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It’s Time for the BC Government to Create a New Future

Done right, halting old-growth liquidation in Fairy Creek could bring great opportunity for the Pacheedaht and local residents.

Michael M'Gonigle 5 Jun

Michael M’Gonigle was eco-research professor in the faculty of law and the school of environmental studies, University of Victoria (1995-2016). The former chair of Greenpeace Canada, he co-founded Forest Futures (now the Dogwood Initiative).

[Editor’s note: Michael M’Gonigle initiated the successful campaign in 1983 to prevent road building and logging in the Stein River Valley. In 1995, it was protected as the (Class A) Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park. Later, as chair of Greenpeace Canada, M’Gonigle launched its national forests campaign. From 1987, he was a professor in the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University and, from 1995 to 2016 held the eco-research chair in environmental law and policy at the University of Victoria.]

In the unfolding narratives about Fairy Creek, words matter.

Consider “activist,” a label riven with negative connotations.

This is a person who isn’t content with rational discussion or democratic debate but instead takes to the street and into the forest to impose their will by physical, even disruptive, means. By contrast, the forest “licence holder” merely enforces legal rights conferred by the government.

Ditto “protester,” a person who opposes the status quo, the accepted consensus, who doesn’t defer to "legitimate" authority. Meanwhile, the “industry” works to provide “goods” for the community.

At Fairy Creek the visual images reinforce these contrasting narratives as police in clean, pressed uniforms “restore order” by dragging away dishevelled protesters in handcuffs.

Even the phrase “forest industry” is misleading. It is not like the auto industry that makes cars. The forest industry doesn’t make forests. Only forests do that. Trees are not carrots, yet forest companies assert their right to “harvest” the trees of the ancient forest. In so doing, they un-make that forest, their lawful forest practices everywhere leaving behind a desiccated landscape.

Such associations are engrained in the public’s unconscious. They colour our narratives, and restrict the possibility for aware — and critical — conversations.

In fact, today’s defenders at Fairy Creek do what they do because they recognize this moment as one of a historical crisis of our accepted social order.

Not surprising, when you watch the news, forest protectors don’t look like the salesperson or government worker in downtown Victoria, because they aren’t. They have left such jobs, their ideals driving them into the woods to live in tents, week after week, month after month without hot water or a change of clothes.

They live in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety as police trash their camps, and they await a final, full-scale assault. When arrested and charged, their “normal” life will not soon return. And they will always be haunted by the sadness of their existential loss in these forests.

These citizens defend the great silent “other,” but their sacrifice is theirs alone. They will get no help from our politicians who make promises for the year 2050 while, in 2021, they avoid the tough decisions needed to "re-form" (not just reform) the system. On the contrary, the job of these “leaders” is to hold back change by keeping the capital-generating process of forest liquidation still going to provide the commodities and profits and jobs and stumpage fees that forest liquidation allows.

So what new narrative is necessary for this time? It is one that recognizes:

The full value of old-growth forests. As a recent report from the University of British Columbia argued, the “ecological, economic and cultural values of complex old growth could lead to the perspective that they are more valuable when they are intact and standing compared to when they are cut down as timber.”

This understatement finds support from the government’s own Old Growth Strategic Review. Released last year, it recommended the widespread deferral of logging in old-growth forests, but policies have not changed. On the contrary, over the past year, the government increased approvals of logging in old-growth forests by two-thirds, and it recently approved logging in the still wild, 100,000-hectare Raush River watershed near McBride in northeastern B.C.

The immediate goal of Teal-Jones is not to cut trees but to eviscerate the defenders’ mission by blasting a road into the heart of the valley and beginning to clear cut a 200-hectare bloc. That’s almost one square mile, 15 per cent of the 1200-hectare valley. In so doing, it will pre-empt the opportunity for wiser words and far-sighted actions to prevail.

The ‘constitutional’ role of the watershed. Old-growth forests are one thing, but where they exist as components of an intact, complex, functioning watershed, that’s something else again. Enclosed within a ring of mountain ridges, Fairy Creek is such a watershed, a remnant of the ecological "institutions" that have long been the foundation for life to flourish on the planet.

Historically, these tangible institutions have never had any status in the "development" narrative. Instead, their demise has long been the fuel for modern life through colonial conquest, mining and logging, global trade, urban insulation, capital accumulation, corporatization and consumption. Most important is the nation state, the arbiter of development conflicts. With its underlying "title" and institutional power, it has the "sovereign" ability to render places like Fairy Creek ecologically inert — or socially re-constitutive.

The importance of the 'long community.' Many people talk about the jobs lost if Fairy Creek is protected. This is literally a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Port Renfrew is a logging town and the Pacheedaht First Nation now has logging investments. For both, logging Fairy Creek offers a valuable short-term return but only by destroying forever its long-term potential for sustaining the long community. Enlisting First Nations into this problematic industry — and forgoing more transformative options — smacks of more colonizing co-option rather than enabling truly new institutions of "reconciliation" that can actively build on the Pacheedaht’s long relations with Fairy Creek.

Today, those now defending Fairy Creek are the long community’s best hope for the future.

To appreciate the possibilities, take a trip along the coastal road to Port Renfrew. On the landward side is a sea of clearcuts. On the ocean side is an ever-growing diversity of houses and vacation rentals built to take advantage of the vast seaside panorama. The road is often jammed with parked cars, their occupants headed to the popular beaches and surf down below.

Arrivals at Port Renfrew encounter a more diverse, vital and alluring landscape. The town has ocean views, but at sea level from Port San Juan. At the ocean end of the inlet are the stunning tidal pools of Botanical Beach; at the other, a long, protected, sweeping beach. This coastal area backs into extensive flats penetrated by the San Juan and Gordon rivers, and strewn with long meandering estuaries, into which flow fresh rivulets from the creeks coming down from the mountains. Campers with canoes and kayaks are everywhere — again, parking space is often hard to find.

This small community also sits at the southern end of the popular West Coast Trail while it is perfectly located halfway along the increasingly popular, long distance (two day) cycle route that begins and ends in Victoria.

Port Renfrew advertises itself as the “tall tree capital of Canada.” Ironically, many of those individual tall trees still stand because of the persistence of an earlier generation of forest defenders. Fairy Creek rises up directly behind Port Renfrew and the Pacheedaht First Nation. Protecting that watershed will give the town’s claim real meaning.

Fairy Creek is that shared community’s future. For generations to come, the valley could host Indigenous-led retreats and outdoor schools (such as the largely Indigenous Rediscovery program), old-growth research and teaching centres, hiking trails and low impact eco-tourism. (Literally taking a leaf from tropical rainforests, there is a huge market for activities like a guided canopy experience complete with overnight camping platforms linked together by a zip line.) Outside the watershed, residents could implement projects in forest reclamation and develop new practices for eco-forestry.

Enabling truly long-term land management would be new co-operative institutions such as what I call the "community ecosystem trust." These would give tangible meaning to then-Chief Justice McLachlin’s stipulation in the unanimous 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Tsilhqot’in case that Indigenous title must not “be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.” This decision provides the trust-based guidance for the route to 2050.

Not long ago, Tofino was once like Port Renfrew is today, a remote resource town reached by a long and dangerous drive that traversed a clear-cut landscape. But with the preservation of the forests of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino’s adaptation to a new economy, the town has flourished. Today it is a global destination of visitors in search of the awe of the B.C. coast and its forests.

A new narrative of system change. The Horgan government is becoming synonymous with symbolic gestures, political equivocation — and then aggressive development. There’s Site C dam, the Old Growth Strategic Review that has been ignored, the present assault on Fairy Creek and the coming assault on the Raush valley. These are not the imaginative possibilities needed for adapting to a climate constrained world.

So when, and how, is change to take place? This is not met with today’s narrative that sets a distant target for change, and then keeps intact old exploitative institutions and behaviours.

Answering the global call for system change means taking local actions that will constrain and ultimately replace outdated corporations and industries that subsist on planetary destruction. This is the path that will give Premier John Horgan and his ministers and caucus members an honourable legacy. The key is to foster the long community.

Many precedents exist as to how to resolve today’s conflicts — for example, in the Carmanah Valley and Clayoquot Sound — so why prolong this agonizing process? There is simply no comparison between the short-term value of the valley as timber (some put it at $20 million) and its incalculable value as an ancient and still vital watershed. No amount of money could create this natural wonder.

A socially responsible government would seize this opportunity to develop transitional arrangements that will sustain the long communities of both Fairy Creek and the Pacheedaht First Nation.

It is time for the provincial government to create a new future — to call off the police, stop smashing the camps of forest defenders, stop the arrests and halt the impending liquidation of the old growth of Fairy Creek. It is time for the provincial government to become the long defender of Fairy Creek.  [Tyee]

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