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Tranquil Forests?

by Dan Lewis

Watching barges laden with raw logs leaving Clayoquot Sound for the first time in several years has got me thinking again about wood, and where it comes from.

Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, gained international media attention during the summer of 1993. The arrest of nearly 1,000 peaceful protestors focussed attention on the BC government's unpopular decision to allow clearcutting of Clayoquot's pristine valleys of globally rare temperate rainforest.

One of the promises made in the 1993 logging announcement was "world class logging standards". Yet these were not defined. The government was persuaded to establish a "blue ribbon" panel of distinguished scientific experts, to determine the standards. Unfortunately, the Panel was never asked whether logging the rare pristine valleys of Clayoquot was scientifically defendable. When they raised this question themselves, the government clarified their mandate: to determine how, not whether or not, the forests of Clayoquot Sound were to be cut.

The panel came up with some progressive forestry policies. In 1995 the government heralded "the end of clearcutting in Clayoquot Sound". Conservation groups argued that it would be excellent to see these policies applied to the rest of Vancouver Island's forests, rather than experiment with this "kinder, gentler clearcutting" in Clayoquot's endangered rainforest valleys.

The on-the-ground standards basically called for what is known as "variable retention" logging. This means leaving small patches of trees standing in the clearcuts. It is the easiest thing to do without actually changing anything in the way a logging company operates. In 1997 I walked up the Tranquil Valley to check out one of the new cutblocks. I was horrified to see that it was essentially a smaller clearcut, adjacent to older large clearcuts which run all the way to the estuary of a valley up which it had just taken us several hours to hike!

The companies have met only a few of the 128 recommendations the Panel made for ecosystem based forestry, but are claiming full compliance. Although they did meet a few of the operational standards, the long-term plans so essential to determining whether the new standards could preserve endangered species were taking a lot longer to develop. Finally the Panel died a quiet death last year when the government pulled their funding for implementation of the Panel's recommendations. Without long term plans we're back to taking potshots in the dark, not really understanding the ecosystem we're busily destroying.

There was a lot of fanfare last year when several major environmental groups (Greenpeace, Sierra Club of BC, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and Natural Resource Defense Council) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iisaak, a joint venture between local First Nations and Macmillan Bloedel (within days, MB sold its BC timber cutting rights to US logging giant Weyerhaeuser). The agreement stated that Iisaak would not log in the pristine valleys, and would move towards ecoforestry in second-growth forests. In exchange, the enviros would help market wood products produced by the new company. Friends of Clayoquot Sound, the local group, chose not to sign, and has taken a watchdog role.

Iisaak began their logging this summer past, hailed as a "new era of logging in Clayoquot Sound". Rightly so. Iisaak's cutting looks like nothing we've ever seen here-very small openings, dispersed over a small area. However, the new company is still logging in old-growth forests. Their first cuts took place in a small patch of old-growth at the mouth of the Cypre River, a large valley which was almost entirely denuded during the last 30 years. Without long-term planning and studies, who is to say that this small fragment of remaining forest wasn't critical habitat for the wildlife left in the Cypre Valley?

The bottom line is, the pristine valleys are too rare to be logged, no matter how it is done. And the previously logged valleys are already too fragmented, the remnants too small to be logged any further. Iisaak, while a huge step forward from the conventional logging companies, needs to honor its commitment to phase out cutting ancient forests, and shift to cutting second growth.

Interfor is the other company with logging rights in Clayoquot Sound. Unlike Iisaak, Interfor is still trying to maintain the industrial logging status quo here in the Sound. This year they put in a contentious clearcut very close to the boundary of Pacific Rim National Park, the third most ecologically threatened park in Canada, home to the threatened Red-legged Frog. Three people were arrested in June for peacefully protesting Interfor's logging near the Park, and sentenced to 21 days in jail this fall.

In May 2000, Canada's Prime Minister was here in Tofino to announce the new Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This designation does not protect additional areas. It merely recognizes the globally unique ecology of the area, and the local attempts to balance conservation with sustainable development. For some, development is synonymous with logging. Anyone who has paddled in Clayoquot Sound or visited Tofino knows that there is already a lot of development here of another nature-tourism. It seems ludicrous to endanger such a vibrant, thriving local economy by destroying the very resource it is based on-pristine wilderness.

Things are moving here in Clayoquot Sound. We are muddling our way towards sustainability. The way forward is slow, the resistance to change is huge, but the rate of cutting locally has slowed tremendously, which buys time for the needed changes to be implemented. And the longer it takes, the more obvious it will become that it's time to put an end to logging of ancient forests anywhere on this beleagured planet.

First published in WaveLength Magazine, Dec/Jan 2001.