Vancouver Island’s remaining old-growth a disappearing treasure

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The value of standing old-growth forest simply cannot be understated. These forests host extraordinary biodiversity and provide habitat to rare species – some that are found nowhere else on earth. They provide resources and medicines to the local First Nations who stewarded these forests for thousands of years before European contact. They provide endless recreational opportunities, and are a critical attribute of Vancouver Island’s sustainable tourism industry.

Old-growth forests also store massive amounts of carbon, and the destruction of forests on BC’s coast is a significant (but uncounted) source of carbon dioxide emissions for the province. Keeping this carbon out of the atmosphere by conserving the remaining old-growth forests is a huge step we can take to limit our contribution to climate change, the environmental catastrophe of our lifetimes.

And while status quo industrial logging has destroyed the ecological integrity of most of Vancouver Island’s forests, it now brings less economic benefit to local communities than ever before. More mills are closing, more logs are exported raw, and in the last decade, under unprecedented deregulation of both public and private forest lands, forestry jobs have disappeared by the thousands and industry revenues are in perpetual freefall.

As has most large-scale economic development on BC’s coast, industrial logging has largely excluded Vancouver Island’s original inhabitants. The First Nations on the Island, who are the only societies that used timber products on a sustainable basis here, haven’t received long-term benefits from logging in their traditional territories. In many cases, logging plans are made without consulting First Nations communities. Some Nations have launched successful court cases; perhaps the most notable being the 1984 Supreme Court challenge by the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations that stopped MacMillan Bloedel from clearcutting Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound. Others have seen the valleys and hillsides in their territories stripped of old-growth altogether.

Classic hillside clear-cutting in the Walbran Valley (Photo: Torrance Coste)

In the last few decades, it has become crystal clear that the current logging model is not working. It’s not a “jobs vs environment” argument – if we continue on the path we’re on, there won’t be forestry jobs or old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, apart from the few stands within protected areas.

The frustrating part is that there are other models out there. Looking east, Quebec and Ontario do a far better job adding value to forest products than we do in BC. The forest industries there create more jobs, revenue, and community benefits, and cut less wood. To create one full-time job, Ontario’s forest industry harvests 205 cubic metres of timber per year (one cubic metre equals one telephone pole). To create the same job in BC, our forest industry must cut 1189 cubic metres – almost six times more wood.

Vancouver Island is home to several eco-forestry demonstration sites that encourage lower cut rates, the prioritization of value-added products, and the conservation of old-growth. Community forests, which strive to meet local needs first instead of maximizing corporate profits, are another good alternative. The newest community forest tenure is on Cortes Island, and is co-owned by the local community and the Klahoose First Nation.

In Clayoquot Sound, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation has declared four Tribal Parks within its territory. Tribal Parks management prioritizes responsible forestry in second growth, protection of old-growth for future generations, and the fostering of sustainable livelihoods in the region.

Bue-listed Red-legged Frog in the Castle Grove, Walbran Valley (Photo: Torrance Coste)

New ideas and models like these are the only future for forestry on Vancouver Island.

Stands of old-growth – be it Douglas-fir, red cedar, or any other forest type – have become exceptionally rare. As I was reminded a few months ago, they’ve become a novelty, even for locals who grew up on the Island. The few pockets that have so far managed to escape the chainsaw must be respected as the ecological gems that they are.

We need to start seeing these forests for their full value: the habitat they create, the carbon they store, the cultural and recreational opportunities they provide. Looking at them solely in terms of their dollar value – which is decreasing – is archaic and uncreative.  It is high time for a ban on old-growth logging. The way things are going in Vancouver Island’s forests, this could be our last chance.

Torrance Coste is Vancouver Island Campaigner with the Wilderness CommitteeFollow him @TorranceCoste.

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