The fight to stop loggers from cutting down old-growth trees in Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island has been going on for more than a year now. As of this week, the RCMP have arrested about 1,100 protestors — sometimes through violent means — making this the largest civil disobedience event in recent Canadian history.
And there’s no end in sight: On Tuesday, Teal-Jones Group, the logging company that holds the harvesting licence in the area, saw its court-ordered ban against the blockades at its tree farm where the Fairy Creek watershed sits come to an end. A B.C. judge ruled that the ban, which was granted in April, was doing more harm than good, and enforcement by police was leading to the “infringement of civil liberties” in some cases. This is a welcomed decision by protestors who no longer risk arrest for peaceful demonstrations, but not for Teal-Jones.
The logging company told the CBC that it's reviewing the decision and will be considering its options in the coming days. Teal-Jones recently asked the court to extend the ban for another year. "Our work in Tree Farm Licence 46 is important and responsible, vital to sustaining hundreds of jobs in the province and producing products we all rely on every day," Teal-Jones’ statement said.
So how did we get here and what’s at stake? Here’s what you need to know about the Fairy Creek protests.
Who is protesting at Fairy Creek and why?
The Fairy Creek protests are being led by a B.C.-based organization called the Rainforest Flying Squad. Since the first handful of protestors took over the site in August 2020, they've gained support through social media. Now, hundreds of protestors show up daily to various campsites on the grounds.
And there’s been movement. In June, B.C. Premier John Horgan approved a two-year deferral of 2,000 hectares of old-growth logging in Fairy Creek and nearby central Walbran at the request of three First Nations — the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht — whose land is affected by the practice. The First Nations asked for time to develop their own plans to log these areas sustainably.
But even with the two-year halt, the Rainforest Flying Squad aren’t packing up camp. They say their mission is broader than Fairy Creek: They want all industrial logging of old-growth forests — loosely defined as trees that are more than 250 years old on the coast or 140 years old in the interior — stopped in the province.
Activists have been fighting off and on to save the 13 million hectares (though experts say that number is closer to 11 million) of these trees for decades now — think the “war in the woods” protests in the 1990s when activists demonstrated against clear-cutting at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island — but the situation remains dire.
Research shows we are close to saying goodbye to our original old-growth forests. A report, co-authored by Rachel Holt, an ecologist based in Nelson, B.C., found that only 3% of the province’s remaining old forest supports large trees. “Fairy Creek is symptomatic of this bigger issue… and that is the fact that we're cutting down the last of the really old, big forest,” says Holt.
Why are old-growth forests so important?
So. Many. Reasons. Old trees, some of which might be close to 2,000 years old in B.C., are vital to not only protecting biodiversity in forests, but for their role in storing carbon and fighting climate change. “You can think of individual trees as the foundation... They create the bones of the ecosystem: They provide structure, habitat, and living space for lots of other organisms, so they're critically important,” Ken Lertzman, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management, tells Refinery29.
While trees help combat climate change, they are also affected by it. Lertzman, who recently co-authored a paper on the impact of climate change on the Pacific coastal rainforest, says changes in temperature and rainfall, for example, are tied to things like fires. “We're seeing [tree] declines. There's a lot of mortality of western redcedar on the south coast — which is one of the iconic species of the coastal temperate rainforest and critically important for First Nations cultural purposes. It’s also a key part of the ecosystem,” he says. The ripple effect of this can’t be ignored. Once our old-growth forests are gone, it will take hundreds of years to “replace” them. And, even when trees do grow back, the biodiversity that existed within the original forest may be lost.
Another big issue? Not all growth is created equal, Holt says, and the government lumping varying old-growth forests into one bucket — that 11 to 13 million number — is misleading and underplays the problem. The vast majority of old-growth is on low-productivity sites, for instance on sites that are covered in snow most of the year and don’t have very much soil, making them less valuable than the old-growth trees that loggers are most interested in — the big, old, valuable structures like cedars and firs. “They're at a tiny proportion of the original extent,” Holt says. “Some of them could be described as being extirpated — they're gone and never coming back.”
Why do loggers want old-growth trees?
To sum it up: money. Old-growth trees are economically very valuable. Hundreds-year-old trees are coveted because their wood is stronger than younger trees, making them more profitable than second-growth forests, according to non-profit environmental group the Ancient Forest Alliance. Old-growth wood is used to produce things like furniture, shingles, and musical instruments.
Logging companies say they act within the law and harvest within their means. Teal-Jones says on its website that it meets the national standards for sustainable practices. It also states its “Sustainable Forest Management Plan outlines commitments to meeting ecological, social, cultural and economic criteria and indicators.” Refinery29 Canada reached out to Teal-Jones for comment but the company did not respond to questions.
Based on the company’s 2019 annual report, about 11% of each area harvested by Teal-Jones were retained in recognition of biodiversity and wildlife, and “22 sites of special significance” were left alone, which included mountain beaver dens and culturally modified trees. “Almost by definition, the logging of old-growth forest… may be sustainable from a timber management perspective, but it's not sustainable from a biodiversity perspective,” Lertzmen says. “When we cut the iconic, really big old trees in the forest, they're not things that are going to be replaced in any meaningful human timeframe.”
To be frank, the forest sector in B.C. is important to the province from an economic perspective. According to government data, the sector was responsible for $11.5 billion of B.C.’s total exports in 2020, and is the primary employer in several parts of the province.
While chopping old-growth trees is lucrative for now, environmental experts say the government and logging companies have not planned ahead and invested in real sustainability. Once the trees are gone, what happens next?
What are First Nations in the area saying?
Fairy Creek is within the Pacheedaht First Nations’ territory, and the community is divided on the protests. In the last several months, Pacheedaht Hereditary Chief Frank Queesto Jones and Chief Councillor Jeff Jones have told protesters to leave and said their wishes are being ignored. “Our constitutional right to make decisions about forestry resources in our territory, as governing authority in our territory, must be respected,” the elected officials said in an April statement. Of course, First Nations are not a monolithic group and the situation is complex. Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has publicly spoken out in support of the protests and has stood with demonstrators.
The Pacheedaht First Nation owns three sawmills and has a revenue-sharing agreement with the province for logging in its territory, reports the Globe and Mail. The Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations, whose nearby lands are also on the west coast of Vancouver Island, have a stake in the logging operations that fall within their territories, too, and have asked that they be left to make the best decisions for their land based on their own resource management plans .
“In the past 150 years, we have watched the resources being stripped from our unceded lands with little to no recognition of our rights, and we are proud and excited to be finally restoring involvement, governance and control,” Rod Bealing, Pacheedaht First Nations’ forestry manager, told the Globe and Mail.
So, now what?
Now with the court ceasing Teal-Jones ban on blockades, it’s unclear what will happen next. It’s safe to say protestors aren’t going home just yet. The B.C. government says it's committed to finding ways to protect old-growth forests and is “embarking on a new, holistic approach.” What that means is tbd. Currently only about 33% is protected, according to an independent strategic review from April 2020.
In September 2020, the government agreed to implement the recommendations from that strategic review on how to manage old forests, and said it will engage the full involvement of Indigenous leaders. The report, written by two foresters, recommends that until a new strategy is implemented, the province should “defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.” But, Holt, the ecologist, says that hasn’t exactly happened yet. “What they're supposed to be doing is deferring harvest — stopping harvest temporarily — of the most important forests,” Holt says. “So far, they haven't done that.”
This month, a year after the province promised it would make changes, B.C.'s Forests Ministry said more deferrals for old growth logging would soon be announced. In August, the Liberals promised a $50 million “B.C. Old Growth Nature Fund” if re-elected, and said they would work with First Nations on nature protection plans.
The importance of Indigenous knowledge systems
Working with First Nations is vital, and in B.C, is the law. The province is legally obligated to consult First Nations on land and resource decisions that may impact them, Deborah McGregor, an associate professor at York University and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, tells Refinery29. This is critically important as Indigenous communities have knowledge systems that must inform how the province approaches the management and preservation of natural resources.
But acceptance of Indigenous knowledge systems hasn’t always been a priority for governments. McGregor, who has authored papers on Indigenous knowledge systems, says she’s finally seeing a paradigm shift where NGOs and scientists are starting to pay attention. “[People] are realizing that people on the ground know things, and where Indigenous people live is where the greatest biodiversity is,” McGregor says. “There's knowledge that Indigenous people have on ways of being that ensure sustainability of ecosystems and biodiversity.”
Currently, the forest plans and strategies used by the government and logging companies are not sustainable, McGregor adds. While there are always going to be different visions about what needs to happen, as well as competing interests, Indigenous knowledge systems need to be part of the solution.
“These big disaster reports are a wake-up call,” McGregor says, referring to increasing warnings on the dangers of climate change and unsustainable human behaviours. “We need to transform the status quo because it’s not working. It's actually not serving anybody, so why do we keep doing it?”