War in the Woods 1.0

A look back at the mass movement to defend BC’s ancient forests in the ‘80s and ‘90s – until recently, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history

by Dan Lewis

Sulphur Pass Trial Court House 1988 | Photo courtesy of Clayoquot Action

Mist rising off the lake, jagged silhouettes of remnant ancient cedars piercing the skyline as the sun clears the ridge. People milling about in the dust and gravel, waiting tensely. The rumble of approaching trucks, bright headlights coming around the bend in the road — the loggers are here. Blare of megaphone addressing the crowd of people blocking the road. Those who are not willing to risk arrest are asked to step aside, leaving one sole forest protector, the late Sue Fraser. Your classic silver-haired church lady, straight out of the 1950s, with her purse over her arm, a logging truck idling less than a metre in front of her, everyone waiting with bated breath.

This is not a scene from Fairy Creek. It happened on the Clayoquot Arm Bridge in 1992, during the War in the Woods. Today that term is often used to refer to the peak of that conflict – Clayoquot Summer 1993, which was the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (although the folks at Fairy Creek have broken that record). But in fact there was a long series of conflicts, stretched out over a decade or more.

This all arguably began in the early ‘80s with the conflict surrounding Meares Island near Tofino, now known as the Wah-Nah-Jus/Hilth-hoo-is Tribal Park. The Nuu-chah-nulth tribes of Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht united to defend their ancestral homelands from clearcut logging by Macmillan Bloedel. This culminated in a stand-off on Meares Island at Heelboom Bay. When the loggers arrived, they were met by a crowd of hundreds, with television cameras rolling. Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Councillor Moses Martin greeted the loggers, and in traditional fashion invited them ashore for a meal, with one important caveat – “please leave your chainsaws on the boat.” The publicity campaign mounted by environmentalists and the on-the-ground actions bought enough time for the Nations to win an injunction preventing any logging on Meares until a treaty is signed (thus kicking off BC’s modern-day treaty process).

Within years, images of Haida elders in full regalia stopping logging trucks dominated the evening news, and eventually the federal and BC governments signed a deal with the Haida, creating the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

In the 1980s, industrial clearcut logging in BC was reaching a frenzied peak. It was getting hard for anyone leaving the cities not to notice entire mountainsides covered in massive burned-out stumps from ridge to river’s edge. Meanwhile the TV news was talking about a hole in our ozone layer, and NASA had begun talking about the fact that our planet was warming due to “greenhouse gas” emissions. Clearly, our planet was in trouble.

People were driven to do desperate things, such as hanging from cliffs in wicker chairs, hanging from hammocks in the tree-tops, and climbing up on active drilling rigs. It was clear something needed to change if the movement was to succeed.

As pressure mounted to protect key remaining wild areas, the government responded as they typically do, with an inquiry. The resulting report outlined many areas with resource conflicts – in other words, potential parks which were slated for resource extraction. This was translated by Valhalla Wilderness Society into an aspirational map which displayed the preservation agenda for the coming years.

A turning point in this story occurred in 1988 when settlers, who had mobilized to support First Nations, began to use direct action to stop resource extraction. This started with the Strathcona Park mining protest, followed by the Sulphur Passage logging blockade in Clayoquot Sound. Thus began a cross-Island alliance of communities connected by Strathcona Park, which comes right to tidewater near Ahousaht.

Die-in Clayoquot blockades

Die-in Clayoquot Summer blockades 1992 | Photo courtesy of Clayoquot Action

By the early ‘90s there was a series of blockades: the Tsitika Valley on northern Vancouver Island, the Walbran Valley near Victoria, and the Bulson Valley near Tofino. What made all of these locations unique was the presence of an intact watershed – a river valley which had never been roaded or logged – places like Fairy Creek. These were small events, but indicated that a significant amount of people were concerned enough to risk arrest in order to stop logging of ancient forests.

In September 1991 the Temperate Rainforest Action Coalition was formed on Clayoquot Island near Tofino. A large group of people circled up after a weekend-long gathering to find a way to work together to grow the movement. We were very close to forming a Tofino branch of Earth First!, but in the end agreed that peaceful civil disobedience was the way forward. This coalition became the network that coordinated support in the cities for the frontlines.

The places where these conflicts were occurring were remote and difficult to access. People were driven to do desperate things, such as hanging from cliffs in wicker chairs, hanging from hammocks in the tree-tops, and climbing up on active drilling rigs. It was clear something needed to change if the movement was to succeed.

Walbran blockade 1991

Flying Dragon, Walbran blockade 1991 | Photo © Bonny Glambeck

In 1992, in Tofino, we decided to switch to a Gandhian style of peaceful resistance. We would sit or stand on the road and stop the logging trucks from getting through until the police arrested us (without using pepper spray). It was a tough strategy to enact. Every day after the handful of arrests, those remaining would stand aside and let the loggers through, then spend the day choking on dust as the trucks rolled back out laden with monumental cedars recently felled. But we persevered in the belief that we couldn’t physically stop the logging, so we needed to sway the public through valiant mass actions.

In the spring of 1993, the BC government blindsided everyone by announcing that Clayoquot Sound would be logged. Only one-third would be protected – mostly bog and outer coast scrub forest which was not slated for logging. Tofino locals scrambled to prepare for a long hot summer. While driving back from Ucluelet one day, Bonny Glambeck drove past the Black Hole, a massive burned-over clearcut right beside Highway 4. We decided to turn this locale to tactical advantage, and set up the Clayoquot Peace Camp right there beside the highway. By separating the campsites from the frontline, and locating the camp right next to the highway, thousands of people were able to stop in to learn about what was happening without fear of arrest. The burnt stumps were a constant reminder of the potential fate of Clayoquot’s ancient rainforests.

There never really was a “War” in the woods – the resistance was entirely peaceful. If anything, the War in the Woods was the assault by logging corporations on the few remaining valley bottoms of ancestral rainforest. That war continues today.

In the end, ten thousand people passed through the Peace Camp, with flags flying at the entrance representing all their nationalities. Nearly one thousand people were arrested, and forestry was changed forever in BC.

Many of the changes made, however, were largely window dressing. On the good side, the NDP government fulfilled their promise to double the parks system in BC, protecting many of the most notable areas marked on the Valhalla map. But they also brought in the Forest Practices Code, which calmed the public but didn’t really change much on the ground.

Then in l998, Macmillan Bloedel announced the end of clearcut logging – to be replaced by a new technique called “variable retention.” Basically, they would retain some standing trees in a clearcut, but the amount of trees retained could vary from 15% to 80%. The Central Region Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribes announced a joint venture with Macmillan Bloedel, forming Iisaak Forest Resources. The first tree was felled with media present and environmentalists cheering (but the company went in several years later and cut the same block again, leaving far fewer trees).

At some point the public moved on to other issues, and the Great Bear Rainforest deal was struck with much less public scrutiny. There was no revolt when the decision to log most of the Great Bear was announced. The big groups talked about the “shift from blockades to boardrooms,” but without on-the-ground resistance they didn’t have much power other than boycott campaigns, and they agreed to drop those.

There never really was a “war” in the woods – the resistance was entirely peaceful. If anything, the War in the Woods was the assault by logging corporations on the few remaining valley bottoms of ancestral rainforest. That war continues today. Although many notable areas have been protected as parks, British Columbia has failed to stop the logging of ancient forests as other jurisdictions (such as New Zealand) have done. This has led directly to the conflict at Fairy Creek, and all the same debates are happening again thirty years later – with the facts on the side of protecting all of what is left, now more than ever.

Paul Winstanely in hammock at Sulphur Pass, '88 | Photo courtesy of Clayoquot Action

Paul Winstanely in hammock at Sulphur Pass, ’88 | Photo courtesy of Clayoquot Action

You would think that during a global pandemic, governments could see that spending money on law enforcement to arrest peaceful citizens is a waste. The value of the trees in Fairy Creek has been pegged at ten million dollars. We’ve currently spent at least twice that on enforcement, with no end in sight.

What these citizens are asking for is what the provincial government promised during last fall’s provincial election, frustrating people even more. There is nothing more a people can do democratically than to elect a government promising to do what the voters want. When that government then refuses to do what they themselves promised, what is left but civil disobedience? The story of the War in the Woods is not over yet…


Dan Lewis lives in Tofino and is a founding director of Clayoquot Action. Contact him at dan@clayoquotaction.org

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