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New War in Woods? Battle Front Shifts

Protests planned for August 24 in Port Alberni.

Quentin Dodd 16 Aug
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Save Our Valley Alliance protest, May 3, 2006.

[Corrections and updates to this story: The protest is planned for Thursday, August 24. We regret that an earlier version indicated a different date. Also, Save Our Valley Alliance leader Keith Wyton informs that his group does not advocate civil disobedience. That clarification has been included in this version of the piece.]

The war in the woods that seemed to simmer down in the Clayoquot last week may have found a new flash point in Port Alberni. A local activist group, including at least one millionaire, blames poorly regulated logging methods for polluting water, eroding land, damaging roads, risking lives and sucking jobs out of the area.

According to a statement by the Save Our Valley Alliance in Port Alberni, beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, August 24, members of the alliance will be at the junction of Horne Lake Road and the Inland Island Highway to protest TimberWest's logging practices in the Beaufort Range watershed overlooking the Alberni Valley.

List of grievances

Immediately below the logged-off hillside on the edge of the Beauforts overlooking the Alberni Valley, activists pointed angry fingers at TimberWest late last year and early this year over problems with soil and siltation from the felled slope.

Locals complained of soil and sediment damage to the fish-bearing Woodward Creek, a reported fish-kill at a small fish hatchery and five boil-water drinking-water advisories to the homes in the Beaufort Water Improvement District.

They also expressed their frustration about logging-related damage to roads in the area, which led to the regional district telling TimberWest not to use the roads in its area any more. And they voiced anger that the forest industry was hauling huge amounts of timber out of the valley and away from its mills, leaving the mills starving for fibre and having to bring supplies in over "the Hump" – the high point of the highway into the valley from the Inland Island Highway on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Members of Save Our Valley Alliance, including president Keith Wyton, continue to protest the fact that much of the timber harvested in their region is being exported as raw logs to the United States.

Millionaire vows to be arrested

The group is particularly upset by the lack of progress it says it has been making with TimberWest.

Steve Lorimer, the company's manager of public affairs and government relations in Nanaimo, told The Tyee that TimberWest has met several times with the group and various members and residents.

One of those Beaufort residents is outspoken company critic Wayne Crowley, who has now pledged to get himself arrested if necessary in protest against the company. He says that he aims to bring public attention to the situation below the company's Beaufort clearcut, which is on private land.

Crowley, a multi-millionaire who said he has been in the logging industry all his life and has his own forest holdings next to the clearcut, says he has been putting some 30,000 baby salmon a year into Woodward Creek for some years. Crowley accuses TimberWest of damaging the creek and says he alerted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about the problem in January.

Save Our Valley leader Wyton stressed that as a matter of operating procedure, his group does not advocate civil disobedience, and doesn't plan to break the law at next Thursday’s action. He said the group wants to keep doors of dialogue open with government and industry, and doesn't want to alienate members of the public who are against any form of illegal protest.

Despite Crowley's vow to welcome arrest, Wyton said he hopes nobody will use the Save Our Valley protest actions to engage in their own act of civil disobedience.

TimberWest blames snow, rain

Lorimer said TimberWest contends the company isn't responsible for all the damage and problems being laid at its doorstep and continues to work under a forest-sustainability certification program administered through a third-party annual audit system.

But Crowley and Save Our Valley Alliance believe the provincial government and the DFO should do more to press TimberWest to clean up its act.

They note that the company was slapped with a $30,000 fine by the Private Managed Forest Land Council earlier this year for four inadequately-constructed logging-road culverts on its private forest lands. In the view of Save Our Valley Alliance, the company got away with serious siltation of the creek; but a spokesperson for the DFO in the valley said this week that the level of siltation was not high enough to warrant charges for adverse effects on fish -- which he said is much higher than would be permitted for drinking water.

TimberWest's Lorimer said the siltation problems were due to the steep slope of the hillside above Crowley's home being covered in snow and then receiving heavy rainfall.

Now, says Save Our Valley Alliance, the opposite is happening and the hillside is drying out due to all the warm weather, and that is threatening to dry up the vicinity's water-supplying creeks for the first time since the area was settled.

Strategizing a new 'war'

The group, which held a number of rallies "on the Hump" and carried out weeks of logging-truck counts in the spring to document that rate at which the valley was being logged, decided at a meeting last week to renew direct action against the company on a number of fronts, including complaints to the Registered Professional Foresters Association of B.C. as a disciplinary body overseeing foresters drawing up logging and engineering plans.

The group, which includes some former logging protesters from the Walbran and Clayoquot Sound areas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also decided to hold a strategizing meeting Monday about opening a new round of the war in the woods.

The protests taking shape outside Port Alberni come on the heels of tense negotiations over possible logging in eight new areas of the Clayoquot, and the statement from Victoria that the government is considering the idea of allowing full-service hotels and resorts in about 12 of B.C.'s provincial parks.

The news has been full of reports of environmentalists and even some elected officials predicting there could well be a return to the war in the woods.

NDP's Simpson levels charges

NDP Forests Critic Bob Simpson has attacked the B.C. Liberal government for what he termed its "sympathetic administration" of the logging industry.

Simpson told The Tyee that unless the government backs away from what many see as its current hands-off attitude towards the logging industry, there could well be a new eruption of the old war in the woods next spring, or possibly even as early as this fall.

The Tyee tried unsuccessfully to obtain an interview with Forests Minister Rich Coleman.

Simpson, who has been working alongside Alberni MLA Scott Fraser in supporting Save Our Valley Alliance, told The Tyee he based his comments on several acts by the B.C. Liberal government. Those include:

Add to that stated plans by at least one forest major to use as much as possible of its private forest lands for subdivisions and housing development, says Simpson, and he and others see the industry as being on a collision course with environmentalists, eco-tourist groups, outdoors and fisheries organizations, and even just regular taxpaying members of the public concerned over such things as the quality of their drinking water.

Hundreds of safety failures

Simpson also said that unionized loggers, under their latest contract, now face much longer working hours and reduced working conditions and in many cases have been forced to become contractors paying their own WorkSafe premiums, rather than working directly as employees of the forest majors, are all community residents, with families and friends.

All of that, says Simpson, is bubbling below the surface and hasn't really come to the surface yet in B.C. because there's so much industrial activity going on in the province, rendering much of the major media complacent.

Simpson said the pigeons may well "come home to roost" come the fall, as summer vacations end and as the Steelworkers Union nears the end of its contract with the coastal logging companies at the end of the year, and as the union again turns its attention to the catastrophic record for deaths, serious injuries and other potentially-tragic accidents in the industry since the beginning of last year. Forty-three people died in 2005 alone, 113 were severely injured, the B.C. Forest Safety Council recorded 15 reported "close calls," and WorkSafe B.C. officially reported "well over 5,000 injuries" in claims from B.C.'s forest sector last year.

That rate of fatalities has not been matched this year. By the third week of June figures from the forest safety council showed that the industry had recorded nearly half as many accidents as it did during the whole of 2005. And WorkSafe B.C. reported that more than 300 targeted inspections of forestry operations -- stepped up under WorkSafe's new forest compliance strategy -- had led to 603 written safety orders being issued by inspectors in just the first quarter of the year. That's more than double the figure for the same period last year.

Some of the safety checks, said a statement from WorkSafe, showed that some of the people interviewed apparently didn't even realize the extent of the responsibility they had been handed as contractors by the major logging companies for their own and others' safety under them.

Many said they had not been trained properly to do the work they were doing or use the equipment they were using.

Campbell River journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Read more of his articles here.

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