted about the future of this area of their forest and that the rush to log the area is deliberate.
On April 13, the Nation released a statement asserting that “all parties need to respect that it is up to Pacheedaht people to determine how our forestry resources will be used” and that “unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our Territory” is not welcome, “including third-party activism.” It also states they have secured commitments to “suspend and defer third-party forestry activities within specific areas identified by Pacheedaht.”
Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones, who stands with the blockaders, has since disputed the Nation’s April 13 letter and said in a statement on April 23 that the federal government has an obligation to gain consent from title holders in order to extract resources on Indigenous lands, and the B.C. government must uphold its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which also requires deep and meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples on issues that affect them. “It is colonial deceit to selectively recognize Indigenous leaders when it benefits industry, under the guise of reconciliation,” he says.
Further complicating the issue, to view it on a map, most of the three cutblocks currently at stake within Tree Farm License 46 lie at the edge of the Fairy Creek watershed, not right within it, though this still impacts the surrounding ecosystem.
In a statement to Canadian Press, Teal Cedar’s (a subsidiary of Teal-Jones) vice president Gerrie Kotze said that the company’s plans for the area have been “mischaracterized,” that they are only planning to harvest “a small area up at the head of the watershed” and that most of the Fairy Creek watershed is unavailable for logging. “Fairy Creek only makes up about 1,200 hectares, of which 200 hectares are available for logging for us,” a Teal-Jones log broker told CTV News.
To help me understand further, I messaged the Wilderness Committee’s national campaign director, Torrance Coste, who has been involved in the campaign to protect the old growth in this area.
“Currently, Teal-Jones has cutblocks approved on the edges of Fairy Creek, and roads approved into it, as well as more roads and cutblocks planned within the watershed,” says Torrance. Generally, he says if it is productive, low-elevation old growth, odds are that companies are planning to log within it. “At this point, there are approved roads and planned cutblocks into Eden Grove, and approved cutblocks in [nearby] Walbran and Caycuse.”
When I ask Torrance about Teal Cedar’s statement, he clarifies that it’s true most of Fairy Creek won’t be logged, because big portions of it are either too steep, or are within old-growth management areas, including Avatar Grove. However, he thinks it misses the point, and that “the argument has never been that all of it will, it’s that none of it should.”
The B.C. government has been criticized by researchers for overestimating the amount of old-growth left standing. Using publicly available data, the researchers found that across B.C., just one per cent of old forests as defined by the government are actually large, productive old-growth trees.
Editor’s Note, April 13, 2021: The story has been updated to include a statement signed by Pacheedaht Hereditary Chief Frank Jones and Chief Councillor Jeff Jones.
Editor’s Note, April 23, 2021: The story has been updated to include a statement from Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones.
This original reporting is made possible by the monthly members who support this work.