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The New Faces of BC’s Old-Growth Activism

It’s not mom and dad’s ‘War in the Woods.’ Meet the forest rebels trying to decolonize direct action. Last in a series.

Serena Renner 18 Sep

Serena Renner is a journalist and editor who writes about culture, social justice and the environment, as well as creative change-makers and their big ideas. She completed a practicum with The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series about the cedars of British Columbia, their vital role in this place’s ecologies and people working on ways to save them. Read the first and second articles to catch up.]

Torrance Coste’s dusty Nissan XTerra disappears in a cloud of grey dirt. He’s checking out recent logging activity around Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on southern Vancouver Island for the Wilderness Committee. I’m trailing behind, trying not to blow a tire, lose his taillights, or get run off the road.

Another logging truck smokes past — the eighth so far this morning. It’s stacked with old-growth hemlock and a red cedar at least a metre thick. A few minutes later, we’re stopped by a pile of tree carcasses blocking the road. Active logging. No entry.

We can hear chainsaws and a grapple yarder, a giant pincer that chomps then drags felled trees up the hillside. We get out of the car and Coste explains why it matters how long those trees have been alive.

“Second-growth forest pales in comparison to old growth from an ecological standpoint, from an Indigenous cultural standpoint, for carbon sequestration...” Coste says, interrupted by a crackling and then a CRASH. “Oof, big cedar going down...”

After a pause, Coste continues. “When it comes to old growth, we can only do it once. It’s timber mining.”

The headwaters of the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island has become a key spot for old-growth defenders to stand their ground. The newly released plan for protecting more old-growth forest released by the BC government affords no new protections to Fairy Creek’s ecosystem. Photo by Will O’Connell.

This clearcut on Carmanah Main forest road is part of Tree Farm License 46, a swath of Ditidaht and Pacheedaht territory that stretches between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan, near where Coste grew up. Today held by the Surrey-based timber company Teal-Jones, it contains some of the most spectacular pockets of ancient rainforest yet to be sawed down or protected.

Colossal cedar, spruce and hemlock trees shade karst limestone formations and translucent tributaries. Because of these values, TFL 46 has long been a setting for forest activism. And it’s the site of the latest logging blockades, which sprung up in early August around the Fairy Creek headwaters northeast of Port Renfrew.

But TFL 46 is just one patch in a growing quilt of old-growth struggles that are unfolding from Vancouver Island to the Kootenays to the endangered inland cedar forests hugging Prince George. Decades of ecosystem decline combined with intensifying climate risks and frustration about the B.C. government’s tepid response to the Old Growth Strategic Review report are bringing people to the woods and to the streets to demand urgent change. Marches, rallies and demonstrations are being held around the province today for Forest March B.C., a grassroots community trying to cultivate a new forest framework.

“The ultimate goal is to take the control of B.C. public lands out of the hands of corporations and put it back into the hands of the people,” says Forest March founder Jennifer Houghton. “It’s to show that there are voices across the province and unity spreading among us.”

Throughout Vancouver Island, alliances are growing to protect cedar.

The battle for TFL 46

If you email the Rain4est Flying Squad, there’s a good chance you’ll hear from a 17-year-old named Joshua Wright. He launched the Fairy Creek Blockade (which also goes by Old Growth Blockade) from his bedroom on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Wright grew up visiting the cedar groves of southern Vancouver Island as a kid, and, during the first week of August, was alarmed to see Teal-Jones’ new road-building plans on the government GIS site iMapBC.

The Fairy Creek watershed, he says, is 2,025 hectares of rainforest with integrity. “And in the middle of that rainforest, there’s the central valley that’s completely intact,” Wright says. “The fact that they were going to log the headwaters of it is just unbelievable.”

After he reached out to Nanaimo resident Carole Tootill, a roadblock was set up in a week. Two camps are now monitoring the east and west sides of the headwaters. The blockade has seen about 300 visitors so far.

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Fairy Creek blockaders. ‘We’re going to stay as long as it takes. We’re prepared to be there for years,’ says Joshua Wright, a teenager from Washington state who helped organize the camp. Photos by Will O’Connell.

Wright is stuck in Washington because of COVID-19, but those on the ground spend their days greeting newcomers, learning wilderness survival, capturing footage, cooking and turning away road workers — some of whom are hostile, others showing support. Blockaders are veterans of the Walbran Valley and Clayoquot Sound protests mixed with the younger, more tech-savvy, generation they inspired.

A few days into the resistance, the Ancient Forest Alliance identified an ancient yellow cedar tree directly in the path of the logging road. If saved, the yellow cedar will make the top 10 list for the species on the B.C. Big Tree registry. It’s become the unofficial mascot of Fairy Creek. The goal of the effort is to disrupt the timber industry enough to force the government to preserve endangered old-growth ecosystems, Wright says. “We’re going to stay as long as it takes. We’re prepared to be there for years.”

The government’s old-growth announcement last week failed to appease. The fact that the plan adds no new protections for Fairy Creek old growth seems to have added fire to the resistance. “Five-thousand years ago, colonial powers were destroying the cedars of Lebanon, and now we’re destroying the cedars of Vancouver Island,” Wright says. “In five or 10 years, there won’t be any left to destroy.”

Decolonizing direct action

But colonialism is complex, and the blockade is still learning how to conduct itself on unceded Indigenous land. Pacheedaht First Nation, the traditional custodians of the Fairy Creek region, have thus far not responded to the blockade (I reached out several times for comment).

The nation has a revenue-share agreement with the government and receives a percentage of stumpage fees paid by Teal-Jones. Yet, Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones has expressed opposition to logging as well as concern for the red and yellow cedar in his territory.

Jones, who’s now 80 years old, has been offering tips for how to make blockade camps more inclusive. He suggested building an Elder’s tent; supporting Indigenous visitors with food, transportation and gear; making the main camp wheelchair accessible; and hiring someone to teach workshops on decolonization. After Tla-o-qui-aht Elder Joe Martin drove over to spend some time at the camp, Jones wrote an open letter to the blockade urging humility and better relations.

His letter acknowledges the differences of opinion within Pacheedaht (and most all First Nations) about whether to extract or conserve. It reminds settlers to follow the respectful protocols of the territory. “It is my sincere hope that more Indigenous activists will join us in our efforts to protect these sacred lands,” Jones wrote. “Be humble and remember why you have all crossed paths in the first place.... Go for a walk in the woods.”

Within a week, an Elder’s tent was created, a code of conduct was written, and a painting by 'Na̱mg̱is Chief Wedlidi Speck was gifted to the nation. Jones has since spent the night at the camp and is working on plans to help build a winter shelter. Forest reconciliation.

“It was very powerful to be confronted and educated on the importance of upholding Indigenous laws and protocol,” says Fairy Creek organizer Will O’Connell. “We all appreciated these visits and the opportunity to learn.”

Logged old-growth red cedar in Kwagu’ł First Nation territory. ‘Kwagu’ł Indigenous Knowledge tells us that forestry was the first nail in the coffin for our salmon,' says Sherri Labour, lands and resources manager for the nation. ‘Now there are many more cumulative effects.’ Photo by TJ Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance.

My tour of TFL 46 with Torrance Coste — just two weeks before the Fairy Creek Blockade was created — ends in the section of the Central Walbran Valley known as “the Bite.” It’s a stunning setting of fanning hemlock, sturdy spruce and behemoth red cedars that was left out of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park as a concession to the timber industry. It was also left out of last week’s government deferrals.

The Wilderness Committee and a grassroots group called Friends of Carmanah Walbran* have built boardwalks, canvas shelters and possibly the most scenic outhouse in the world to share the beauty of the forest with the public. People have gathered here to defend the area from logging many times over the last 30 years.

We walk past signs giving names to red cedars — the Tolkien Giant, the Emerald Giant (a.k.a. Mordor) and Castle Grove. The air is sweet and silent. “Home sweet home,” Coste says.

“If Pacheedaht got this forest back and wanted to cut it, they should have the right to. It’s their land,” Coste says. “But they’re not going to have that freedom or access if Teal-Jones gets it first.”

The white raven returns

In the industrial Burnside district of downtown Victoria, artist and Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Rande Cook (Makwala) is hard at work on a new statue. His sunny studio is filled with Indigenous motifs from his ‘Na̱mg̱is and Ma’amtagila cultures, as well as surprising materials.

A painted cedar mask has eyes made of a Canada Dry pop can. Bundles of plastic straws make up hair in place of cedar bark.

“I’m collecting from my environment, and what does that look like? Cook says. “If we are going to be the voice of preservation and looking after our forests, maybe that requires making sacrifices and stepping away from using cedar wood.”

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Artist and Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Rande Cook (Makwala) is using less cedar wood in his works. ‘If we are going to be the voice of preservation and looking after our forests, maybe that requires making sacrifices.’ Photo by Serena Renner.

The comment is tinged with sadness, given how important cedar is for Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, whose cedar legacy includes totem poles by Mungo Martin and Calvin Hunt and perhaps the most spiritual custom of all: the winter sacred cedar bark ceremony known as T’seka, during which men bind their heads in red cedar bark and dance in flowing cedar-strip skirts (see sidebar for an Oral History about the T’seka and its links to climate change).

“Our entire culture is that relationship between the forest and the environment,” Cook says. “So when we start going in and severing those ties, we’re separating them spiritually as well.”

Cook has been slowly discovering the destruction of ancient forests around his native ‘Na̱mg̱is and Ma’amtagila territories in northern Vancouver Island. He held naming ceremonies for his two kids in those regions, and when he went back years later, the forests were gone. “That’s where I just broke inside.”

But connecting back to nature and the rich culture that existed before white settlement has helped him rebuild again. It’s at the core of Cook’s new Tree of Life campaign — inspired by red cedar’s nickname and supported by the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club BC.

The campaign includes a film along with efforts to rematriate traditional Ma’amtagila territories that have been lost through title claims. A “little big house” is set to be installed on an ancestral village site northwest of Sayward, and future tiny house cabins are in the works, which Cook hopes will house Indigenous youth and artists in residence.

Just as I’m about to leave, Cook graciously shares the story of the red cedar raven head he’s been chipping away at during our interview. In ‘Na̱mg̱is culture, the raven (Umeł) made a promise to return when the world tips out of balance. And that he’ll do so with white feathers to remind us how to conduct ourselves.

Ravens with white feathers have been showing up around northern Vancouver Island. One was spotted near Qualicum Beach two weeks after my visit. “The raven’s here to remind us that we need to make a change,” Cook says.

‘I stand on the shoulders of giants I don’t really like’

Sierra Club BC’s coastal projects lead Mark Worthing is driving me around the “Swiss cheese” hillsides of Kwagu’ł territory outside Port McNeill. Kwagu’ł First Nation has been resisting old-growth logging in the territory for the past 10 years, but companies like Western Forest Products continue to mow it down. The company has even started plucking high-value red and yellow cedar off the steep slopes above Dtlaxsiwè (Cluxewe) River — which, like all of the five Kwagu’ł watersheds, is critical habitat for salmon.

Worthing tells me about the evolution of his activism from youth climate strikes and Greenpeace acrobatics to tree planting and his current role as an ally to Indigenous Chiefs like Rande Cook, Rupert Wilson and Kwagu’ł carver and Hereditary Chief Walas Numgwis (David Mungo Knox).

Lately, he’s had to reckon with the racist history of the U.S. Sierra Club's founder John Muir. In late July, the environmental group admitted to playing a “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” Although Sierra Club BC is separate in every way except name and logo, there have been ripple effects, Worthing says.

“I need to accept the fact that I stand on the shoulders of giants I don’t really like,” he says. “But I would rather wear the logo and try to do the work to take responsibility for it than be ashamed and avoid it.”

Worthing is a big-picture guy whose mind quickly races from forestry to salmon habitat to Indigenous treaties — all rooted in colonization and capitalism, he says. “As much as I think I’m talking about red cedar — Thuja plicata — ultimately we’re talking about relationality on stolen land,” he says.

Here in Kwagu’ł territory, that relationality seems especially damaged. Despite decades of resistance by a strong nation, Kwagu’ł people are still buried in a broken forest referrals system that has left both cedar and salmon at serious risk.

“Kwagu’ł Indigenous Knowledge tells us that forestry was the first nail in the coffin for our salmon,” says Sherri Labour, lands and resources manager for the nation. “Commercial over-harvesting [of salmon] was second. Now there are many more cumulative effects.”

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Kwagu’ł Hereditary Chief Rupert Wilson speaks with Sierra Club BC’s coastal projects lead Mark Worthing. In addition to helping the Nation keep track of what is happening in the forests in their territory, Worthing salvages wood and bark for Indigenous artists. Photo by Serena Renner.

Worthing sees his role as helping to chart a different relationship with Indigenous folks and forest ecosystems. In addition to having eyes and ears on the ground, he salvages wood and bark for Indigenous artists. He’s made a few wood deliveries from Ma’amtagila territory to Chief Rande Cook so Cook can turn cutblock “waste” back into ceremony.

Recognizing the good work Worthing was doing in Kwakwaka’wakw territories, Cook gifted Worthing a Ma’amtagila name — G’ag’awalag’alis — which loosely translates to “the one who shows up internally but who’s also pulling people together, always helping and sharing.”

The relationship between the two stands as an example of trust that remains to be built among environmentalists and First Nations elsewhere in the province. Bruises remain from past battles when non-Indigenous activists treated the ecosystems they were fighting to preserve as “pristine wilderness” rather than homes, for millennia, to First Nations seeking sovereignty over how to relate to their lands.

Worthing is grateful for the bond he’s forged with Cook. “Rande is this mix of my uncle, my boss, my brother and my friend,” he laughs. “I feel so much more inclined to try and do good work in his territory.”

He stops his truck at an overlook where views stretch out to Kingcome Inlet. He guides me along a treacherous path of broken logs and branches to a small “retention area” of old-growth red and yellow cedar. There he proceeds to demonstrate the sacred art of cedar bark stripping, which he’s permitted to do here by Kwagu’ł Hereditary Chiefs.

Worthing chooses a young tree and places his hand on the bark at heart height. He whispers a few words to himself. “I was asking permission,” he says.

He cuts a rectangular box about the width of his hand and checks if the sap is still running (it is, even late in the season). Then he tucks his fingers under the opening and starts pulling the bark, backing himself up the hillside for leverage.

After the bark strip comes loose, a few metres up the trunk, he separates the dry outer bark from the silky good stuff on the inside. He spirals it into a bundled gift for Chief Knox. He smiles and asks, “Isn’t that a nicer way of relating to a tree?”

*Story updated on Sept. 22 at 10:38 a.m. to include that the Friends of Carmanah Walbran helped build the forest infrastructure in the Central Walbran Valley.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Environment

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