Science Panel

In the 1990s, BC spent millions of dollars to find an alternative to clearcutting in Clayoquot Sound. What happened next?

Dan Lewis

Clayoquot Sound | Photo: Bonny Glambeck

As I struggled to hoist myself onto the monumental stump of an ancient red cedar, I wondered how it had come to this. Why, in 2010, were trees like this being cut down here in Clayoquot Sound, where valley after valley of untouched forests undulate downwards from snowy peaks to mile-long beaches of rolling surf?

Although Clayoquot Sound covers less than a tenth of Vancouver Island, it is home to the largest swath of unlogged rainforests left – some protected in parks, some open for logging. Although the total area is smaller than the Great Bear Rainforest on BC’s North Coast, due to Clayoquot’s southern location the big trees grow more densely here. There are no intact valleys on Vancouver Island to the south of Clayoquot, nor are there any below the US border.

Resistance to clearcutting in Clayoquot Sound began in the early ‘80s, when Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations joined with Tofino locals and allies far and wide to prevent the logging of Meares Island. A series of blockades began in 1988 to protect the rest of Clayoquot. By the early ‘90s, there was broad-based public support for the idea of protecting all of Clayoquot Sound.

Back then, I was a conservation representative at the Vancouver Island Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE) Table – a multi-sector negotiation tasked with developing recommendations towards a land use plan for Vancouver Island. Halfway through our year-long deliberations, the BC government announced plans to log two-thirds of Clayoquot Sound, sparking Clayoquot Summer – the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Bitter jokes abounded that the core old growth area on Vancouver Island had been removed: we had been CORE’d! As environmentalists, we decided against staging a dramatic walkout – it was too predictable – and opted to remain at the table.

What happened next surprised everybody. Commissioner Stephen Owen put forward a list of ten conditions. If his terms were not met, he would walk from the table and scuttle the negotiations, putting the government in a terribly embarrassing situation.

One of Owen’s demands was the establishment of a blue ribbon science panel to develop promised “world-class logging standards.” Government moved quickly to meet his conditions, and the Clayoquot Sound Science Panel (SciPan) was established. It contained a good balance of disciplines, with a mix of scientists focussed on both conservation and resource extraction.

The SciPan was unique in that the co-chair was indigenous – Dr. Richard Atleo (Umeek), a respected academic, elder, and hereditary leader from Ahousaht First Nations. He brought to the discussion the Nuu-chah-nulth concept of hishook-ish-tsawalk – everything is connected.

The fatal flaw of the Science Panel was that there were two questions to be answered: 1) should Clayoquot be logged? and if so, 2) how should it be logged? The decision to log had been made without scientific input and without looking at the broader regional context (which CORE had been tasked to do). Now the scientists were being asked to figure out how to log these globally rare ancient rainforests without destroying them.

The fatal flaw of the Science Panel was that there were two questions to be answered: 1) should Clayoquot be logged? and if so, 2) how should it be logged?

Over a period of two years, five reports were released, the final one containing 170 recommendations. The SciPan recommendations were expected to turn logging on its head. Traditionally, resource managers looked for the best trees to cut, and based logging plans on that. Wildlife, recreationists, and rivers were expected to make do with whatever was left over – a woefully inadequate way to log. The SciPan recommended planning the set-asides first; then the logging companies could have whatever wasn’t needed to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem.

The other major breakthrough of the SciPan was to develop an alternative to clearcut logging. This was called ‘variable retention’ logging. The idea was that within a given cut block, certain trees would be retained – for eagle nests, along stream banks, etc. The amount of trees preserved could vary – all the way down to 15%.

However, at the end of the day, these were only recommendations and the devil would be in the details. Nearly a thousand people had been arrested to end the logging of Clayoquot Sound, not to make the logging better. Nonetheless, the government created a Science Panel Implementation Team (SPIT), which began work on cutting plans for the Sound.

That took ten years and by the time the plans were announced in 2006, the political landscape had changed entirely. Logging giant Macmillan Bloedel no longer existed, and that tenure was held by local First Nations (Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd). The government was less progressive, and very much wanted to get fibre flowing out of Clayoquot again. The annual cuts of the early nineties – around a million cubic metres a year – had been reduced to tens of thousands.

There were several attempts to begin logging the intact valleys, but a coalition of groups, including the Wilderness Committee, was able to head that off. Ecotrust Canada tried to help Iisaak survive by financing a ramp-up of logging to new heights. Barges loaded with raw logs leaving the Sound became a common sight again, and locals became very concerned.

Some members of the SciPan had argued from the get-go that Clayoquot Sound was not large enough an area to sustain industrial scale logging. Political realities further constrained the logging land base. There are intact valleys on the books for logging, but companies have steered clear of those areas for fear of sparking another Clayoquot Summer. So they continue to hollow out the fragments of old growth left behind from the ‘80s.

In 2010 my partner Bonny and I hiked up into some SciPan cut blocks to check them out. What I saw horrified me. The logging was being done by contractors and it wasn’t pretty. The scene I surveyed from atop that stump looked a lot like the clearcuts of the bad old days – just smaller. Many of the ancient cedars had shattered when felled, and there was an incredible amount of waste wood. There had been a spill of oil and we were concerned that oily water in the ditch would make its way to a nearby salmon stream. I remember thinking, if this is what hishook-ish-tsawalk looks like, then I would have a hard time explaining it to the many animals who used to live here.

Just last fall, in October 2015, the hereditary chiefs of Ahousaht announced an end to industrial-scale logging in their territories, stating, “For the past 20 years the two main Tree Farm Licenses in the area … have been accessing old growth timber within the increasingly constrained areas of Clayoquot Sound, often creating conflicts with Ahousaht traditional values and highly prized internationally recognized conservation interests.” Their goal is to “protect a traditional way of life while supporting a continued transition to a modern diversified sustainable economy.”

It’s a shame our governments wasted so many millions of dollars on the Science Panel. That money could have been used to learn how to log second growth in a manner which restores ecosystems to their former functioning states. Many municipal governments are calling on the province to put an end to old growth logging on Vancouver Island.

Clayoquot Sound is home to one of the world’s finest examples of big tree old growth temperate rainforest, a globally rare ecosystem. Surely we should start here.


Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action in Tofino.

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