Inside the Fight for Old-Growth Forests

by Nadja Burkart

When logging roads were discovered being built into the old-growth valley known as Ada’itsx or Fairy Creek in August 2020, land defenders from all over Canada responded quickly by gathering and setting up various camps and blockades throughout the forest in order to prevent the logging company, Teal Jones,  from clearcutting the area. They were soon joined by thousands of other people, and since then more than 1,200 people have been arrested in the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Located on Vancouver Island in the western province of British Columbia (BC),  Fairy Creek is one of the last undisturbed old-growth valleys on the island, and some of its trees such as its towering yellow cedars are thought to be more than 1,000 years old. However, what started as a protest to protect Fairy Creek has rapidly spread to include all of BC’s giant old-growth forests which have been unsustainably logged for centuries and only make up a tiny percent of BC’s remaining forests. 

All old-growth forests in BC are essential to a functioning ecosystem, but the remaining giant old-growth trees have especially important roles in biodiversity maintenance as well as acting as highly efficient carbon sinks. Canadian old-growth forests in coastal areas are defined as trees that are 250 years or older, and while there are 13.5 million hectares of old-growth forests left in BC (for size reference, Ireland is 8.4 million hectares), only around 2.7 million hectares are able to nurture the classic giant trees and about 1.7 million of these are unprotected. The trees in these functioning areas can stretch 180+ feet into the sky, which is more than half of the height of the Dublin Spire! When these giants eventually fall and decompose naturally they become “nurse logs”. These logs aid forest regeneration because the fallen trunk is tall enough so new seeds that fall on the log can access light above the shade-producing ferns on the ground. Nurse logs also slowly release their stored nutrients and water, both of which are essential for the new seedling and for countless species of fungi and insects who also live on these tree skeletons.

Clearcutting, the main practice used by BC loggers, doesn’t allow for trees to slowly decay and also disturbs the underlying mycorrhizal (fungi) networks which have recently been proven to allow “communication” and distribution of resources between networks of tree species which is critical for forest prosperity and regeneration. Clearcutting has led to the forestry industry becoming the highest source of carbon emissions in BC because the bare patches left behind to rot and release carbon faster than the young, artificially planted, and often monoculture trees can absorb. Old-growth forests also provide important habitat for salmon– yes, salmon! When they’re not living in the open ocean, their life cycle actually begins and ends in inland streams where they spawn, reproduce, and die. Large trees are essential near these rivers because they support insect life (fish food) and their roots prevent sedimentation and erosion of stream banks. Because salmon are considered a keystone species they are needed by bears, wolves, seals, and whales, with Chinook salmon being the primary diet for the endangered southern resident killer whales. Clearcutting in these areas like the Fairy Creek watershed puts almost all BC species in unimaginable danger. 

Since clearly, the survival of these forests is critical to the wellbeing of citizens, then shouldn’t the government urgently act to stop the clearcutting of these areas? Sadly, they are not. The BC premier John Horgan continues to claim he’s going to implement the 14 proposed recommendations from an Old Growth Strategic Review Panel Report, but it has been 2 years he has yet to apply anything. Then, after more than 18 months of talks within the BC government, the province suddenly “consulted” First Nations communities by only giving them 30 days to decide on whether they want to defer logging. This is an issue because many First Nations are reliant on the industry as an important source of revenue, which is needed because many are left with limited resources after facing centuries of continued systemic racism from government policies such as residential schools and the Indian Act. This decision to “consult” in only 30 days essentially passed the hot seat to First Nations while simultaneously providing absolutely zero financial support, making it less likely to pass. The land that Fairy Creek lies on is a part of the Pacheedaht First Nation’s traditional territory, and along with the Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht nations, they agreed to defer logging (of around 2,000 ish hectares) in Fairy Creek for 2 years until they make their own plan of action for old-growth.

The elected Pacheedaht Chief has stated that he doesn’t welcome the protests and wants people to leave, but Elder Bill Jones of the Pacheedaht Nation and many other members and indigenous youth from other nations across BC are in favour of the protests and are still actively inviting people to defend the last trees (not only in Fairy Creek but all of BC) from destruction. The UBCIC (Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs) has also called for an immediate halt of all industrial old-growth logging and support for First Nations alongside this. 

“Clearcutting has led to the forestry industry becoming the highest source of carbon emissions in BC [British Columbia]”

The blockades themselves consist of various camps spread around the woods where people can eat and rest in between blocking logging roads. One method of slowing operations is called the “sleeping dragon” where people’s arms get chained underground in a pipe, which is then cemented under the logging road. They also perch on top of tripods of logs leaned onto each other high in the air, or camp on platforms high up in the trees which interrupts loggers because it’s difficult to get them down. The protestors often remain there for hours to days and are brought food and water.

Unlike the protestors, the RCMP (police) often have little patience and this leads to dangerous altercations. Jackhammers and excavators are used to quickly dig up the sleeping dragons which is obviously risky because they’re not precise and dig inches away from people’s bodies. They also use chainsaws to cut down the tripods which topple the land defenders to the ground, leading to someone becoming hospitalised for a concussion. Additionally, the RCMP have set up legally questionable media exclusion zones which block media and others from viewing these arrests, and this is concerning because they’ve acted quite violently towards protestors. Videos of unprovoked mass pepper spraying and one RCMP officer stomping someone’s guitar into pieces are just a few examples of their excessive force and an insight into what the province has paid 6.8 million dollars for the RCMP to do! 

The protests will continue throughout this year and for years to come unless the government acts to end industrial old-growth logging and seriously consult and listen to First Nations voices. In the end, these trees are essentially irreplaceable. It shouldn’t matter how much they’re financially “worth” (it’s arbitrary anyway) because the intrinsic value of forests alone should be enough motivation to save them from further destruction, and that is true for forests around the world. 

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