Fight for B.C.'s Central Walbran Valley Reignited As Government Allows Old-Growth Logging

Walbran Valley by TJ Watt

This is a guest post by Daniel J. Pierce.

The early 1990s was a pivotal time for the forest industry and for forest activism in British Columbia. Massive demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience resulted in hundreds of arrests in Clayoquot Sound in response to large-scale clear-cutting on the west coast of B.C. and Vancouver Island. International protests and market campaigns forced the government to strengthen forestry regulations and establish new parks and protected areas.

One of the most famous stand-offs occurred at a bridge crossing into the Central Walbran Valley, one of the most spectacular ancient temperate rainforests left on Vancouver Island, in Pacheedhat First Nation territory, an hour north of Port Renfrew on bumpy logging roads.

Activists launched blockades, tree-sits, hunger strikes and international demonstrations that forced the B.C. government to create the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park, which protected over 16,000 hectares in the Carmanah and Walbran Valleys. (This conflict was the subject of one of Velcrow Ripper’s early documentaries called “The Road Stops Here.”)

However, for whatever reason, the heart of the watershed — where several streams converge and the biggest and best trees grow — was left out of the park. This relatively small area (only 486 hectares, a little bigger than Vancouver’s Stanley Park) came to be known as “the bite” because if you look at the area on a map, it looks like someone took a bite out of the park.

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:DanielJPierce:Documents:Ramshackle:Heartwood:Maps:CentralWalbran_Map_June2015_0.pdf

For 25 years “the bite” has been designated as a special management zone and no logging companies have attempted to log in the Central Walbran Valley. However, in September, the B.C. government issued logging permits to Surrey-based Teal Cedar Products, allowing them to begin harvesting in the Central Walbran in the face of widespread opposition.

This prompted independent activists to erect a witness camp at the very same bridge over the Walbran River where activists in the early 90s made their stand. A few of these activists have even begun blocking road-building work that is currently going on south of the river. But for environmental groups the Wilderness Committee and Friends of Carmanah-Walbran, the real fight is for the virtually untouched area north of the river, which lies just outside the park.

So it seems like we are right back where we started, with some of the same environmental groups — plus a new generation of activists — fighting for the same tract of ancient forest that they fought for in the early 90s. Only this time they are out to finish what they started and are pushing to have “the bite” included into the park, where it will be safe from logging forever.

Watch the video about the Central Walbran Valley:

The Central Walbran Valley from Ramshackle Pictures on Vimeo.

Teal Cedar obtains injunction

When independent activists began blocking Teal Cedar’s road-building operations in early November, the company went to court to seek an injunction (court order) to have activists who stood in the way of their operations arrested by the RCMP and brought before the court.

Wilderness Committee (WC) campaigner Torrance Coste was surprised to find that he and the WC had been named by Teal Cedar in a civil suit and accompanying injunction, despite the fact that the Wilderness Committee does not endorse or organize civil disobedience.

The Wilderness Committee challenged Teal Cedar in court, stating that they had nothing to do with organizing the blockades. They argued that the language was overly broad, as to prevent them from engaging in their lawful conservation and educational activities in the Central Walbran. The judge agreed to vary the injunction to allow lawful activities to continue in the area, so long as they did not interfere with Teal Cedar’s harvesting operations.

When the injunction expired on December 14th, Teal Cedar returned to B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver in an attempt to extend the injunction against the Wilderness Committee and the other activists, aiming to restrict public access to the area for the next nine months.

Judge issues mixed decision

The judge chided Teal Cedar’s lawyers for not bringing this case to court in Victoria, where arguably more people with an interest in this issue — including some individuals named in the injunction — would be more easily able to attend. The judge declined to expand the injunction to the scope that Teal Cedar requested, but did grant an extension of the current injunction to January 4th in order to allow the company to finish their current operations. Teal Cedar will then have to reapply to the court in Victoria for the more expansive injunction it is seeking.

We’re glad to see that this injunction will be lifted early in the new year, and that it won’t be restricting public access to this incredible old-growth forest for several months as the company requested,” said Joe Foy, National Campaign Director with the Wilderness Committee. “We will continue to travel to the Walbran to take photos, share videos and educate the public about the fight to save this spectacular ancient forest,” he said.

Government opens door to rare old growth logging

While Teal Cedar has been logging in the Walbran Valley for years, its operations had been limited to the highly fragmented areas south of the Walbran River. However, tensions started ramping up when the B.C. government approved the first of eight proposed cut-blocks, which would create a ring of clear-cuts in the pristine and highly cherished area north of the river.

This is where one finds the famous Castle Grove, one of the most densely packed groves of old-growth western red cedars on Southern Vancouver Island. This is all part of Teal Cedar’s Tree Farm License 46, which includes one of the largest tracts of old-growth temperate rainforest on earth, containing massive red cedar, spruce and hemlock trees, as well as fragile limestone formations known as karst.

This area north of the river is contiguous with Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park, making it more ecologically valuable for wildlife than the area south of the river, which has been heavily fragmented by logging over the years.

Ancient forests provide vital ecological services

Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee Torrance Coste argues that intact ancient forests like these have more value standing than as timber. 

Compared to second growth forests, old-growth provides better habitat for endangered species, purifies drinking water more effectively, provides the resources integral to First Nations culture, and holds high economic potential for tourism. Additionally, old growth absorbs and stores carbon and is therefore a critical tool in the fight against climate change,” he writes.

One of the last of its kind

However, “96 per cent of the low-elevation old-growth forests have been logged on Southern Vancouver Island,” points out Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner TJ Watt. “Today, the Central Walbran represents some of the finest of that last 4 per cent that we need to protect.”

Jens Wieting, forest and climate campaigner with Sierra Club B.C. agrees: “In many parts of Vancouver Island and the South Coast there are few old-growth and other truly intact rainforest areas left and the risks of climate change impacts like drought, flooding and landslides are increasing. This means that we have to double our efforts to protect forests, improve forest management and reduce forest carbon loss,” he notes.

Business group calls for halt to old-growth logging

In nearby Port Renfrew — a former logging town that now bills itself as the “Tall Tree Capital of Canada” — the local Chamber of Commerce, representing 73 businesses in the region, has issued a statement calling on the B.C. government to prevent any further old-growth logging in the Walbran Valley.

Big tree tourism has increased the total flow of dollars spent in Port Renfrew in our rental accommodations, restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses in general,” says Chamber president Dan Hager. “Along with sport fishing, old-growth forest tourism has become a staple of our local economy.”

According to Ancient Forest Alliance executive director Ken Wu, the Walbran is “virtually unmatched for recreational and scenic grandeur in the world. It’s just the perfect place to visit and to riddle the whole area with clearcuts and giant stumps would be the lowest, worst use of a place like this,” Wu adds.

Forestry workers demand change

The Pulp and Paper Workers of Canada have also come out swinging against the forestry establishment. “We need to transition out of [cutting] the old growth. It’s a sucker’s game,” says PPWC President Arnie Bercov at a rally in Duncan.

We want to make sure that our union isn’t part and parcel of destroying the forest. We want to be good partners in managing the forest. We want to work with the environmental movement. We are starting to work with a lot of First Nations… We need to maintain healthy ecosystems, wildlife corridors, we need to respect indigenous rights, and we need to cut trees. Can we have it all? We can have it all.”

A new landscape for forest activism

Looking back on what was known as the “War in the Woods” of the early 1990s, while some things have remained the same, much has changed. What was once a staunch conflict between environmentalists and loggers now includes a diverse array of stakeholders.

Tourism operators, First Nations, teachers, business leaders, mountain bikers, artists, and even forestry workers themselves want to see an end to harmful old-growth logging and a transition to a sustainable second-growth forestry industry in B.C.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that companies like Teal Cedar still have the legal right to cut these ancient trees in the Walbran and elsewhere on the west coast. And so far, Christy Clark’s provincial government has thus far refused to intervene.

Teal Cedar could try to cross the bridge at any time to begin cutting north of the Walbran River. But you can rest assured that when they do show up, this diverse and ever-growing movement is going to be there waiting — and they are not going to make life easy for them.

By Daniel J. Pierce

Blog image credit: TJ Watt