Clearcut Logging Deminishes Shawnigan Lake Watershed

by Mary Desmond

There is a certain path not far from where I live in Shawnigan Lake. It curves up the mountainside where the ferns spill over a small stream shadowed by stately cedar and fir. But as the trail ascends, an ominous brightening warns of an impending change. At the final bend, the sylvan reverie is ruptured abruptly as the light exposes a scene of sombre desolation. The little creek, now shorn of its protective foliage, trickles forlornly through the thorny wreckage of a clearcut.

Despite the presence of a nearby sign admonishing, “Caution: Water Intake Downstream,” no one would ever guess that nestled in the valleybelow lies the “community watershed” of Shawnigan Lake. This official designation, bestowed by the Ministry of Forests, allegedly protects watersheds such as Shawnigan which supplies drinking water for 8,000 to 10,000 people in the Shawnigan-Mill Bay area, from the most harmful excesses of logging.

But those who have witnessed the ecological mayhem evident on these mountains have a hard time accepting its legal sanction by the very authorities charged with protecting public drinking water. 

This is a theme recurring with weary familiarity throughout British Columbia’s community watersheds, especially those whose forests are privately owned and thus at the mercy of the woefully inadequate provincial Private Forests Practice Regulation (PFPR). Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland contain several communities [Sunshine Coast, Saltspring, Nanaimo, Shawnigan, and others] held captive by corporate giants whose large private holdings are often the unfortunate legacy of the original railway grants. In the Nanaimo watershed tons of chemical fertilisers were used surreptitiously, causing sickness among the forestry workers. There, habitat for the once-thriving marmot has been so severely eroded that this creature is now trivialised as a “cute” mascot of endangered wildlife. These domains are ruled like medieval fiefdoms by the timber companies, TimberWest and Weyerhaeuser, etc., with only the barest of restraints conceded by the PFPR. This edifice of appeasement seems to be designed to alleviate any fears that environmental measures might infringe upon company profit margins. 

The significance of protecting wetlands [bogs, marshes, swamps] and riparian [river, stream, and lake] areas – landscape features that regulate and refine water flow and quality, obvious values for watershed health – is virtually dismissed. Even though wetlands prevent droughts in the summer and floods in the winter, Weyerhaeuser has located a road centre ribbon in a swamp on one of its cutblocks. Under the anemic auspices of the PFPR, Division 3 – “Specific Requirements for Fish Streams and Water Supply Areas,” a modest 40 trees each side every 200 metres of a large stream [at least 3 metres wide] must be retained. The retention level is even more meagre for small streams [more than 1.5 metre but less than 3 metres], as the amount of trees retained is reduced to 20, hence the lack of meaningful riparian buffer zones. As for wetlands, their existence is conveniently ignored, as are the many small seasonal streams whose measure is less than 1.5 metres. This assumption, that small streams don’t matter, contradicts the findings of American and Canadian scientists engaged in studying the effects of timber harvesting on fish habitat and watershed processes. In his paper, Riparian Zone Protection for Small Streams: A Brief Review of the Literature, Tom Bradley of the Silva Forestry Foundation quotes from several such authors, forming the following conclusion: 

Of all the issues surrounding riparian areas… Silva maintains that protection for smaller streams is the most important. All water features, including small and ephemeral streams, require a degree of protection from logging…. entire hydrologic systems must be carefully maintained to protect fish habitat. small creeks are a critically important part of a watershed. 

Not that the logging standards are more than a notch higher for Crown lands under the jurisdiction of the Forest Practices Code ( FPC). At the western-most reaches of the Shawnigan watershed – a stone’s throw from the sacred precinct of the CRD watershed – lies cutblock 30-3-D, part of TimberWest’s TFL 46 license. There, thin rows of cedars slump over a coffee-coloured stream like a drunken honour guard. The riparian buffer zone proved completely inadequate and, blown over by the winter winds, released all the sediment from the upended root sections into the stream below. By the side of the road, heaps of recently cut small to medium sized logs are stacked with signs warning against illegal activities, such as firewood cutting. The size of the logs reveal their relative immaturity and guarantees that the higher market value for denser, mature timber will never be achieved. 

But our biggest bone of contention is the drastic loss of forest cover that once protected our reservoir. Almost 75% of the forests surrounding the lake are privately owned, leaving it easy prey for quick, irresponsible extraction, followed by the logs being exported and the land being flipped for real estate. Once the trees are down and the houses are up, the forestry sector jobs are lost forever. This sequence illustrates a paradigm of corporate supremacy triumphing over community welfare: Not only is the landscape being liquidated, but also the livelihood of future generations. During the past decade, as much as 65% of the good quality mature forest in the Shawnigan watershed has been erased. Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch (SLWW) members monitor the various parts of the watershed almost daily, and report logging ribbons and surveyor’s string beribboning the region so that it resembles a large, doomed birthday cake about to be cut and consumed. At present, activities appear to be reaching a frenzied crescendo, with seven separate operations recorded since last September. We fear this immediate assault will surpass an earlier onslaught of logging that occurred early in the last century, provoking even worse repercussions. In the late 1920s, when logging operations around the lake achieved a climax, a dramatic change in the ecology of Shawnigan’s water was observed. A huge increase in sediment and nutrient loading affected the water quality for a considerable length of time. Due to the ruthless efficiency that allows modern corporate logging to be conducted in a greatly condensed time frame, the potential for harm to our water supply is intensified. 

This approach flies in the face of science and history. As events from elsewhere in the province can confirm, unless the forest cover that shields watersheds is left undisturbed, catastrophes can happen. Occasionally, “surface water sources can act as conduit for contaminants leaching from formerly forested lands’’ [Muddied Waters, Sierra Legal Defence Fund].

The turbidity created by poor logging practices can mask the presence of harmful parasites, such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium. Instances of water-borne disease have been documented in BC [Revelstoke, New Hazelton] when surface water became infested with parasites and dirt particles. Indeed, the consequences of careless logging can lurk undetected for several years, then manifest themselves unexpectedly as a land or rockslide. Here in Shawnigan Lake, neighbours still complain about changes in their water tables/septic systems more than three years after Mt. Wood was logged by TimberWest and Weyerhaeuser. Even the removal of a couple of acres on a steep slope can cause calamitous results: One resident clearcut a small amount of land, the road below washed out, well levels were erratic, and so on. 

These instances alarm as much as they inform. Scientists largely agree that the value of an intact forest cover in protecting drinking water at source cannot be overestimated. According to the findings of the Clayoquot Sound Scientific Panel, Report V, the amount cut from a watershed should be strictly curtailed in relation to area size and time frame: 

In any watershed larger than 500 hectares in total area, and primary watersheds of 200- 500 hectares in total area in which harvest has exceeded 20% of the watershed area in the most recent 10 years, allow no further harvest until the watershed conforms with the specified rateof- cut.

In addition, Herb Hammond [RPF] of Silva Forestry Foundation has studied the question of watershed logging extensively, and views the maturity of the trees as significant: 

One generality that is easy to defend is the older the forest, the better the water. Old growth forests, because of their tight nutrient cycling, large canopies that intercept and store water, and high volumes of decaying wood, which stores and filters water, produce the highest quality water and best regulate flows. Anything less in a watershed results in poor quality water and out of balance flow regimes e.g. frequent floods and droughts. 

Generally, practice, coupled with the scientific literature suggests that cutting any more than 10% of an old growth forest will cause significant degradation to water. You could have an entire watershed forested with young trees, like much of Vancouver Island, and not have good water protection. 

To add insult to injury, companies and owners of private forest land are seldom – if ever – required to inform local residents of changes in ownership or intended alterations to land frequently used and valued by the community. 

In areas such as Shawnigan, the “woods above the water” have acquired the unofficial status of common land due to the dearth of “officially” endowed recreational greenspace. For small communities, the lack of demographic clout [and corresponding dollars] often translates into a paucity of parkland, hence the absence of formally ordained greenspace from Goldstream to the Koksilah. Sometimes the first inkling that a cherished grove has been designated for the chopping block is the whine of the chainsaws and the rumble of heavy equipment lumbering through the neighbourhood. Consequently, any fundraising campaigns to actually acquire property are impossible to organise. Two recent examples illustrate this point. 

• When falling boundary ribbons were found in a cutblock unique in its biological diversity and historical legacy off Renfrew Road last winter, we contacted the owner, Weyerhaeuser, and were informed that cutting would begin in mid-March. Realising time was of the essence, we alerted other local organisations that shared our enthusiasm for this property. A letter was sent in late January asking to meet with company representatives to discuss our concerns. A reply from Bill Holmes, a senior level forester with their Island division, conveying his pleasure at such an assignation, duly arrived about a fortnight later. Lulled into a sense of false assurance, we were shocked to discover falling vigorously underway the very next day. Even when support to lease the land was authorised by the Cowichan Valley Regional District, and many outraged citizens sent protest letters to Linda Coady, then Vice-President of Weyerhaeuser’s Coastal Group, the company’s response remained one of staunch oblivion to community distress. 

• Over the last few years, several discussions between TimberWest and Shawnigan residents have highlighted the place of Mt. Baldy in the hearts of the community. Popular with hikers, particularly in the spring when 26 different wildflowers bloom on its bluffs and glades, the natural attributes of Mt. Baldy were recognised by the provincial Sensitive Ecosystem Inventory. Alarmed by the appearance of logging tapes in the spring of 2000, we met with company representatives in October of that year who promised to inform us of any prospective plans to sell or log the property. But a year after this meeting took place, neighbours were stunned when logging trucks rolled right up beside their homes and began clearing an access road. To compound our sense of betrayal, the new owners, Malloch Logging, stressed the sensitivity of their harvesting style and announced that the trail system on the west side of the mountain would be left untouched. But their promises have proved hollow; the sensitive ecosystems on the crown have been brutally thinned and the western trails obliterated. 

With wanton audacity, the last few fragments of mature second growth forests, classified as endangered ecosystems by the provincial Conservation Data Centre, are about to fall prey to the profit lust of the timber privateers. These older – but not old growth – stands, which serve as the final refuges of a rich variety of animal and plant life, once covered most of east Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands but are now reduced to a pitiful 2.6% of the total landscape. Recently, as we surveyed particularly rich woodlands of this type straddling the Shawnigan-Mill Bay region, a tiny salamander skittered between the lifeless forms of fallen trees, some as venerable as 200-250 years in age, lining the road. A little way on, cougar prints marked the big cat’s path toward a small stream bordered by falling boundary ribbons. We wondered how long these two creatures – so disparate in size yet equally vulnerable to the holocaust that would soon raze their homes – would survive. A reverential sorrow descended as we gazed round at the doomed magnificence of the forest silently awaiting execution by Weyerhaeuser. We realised we would never see these stands again in our lifetimes. 

Block by block, stand by stand, tree by tree; the pace is relentless and little mercy is shown. It is as if we are living in an active war zone; our monitoring rounds are shrouded in an atmosphere of numbed resignation as we view the latest atrocities wreaked upon Nature. Where the birds once sang and the wind stirred the trees is now a desolate wasteland, all purpose and beauty spent. Our mood of elegiac gloom is not lifted by sanguine assurances that, “The trees will grow back.” Research from parts of Europe, including Germany, has revealed that this is not always the case. Problems establishing re-growth have occurred during the fourth and fifth rotational cycles. 

Yet, despite evidence from other sources, scores of scientific studies and, what should be the most compelling reason of all, objections from its citizens, the government refuses to change its position. Voices representing various aspects of the timber industry are resolutely ignored, except those of the corporate sector. Our request for a temporary logging moratorium, to be implemented until a proper analysis of the watershed has been completed, is met with mantras of predictable and bland denial. Repeatedly, we are instructed to “work within the system” and to “consult with the companies.” What good “beating our heads against a brick wall” will do we still haven’t figured out. Although forest ministers in BC have postured and blustered with open defiance against the perceived injustices of American import tax duties, they routinely – regardless of political party – cringe in obeiance before the collective might of the lumber barons. This policy of cowering appeasement prevails over all other considerations. One wonders who is really running the show. Until the inhabitants of the Legislature demonstrate that they, not the companies, are in charge, the inheritance of future generations will be squandered, community watersheds will be defiled, and the owls on all the Mt. Baldys around the province will hoot in agitation at the desecration of their habitat. 

From the summit of the eastern ridge along the lake, another far different watershed can be glimpsed. In this hallowed realm, restrictions governing human ac tivity of any kind are so strictly supervised that admittance to unauthorised persons is prohibited. Resource-based industries are shunned since they might mar the perfection of this pristine domain, thus impairing the quality of Greater Victoria’s drinking water. But cross the border into Shawnigan’s watershed and all hell can legally break loose. This disparity begs the question: Why are the rules that administer the Greater Victoria watershed not applied to other provincial watersheds? The government’s attitude seems distinctly hypocritical on this subject; on one hand, announcements are made with a self-congratulatory flourish that funding for water quality monitoring has been increased by $5 million, while on the other hand, our desperate pleas for a $200,00-$300,000 Environmental Assessment [ordered by the previous administration] elicit unconvincing rhetoric about budget cuts. Lest the powers that be forget, the provincial government, unlike its federal counterpart, is not immune from prosecution should public water supplies fail. 

Surely it is time to end this dangerous inequality. The “rights” traditionally associated with private ownership, long imbued with a mystique of inviolate holiness, must be re-examined when they imperil public welfare. The assurance of safe and unsullied drinking water should be a “right” of every citizen. When the welfare of a community watershed is at stake, the importance of public drinking water must take precedence over all other claims of legal entitlement and not be diminished by abstruse disputes over property rights nor subjugated to the profiteering instincts of industry. The crucial steps to resolve this imbalance must be enacted by official forces for, ultimately, it is they, not the companies, who hold responsibility to enshrine true social and environmental resonance in the laws of the land. In this way only will every community watershed be granted the status it deserves and the question of injustice among water supply areas be laid to rest. 


Mary Desmond lives in Shawnigan Lake and is happiest exploring the woods with her dog, Chloe, and other canine friends. Ph: 250-743-2278, Email

[From WS January/February 2005]

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