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The Forest Fight in West Kootenay

Inside the struggle over logging Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face in southeastern BC.

Zoë Yunker 22 Jun 2022The Tyee

Zoë Yunker is a Vancouver-based journalist writing about energy and environmental politics. Follow her on Twitter @zoeyunker.

After spending weeks at the soggy blockade, 17-year-old Miguel was back at his parents’ place in Nelson nursing a cold. He’d missed about a month of high school to help protect the Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face, an intact stretch of forest in southeastern B.C., from logging.

The early days were easy. Locals from the tiny town of Argenta provided food and morale. Once, said Miguel, a legendary vat of spaghetti arrived at the perfect time following a long night keeping watch.

Forest protectors had been on site since April 24 in an effort to prevent the area from being logged by timber company Cooper Creek Cedar Ltd.

When the RCMP arrived on May 17, they showed up in buses carrying 30 officers, including militarized units that had policed Wet’suwet’en and Fairy Creek actions. They moved fast, arresting 17 people, including Miguel, and leaving the rest to scatter. Two additional arrests were made in the following weeks.

Miguel, who goes by a pseudonym, had only just learned about the long roots of the struggle he had joined, which involved Indigenous caretakers, environmentalists and residents working to protect the mountain slope behind their town.

The Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face is an island of unprotected forest at the north end of Kootenay Lake surrounded on three sides by the largest intact ecosystem in southern British Columbia: Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park. The face provides a transportation highway for animals, providing critical low-elevation intact habitat where little remains.

“The Argenta slope was the area we missed,” said Ric Careless, co-founder of the Sierra Club BC and executive director of BC Spaces for Nature, who first proposed protecting the Purcell conservancy back in the 1970s while working for the BC NDP government.

“There’s the legacy of people that have been fighting for so long to protect this place,” Miguel said. “They know this place is special.”

Over the decades, forest tenure changed hands a few times, but most of the face remained unlogged.

Until now.

Today, Cooper Creek Cedar is logging five cutblocks — totalling 159.5 hectares — on the face, but it also plans to build a network of roads, opening up a new, previously inaccessible region to logging. In turn, the long fight to include the face in the Purcell conservancy area has been reinvigorated.

The region is part of the traditional territory of the Sinixt Nation, the Ktunaxa — including the Yaqan Nukiy, or Lower Kootenay Band, as well as the Okanagan and the Secwepemc First Nations.

582px version of ArgentaJohnsonsLandingMap.jpg
The Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face forest is surrounded on three sides by the largest intact ecosystem in southern British Columbia: Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park. Map by Zoë Yunker using DataWrapper.

Last week, the Lower Kootenay Band called for an immediate stop to logging on the face stating that its concerns had gone unanswered.

“We demand that the forest company, Cooper Creek Cedar, stop logging on the Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face and benches immediately… there has never been any consultation with the Lower Kootenay Band,” wrote Chief Nasuʔkin Jason Louie in a letter to the timber company and provincial Forests Ministry.

The province says park protection is unnecessary, because the scope of 1990s-era protections put limits on the kinds of logging allowed in the region.

“Activities adjacent to parks are carried out in a manner that considers factors such as wildlife, forest health and watershed integrity,” said the B.C. Ministry of Forests in an email to The Tyee.

Cooper Creek Cedar’s registered professional forester, Bill Kestell, declined The Tyee’s request for comment.

On its website, Cooper Creek Cedar says it is committed to “sustainable forestry practices, the preservation of ecological process and integrity and maintaining a strong social licence through collaboration with local communities within the Regional District of Central Kootenay.”

The company has also made substantive changes to its logging plans in the wake of community feedback to retain trees and minimize disturbance. Cooper Creek Cedar’s logging is also vital to the economy of nearby Salmo, B.C., where the sole lumber mill is owned by its parent company, Porcupine Wood Products.

But many locals and environmental campaigners say the true costs of logging the face outweigh the benefits.

The last time red-listed southern mountain caribou were spotted south of the Trans-Canada Highway, they were on one of the cutblocks slated to be logged.

“That was a population thought to have recently gone extinct,” said Joe Foy, a protected areas campaigner for the Wilderness Committee. “It’s mind-blowing. There is nothing reasonable about what’s going on up there.”

A mountain slope that has been clear cut of forest, with a long blue lake filling a valley in the distance.
Clear-cut logging on an active logging site on Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face belonging to Cooper Creek Cedar Ltd. This area is designated as Ungulate Winter Range by the province, a form of protection aimed to preserve migration pathways. Photo by Joe Foy.

Last month’s battle at Argenta Face, co-led by Last Stand West Kootenay, sparked the latest ignition of major RCMP enforcement since last year’s efforts to protect forests at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island — the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history.

Notably, it came after the province enacted the first, most substantial plank of what it calls a “paradigm shift” in B.C. forests, potentially deferring millions of hectares of at-risk old growth.

For Miguel, the Argenta Face is a litmus test for the province’s lofty aspirations. “This sustained battle with this specific area intersects with a provincial movement to preserve old growth,” he said. “When the two intersected and created something beautiful, the response was heavy repression from the state immediately.”

‘An obligation that was reneged on’

A long gravel road connects the 150 residents who comprise the adjacent towns of Argenta and Johnsons Landing nestled on the northeast side of Kootenay Lake. The community was influenced by Quaker families that arrived in the 1950s, establishing a boarding school that drew students from across North America.

Around the same time, the Sinixt people, whose traditional territory includes the region surrounding Argenta, were declared extinct by Canada, after being dispossessed and displaced from their land.

Gary Diers moved there in the 1970s, along with others in a wave of back-to-the-landers who joined the fray. Today he lives in the same log cabin, growing organic vegetables with the other members of his farming co-op.

“We’re very attached to where we live,” he said. “We're a part of it.”

The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy was established just years before he arrived, but the face was already in jeopardy.

“It wasn't really a feeling of victory,” Diers said. “The struggle continued, and that struggle has continued for the last 43 years.”

Tenure rights to log the face changed hands over the decades like a game of hot potato. A portion of the forest remained under small-scale woodlot tenure, but the majority belonged to larger companies — some of which went bankrupt — and the province’s own logging outfit, BC Timber Sales.

Over the years, Diers and fellow community members used civil disobedience to protect the face when it was threatened — one notable protest on a woodlot drew 40 people, a full one-third of the community.

But they also took the official route, including negotiating to protect the face during land-use-planning in the 1990s that promised a host of new park protections around the province.

Locals and environmental advocates jumped to action, calling on the government to add the Argenta Face to the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy. Instead, they received a tentative commitment from the province, which added some new watersheds to the park, but left around 6,200 hectares — the bulk of the Argenta Face — to become a new “special management area.” Logging could happen there, but with conditions.

Those conditions included setting aside key wintering habitat for animals such as caribou (which descend from the mountains in the coldest months), and requiring logging companies to maintain “visual quality objectives” that ostensibly prohibit expansive visible clearcuts. Other regulations applied, including mandated old-growth management areas set aside from logging.

The problem, said Ric Careless, is that the government failed to uphold the lofty intent behind its own regulations.

“They totally disregarded the special management zones, and they nuked them,” said Careless, who participated in the land use planning process through the former organization, BC Wild.

“They just hammered it,” he said, referencing expansive clearcuts across the lake from Argenta reaching to the Lardeau Valley. “There was an obligation that was reneged on.” Today, the province continues to lean on those ’90s-era commitments.

“The Argenta Face is not targeted for addition into the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Park. This is due to the number of protections and mixed use that are already in place for the area,” said the B.C. Ministry of Forests in an email to The Tyee.

Carolyn Schramm, a longtime Argenta resident and winner of the Suzy Hamilton Legacy Award for her activism to protect the face, is familiar with the government’s line.

“For years, this has been their same message. I really think it needs to be challenged,” she said.

‘A very short window'

Cooper Creek Cedar first announced its plans to log the face six years ago at a meeting in Argenta’s community hall — one of two public buildings in town.

“We were very firm about not wanting them there,” said Diers, remembering the tense assembly.

That year, Diers and Schramm’s newly founded group, Mt. Willet Wilderness Forever, distributed a petition to gauge support on adding the face to the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy. The results were posted next to the door of the post office — illustrated as a thermometer with red marker etching higher with the growing number of signatures.

For years, the poll has sat at 85-per-cent local support for inclusion.

“No one’s taken it down,” said Diers. “People are behind this.”

But a few residents took a more conciliatory approach, forming a self-titled “ad hoc committee” to advise Cooper Creek Cedar on their logging plans.

Greg Utzig, a conservation ecologist who has owned a property in Argenta since 1975, is one of them. Utzig is firmly against clear-cut logging on the face, but he’s also worried about what will happen if the forest gets left alone entirely.

After years of smoky skies, Utzig is wary of climate change and the centuries of fire suppression, leading to forests that are hot, dry and full of flammable underbrush.

One solution, he says, is to thin the forest, leaving the biggest trees and taking the smallest, and creating buffers between forests and the community.

“We have a very short window to do things that could mitigate, or adapt, to some of those issues and keep good forests on the land longer,” he said.

In a perfect world, Utzig says he’d like to see the park protected and for the government to fund those fire management practices, but he’s skeptical that political will and funding will materialize.

“The chances of that happening are virtually nil,” he said.

Instead, Utzig is hopeful that logging companies can do the work themselves, but it will require government direction.

“It's a matter of directing companies to log in the right places and to log in the right way. And we are not doing that.”

The ad hoc committee helped make tangible changes to the company’s logging plans, said Utzig, who reports that earlier plans consisted of clearcuts with a few trees left. Now, the cutblocks reflect varying degrees of tree retention.

“We got what we could get,” he said.

A line of RCMP police officers in dark blue uniforms advances down a logging road.
Thirty RCMP officers arrived at the blockade on May 17, arresting 17 people and leaving the rest to scatter. A lumber mill owned by Cooper Creek Cedar’s parent company helps employ members of nearby Salmo, a town of some 1,000 residents. Photo by Louis Bockner.

Prior to logging the face, Cooper Creek Cedar commissioned a report by an independent biologist, Brenda Herbison, who advised the company how to protect threatened species like caribou, grizzly bears and northern goshawks that have been spotted on the face’s mountain slope.

In the proposed cutblock where caribou had been recently sighted, Cooper Creek Cedar agreed to leave around 30 mature trees per hectare, and more than half of the cutblock is set aside as a wildlife area.

In the report, Herbison — who did not respond to The Tyee’s request for comment — suggested that the company’s planned cutblocks in these areas “are expected to allow for continued occasional use of caribou as part of a larger home range.”

But the Wilderness Committee’s Foy remains doubtful that even restrained logging plans can sustain enough habitat for threatened species such as caribou, where there’s little room for error.

“Taking chunks out of that does not make things better for them, it makes it worse,” he said.

Since the forest protectors’ blockade was dismantled last month, the company has completed logging its first lower block, closer to Kootenay Lake, which is a designated Ungulate Winter Range Management Unit — an area that must contain habitat necessary to meet the winter requirements of species such as elk and mule deer. Cooper Creek Cedar reports that its logging meets “minimum retention and maximum disturbance levels” for such habitat.

In reality, said Utzig, the block is a clearcut.

And according to Herbison’s report, the fate of such lower blocks could have impacts on higher blocks where caribou sightings occurred.

‘The only game in town’

The Tyee did not receive a response, or was unable to schedule an interview, with nations whose territory includes the Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face by press time.

Nasuʔkin Jason Louie, Chief of Lower Kootenay Band — which is a member of the Ktunaxa Nation Council — and signatory of the cease-and-desist letter surrounding logging on the face, declined the Tyee’s request for comment.

Jeff Bromley, Wood Council chairperson for the United Steelworkers Union, suggests that B.C.’s forestry regulations have more teeth than their critics realize.

“There are pretty strict standards of how we can harvest timber in this province,” he said. “If they aren't being adhered to, those tender holders face really strict fines and possible loss of their access to timber, and they don't risk that,” he said.

Bromley noted that Cooper Creek Cedar — whose workers are not represented by his union — had already exceeded provincial rules by producing its own wildlife report.

“I think they're going above and beyond,” he said, “but at the end of the day, they have the right to log there and the mill supports a lot of jobs.”

Indeed, Salmo, B.C.’s economy is reliant on the lumber mill owned by Cooper Creek Cedar’s parent company, which helps employ its small population of around 1,000 residents.

“It’s the only game in town, as far as I know,” said Bromley.

With an economy focused on tourism and farming, the community in Argenta-Johnsons Landing isn’t as strongly linked to forestry as many rural communities across the province. But surrounding communities continue to rely heavily on the industry.

A 2019 report from the Council of Forest Industries found that forestry comprises seven per cent of jobs in the Kootenays.

According to Cooper Creek Cedar’s website, the company does not intend to stop logging the face after its current round of cutblocks. It plans to build a network of roads above the town of Argenta, opening up a vast new section of the face to logging. While still tentative, its forthcoming plans would cover the northern face in a web of new cutblocks.

“This area above the community has never been logged,” said Schramm, adding that the karst rock that makes up the mountain face is known for instability and landslides. In 2012, four Johnsons Landing residents died from an landslide.

Schramm says the prospective cutblocks also cover much of the town’s freshwater system. “There's real concern here around watershed security,” she said.

When it comes to future cutblocks, Utzig reports that the ad hoc committee is in limbo, adding that Cooper Creek Cedar has refused to provide the group with data on its coming cutblocks and roads.

BC’s pledged old-growth ‘paradigm shift’

The fight for Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face was forged in the wake of the province’s biggest and most substantial policy move towards its “paradigm shift” in forest management, which raised the prospect of setting aside millions of hectares of old growth for the next two years — enough time to plan out a new future for B.C.’s forests. But only one of Cooper Creek Cedar’s cutblocks on the Argenta Face is included in the deferrals and, at 1.4 hectares, “it’s a postage stamp,” said Utzig, adding that much of the deferral had already been set aside as a wildlife area anyway.

The province’s Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel was required to hone down its recommendations, meaning that deferrals only reflect a fraction of the province’s most valuable forests. Utzig and conservation biologist Rachel Holt recently produced a more expansive list of old growth in the Kootenays using different criteria, and it includes three of the cutblocks on the face currently slated for logging.

And current deferrals also don’t encompass forests that include old trees that wouldn’t be considered “old” by the province’s standards, but still provide critical migration pathways — like much of the Argenta-Johnsons Landing Face.

The province has indicated that deferrals were meant to be a stop gap, allowing it to unroll a new system of forest landscape plans developed in collaboration with communities, First Nations and industry. In the Kootenays, those plans are yet to be seen, and the province estimated last year it would take eight to 10 years for the plans to be implemented across the province.

Meanwhile, in an email to the Tyee, the B.C. Ministry of Forests said that a “new, comprehensive Old Growth Strategy for B.C.” will be completed in 2023.

Diers is wary of prolonged negotiations while trees continue to fall. He remembers taking part in planning committees in the 1980s and ’90s, where the community bargained over logging practices on a few hectares of the face. Meanwhile, he said, the province built an extra two kilometres of roads that provide access to Cooper Creek Cedar’s cutblocks being logged today.

“You give a foot and they take a mile, that’s been our experience here,” Diers said. Schramm is hopeful that the recent influx of young blockaders, and their civil disobedience tactics, signal a change for Argenta Face.

“These young people, as I see it, are really challenging the government to do what they say they're going to do.”

Back at his parents’ house in Nelson, Miguel is still processing his experience on the blockade, and resting up for what’s to come. He stays in touch with blockaders since the RCMP actions.

“People are focusing on rebuilding,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised if there was more resistance that would happen to this in the future.”

* Story updated on June 28 at 2:05 p.m. to correct that cutblocks currently being logged by Cooper Creek Cedar include areas designated as an Ungulate Winter Management Unit for mule deer and elk, not caribou.  [Tyee]

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