Most Vancouver Island residents will remember the War in the Woods some 27 years ago. It was an environmental movement that saw 12,000 people show up to the rugged coast of Vancouver Island in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience Canada has ever seen. Around 1000 people were arrested trying to stop the industrial-scale logging that was set to happen around Clayoquot Sound.
Others, myself included, were either not yet born or too young to experience this act of environmental activism at its most crucial point, however, we’ve grown up seeing natural resources stripped from every corner of this planet—and now, we’re at a boiling point.
Indeed, many prominent shifts took place back in 1993, including various groups coming together to create an old growth strategy for British Columbia, but business still continued as usual in many areas of the province. Now, three decades later, with only three percent of our old growth forests left, comes the report we’ve been waiting for.
A New Future for Old Forests, written by an independent Old Growth Strategic Review panel, co-chaired by Garry Merkel and Al Gorley, is a comprehensive report detailing 14 proactive, rather than reactive, recommendations for a complete paradigm shift in BC’s forest management.
Merkel, a professional forester, said he was pleasantly surprised at the public’s input and concern about the future of BC’s forests when he and Gorley set out to gather feedback from all over the province.
Merkel explained how the panel’s goal was to reach as many people in as many different sectors as possible—the public, community groups, First Nations, forest sector industry workers, wilderness recreation groups, and elected local government officials, to name a few.
From those responses, Merkel, Gorley, and the rest of the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel learned that ecosystem health is the main priority across the province. However, in order to achieve ecosystem health, all people and groups need to be on board, and ultimately, supported.
The Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA), a registered BC non-profit organization that works toward province-wide legislation to end the logging of endangered old growth forests, called the report a “total game-changer,” adding that there’s now “excellent ammunition to hold the BC government accountable.”
The AFA also said this about the report:
The 14 recommendations are strong and comprehensive, covering everything from the need for greater First Nations’ involvement in old growth forest management to better public access to information, to increased government and third-party oversight of forest practices. Most importantly, though, the panel recommends immediate logging deferrals in at-risk old growth forests; establishing new, science-based, targets for old-growth forest protection; enacting legislation that enshrines ecosystem health and biodiversity as an overarching priority in forest management; and supporting forest workers and communities as they transition away from old growth logging—all important changes that we have advocated for many years. It’s well past time the provincial government overhaul BC’s outdated forest policies to better protect old growth forests and support communities who depend on healthy forest ecosystems.
The report was released at the same time the BC government announced that logging would be deferred in nine areas across the province. On Vancouver Island, this includes the Clayoquot Sound in Tla-o-qui-aht territory and the entire untouched forests of McKelvie Valley near Tahsis in Mowachaht/Muchalaht territory.
This quick action from the government is in response to a recommendation in the report. At a glance, this deferral is positive news, but Merkel warns that it’s too early to judge whether or not the necessary systemic change that is needed will happen.
“Twenty-seven years ago when those 100-odd people came together to draft that old growth management strategy for the province, [the government, and the current forest management system] picked some of the low-hanging fruit by implementing a few minor changes, and failed to implement much of the rest of the report. If they had followed it, we would not be in the situation we are in today.
“If we get sucked into picking the low hanging fruit again, next time we actually get around to [drafting another report like this], we’re going to be in irreversible situations in many, many other areas of the province.”
Additionally, according to the AFA, some of the nine deferral areas have little at-risk, productive old growth. Meanwhile, the vast majority of ancient forests are still vulnerable to logging.
Some areas are compromised almost to the point of no return. Merkel said, “We may just have to accept the fact that we’ve permanently altered those ecosystems and maybe we have to think about a whole new management strategy and framework in those areas.” One of those areas is southern Vancouver Island.
This includes Fairy Creek, the last intact watershed in the San Juan river system and its adjacent old growth forests, where protesters have been active as invited guests on unceded Pacheedaht territory near Port Renfrew since early August.
Glenn Reid, a participant in the protests, said they’re not only there to protect the trees, but to protect the clarity and cleanliness of the creek, where thousands of salmon spawn each year.
“You take the videos I posted [on Facebook] of the salmon run in the crystal-clear mountain water creek, and compare that to the Jordan River that’s totally black with silt because of the trees getting clear cut.
“They say the salmon are on the verge of collapse too, and that’s been happening because the spawning grounds have been messed up. It’s all connected, right down to the whale and the eagle.”
He added that the group isn’t leaving until the systemic change that is needed to correct forest mismanagement has been put in place.
In other words, the government is going to have to work to overturn every level of management to ensure this change, and provide substantial support for the communities caught in the middle of that transition. Two main groups are highlighted: forest sector workers and their communities, as per recommendation 14, and First Nations communities, as per recommendation one.
Merkel notes that this transition won’t be without impacts.
Darren Vandergrift, a Registered Forest Technologist who lives in Cumberland and often commutes to Woss for work, has some recommendations about how to ease this transition for forestry workers. He believes everyone who works in forestry is an environmentalist who wants a sustainable future for our forests, too. He notes that with an increase in regulations and a decrease in areas where timber harvesting is both acceptable and economically feasible, the government needs to focus on creating an investment-friendly atmosphere.“This means reducing the cost of operating for forest companies—as an increase in regulation means the cost of operability will go up,” Vandergrift explained.
“The government can help by reducing stumpage and taxes, as well as loosening the fees and restrictions in place on exporting lumber. Easing the strain of fees, taxes, and costs on these companies will allow them to invest more money into their workforce and communities they operate in.”
The first recommendation of the report is to engage the full involvement of Indigenous leaders and organizations to review the report and any subsequent policy or strategy development and implementation. The aim is to transition from very little historical Indigenous involvement to an entire system grounded within a Provincial-Indigenous government-to-government framework.
However, Merkel is the first to admit it’s a complex issue. A member of the Tahltan First Nation himself, he explains that, like settler communities, each nation has their own issues and their own way of doing things.
“We have communities at all different levels, with some being much more grounded in their historic practices, and some needing a lot more community support and employment. And then we have other communities who are very distrustful,” he said.
“Across the province, it’s not that easy to just go, ‘Poof! Everybody’s the same, and every place is the same.’ But there’s a systemic prejudice in Canadian society towards Indigenous communities and it’s that they’re not sophisticated or capable of being a part of the rest of society. And that, frankly, is just not true.”
Merkel explained that the panel’s recommendations focus on building that ability and sophistication necessary so that First Nations communities can be full and equal partners.
“I live in this community; I know these people and they are very capable. Some of the models we saw in some of the Indigenous communities in the approaches they were taking in forest management caused Al and I to look at each other in awe,” he said.
“We have seen some management approaches that have been applied on the ground because the Indigenous community has trained a bunch of their people into professional managers, and they brought in other experts, too. They’ve designed and implemented systems on their own land and advocated changes in their own territories which have, in my opinion, been brilliant, simple, and pragmatic. And really looking after the land. Imagine this happening across the province and building a network for people to share their experiences with each other.”
Another key player in this transition is financial support. Terry Dorward is the Tribal Parks Project Coordinator, as well as stand-in Deputy Chief of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and said part of his job is finding ways to be creative in securing funding to the parks, since it’s not connected to the block of funding Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council receives.
Tribal Parks relies on donations, and in Tla-o-qui-aht’s case, they’ve come up with an initiative that involves a contribution from local businesses around Tofino called the Tribal Parks Alliance. This helps to support the ecological protection and restoration of parklands and resources, development, as well as programs such as environmental monitoring and tree planting.
Since most of the tourism in Tofino, Ucluelet, and the Pacific Rim National Park rely on the land being pristine it makes sense that local businesses would want to support that type of conservation economy.
“From a Tla-o-qui-aht perspective, the rainforest is something that is deeply sacred for our people; many times our people historically would go to the rainforest to meditate. That’s where a lot of our songs and dances come from,” Dorward explains. “So when you see the chief’s dances, they’re telling the story about everything that we as Tla-o-qui-aht have as a responsibility to the environment, to our people, and for future generations.”
In terms of moving forward, especially with a provincial election looming, Dorward stresses that when it comes to forestry, the land is not a pie that can be divided up and handed out to whoever, however they choose. He also stresses the importance of showing up and speaking out. “With the War in the Woods, it was the amount of people who showed up in volumes that made that change,” he said.
Merkel agreed that evoking social change effectively happens through social disobedience, but he said the key is knowing exactly what you want. “The whole purpose is to get the people you are protesting against to finally listen and say, ‘Okay, we give, so now what do you want?’ And if you don’t have a concrete, solid answer that they can act on, then they are stuck, and when they are stuck, their only recourse is to go back to what they were doing before, except now you have lost credibility.”
When doing research for A New Future for Old Forests, he said he was impressed with the advocacy organizations who took the time to do their homework and understand all sides, and those who avoided preaching solutions while blaming everyone else.
“This isn’t a blame game; it’s about enlightening. Too much mud-slinging is stopping us from growing the way we need to grow. Sustainability isn’t a nirvana that you just get to. It’s a discipline about focusing, learning, and practicing, then passing it on to others. I know it’s slower, but it’s the only way to foster real change. A rising tide raises all ships.”
Indeed, some might say we’re in the same position we were in in 1993—with people on the frontlines, signs up, fighting against the government and the industry. Throughout the years, thanks to people like Garry Merkel, Indigenous storytellers, protesters, environmentalists, students—people who care—we have made small steps. The government, albeit slowly, is starting to come around. It needs everyone as a collective to hold it accountable, whether that accountability is held at the ballot box, community initiatives, blockades, or behind the scenes writing letters and legislation.
Like Merkel said, “A rising tide raises all ships.”