Tavish Campbell Gilford Island Great Bear Rainforest

The Great Bear loophole: why old growth is still logged in B.C.’s iconic protected rainforest

Despite new ‘ecosystem-based’ rules to limit forestry, logging companies continue to find ways to harvest the largest and the rarest of the old-growth trees on Gilford Island near the southern tip of the Great Bear Rainforest

Tavish and Farlyn Campbell have a deeper appreciation for what goes on in British Columbia’s remote coastal inlets and forests than the vast majority of people who are twice their age.

The twins, now 30, grew up on Sonora Island, which is only accessible by boat or floatplane.

From the age of 13, they were skippering sailboats on multi-day journeys in and around what is today known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

So when they tell you that things aren’t right in the so-called “jewel in the crown of B.C.,” they speak from direct experience.

Tavish is the first to admit that the message is not an easy one for people to hear, especially with most British Columbians sold on the idea that the Great Bear Rainforest is somehow different from other regions of the province.

A magical place where wolves feed on salmon and ghostly spirit bears tramp over carpets of deep moss and fern covering the forest floor. Where curious sea otters float on their backs watching kayakers pass by. Where humpback whales breach and auklets dive for pooling herring. And where First Nation villages dot the coastline, their totem poles and big houses bleached a ghostly grey by years of exposure to the sun, wind and rain.

Gilford Island

Gilford Island, located near the southern tip of the Great Bear Rainforest boundary. Photo: April Bencze

Tavish and Farlyn Campbell Gilford Island logging

Farlyn and Tavish Campbell in an Interfor cutblock on Gilford Island. Photo: April Bencze

Little if any logging takes place in this mythical landscape, which remains terra incognita for most British Columbians given the time and expense required to get there. Or if it does, it conforms to “some of the most stringent legal requirements” found anywhere on earth.

At least, that’s what the public was told to expect by conservationists, industry and the provincial government alike when a “landmark” agreement to protect vast tracts of the region’s forests and set out new allegedly stringent conditions for resource extraction on adjoining lands was reached nearly four years ago.

That agreement, unveiled with fanfare by then premier Christy Clark at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology on February 1, 2016, formalized the conservation of nearly 3 million hectares of land on the province’s central and northern coasts and placed another 550,000 hectares of land — an area equivalent to 1,375 Stanley Parks — into a new distinct zone where special “ecosystem-based” logging would take place.

Giving the industry what it wants to cut

But for the Campbells and others, that logging looks virtually indistinguishable from the logging that initially galvanized conservation organizations and First Nations to try to protect the coastal rainforest in the first place.

“For us on the ground, I don’t even know the words to describe it. It’s pretty devastating for us to see what’s going on … and to know at the same time that people think that the Great Bear Rainforest is saved,” Tavish says. “There’s so many different loopholes and ways for industry to make everything look good on paper, but still give the industry what it wants to cut, which is the most valuable wood, which is the big trees.”

“Not only is it business as usual, it’s worse than that. Because now it’s green-washed.”

In some ways, Tavish ruefully says, it may actually be worse today than what it was before the agreement was reached. Because now the logging has the alleged blessing of the environmental community.

“Not only is it business as usual, it’s worse than that. Because now it’s green-washed. So it’s business-as-usual, but it has this stamp of approval from everyone in B.C. because they think the Great Bear Rainforest is saved.”

Interfor logging on Gilford Island

Interfor logging on Gilford Island. Photo: Tavish Campbell

Great Bear Rainforest Map Gilford Island

A map showing the boundary of the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of British Columbia. Gilford Island, where Interfor logging operations are taking place, is shown by the red square. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

This spring, Tavish and Farlyn travelled to Gilford Island, an area of intense logging activity in the more southern reaches of the rainforest. The logging was done by Interfor, a company that recently announced that it will close a sawmill in Vancouver, part of an industry-wide wrenching series of mill closures that has plagued communities in the interior and the coast of B.C.

Along with others, the Campbells tromped through clear-cuts high up on the peaks of the island, as well as logging blocks at lower elevations. Much of the logging they documented included the harvesting of very old and very large cedar trees. 

Cedar trees have been used for thousands of years by First Nations all up and down the coast. But in the last half century, in particular, they have been logged at a brisk clip by Interfor, TimberWest and others, raising concerns about what will be left for First Nations in particular, because of their strong ties to the tree.  

Jody Holmes, a biologist and project director with the Rainforest Solutions Project, spent years negotiating with the provincial government, forest companies, First Nations and others to help put in place new conservation areas and a different type of logging in the region. She says it is no accident that the iconic tree of the coastal temperate rainforest continues to be targeted.

“Those big old cedars are worth exponentially more than the other stuff. You only need four or five of them in a block to all of a sudden make it incredibly valuable,” Holmes said.

But that incredible value appears to be precisely what is leading to the trees’ demise.

Great Bear Rainforest ‘gift to the world’ came at our expense, says Kwiakah First Nation

Logging the rarest of the rare

Holmes says in and around Gilford Island in the southern portion of the Great Bear Rainforest only about 11 per cent of all the trees that were actually there before the logging companies arrived were the iconic giant cedar, hemlock and fir trees found on “high productivity” sites.

That number has shrunk precipitously ever since.

“They’re very rare. They’re getting targeted,” Holmes told The Narwhal. “Only three per cent of what was originally old is still old. Ninety-seven per cent of it’s been harvested.”

Holmes says that this is not what conservationists had in mind in 2009 when negotiations over the future of the Great Bear Rainforest reached the point where there appeared to be agreement that in forests where limited logging would take place a sincere effort would be made to protect trees based on the unique qualities of the sites where the trees grew.

Gilford Island Interfor Great Bear Rainforest

Tavish Campbell, far left, and his sister, Farlyn, far right in an Interfor cutblock, containing enormous cedars, that has yet to be logged. Photo: April Bencze

Gilford Island logging Great Bear Rainforest

Farlyn Campbell walks along fallen trees in an Interfor cutblock. Photo: April Bencze

Not all trees in a forest grow on sites with the most advantageous growing conditions. Which is why you don’t find big trees of jaw-dropping size everywhere. Back in 2009, Holmes says, the idea was that the Great Bear Rainforest’s forests would be protected representatively and that the industry would not be allowed to essentially target the biggest and best for logging while conserving everything else.

“There were targets, specifically for different types of species and combinations,” Holmes says. “They actually had to set aside each of the species and productivity types.”

But by the time the 2016 agreement was reached, “ecosystem-based” logging had morphed into something else, a commitment to protect “fully intact ecosystems” on the land base.

Within that new commitment, ecosystems began to be treated as monolithic, overlooking the variation of trees within. Companies have used this to their advantage, logging the biggest and oldest trees at location after location, while simultaneously claiming that what is left behind is adequate to protect the overall health and diversity of the forest. 

‘An enormous loophole’

The 2016 agreement, Holmes now laments, “opened up an enormous loophole” that allowed the logging companies “to harvest every last stick of big, older trees,” while simultaneously claiming that they were meeting their conservation targets.

“We’ve been pushing back on that for four years with the industry to absolutely no avail. In fact, they are fighting us tooth and claw on this one,” Holmes said.

Other aspects of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement have opened up additional loopholes.

The biggest of those are allowances that grant companies permission to build roads through nominally protected old-growth forests.

Forestry roads on Gilford Island

Forestry roads on Gilford Island. Photo: Tavish Campbell

“Basically, in almost any circumstance, they can build a road through old growth that would otherwise be protected so that they can access the wood [on the other side]. But nobody’s watching,” says Jody Eriksson, another Sonora Island resident who has been active in monitoring logging in the southern extremities of the Great Bear Rainforest along with Tavish and Farlyn.

Farlyn said that she, her brother and Eriksson saw example after example of suspect road-building throughout the region; roads that were often built right next to or across older roads that could have been upgraded and used instead.

“We definitely have examples on East Thurlow Island where they built roads right through the nicest trees,” Farlyn says. “It’s just insane to have that many roads crisscrossing an island.”

Gilford Island forestry roads

Roads for forestry, which are permitted to be built through old growth, can be haphazardly routed. Photo: Tavish Campbell

‘We know that our territory is being overharvested’

Rick Johnson is chief of the Kwikwassut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nations, which have a small community on Gilford Island known as Gwa’yuasdam’s. Johnson said in a letter to The Narwhal that the community is “severely understaffed and under resourced” and was never part of the discussions leading up to the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement.

“We know that our territory is being overharvested, not just for logs, but for clams, prawns, crab, and our salmon return numbers were tragically low this year,” Johnson said. “We are working towards having tough discussions with industries to do something about this. While there are 80 per cent of the forests [that] are protected in the GBR north, the GBR South has far less areas protected.”

As part of the process of trying to come to terms with how their tiny nation fits into the broader construct of the Great Bear Rainforest, Johnson said discussions have been initiated within the community about how best to move forward. Those discussions include both what to do about what are seen to be unsustainable logging rates but also to ensure that what logging does take place benefits the community more than it currently does.

Kwikwassut’inuxw Haxwa’mis only have less than than 5 per cent of the forest tenures in our traditional territory, we do hope to use it to invest in our community.”

Johnson added his nation is interested protecting their entire traditional territory, which would involve setting a sustainable harvest rate that protects our culture and values. 

“Are we there yet? No.”

Interfor logging Gilford Island

An overview shot of Interfor logging on Gilford Island. Photo: Tavish Campbell

Johnson added that at present there are three jobs held by nation members in logging and that the feedback from the nation’s members is that they want “more benefits from the forests versus seeing the opportunities literally sail by on a boat of logs leaving our territory.”

The Narwhal also sought comment from Interfor, receiving a letter in reply to emailed questions. 

In the letter, written by Interfor’s area manager for coastal woodlands, Blaire Iverson, the company said that it works closely with the Kwikwassut’inuxw Haxwa’mis before logging operations take place. “We do not proceed with operations until we have worked through a review with the nation and have their support for our planned operations. We are blessed with a two-way relationship between Interfor and the nation and have many ways in which we provide support to one another.”

Iverson went on to say that contrary to assertions that older and bigger trees are getting targeted for logging, that “85 per cent of the forest is reserved from harvest and the remaining 15 per cent is available for sustainable harvesting” within the Great Bear Rainforest.

Gilford Island Great Bear Rainforest Logging

According to rules set out for “ecosystem-based” logging in the Great Bear Rainforest, 30 per cent of an ecosystem must remain intact. Photo: April Bencze

Of that 15 per cent, less than 1 per cent is harvested annually, Iverson said, adding that, when all is said and done, in areas that are logged, “a minimum of 30 per cent” of each ecosystem must be retained.

It’s that 30 per cent that onlookers like the Campbells worry isn’t sufficient to protect ecosystems in a meaningful way. 

Since touring Gilford Island, Tavish says he has renewed appreciation for the importance of conserving old-growth forests and a deepening suspicion for what can be achieved with “ecosystem-based” logging.

“Right now, the only thing that’s going to actually save these large, rare trees, is these hard conservancies, these hard boundaries, these protected areas where there is just zero logging allowed,” he said. 

“That’s the only thing right now that’s actually saving big trees. Outside of that, there’s so many different loopholes and ways for industry to make everything look good on paper, but still give the industry what it wants to cut.”

Update Sunday, December 1 at 1:44pm: This article was corrected to clarify that Interfor is a Canadian company and not a U.S.-based company as previously stated. The vast majority of Interfor’s operations are located in the U.S. but the company’s headquarters are in Vancouver.

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