Ben Barclay: Will Fairy Creek become a turning point in human history?

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      By Ben Barclay

      The Fairy Creek blockaders want to save B.C.'s old growth. Climate activists want to protect the planet for our children. Loggers want to save their jobs, and Premier John Horgan wants to ride those jobs to win the next election. Big lumber corporations want to keep on making a lot of money.

      The forests just want to stay alive and raise their families of wolves and trees, moss and marbled murrelets, like they have for millions of years.

      We can have jobs and timber and forests; we just have to change the way we do a few things.

      First, we get the Supreme Court of Canada to recognize clearcutting as deforestation and make it illegal. This gives us the legislative tool to protect all our old growth, rip up our destructive "tree farm licence" logging policies, and switch to "single tree selective forestry".

      Single-tree selective forestry would preserve our entire forest ecology, increase biomass, create more jobs, and increase our forests' sequestration of C02 by 26 million tonnes annually.

      By stopping our current practice of giving the trees away to corporations at the lowest processing stage, we would double our forest income to the province. By starting to practise the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), we'd stop presenting First Nations with our colonial devil's bargain of trading marginal consent for corporate clearcutting in return for cash and give First Nations control over the forest income and jobs in their traditional territories.

      Fairy Creek—on southern Vancouver Island, northeast of Port Renfrew—can be the rallying point, where we don't just save one of the last intact stands of old growth but initiate a turning point in human history, where we enshrine the "human rights" of forest ecosystems into law and start reversing deforestation.  

      Here is a picture of Fairy Creek (lower right) surrounded by clearcuts, half of them so recent they haven't even had time to green up. Obviously, this is an unsustainable rate of cut, but clearcutting itself is an unsustainable practice.

      Aerial view of Fairy Creek watershed (right centre) surrounded by recent clearcuts.
      Google Earth

      The trouble with clearcutting

      Today and every day, more than 600 hectares of forest will fall in B.C. clearcuts, which is deforestation of an area the size of Nanaimo every two weeks and an area the size of Greater Vancouver every year. The UN's 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity makes it clear that human deforestation is a major factor in condemning one million species to oblivion during the next 100 years, including 25 percent of all plants and animals.

      The logging corporations' claim that clearcutting isn't deforestation because it grows back is like saying that killing someone isn't murder because their children grow up and replace them.

      Ecosystem killer

      Clearcutting unleashes the sun on the fragile rainforest topsoil, starting a lethal chain reaction that murders billions of plants, fungi, and tiny creatures per hectare. Without the trees, the symbiotic mycelial networks die. Without the fungi, the voles that coat Douglas Fir seeds with germinating inoculant die. The wolves that maintain the balance of voles die. The salmon die when their spawning grounds are destroyed. The whole forest ecosystem dies.

      Replanted clearcuts are more vulnerable to diseases and pests, as we found out when we unbalanced the 70-million-year-old relationship between the mountain pine beetle and the lodgepole pine and lost forests the size of the state of Washington in a decade.

      Climate killer

      Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and separate it into carbon and oxygen. An average human needs about 500 pounds of oxygen annually, while a mature tree releases about 250 pounds a year. After neatly making the oxygen available to us, trees then "sequester", or store, the carbon as wood. Every year, clearcutting punches another 26-million-tonne hole in our forests' capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon. Although clearcutting is a bigger driver of global warming than fossil fuels, our CleanBC carbon-reduction "plan" doesn't even mention logging and doesn't count the lost sequestration capacity in our provincial emission totals.

      Job killer

      On average, eight loggers still die in corporate clearcuts annually, down from 30 a year in the early 2000s but still completely unacceptable. To increase profits, industrial logging drives workers into unsafe practices with inexorable scheduling, uses machines to push people out of work, and dumbs down their jobs to the lowest wage strata possible. Every time we clearcut, future jobs fall with the trees. Or we could turn our fallers into foresters.

      Wealth killer

      When plantation trees grow in clearings, the extra sunlight keeps their lower branches from dropping off. Today's branches are tomorrow's knots, and knotty wood is only worth 25 percent of clear forest wood. The extra sunlight causes wide growth rings, which reduce density and strength.

      Ben Barclay

      Each annual growth ring of a young nine-inch-diameter tree adds only one quarter the wood that a mature tree's 32-inch-diameter growth ring does. Cutting trees at 80 years, when they are just starting to really put wood on, is insane. The smaller diameter logs are inefficient to mill and produce smaller, less valuable lumber.

      The corporations know all this, which is why they are so desperate for the last few bits of old growth at places like Fairy Creek. The only "efficiency" of clearcutting is in the extraction of trees and the generation of corporate profit. Clearcutting's forest-system efficiency is terrible, and the true cost to taxpayers in B.C. runs to billions of dollars annually.

      A common treasury for all

      And what do those corporations pay for the trees? Almost nothing. We let them cut the trees in return for creating jobs. We need to stop giving away the wood from our forests and retain ownership until much further down the processing chain, because wood prices move up a pyramid as you add value.

      Raw logs sold as standing trees to a logging company bring in only 25 cents a board foot. They bring in 50 cents after they're cut, and $1.50 after they're sawn and dried. By the time you go to the lumberyard, the cost is $28 for one knotty cedar 2 x 4!

      Ben Barclay

      In B.C., we harvest about 20 billion board feet a year, but because we sell it off at the bottom of the processing pyramid, in some years the B.C. Forest Service actually loses money. At a reasonable six percent profit margin after costs, we could reclaim five billion dollars a year from corporate coffers to the public treasury.

      The Fairy Creek blockaders are right, we need to stop cutting any old-growth forest immediately. Luckily, we don't need to stop using wood, which is our most sustainable and beautiful building material. We just need to switch our harvesting methods from clearcutting to single-tree selective forestry. Ironically, we'll get more jobs than we have now, and they'll be truly sustainable: financially, ecologically, and over time.

      How to get timber without "killing the world"

      Here's a picture of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. Since 1890, they've supported themselves by cutting billions of board feet of lumber, but they have more biomass in their forest than when they started. B.C. could look like this.

      Menominee Nation traditional territory in Wisconsin.
      Menominee Forest Keepers

      The Menominee own the land, and they own the sawmills. They never sell raw logs; they add value with specialty milling. They've won international recognition from the United Nations, the Rainforest Alliance, and others. Their children grow up to safe, interesting, and sustainable forestry jobs.

      The simplest way to understand how single-tree selective forestry works is to picture a farmer's woodlot, except that in B.C. we would have a much wilder woodlot with grizzly bears. Woodlot owners never clearcut. They go in every few years and take one tree out at a time. Forests grow every year. If we measure that growth, and only cut less, then we can harvest wood without reducing the biomass.

      We never cut into the principal; we only live off the interest. Pretty simple stuff.

      Living in harmony with forests

      To change our habits, we need to change the way we think, and stop seeing forests as "corporate standing timber", and develop a reciprocal relationship with them. In her award winning book Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains reciprocal environmental relationships. For instance, wolves don't "clearcut" herds of caribou; they select their prey one at a time, in exchange for optimizing the caribou gene pool.

      Forests are as generous as caribou if we harvest single trees and leave the "herd" intact.

      For 10,000 years, Indigenous people along the Pacific Coast practised single-tree selective forestry while building astonishing houses, canoes, and totem poles, all without disrupting the ecosystem.

      In modern times, Haisla elder Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul, brought this ancient knowledge forward as he led the successful fight to save the Kitlope River Valley from industrial logging. When he reflected on his role in the community process, he said: “I was alone in a canoe, but it was a magic canoe. It was magic because it could make room for everyone who wanted to come on board, to come in and paddle together.”

      Tree huggers, loggers, home builders, climate-change activists, politicians, and voters, whether we are "settlers" or indigenous to this area, we can all get in Cecil's magic canoe and paddle together.

      The Magic Forest

      In B.C., we live in a magic forest, that can give us all the wood and jobs we need forever as long as we don't clearcut the goose that lays the golden eggs. Order of Canada recipient Merv Wilkinson left a blueprint for how modern people can build with wood and live in harmony with forests. He called it Wildwood, and it is only 10 minutes out of Nanaimo.

      Noninvasive “skidder" road at Wildwood is lined with a full age range of trees and variety of species preserved in the intact forests that are harvested using single-tree selective forestry.
      Ben Barclay

      Merv and his wife, Grace, bought their 56-hectare forest in the 1940s. In his lifetime, he logged one million board feet of lumber, yet there is just as much biomass and timber wood there now as when he started. Groves of 500-year-old Douglas fir. All the topsoil and fungi. All the salamanders. Merv measured the annual growth and only cut less. He concluded that 200 years is the optimal harvest cycle in B.C.

      Moving forward

      Clearcutting is just a corporate strategy to make as much profit as possible in the shortest time period, and we are caught in a vicious cycle of politicians winning elections by subsidizing corporations to destroy our forests in return for dangerous transitory jobs.

      We all know we need to protect old growth, but we have to be careful what we are asking for. In 1993, after a monumental grassroots struggle, a landmark court decision recognizing Indigenous title, and more than 800 civil-disobedience arrests, we let the BC government off the ropes and allowed them keep clearcutting 70 percent of Clayoquot Sound and the entire rest of B.C.

      While we're fighting for Fairy Creek, we need to fully utilize the upswell of people power to base the legal defence of the blockaders' civil disobedience on establishing in the Supreme Court of Canada that forest ecosystems have "human rights", that clearcutting is deforestation, and that deforestation is putting the ecology of our planet at risk.

      With clearcutting illegal, we could stop having to fight these "wars in the woods" and usher in an era of real single-tree selective forestry within a framework of true reconciliation with First Nations, which would allow us to harvest wood without any net annual loss of biomass while creating safe havens for species at risk, employing more forestry workers in safer and more sustainable jobs, and retaining twice the forest income for taxpayers than we do now.

      Ben Barclay has planted 300,000 trees, run his own successful woodworking social enterprise using single-tree selective forested wood, and won awards working for NGOs such as Pollution Probe over a 40-year career supporting responsible human interaction with forests.