Cortes Island Community Forest: Coming Home

by Delores Broten

It’s been a long haul, but after almost twenty-five years of angst, anguish, and mind-numbing, soul-crushing, hard work, the entire Crown land forests of Cortes Island are finally in the process of coming under community control.

The invitation from the provincial government to apply for a community forest comes after a group was created two years ago by the now Acting Chief of the Klahoose First Nation, Kathy Francis, that entered into discussions with the Ministry of Forests.

The Cortes Island Community Forest Advisory Group is preparing its application for a Community Forest Agreement (CFA) on the island. Once issued, the 25-year tenure will be held and managed by a corporation set up to equally represent the Klahoose First Nation and the Cortes Community Forest Co-operative (an organization representing the non-native Cortes community).

Crown forest land covers about 40% of the island, 5000 hectares, and its fate has long been an intimate concern to the small island community. In 1987, in the face of increasing clearcuts which disturbed both the logging and non-logging members of the community, Martha (Yendall) Abelson and Marion Woolley-Bennet initiated discussions with the Ministry of Forests and circumnavigated the island by boat looking at visibility impacts and setbacks from the water. There followed more than a decade of meetings with the Ministry of Forests staff. Interactions occasionally including former MoF District Manager Greg Hemphill, now retired and working for the Klahoose Forestry Limited Partnership, were frequently stormy but always respectful, vigourous, and informative. The non-native community and Klahoose have been pursuing control of the island’s forests for decades.

In the 1990s, the Silva Forest Foundation under eco-forester Herb Hammond prepared the Cortes Island Ecosystem Based Plan for the Cortes Island Forestry Committee and in 1999, the Cortes Eco-forestry Society (CES) was formed. CES had a membership of 400, most of the adult non-native population, in its heyday. In July 1999 Klahoose First Nation and CES signed an unprecedented Memorandum of Understanding, committing to seek local control of the industrial forest land-base of the island “with a view to allowing for ecosystem-based management of as large and contiguous a land area as possible.” Despite some momentous obstacles over the ensueing decade, that dream now seems about to come true, at least for the Crown holdings on the tiny island.

The new CFA could have an annual cut of up to 13,000 cubic metres although nothing about the actual cut is yet to be decided. That pales in comparison to the original logging proposals put forward by Macmillan Bloedel in 1988. Fifteen per cent of the land, about 2000 hectares in the centre and south of the island, once belonged to Macmillan Bloedel as private managed forest land, acquired at rock bottom prices in the 1950s and 1960s. The company had planned to remove about 60,000 cubic metres by clearcutting in the Squirrel Cove area from 1988 to 1994. Plans to resume clearcutting the day after Earth Day in 1990 came to an abrupt halt when negotiations with the community broke down and a successful blockade was mounted, leading to three years of no logging, followed by small lens cuts and selective logging in other parcels around the island. 

That MB land, covered by forest zoning to prevent subdivisions, was sold to Weyerhauser in 1999. Over the next few years, Weyerhauser sold off a number of parcels, with some of them (like the beloved Hanks Beach) becoming protected by benevolent purchasers, and some being logged mercilessly, then subsequently sold the balance of some 2700 acres to Brascan/Island Timberlands. In 2010 the community and Strathcona Regional District offered owner Island Timberlands (IT) the assessed value of land and timber to acquire the steep and forested Whaletown Commons parcel for park, but were met by a demand for twice the price. Later that year, with the help of MTV’s “The Buried Life,” islander Zoe Miles took the message to Brookfield Asset Management in Toronto.

As things stand now, IT is expected to start logging on Cortes this fall. The islanders are still focused on protecting the heart of the island and several organizations are at work. Fund-raising is on-going to try to purchase The Children’s Forest, a spectacular but very steep setting in the Carrington Bay area. Workshops in peaceful civil disobedience are ramping up, and there is no sign that the determination to protect the forest and the land has waned over the years. Sabina Leader Mense of Wildstand was quoted in the Vancouver Observer (August 21, 2010): “From Coulter Bay in the west to Squirrel Cove in the east, the IT land base girdles the centre of Cortes. The impact of industrially logging that extent of land will forever change the island… we’re talking about several entire watersheds.”

Despite this on-going private land challenge however, from all accounts, several watersheds are soon to be safe in the hands of the people of the island. All it has taken is a couple of decades of dedicated effort.   


Delores Broten edited the Cortes Forest Committee newsletter in 1990, from which the Watershed Sentinel evolved.


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[From WS Sept/Oct 2011]

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