Watchguards in the Walbran
By Rob Wilson
“RESCIND 4424!” reads a hand-painted banner adorning the plywood wall of the camp’s kitchen and main shelter. It’s a crudely constructed building made of 2x4s, tarps, and ropes, standing a few metres from the Walbran River bridge. Inside are cluttered tables and counters piled with power tools, a 3,000 Watt power inverter, pots and pans, and, near the stove top, a bouquet of dandelions in a mason jar. Covering nearly everything: mouse droppings.
A few meters back up the single-lane dirt road is a smaller shelter, similarly constructed; parked beside it is a black Jeep Liberty. Its inhabitant – and the only person holding down the fort when I visited the camp last November – is middle-aged school teacher Teresa (who asked me to withhold her last name).
Teresa has been camped here for two weeks straight, surveilling forestry companies operating in the area. She was planning to leave later today, but can’t because she ran out of gas a few days ago. She is one of many who are protesting the activities of Surrey-based forestry company Teal-Jones Group in the Walbran Valley, located on the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island.
Although the 16,365 hectare Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park protects the entirety of the Carmanah Valley and its old-growth forest, only part of the Walbran is protected, leaving 486 hectares of old-growth forest adjacent the park available to logging. Teal-Jones has proposed various cutblocks throughout the area. In May, 2015, the company was given permission by the provincial government to begin logging a five-hectare section of the forest, cutblock 4424. Various groups have been fighting Teal-Jones and the government since, but it wasn’t until September 18th of last year, when Teal-Jones was scheduled to begin work, that the protesters moved onto the provincially-owned land.
Along with various unaffiliated individuals, three notable conservation groups are involved in the battle: the Wilderness Committee, the Ancient Forest Alliance, and the Friends of the Carmanah/Walbran. While they work together, each group is structurally different, and has been tackling the issue in slightly different ways. The main goal, however, is shared – stop the cutting of the old-growth forest in the Central Walbran Valley.
Torrance Coste, a 26-year old Campaigner from the Victoria field office of the Wilderness Committee, says most low-elevation old-growth in Canada has been “nuked” by clear-cutting, and only 13% of Vancouver Island is protected. The Walbran “is a climate change issue,” he adds, as old-growth forests sequester far more CO2 than second growth forests, are home to various endemic species, and act as natural filtration systems.
The Committee has undertaken a number of campaigns to stop the logging, including fundraising concerts and phone rallies. On the day I visited their cramped and somewhat messy office off of Victoria’s historical Fan Tan Alley, they’d just begun their first phone blitz targeting Teal-Jones, encouraging supporters to call the company and voice their complaints. As a federally registered non-profit charity, however, the Committee is not permitted to encourage or participate in civil disobedience, and so has not joined in activities on the cutblock.
The Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) is similarly prohibited, as a registered BC non-profit, from encouraging civil disobedience. Much like the Wilderness Committee, the AFA focuses on policy issues, fundraising efforts, public awareness campaigns, and related activities. While both the Wilderness Committee and AFA maintain that they are not inherently against logging, they call for a ban on the unsustainable practice of cutting old-growth, as well as a ban on raw log exports.
The Friends of the Carmanah/Walbran are a non-registered, grassroots organization, and so not bound by the same regulations as the other groups. It is they who have established the “witness camp” at the Walbran River bridge – Teresa’s home for two weeks. She is quick to maintain the camp is solely a “soft protest” and not a blockade, meaning the protesters let workers through while monitoring them and maintaining a defiant presence. It is a checkpoint of sorts. However, Teresa thinks “it will get down to push and shove” eventually.
Others have been camped out in the Walbran as well. The exact number of protesters fluctuates, with more arriving on weekends. Teresa says there are always at least two, and at times as many as 30. At the time of my visit, 27-seven year old David (who also asked that his last name not be used) and 24-year old Trevor Schinkel, had been protesting in the Walbran area for a month and a half. The pair met at another soft protest on the Sunshine Coast, before coming to the Walbran to support the Friends. However, they are solely responsible for their actions, they maintain, and “prepared for the possibility of getting arrested,” according to David, who has been arrested for protesting before. The two say they’re 100% sure Teal-Jones will eventually back down.
David describes the day-to-day routine in the camp as “keeping dry, surviving, and watching what’s going on.” The protesters spend their days scouting, observing, trail-building, and maintaining a presence. They rely almost entirely on supplies brought in every few days by others. “It’s hard out here, [and] once you get wet, there’s no getting dry,” says Teresa. The night before my visit, it rained almost three inches.
David and Schinkel were based at a secondary camp located a few kilometres from the main camp. Four days before, the Friends had been told by Teal-Jones employees that a helipad would be built close to the road. The secondary camp was established to impede its construction. Shortly after my visit, David, Schinkel, and another protester blocked crews who had been building logging roads from accessing their work site. Teal-Jones sought and was granted an injunction by the BC Supreme Court which restricted public access to the area. The Wilderness Committee succeeded in having the injunction narrowed, allowing protesters to continue to observe and record the work, but in January the court established 50-metre “bubble zones” around any vehicle engaged in the logging, and extended the injunction through March 31, 2016.
Bill Beese, a Vancouver Island University (VIU) Forestry Professor, says that if the protesters interfere again with the logging they will be breaking the law. Beese, who has taught at VIU for six years, previously worked in the forestry industry under various companies, and during the late ’80s, was part of MacMillan Bloedel’s Land Use Planning Advisory Team, which recommended to the company that part of the Carmanah Valley should be protected instead of logged. He says that in order for a company to begin logging within a Tree Farm License, they must submit a Forest Stewardship Plan, which sets out how the company will meet regulations. “Companies can’t just go out and start cutting on crown land,” Beese says. If the plan is approved, the company will receive a permit – something he stresses is “highly regulated.” Once a company has been permitted to log, it’s their legal right to do so, says Beese, and if it’s following the rules, “legally, the company isn’t doing anything wrong” – whether it’s logging old-growth or not.
Attesting this in an email, Teal-Jones’ Sustainable Forest Management Advisor, Chris Harvey, says Teal-Jones “is fully within its legal rights to operate in this area.” She stresses that, “all potential environmental, social and cultural impacts are always carefully assessed when plans are being developed,” and the company “is always committed to working collaboratively with the public and interested parties.” Harvey says that, although “a small group of people formed a blockade that prevented Teal crew from travelling to their worksite” in the Walbran, cutting within cutblock 4424 is “not in our immediate plans.”
However, a Teal-Jones employee who has been working in the area for around 30 years says that cutting and road-building will continue. The employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds that Teal-Jones has “exceeded all regulations,” and that the Walbran is a “special management zone” with specific environmental considerations – notably, cutblocks cannot exceed five hectares. Despite the protesters’wishes, Teal-Jones has no intention of backing down, he says – leaving the fate of the Central Walbran Ancient Forest ambiguous.
The employee notes that, unlike almost every other forestry company in BC, Teal-Jones doesn’t export raw logs; it’s against the company’s policy. For each piece of timber Teal-Jones cuts, the company gets a third of the price that it would if it exported the wood. To stay economically viable in the global market, the employee explains, Teal-Jones is forced to cut old-growth, which is worth far more than second growth. “The government is really to blame,” he adds. “They need to better regulate the land and companies.” If raw log exports were banned, the controversy in the Walbran wouldn’t exist, he says.
The Wilderness Committee’s Coste argues that even if Teal-Jones needs to log old-growth to stay economically viable, it’s still not a sustainable practice; better would be to end old-growth cutting and thereby provide a positive example to other forestry companies – something, he notes, the company is already beginning to do by not exporting raw logs. Coste emphasizes the importance of old-growth forests – which can contain trees up to 1,000 years old. “We don’t have pyramids here – our historical monuments, our links to the past, are our trees.”
Photos: Rob Wilson
Below: Protesters stop logging trucks at Duke Point