B.C.’s War in the Woods is entering a new phase. Will it be the last?
More than two years after the province promised to implement recommendations set out in the...
As a young boy Tutakwisnapšiƛ, or Joe Martin, would peek out his bedroom window across the ocean water to see Tofino. He remembers the town had just three visible lights: the fuel dock, the post office and the grocery store.
Martin shared the room with his brother at their home in Opitsaht, a Tla-o-qui-aht village in Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s a short boat ride to Tofino.
Today, Martin, who is from the House of Ewos of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, is a master carver. Cedar shavings crunch under our feet as we speak on a hot and sunny afternoon at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, where he is carving a totem pole. Martin gestures with his hands, picking up and putting down tools. He often reaches out to the totem pole, brushing cedar flecks out of crevices.
Opitsaht is one of the oldest villages on Vancouver Island, Martin explains, and his people have lived there for about 10,000 years.
“Now all this is here,” he says.
All this means Tofino — the popular tourist destination that attracts around 600,000 annual visitors to the town of 2,000 residents. People from around the world come to surf, hike, fish, kayak and lounge on nearby white sand beaches. In August alone, the small town feeds, shelters, guides and surf-instructs about 66,000 visitors, according to Tourism Tofino’s 2019 economic impact report. All those people bring a lot of business; the tourism industry in Tofino generates $400 million annually in economic output.
Today, the only road in and out of Tofino is busy with RVs and dirt-speckled cars with surfboards ratchet-strapped to their roofs. But it’s likely many of the tourists flocking to take in the beauty of the area’s islands and rainforests don’t know that the road to what appears to be a simple paradise once facilitated a logging boom that was devastating for local First Nations.
Forestry companies constructed the first road into the Tofino area in the 1950s, allowing logs to be hauled out by truck instead of only by water.
Over the next 40 years, much of Clayoquot Sound’s temperate rainforest was decimated, impacting the livelihoods of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and other Nuu-chah-nulth nations, as well as their access to food, spiritual practices and relationships with cedar, salmon and other relations.
Martin worked for years as a logger. He remembers logging in the Cypre River valley, 15 kilometres north of Tofino in Ahousaht territory.
“It had Sitka Spruce that were over 300 feet high. The red cedars that grew along them were perfect. They grew tall and straight and solid,” he said.
He watched the area reduced to stumps.
“It breaks my heart to think about that,” he says.
Today, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and other Nuu-chah-nulth nations are working to restore old-growth areas impacted by logging that has also contributed to damaged streams and declining salmon populations.
“In our culture, the forest is like our church,” Martin says. “The most beautiful places to be.”
Eli Enns, chief executive officer and president of the IISAAK OLAM Foundation, which supports the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, points out that Indigenous nations cultivated the abundance of the Americas — an abundance exploited by settlers since contact.
Indigenous nations “design economies that are based on natural law, that work with Mother Nature instead of against her,” Enns, who is Tla-o-qui-aht, tells The Narwhal. But settlers disrupted that balance.
“There was a successive trend of violating treaties and then just running roughshod over nations that did not have treaties,” leading to the destruction of old-growth forests on Indigenous territories without consultation, he says. Indigenous Peoples have been in a never-ending battle to have their sovereignty recognized ever since.
It wasn’t until 1971, with the creation of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, that constraints were placed on when and where logging could take place in Clayoquot Sound. While many celebrated the creation of the park, others worried about the pressure it would put on forests just outside the boundaries of the reserve — in places like Meares Island, which has enormous old-growth trees draped with what looks like centuries-worth of accumulated mosses and lichens.
Logging company MacMillan Bloedel’s plans to clear cut on Meares Island, Tofino’s drinking water source, came at a pivotal time, Enns says. Canada had enacted its sovereign constitution in 1982, which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.
“It was a galvanizing moment,” Enns says.
“Two years later, in 1984, we saw the first blockades in Clayoquot Sound.”
The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s stand catalyzed the first logging blockade in Canada’s history on a Meares Island beach. Martin stood on that beach, alongside members of the environmental group Friends of Clayoquot Sound, turning away loggers. The nation subsequently declared Meares Island a tribal park.
It was a very successful campaign, based on non-Indigenous supporters coming out in droves to support an Indigenous-led vision for Indigenous territory. Over the next decade, that partnership laid the foundations of what would become known as the ‘war in the woods.’ In a series of blockades and protests in Clayoquot Sound in the 1980s and 1990s, three Nuu-chah-nulth nations — the Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht and Hesquiaht — demanded better logging practices from companies and more meaningful consultation from government. Thousands of activists journeyed to the remote area to support their call.
The war in the woods peaked in the summer of 1993 when more than 800 people were arrested — 300 in a single day. It set a record for civil disobedience that might only be rivalled by on-going protests at Fairy Creek, on southwestern Vancouver Island. The Clayoquot Sound protests spared Clayoquot Sound from widespread industrial logging. Out of the sawdust emerged the Tofino area’s booming eco-tourism economy.
What allowed Tofino to make the switch from resource-extraction economy to tourist town? And to what degree have the First Nations’ Rights been acknowledged — or ignored — and what work remains to be done?
Tla-o-qui-aht Guardian Joe Louie-Elley expertly navigates around the small islands that dot the water between Tofino to Meares Island. It’s a hot, sunny August afternoon, and visitors are on the water in kayaks and whale-watching boats. Louie-Elley makes his way to Meares Island almost every other day to work as an Indigenous Guardian.
The Tla-o-qui-aht plan to launch an interpretive Meares Island guide program, led by the Guardians. In August, that dream got a boost with a $15,000 contribution to the program from Tourism Tofino.
Saya Masso, manager of lands and resources for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, sits behind Louis-Elley in the enclosed back of a small, black fishing boat.
“I hope to retire when we see a system of abundance here,” Masso says with a smile. He describes himself as a father, a husband and a proud worker for future generations.
After the war in the woods quieted down, the five central Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations took over MacMillan Bloedel’s Meares Island tree farm licence and eventually established Guardians programs, which have been instrumental in the maintenance of one of the island’s biggest tourism draws: the Big Tree Trail.
As we dock at Meares Island and make our way onto the trail, Louie-Elley notes the Guardians’ weekly work on the boardwalk, constructed of salvage wood.
They hope the boardwalk will extend around the whole island within a few years, Louie-Elley says. As we follow the winding trail through ancient cedars, Louie-Elley points to his favourite trees, some almost 1,000 years old.
“This is one really gnarly-looking tree right here,” he says, stopping to look up at a knobbly tree tangled with knots.
Tla-o-qui-aht brings on junior Guardians every summer to learn about the territory and gain practical skills like First Aid. The Nation has also launched restoration and monitoring projects across its territory. Masso wants Tla-o-qui-aht to expand its Guardians program, but notes they first have to build more capacity.
The nation is also working with Nature United to research the potential for a carbon storage project in the area. According to Nature United, 100 million tonnes of carbon are stored in old-growth forests in Clayoquot Sound.
But today Masso is most excited about how close Tla-o-qui-aht is to establishing an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. It’s taken his nation thirty years to get this far.
Five Nations make up the Central Region First Nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council: the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ (Ucluelet) and the Toquaht First Nations.
The logging that sparked the war in the woods took place only in the territories of the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht and Hesquiaht First Nations. But in response to the conflict, the B.C. government handed over control of all the tree farm licenses in Clayoquot Sound to the five First Nations. The “handover” took place even though the nations never gave up the inherent right to steward their own territories, Martin points out. The five nations subsequently created a jointly owned forestry corporation, Ma-Mook Natural Resources, which owns the licence.
It hasn’t been easy to balance financial needs with the desire to slow down old-growth logging, Masso says. Amid growing public concern about the disappearance of old-growth across B.C., in September 2020 the province announced a two-year deferral on old-growth logging in nine areas around the province, including in Clayoquot Sound. The province is now having government-to-government discussions with the nations about the future of logging in their territories.
Masso says the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation want a new future for Clayoquot Sound. They hope to buy out the tree farm areas from Ma-Mook Natural Resources to create the protected area.
“We want to treat everyone fairly as shareholders,” Masso says. Tla-o-qui-aht has received a grant from Nature United to create the protected area and buy out Ma-Mook stakeholders if they are willing.
Masso says the proposed protected area is only a recent development, admitting there is some skepticism in his community. But he views it as a special opportunity.
“Other nations are crying to have an offer like this in front of them — to buy out a tree farm and make it a protected area,” he says.
“This is a good thing. We’re implementing our land vision.”
The nation will undertake a valuation of the tree farm license to calculate a fair price everyone agrees on, he says.
“Our goal is to have a protected conservation area implemented by the end of 2022.”
Tourism creates more jobs in B.C. than forestry. There were 114,700 tourism employees in B.C. in 2006, rising to 149,900 in 2019. According to provincial statistics, forestry, logging and supporting activities provided 21,400 jobs in B.C. in 2006, declining to just under 17,200 jobs in 2020.
In 2019, forestry and logging in B.C. contributed $1.6 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP), while tourism contributed $8.7 billion.
Tofino’s tourism contributes $220 million in annual GDP, while tax revenue generated by the tourism industry amounts to $3 million for the municipality, $24 million for B.C. and $30 million for the federal government.
Some of that wealth goes back to the nations, though it is only a fraction of the total amounts. One quarter of Tofino’s businesses have signed up for Tla-o-qui-aht’s Tribal Park Allies program. They agree to be good stewards, alerting Tla-o-qui-aht Land Guardians of any environmental issues, and ask for a one per cent additional fee from their clients that goes to Tribal Park Regional Services, known as an ecosystem service fee.
Tla-o-qui-aht received $106,499 in ecosystem fees from its business allies in 2020, up from $55,088 in 2019, according to annual tribal parks reports. Masso hopes more than one-half of Tofino’s businesses will sign up by next year.
He’s exploring other options for generating revenue, including a rod fee from sport fishermen and a landing fee at Tofino’s small airport. He says other First Nations can also find ways to benefit from industries using their territories for profit, even those with a less developed tourism economy.
“Every industry should be looked at, like rock quarries. For every one of them, there is an Indigenous Nation that has unceded land,” he says.
He acknowledges “it’s difficult to get people to open their wallets and to do that without tension and conflict,” but points out Tla-o-qui-aht gained 80 partners in just over two years. Other nations can do the same to fund services they want to provide to their region, he said.
“It’s your right to share in the benefit from the use of your traditional territories.”
Kennedy River runs through Ha’uukmin Tribal Park, which means “feast bowl” because the watershed was “once a bowl of mountains with so much food in them,” Masso says. The river was once teeming with salmon but now there are consistently low returns.
You will hear about the suffering salmon in the Kennedy River at a perhaps unexpected place — a zipline tour that takes you soaring over the river a little way outside of Tofino.
West Coast Wild Zipline, a Tribal Park ally, has a close working relationship with the Tla-o-qui-aht. One afternoon I tag along with the Kang family, a father and two kids on the tour.
The first zipline is the simplest: short and slow. But it’s also the most challenging in that you must convince yourself to willingly run off a ledge. With the first run behind us, our collective nerves settle down. The family is all smiles flying over the Kennedy River, which rushes bright and turquoise underneath us. The guides, assistant manager Sandy Gulston and Luke Thomas, confidently flip upside down and pose as they glide between branches.
On our trek through the ancient trees, Gulston and Thomas (who are not Indigenous) share Tla-o-qui-aht traditions. Gulston turns to the family to ask if anyone has noticed some of the trees have missing bark.
“Yes, what are they for?” asks Zhen Kang, the father.
Gulston explained trees used for sustainable bark harvest by Indigenous people are called culturally modified trees. The guides talked about the importance of cedar, salmon, sapsuckers, and other life on the land, sharing knowledge agreed upon with the nation.
“They share a lot of history of our people that is probably mostly not known by other people who come around here,” Martin says.
Kelly Bedford, who has been manager of the zipline for nine years, says his perspective has shifted since working so closely with the Tla-o-qui-aht, as he became more aware about colonialism and his own “white privilege and white fragility.”
He’s also recognized that “ecotourism is a way we can change the paradigm — and a forest can actually generate income.”
“I’ve really come to realize the value of the forest,” he says. “You can leave it, like cash in the bank … generating that income that our society nowadays demands, that colonialism demands.”
West Coast Wild plans to transfer ownership to the Tla-o-qui-aht when the nation has sufficient capacity. West Coast Wild would still run operations. Masso says he’d love to see some Guardians trained to run the ziplines.
Bedford, who owns his own company, Access Wild Adventures, is also working with Tla-o-qui-aht to establish a canopy walkway in the canyon overtop the zipline.
He sees opportunities for other nations to set up controlled access to ancient forests where their own people can act as guides.
“It is important that everybody really understands that we are guests here, and [our] business exists because of the abundance that their ancestors created, and that this current generation fought for,” Bedford says.
Zipline guide Anne-Marie Gosselin says the company is working closely with Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks to keep the zipline low-impact, leaving trails unmarked and the parking lot unpaved. They’ve hosted a Tla-o-qui-aht youth group for four summers.
“We chose to take what was here to continue to build something amazing,” she says, explaining that her business is trying to leave things as they are and respect advice from Martin, the Tla-o-qui-aht Elder.
Guardian Louis-Elley says tourism can have a positive impact on maintaining, rather than depleting, Indigenous territories. More people wanting to work together in a shared landscape can be part of “creating jobs to create forests rather than destroy them.”
But tourism brings more people to the area than it can currently handle, Louis-Elley says.
“We just want to make sure that we have the infrastructure to support this many people being here,” he adds, especially in the case of an emergency like a tsunami, earthquake or forest fire.
The path forward from the war in the woods, imagining a brighter future for forests, has been a challenging one, Masso says. After the First Nations took control of the tree farm licence, questions about where and how much logging should take place remained a debate with no easy answers. It was a steep learning curve.
There wasn’t much second-growth ready for harvesting and the Ma-Mook stakeholders disagreed about how much old-growth to log in order to balance protecting the ecosystem with not losing money.
“You’re paying rent on some old-growth forest … At some point the shareholders are saying: log. We don’t want to take money from our housing projects to fund a tree farm,” he says.
While many people wanted logging in Clayoquot Sound to be done differently or stopped completely after the war in the woods, the nations were working within a system that pressured them to log.
Things were different back then, Masso says. Carbon financing and Indigenous Protected Areas didn’t exist. Nor did widespread agreement that climate change is real and action must be taken to mitigate it. It was harder to find economic alternatives to logging in the 1990s. In the end, the five nations’ logging company, Ma-Mook Natural Resources, was given a bit of a sore deal and “forced to wear the dirty shirt,” as Masso put it.
Ma-Mook Natural Resources made big strides on developing new, less impactful, logging practices at the time, Masso said, and worked with environmental organizations to improve forestry practices. The company was an early leader in ecosystem-based forest management — harvesting trees while trying to maintain the integrity of ecosystems. It also led the way in leaving buffers of trees standing along creeks to help them retain water.
“It’s been a tough go for the company … being told ‘go, show us how it’s done,’” Masso says.
He hopes establishing an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area will be a win for all the nations, relieving them of the burden of paying rent on the tree farm licence and preserving ancient forests for future generations.
First Nations in Clayoquot Sound are also working with various organizations to restore areas damaged by logging, and bring them back to a place of abundance.
Logging contributes to erosion —and sometimes landslides — when trees that stabilize soil are removed, which can also damage salmon spawning habitat. Other issues, such as overharvesting and climate change, also contribute to lower salmon returns and creeks can dry up faster without nearby trees to retain water. Even though logging practices have improved Masso says damage from past logging has left deep wounds on the landscape.
One river, the Tranquil River, is all boulders, he says. The river has widened and become so shallow there are no pools for fish, showing the long-term impacts of logging, Masso says.
“We need to see 60-year-old spruce trees and hemlock. We’re that far behind on it being a healthy watershed.”
Back at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, a group of tourists from Vancouver wanders over to see what Martin and his colleagues are working on. Martin explains the totem pole, which will be erected in Opitsaht next year, commemorates pandemics, and he describes the crests from top to bottom. Near the centre are four skulls.
One skull represents the COVID-19 pandemic. The next two represent the pandemics that killed thousands of Nuu-chah-nulth people after contact with settlers and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The last skull, just a small one, represents the children who died at residential schools.
In the years following the War in the Woods, Tla-o-qui-aht declared three tribal parks in addition to Meares Island: Ha-uukmin (Kennedy Lake Watershed), the Esowista Peninsula and the Tranquil River Watershed. But fish farms, tourism and logging still impact the land. Illegal campers have become a problem, leaving garbage and human waste behind them.
Martin wants to see more support from Tofino businesses. He points out that Tofino obtains its drinking water from four creeks on Meares Island, where the town also has two reservoirs.
Meares Island was slated to have 90 per cent of its forest clear-cut. The old-growth that was saved by the nations is key to keeping the town’s drinking water, Martin says.
“The old-growth forest acts like a sponge and releases the water slowly,” he says. This is especially important in periods of drought like B.C. has seen this summer, he adds. Vancouver Island is currently at level five drought, which means adverse impacts on socio-economic or ecosystem values are “almost guaranteed,” according to the B.C. drought information portal.
Louie-Elley is also concerned about the environmental impact of tourism on the land. At Kennedy Lake, people have spray-painted rocks and left behind garbage, while toilet paper is “everywhere,” he says.
“It just looks really nasty. A desecrated area.”
Masso says tourism in Tofino has come with costs. Tla-o-qui-aht people have given up clam digging because of sewage pollution and in-river fishing because of low salmon stocks. They are also living without a longhouse to avoid the logging a new one would require.
He says he could tolerate the rush of people each year if the Nation benefited more.
“To bear only the cost is wrong,” he says. “There should be a legacy for our grandchildren.”
He’d like the ecosystem service fee revenue the Tla-o-qui-aht receives to reflect the full wealth of the town. Rather than $106,499 in fees a year, he’d like the nation to receive one per cent of Tofino’s wealth each year. If Tofino made $200 million in a year, for instance, Tla-o-qui-aht would receive $2 million for their work stewarding the territory.
Martin says the First Nations often feel left out of profits being made off their land.
“It’s been a little hard for most Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples here, because most of the time we don’t have a lot of riches and other people do, [who] come here and make money, buy our land and sell it for exorbitant prices, and then walk away when it’s our land — what are you doing selling our land?” Martin asked.
“Tourism may be the lesser of two evils, but how much lesser?”
Enns also warns the nation and the town have to be careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Tofino cut off tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led businesses to suffer financially. The town experienced a shortage of seasonal workers this summer, just when it saw an influx of tourists excited to visit the iconic beaches again.
Tourism is not “the all-encompassing solution,” Enns says.
“You need biological diversity, cultural and linguistic diversity — and also economic diversity.”
Enns says he wants to see more restrictions introduced around tourism in Tofino, such as asking people to stay off beaches at certain times of year when sea creatures use the land to spawn or feed.
“One of the benefits that COVID gave us is it showed us how quickly the land starts to heal and respond when it’s not being trampled over,” he says.
According to Enns, the war in the woods has never ended, as old-growth logging continues around the province. According to mapping released in May by the Wilderness Committee, this year saw a 43 per cent increase in old-growth cutblock approvals.
According to Sierra Club BC, Vancouver Island has lost 30 per cent of its original forests over the past 25 years, leaving less than seven per cent of the island’s most productive and endangered old-growth. On average, nearly 9,000 hectares of old-growth were logged annually from 2011 to 2015.
An independent study last year concluded only about 35,000 hectares of forest that supports the biggest, most productive old-growth trees remains in B.C.
“These trees are over 1,000 years old. They weren’t out there planting that many years ago, stewarding it. Our people did.”
“My biggest concern is that we don’t have enough beautiful cedars like this left,” he says, gesturing to the totem pole. The log was cut 15 years ago to make way for a run-of-river hydro project.
For Enns, the “magic recipe” from Clayoquot Sound can be replicated elsewhere by “Indigenous Nations that know who they are, still have their teachings, and are courageous enough to stand up for old-growth forest together with ethical non-Indigenous people.”
“We were successful because the hippies and the Indians worked together,” Enns says. The support of non-Indigenous people helped the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht raise the money they needed to go to court after Meares Island and obtain an injunction against MacMillan Bloedel, he says.
Enns says reconciliation is “unlikely” solely through the provincial and federal government.
“The best chance for reconciliation is at the watershed level,” he says. “Where most people live and work in the same watershed, love the same land, and both make a commitment to live with the consequences of their decisions.”
Garry Merkel, co-chair of the old-growth strategic review panel that made 14 recommendations to the B.C. government last year about how to manage old forests, says Clayoquot Sound doesn’t quite amount to the paradigm shift for forestry recommended in his report.
“A paradigm shift means a big change in thinking, a complete shift in the whole way you think,” he says during a Zoom call. But the shift in Tofino’s economy “was probably more a consequence of shifting practices and regulation,” he says. He acknowledges there may be a local paradigm shift, but “when it is isolated to a small area it doesn’t shift the province.”
B.C.’s forestry system manages forests for timber “subject to constraints,” Merkel says, with ecosystem health considered a constraint. But Merkel and his co-chair Al Gorley concluded that thinking is backwards.
“We really need to start focusing on land health and ecosystem health,” Merkel says.
He says people who object to old-growth logging should not define success only as establishing a protected area.
“Some people think we can affect the paradigm shift by protecting an area. Actually, I would argue that having a big fight and protecting an area entrenches the current paradigm, because our current paradigm is all about all or nothing.”
But Merkel believes “we are seeing another big war and another big shift.” He believes setting aspirational goals helps the system adapt to social change.
And when you accomplish something — “now and again, you gotta celebrate it.”
“Celebrate that we made it this far, and celebrate what we’re aspiring to,” he says.
For instance, he said it’s worth celebrating the government’s statement that it is working to implement all the recommendations from the old-growth review panel report, even though it “may not appear” to many onlookers like it is taking action.
“We tend to just beat it up, expecting them to falter and fail. If that’s the way you act, the odds are that may be the way it turns out. But what if we collectively start celebrating that?” he asks.
“Frankly, I find that harder to back out of.”
Merkel’s last piece of advice to communities is to ask the question: what’s the dream we’re working towards right now?
“Then we start to work that way, we continually evaluate and adapt our management, improve it as we go. Once we start to manage and look after the land from this new paradigm … it’s going to be much richer than we could even dream.”
This article was made possible in part by a solutions journalism reporting bursary, supported by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network, and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.
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