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Logging Protests Ahead

On the island, anger at massive cuts, blocked scrutiny.

Quentin Dodd 6 Apr
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Residents of Vancouver Island have started a grassroots protest movement aimed at slowing the drive of the B.C. logging industry to haul enormous quantities of timber out of the island's woods.

Today, members of the group barricaded a road and stopped logging trucks near Port Alberni.

The protest, say members, is against loosened logging regulations which allow environmentally damaging practices and erode safety, while removing public scrutiny.

Towards the end of last month, the group sent close to 500 people to protest on the steps of the legislature in Victoria. But the rally took place on a weekend when MLAs were not sitting.

So far, the protest movement has had difficulty catching much attention from the major media, the industry or the public.

The protesters have been trying to shine a light on the ferocious pace of logging in the Port Alberni and Cowichan valleys. Over a recent stretch of five 10-hour work days, activists counted more than 1,000 truckloads of logs leaving those two island regions. That's far too much, too fast, to be sustainable according to Ken Wu of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

Wu said WCWC wants the standard rotation rate for harvesting trees on Vancouver Island to be boosted from around 80 to 200 years, to sustain the industry and communities, alike.

Wu's group is spearheading the new logging protests in conjunction with the Save Our Valley Alliance (SOVA) of Port Alberni and the Youbou Timberless Society in the Cowichan Valley (named, says the society, to remind of the sawmill at Youbou TimberWest that closed in 2001 in order to ship more raw logs to the U.S).

Public input meaningless

The protesters are armed with an information bulletin put out several weeks ago by the Forest Practices Board, an independent watchdog group, warning the public of a Catch-22 under the Campbell government's Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). The bulletin notes that in this new era of less government oversight, it becomes all the more important that "public review and comment is effective." But the bulletin then goes on to note that companies will be perfectly at liberty to ignore the input of the public, who now have no recourse to government:

"A forest company may (or may not) choose (under the Act) to put detail in supporting documents that are not part of its forest stewardship plan. However, forest companies need not consider public comment about such documents, or follow the practices described in them."

Moreover, says the bulletin, companies planning to harvest trees no longer need to reveal to the public a map of proposed cutblocks and roads. Instead, the firms' forest stewardship plans can simply identify one large area of perhaps more than 300,000 hectares in which logging may occur in the next five to 10 years and the public will have to identify all of its concerns in the entire area.

"This," said SOVA media spokesperson and website builder Jennifer Fisher-Bradley "is 'stewardship' planned to fail; it is Orwellian and soul-destroying in nature."

Boiling mad

In the Alberni Valley on the western edge of the island, logging company TimberWest has faced angry roadside protests of up to 200 citizens infuriated by the climbing number of boil-water advisories being issued in the area. There have been four such alarms in less than four months, some of them due to increased water turbidity, blamed on logging in the watershed that provides drinking water.

Industry officials in the area reminded that what was happening was on private land - and therefore not subject to the same government controls and restrictions Crown lands are under, even prior to the coming full implementation of the FRPA.

Island Timberlands President Darshan Sihota, head of what is now the private lands section of what used to be Weyerhaeuser, was also quoted as saying that the company has a duty to seek out customers willing to "pay the highest dollar".

But observers say smaller contractors are caught up in a "race to the bottom," driving down each others' earnings as they compete to get work for big forest companies.

Harsh competition

One contractor said that some of the smaller logging contractor companies are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy competing with each other to do the still-expanding proportion of harvesting, loading and hauling within the forest industry now being put out to contract. To get those contracts, the smallest contractor companies have had to put together groups of even smaller or even individual contractors, all offering their services for as little as they can afford.

To make those close-to-the-bone economics work, said the contractor, as much wood as possible has to be hauled out of the woods as fast as possible, leaving truck-loggers working anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day - or more - to keep up from the increased knockdown by big machines with very small support crews.

That situation likely contributed to the deaths of some of the 43 loggers killed and another 113 seriously injured at work or on the way to or from work last year. Nine, or more than 20 percent, of the fatalities and 19 of the serious injuries such as spine fractures were in log hauling, which includes log hauling, log towing, lumber and chip transportation and logging-road construction or maintenance.

As loaded logging trucks continue to roar at a breakneck rate out of Vancouver Island's valleys, some see an ironic image of jobs racing away from their communities.

'Shipping out our future'

"Every truck is about 1.5 houses," said SOVA activist and truck-counter Gerry Walerius, "and much of that's going south over the border. And we haven't been counting the ones that are loaded up late in the day and have been going out before we started our count at 6:30 a.m. Those are jobs that we're not getting in the valley. So far, we reckon it's been 500 year-round jobs, and that's being conservative. They're shipping out our future and our kids' future."

SOVA spokesperson Keith Wyton said that every logging truck carried 40 to 50 cubic metres of wood and it takes about 2,000 cubic metres of wood, some 40 to 50 truckloads, to employ one logger and one sawmill employee full-time for a year.

That means with more than 80 truckloads headed out each day, more than three fulltime jobs are being exported out of the Alberni Valley daily.

At Cowichan, the figures are even higher, with the Youbou Timberless Society counters noting an average of more than 300 trucks barrelling out in a 10-hour count.

In a statement headed "A healthy forest is a healthy watershed", the Save Our Valley Alliance has put out a list of organization objectives regarding TimberWest, which call for a Beaufort Management Board to ensure public interest values of the area are better protected. Those include water quality, wildlife, fisheries, recreation, biodiversity and old growth.

SOVA also wants a review of TimberWest's forest-sustainability certification, obtained under the U.S.-run Sustainable Forest Initiative.

"There is widespread opinion in the ENGO (Environmental Non-Government Organization) community," charges SOVA leader Wyton, "that this certification system is nothing more than 'green-washing'."

Campbell River journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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