Why Vancouver Island’s Giant Trees Have Never Been More Valuable And More In Danger
By Jeremy Nuttall, Star Vancouver
Mon., Aug. 19, 2019
WALBRAN VALLEY, B. C.—Next to a dusty dirt road and up a mountainside not far from where Vancouver Island’s southwest coast fades into the Pacific Ocean, the scent of cedar hangs in the air among great stacks of logs lining a slope like a giant staircase.
The reddish tinge of the wood stands out against the clear-cut’s backdrop of dark brown soil, green vegetation and fallen trees bleached white by the sun. Moisture seeps from the ends where the chainsaws made their cuts. Among the logs are gigantic specimens of red cedar, Douglas fir and western hemlock, some up to 40 metres long and more than 200 years old.
To the forestry industry, these are the sights and smells of employment and prosperity — the storied economic engine of Vancouver Island. To environmentalists, it’s the slaughter of nature, where ancient and unique old-growth forests are being destroyed by human greed.
The two sides have been jousting for decades over the fate of the island’s old-growth trees, which peaked during the so-called “war in the woods” in the 1990s when, after 900 arrests, protesters managed to halt clear-cutting in Clayoquot Sound on the island’s central coast.
As the British Columbia government vows to be more transparent about how it manages forests and winds down public consultations on changes to its Forest and Range Practices Act, conservation groups are working hard to raise awareness about modern threats to old-growth forests.
The trees felled on Vancouver Island were part of the world’s largest area of ecologically rare temperate rainforest, which stretches thousands of kilometres along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Northern California, supporting flora, fauna and fish habitat.
Jens Wieting, Sierra Club B.C.’s senior forest and climate campaigner, wants the province’s NDP government to make good on an election-campaign commitment to take “an evidence-based scientific approach and use the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest as a model” to protect intact, old-growth forests on the island.
He wants an agreement like the one he helped broker in 2016 between the government, First Nations, forestry companies and environmental groups to protect from logging 70 per cent of old growth in the 6.4-million-hectare Great Bear rainforest on the mainland’s north and central coast.
Meanwhile, as lumber mills close across B.C., at least one forestry company — Teal-Jones Group — has said in a press release it will curtail logging younger, second-growth trees on Vancouver Island because it’s not profitable.
According to a union representative for workers at some of the island’s mills, jobs in the forestry industry on Vancouver Island are increasingly dependent on the largest trees.
The province says 55 per cent or about 520,000 hectares of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island is protected on its Crown land.
But Wieting points out that, before industrialized logging, the island was home to nearly 3 million hectares of temperate rainforest. He says the 520,000 hectares referenced by the province represent just 20 per cent of the old-growth forest that once carpeted Vancouver Island and, by this measure, just 6 per cent of original old growth is protected.
Using satellite images and publicly available government data, he estimates logging companies are taking 10,000 hectares of old growth a year on the island alone. And when Wieting asks the provincial government for the exact location of the 520,000 protected hectares, he says no one can tell him where it is.
“The key part of the definition of sustainable management is leaving similar conditions for future generations,” Wieting says. “On Vancouver Island, we have lost a third of the old growth that remained 25 years ago. This is not sustainable.”
Asked how many hectares of old-growth forest are protected in the province and where they are, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Forests said in an email “there is information showing there is over 520,000 hectares,” but did not give the location. It said the ministry is in the middle of analyzing data from an inventory to “determine the new figures for the amount of old growth inside and outside the forested land base and details on the amount of old growth that is protected.”
One area Wieting wants to protect is on the outskirts of the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. He hikes along a path in a 500-hectare area outside the park boundary known as “the bite” because, on a map, it looks like a grand chomp has been taken out of the 16,400-hectare park.
In 1988, environmentalists staged a fight to save Carmanah Walbran from logging. Following a fierce public-relations battle and heated protests, it was declared a park in 1990.
It is about 30 km north of the nearest town, Port Renfrew, a coastal community once dependent on the forestry industry for its livelihood that is now shifting to tourism to prop up the local economy. The draw here is the very thing that is disappearing — the coffee shops and boutique hotels now host visitors who come to visit the giant trees.
After driving across southern Vancouver Island to the bite, turning onto narrower and rougher logging roads, the end of the road and the heart of this contested land is marked by a bridge with a sign warning it can’t support cars.
At the entrance to the bridge, a homemade sign proclaims the area is part of Carmanah Walbran Provincical Park, a goal conservationists hope to achieve one day.
Metres beyond the bridge, a cedar-plank trail leads through a grove of trees called Emerald Loop. Wieting walks the trail, surrounded by trees as wide as cars that stretch to the sky, explaining the importance of protecting rare and unique ecosystems like the Pacific temperate rainforest, home to green monster trees like the Tolkien Giant and Pandora tree.
Wieting estimates 10 per cent of the original “biggest and best” trees remain on the island. One of them, a now-famous 70-metre Douglas fir with a 13-metre circumference nicknamed Big Lonely Doug, sits solo on the valley floor in a clear-cut not far from here.
Trees like Doug sequester carbon dioxide, Wieting says, and lots of it. The older and larger the trees, the more of the greenhouse gas they absorb from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. It is stored as carbon in leaves, branches and trunks for decades and even centuries.
When they are chopped down and milled, Wieting says much of their carbon is released at a time when, with an ongoing climate emergency, the planet can least afford it.
“If the government has a choice between investing money into protecting old growth or planting trees, they have to consider the immediate benefit of protecting old growth,” Wieting says. “On average, an old-growth forest stores 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare more compared to a 60-year-old, second-growth forest.”
The mammoth trees and their flora provide homes for animals and help capture rainwater that feeds local rivers used by spawning salmon, including the turquoise-coloured Walbran Creek that hugs the Emerald Loop.
For the ecosystem to support this relationship, the most intact patches of untouched old-growth forests called hot spots should be connected. But as the chainsaws fire up, Wieting says they are becoming more disconnected, with gaps of clear-cuts separating them.
“We are really moving to a great impoverished landscape,” he says.
Culturally, the old-growth areas are revered by Indigenous communities on the island.
Judith Sayers, president of the Port Alberni-based, non-profit Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, says natural medicines grow in these areas and the spiritual significance is strong.
“Our forests are our cathedrals, so we often go out and do rituals or prayers or different ceremonies out in the forest and it’s usually in the old-growth area,” said Sayers, whose organization represents 14 First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “There are many sacred sites within old growth.”
Logging by Indigenous communities has created some discord among members, but she said those who are cutting down trees are careful not to take them from culturally important areas.
In the bite, eight parcels of land — called cutblocks — are being considered for logging, and B.C. Timber sales issued one logging permit to Teal-Jones in 2015, which it has not used.
Teal-Jones did not respond to requests for comment on old-growth logging in the area.
In Port Alberni, about 200 kilometres north of the bite, trees are being turned into lumber for the building trades at the Coulson sawmill. A shift of mostly young workers carefully guide wood through equipment, sawing and routing it into panels, shakes and other wood products.
A seemingly endless supply of logs tugged in from all over the coast float in the inlet next to the mill. The Langley, B.C.-based owners, San Group Inc., are setting it up to manufacture more wood products on site, aiming to use every bit of fibre coming to the mill.
Norm Macleod, the 3rd vice-president of the Port Alberni local of the United Steelworkers Union, is familiar with Wieting’s arguments.
“We’ve had this fight before over old growth, and I believe the industry gave up a lot to try to satisfy the tree huggers of that day,” Macleod says of the long-standing disagreement.
“The new breed of tree huggers don’t understand how much was got by the people before them.”
Macleod says old-growth trees produce bigger lumber yields and higher-end wood, so they are worth more on the market. Logging younger trees is more automated than cutting old-growth trees, so it supports fewer jobs.
Natural Resources Canada statistics show about 52,000 jobs in the province’s forest industry in 2016 accounted for $2.8 billion in wages and salaries, down from 54,500 jobs and $3.6 billion in wages and salaries a decade earlier.
Mills continue to close as companies say stumpage rates — payments to the province for the right to harvest timber — are too high and make logging second-growth trees unviable. Low timber prices have compounded the problem and layoffs have hit British Columbia’s mill towns.
In April, the most recent data available, Statistics Canada says more than 1,200 workers in the B.C. forestry sector were receiving employment insurance benefits, while the provincial government says nearly 4,000 forestry workers have been laid off due to closures or curtailments.
Old growth is what feeds and clothes the forestry workers Macleod represents, but he acknowledges some union members would rather not cut down the ancient trees.
“A lot of them sort of spend their off hours in the woods, fishing, hunting, camping with the family,” he says. “They’ve come across bottoms of valleys or different areas and said, ‘This should be left,’ and the companies agree and it has been left.”
Macleod insists there are plenty of old-growth trees on the island and it can be logged for years to come. Even then, he says, there will always be protected areas so people can still see the large trees.
“It’s not like 10 years and it’s all going to be gone,” he said. “Nothing like that.”
But what will happen if old-growth logging is restricted by government or the trees run out is a big unknown for many Vancouver Island communities that depend on forestry like Port Alberni.
It is actively encouraging diversification of its economy, but about 11 per cent of the labour force in the 17,000-person city depends on the forestry industry. The industry contributes about $5.6-million to the local tax base, which amounts to 15 per cent of Port Alberni’s total tax revenue from businesses, according to economic development manager Pat Deakin. It’s just one example of how much communities rely on forestry, and Vancouver Island has more than a dozen such towns.
Municipal governments aren’t the only ones relying on cash from logging operations.
The Ministry of Forests said stumpage fees from the coast of B.C. totalled $270 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year. Across the province, they brought in about $1.2 billion.
Gary Fiege, president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada Union, which represents forestry workers in Ladysmith and Chemainus, estimates it will be 30 years before the industry abandons old-growth logging and milling.
He says the forestry industry is happy with the status quo and antiquated mill equipment is best suited for old growth.
Combine that with the preferred quality of older trees, and Fiege says it means old-growth forest is increasingly the only source of wood that forestry workers are paid to handle.
He thinks there is no single solution, but believes efforts to support value-added manufacturing will help create employment and provide more business-tax revenue to towns and cities.
“Instead of getting a faller and a logging truck driver employed, now you’ve got whole communities that could be employed,” he says. “A lot of those (log) exports are right from areas where there are no communities, they’re loaded right to freighters on the bays on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the North Coast. We never see anything come from that.”
The Ministry of Forests said in its email it issued export permits for about 2.7 million cubic metres of logs from provincial Crown land in 2018, and another 2.4 million cubic metres was exported from federal Crown land.
It was not all old growth, since the province does not allow the direct export of western red cedar and cypress from its Crown land or the export of raw logs from Douglas fir, spruce and hemlock.
With mills closing, Fiege says it may be an opportune time to work harder to find a balance between the economy and environment.
The provincial government wants to build a “sustainable” industry with a new Coast Forest Sector Revitalization Initiative.
It is focused on the economy, zeroing in on turning harvested wood into secondary products instead of shipping raw logs overseas. Between 1998 and 2017, raw log exports went from 1 per cent to 30 per cent of the B.C. coastal harvest from Crown land, according to an information booklet on the initiative.
But Green Party MLA Adam Olsen, who represents the Vancouver Island riding of Saanich North and the Islands, says economic factors should not be the only consideration and the failure to protect old-growth forests has gone on too long.
Years ago, when there were more trees, convincing people there was plenty to go around wasn’t hard, but as supply shrinks, the government has yet to adjust.
“A lot of it is driven by the fact this is the way we’ve always done things,” Olsen says. “So we just keep doing it.”
Now the province must work on “providing people with life-sustaining income that doesn’t come at the cost of the life-sustaining ecosystems,” he says.
In the legislative assembly in Victoria, the B.C. Green Party has been demanding a moratorium on old-growth logging since the 2017 provincial election campaign and one of its planks was the protection of old-growth forests. In the quest for a balance, the party insists it’s a key aspect.
“To the premier, considering what is at stake, how does he justify the continued logging of coastal old growth?” Olsen asked in the legislature on May 13.
The forestry minister answered the question by insisting the province is taking a careful approach to forest management and pointing to the public consultations as proof of its efforts.
A two-and-a-half hour drive north of the legislature, where the fate of the giant trees is being debated, Big Lonely Doug presides over bleak surroundings. Like a giant sundial, the 70-metre-tall tree casts a long shadow across the empty valley floor that was once home to 12 hectares of old-growth forest.
It was spared by a sympathetic surveyor in 2011, who marked it off limits when the cutblock was being logged, according to Harley Rustad’s 2018 book Big Lonely Doug. Now the tree is a tourist attraction marked on Google Maps, with visitors bedding down a 25-minute-drive away in Port Renfrew.
As the sun sets, Doug’s branches are illuminated with a golden glow. A car full of German tourists stops for photos with the giant before rattling on down the bumpy road back to town.
The tree’s celebrity status brings no joy to Wieting.
“He lived in a forest for hundreds of years,” he says. “Now he must live in a clear cut.”
Sipping on a cup of coffee, staring at maps of a region once covered with massive trees with crowns that tickled the underbellies of clouds, Wieting’s face drops when the subject of balancing economic interests with environmental concerns comes up.
“What do you do if you have already overstepped the balance of nature?” Wieting asks with an air of gloom.
On July 17, the B.C. government announced it would protect 54 old-growth trees listed on the University of British Columbia’s big tree registry, including a one-hectare buffer zone around each tree.
In a news release, the province says it wants to preserve the trees for future generations. Wieting says it’s a “good step in the right direction, but a very small step.”
The government needs to protect ecosystems, he argues, not create what he calls “tree museums.”
Wieting fears Big Lonely Doug foreshadows the future for Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests; one massive tree left behind on a mountainside, swarmed by tourists.
Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports