In 2012, I took a fateful trip to Cortes Island — a northern gulf island three ferry rides away from Vancouver — to document the Cortes community’s fight to fend off an impending logging operation by coastal timber giant Island Timberlands.
Community members took us deep into the woods privately owned by Island Timberlands and showed us the hidden pockets of old-growth that the company was targeting. I was struck by how passionate and knowledgeable these Cortes residents were about the land, sharing a trove of fascinating information about the fungal networks underlying our footsteps and their relationships with the giant trees that were scattered throughout this complex and ancient ecosystem.
They explained why cutting down this forest and replacing it with young trees was not adequate to protect the values they held dear. A young forest simply could not filter the drinking water, or sustain the wildlife, or generate the tourism interest that they required to continue living on this tiny island. And furthermore, they felt there was something sacred here that simply should not be tampered with.
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I also discovered that while these people were opposed to the clear-cutting of these ancient forests, most of them were not entirely opposed to logging — they simply had a different vision for how it should be done. A group on Cortes had been engaged for 20 years in efforts to obtain a Community Forest in partnership with the Klahoose First Nation. If granted, this would give Cortes the chance to manage nearly all of its public forestlands in a model of its choosing. What follows are some of the ideas for how Cortes intended to do things differently.
Firstly, the forest industry had been on a race to the bottom for years, harvesting smaller and smaller trees at younger and younger ages, sometimes as young as 50 years. But Cortes had a vision for extending growing rotations to 200 years, allowing trees to grow to a greater size, quality and value, increasing the ratio of clear heartwood at the centre of the trees — the wood that carpenters cherish.
This would allow mosses and lichens to return, providing nitrogen for the trees and food for the deer, which would in turn become prey for larger predators such as wolves and cougars. In other words — cultivating a healthy ecosystem.
When it comes time to harvest again, rather than taking out all the trees using feller-bunchers and burning the so-called waste wood on the hillsides — as is the current practice in the industry — Cortes would employ hand-fallers to selectively harvest middle-aged trees, leaving the youngest trees to continue growing and the oldest trees to continue providing wildlife habitat and seed for new trees.
According to Ben Parfitt of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, as of 2008, “17.5 million cubic meters of usable wood has been left behind at logging operations in BC, an amount that would fill a line of logging trucks lined bumper to bumper on the Trans Canada Highway from Vancouver to Halifax and almost all the way back again.” That is a staggering amount of wood being left to rot or burn — and a substantial amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
Finally, rather than exporting the wood overseas, Cortes wanted to create a local value-added industry, with local millers and manufacturers making finished wood products out of the raw materials before the timber left the island.
Raw log exports have accelerated dramatically on the coast in recent years. B.C. has seen a 1,200 per cent increase in unprocessed wood leaving our shores in the past decade, with the vast majority of those logs coming from the coast, where there are more private lands and fewer restrictions on log exports. Meanwhile, over half of coastal mills have closed shop in the past 20 years. By processing that wood here in B.C., we could keep more people employed while harvesting less timber.
It was this vision for a forest industry that works for the people as well as for the forests that sparked my interest in making a documentary. Films about people trying to stop logging had already been done. But a film about people trying to practice truly sustainable forestry was something that I had never seen before.
Throughout the course of making this film, the Cortes Island vision of starting a Community Forest has come to fruition. In October 2013, the B.C. government granted Klahoose and the Cortes Forestry Co-Op a Community Forestry Agreement, granting them the ability to manage most of the Crown forestlands on Cortes for the long-term benefit of their community.
They have hired a forest manager, surveyed much of the land-base, and have begun selectively harvesting several areas on Cortes. In a spirit of transparency rarely seen in B.C.’s forest sector, the Cortes Community Forest Partnership has allowed me to film their operations on the ground for my documentary. They have been eager to show the world the caliber of forestry that is being done on Cortes.
And it has been fascinating getting to witness the level of thought that goes into selecting which trees will remain, which will be cut, and how those trees will be taken down so as not to damage the ones that are being left behind. It is a level of care and skill that I had never witnessed before in any industrial clear-cuts.
That is not to say there aren’t challenges. Finding local fallers has been difficult, so off-island fallers have had to be brought in. Eco-forestry is expensive, so the margins are thin, adding pressure to harvest more than the community may be comfortable with at first. Furthermore, people haven’t had time to invest in milling equipment or woodshops, so some logs are leaving the island unprocessed. And there is pressure from the B.C. government, whose Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) dictates the minimum amount of timber that must be harvested each year.
So by no means is Cortes some utopia. There is a whole range of dilemmas and disagreements on the island about how much timber should be logged, where it should be done, how it should be done, who should log it, who should mill it, and how much timber — if any — should be leaving the island unprocessed.
But this is all a work in progress. The hope is that as the Community Forest puts some money in the bank, it will be able to assist the community in building up its value-added industries. And after just its second harvest, they were able to sell more wood on-island than the first time around. So things are moving in the right direction. But in order to stay on track, Cortes must not lose the trust they worked so hard to build. This means keeping the lines of communication open — and really listening to input from the community. It is, after all, a community forest.
In the past four years that I’ve spent documenting forestry issues on the coast, I have come to realize that whatever solutions we concoct must take into account the First Nations whose unceded territories dominate these lands; the thousands of forestry workers that depend on these forests for employment; and the coastal communities that depend on these forests for other uses such as clean water, tourism and recreation. The only solutions that will be truly sustainable are the ones that don’t try to compromise between our multiple forest values, but that bring them all up together as a synergistic whole.
My Heartwood series is about moving to a place where the various forest users in B.C. no longer have to be in conflict with one another. It is about moving beyond the paradigm where timber value is the sole metric for the value of a forest. It is about coming up with a holistic value system that takes into account all the intangible and unquantifiable services that forests provide our communities.
And yes, it is also about getting to a place where communities can sustainably grow and harvest timber for generations to come. These are not new ideas. The solutions have been floating around for decades. It’s just that finally — at least on Cortes Island — some of them are finally starting to be implemented. It’s time for the rest of the province to catch up and start moving in the same direction.
Daniel J. Pierce is a Victoria-based documentary filmmaker. He is almost finished production on a documentary series entitled Heartwood: A West Coast Forestry Documentree. He is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the post-production of this series.