It is a case of ecology against economy, town against town

BOB LEVIN September 17 1990


It is a case of ecology against economy, town against town

BOB LEVIN September 17 1990

From her small floating house off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Valerie Langer can watch wolves, deer, bear, heron, seals. Otters leave their droppings on her cedar deck. Bald eagles soar sensationally overhead, then swoop down to the ancient trees that Langer and other environmentalists in the town of Tofino have sworn themselves to saving. Last year, she spent eight days in a maximum-security prison for blocking construction of a logging road. Now 27, she tramps through a rain forest near her home, marvelling at the tall cedars and spruce in the muddy earth. “What we’re out to prove,” says Langer, “is that, as humanity, we can live in our environment without ruining it. That’s our challenge. ”

Hal Beek sits at his dining-room table in the Vancouver Island town of Ucluelet. His hands are speckled white from painting window frames, fixing up his house for sale—the real estate company’s sign is already on the lawn. His wife, Norma, is in the kitchen preparing bottles for their baby daughter. “It’s not just the two of us anymore, ’’says Beek, a 33-year-old logger. “At least if I get out from under the mortgage, I’ll be able to pick up and go if I have to. ” Beek’s fear is that, in response to the lobbying of environmentalists, the B.C. government will set aside more forest for parks—and throw loggers out of work. “They ’re crippling our economy, ” he says of the environmentalists. His voice rises; he pounds the table. “If I had one of them, I think I’d probably kick his head in a few times.”

Long before winter, when spectacular storms crash against the west coast of Vancouver Island, a political disturbance is brewing that could blow far beyond Canada’s Pacific Rim. In the simplest terms, the trouble in paradise pits ecology against economy, tree-huggers against tree-cutters, town against town. Tofino and Ucluelet (pronounced Yew-cue-let) are bookends, end-of-peninsula communities separated by 42 km, part of Pacific Rim National Park and a long history of neighborly rivalry. The current clash, however, is unusually bitter—“one town trying to destroy another town,” says Ucluelet Mayor Erik Larsen—and has broader implications. In an environmentally conscious age, the province that bills itself as “Super Natural” is attracting wider scrutiny for the speed and manner in which it is levelling its temperate rain forest, where some trees are more than 1,000 years old and 250 feet tall.

The Tofino-Ucluelet conflict involves the old trees of Clayoquot (pronounced Clack-wit) Sound, an 800-square-mile region of densely forested mountains and fjord-like inlets. For Tofino (population 1,000), which nestles snugly up to the sound, environmentalism is not only good, but good for business—tourism is the town’s lifeblood, and the unspoiled scenery is among its top attractions. But, for Ucluelet (population 1,800), where logging is king and the surrounding forests have been heavily cut, saving trees near Tofino may mean losing jobs at home.

Meanwhile, for the major forestry firms operating in the area—Vancouver-based MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. and Fletcher Challenge Canada Ltd.—millions of dollars could be at stake. And for the B.C. government, 10 per cent of whose $68-billion GDP comes directly from forestry, the Clayoquot battle could prove a bellwether for other land-use disputes. “This is going to be the hottest spot for some time,” says Vicky Husband, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club of Western Canada. “It’s going to be an incredible test case.”

The government’s mediating mechanism is named the Clayoquot Sound Sustainable Development Task Force. It was created in August, 1989, after Premier William Vander Zalm visited a local logging site residents call the Black Hole—a site so infamous that some tour buses travelling the Pacific Rim Highway stop to let passengers gape at it. B.C. Forest Products clear-cut the entire hillside in 1986—a technique that leaves no trees standing—then burned the remains, creating a charred, otherworldly scene right by the roadside. When Vander Zalm viewed it, he asked, “How could this happen?” and set up the task force. Its 21 members, representing Tofino, Ucluelet, the provincial government, the companies, native groups and the International Woodworkers of America, are due to make their recommendations to the B.C. government at the end of the year. “It’s gut-wrenching stuff,” says Richard Dalon, deputy minister of the environment and a member of the task force. “It’s also enormously important.”

The debate over old-growth forests is hardly confined to British Columbia. In July, an international coalition of environmental groups reported that “natural, old-growth forests worldwide are disappearing at accelerated rates.” Beyond their surpassing beauty, say environmentalists, such forests are vital ecosystems. The big trees store moisture that contributes to rainfall. They help prevent soil erosion and are home to thousands of species of plants and animals—a concept called biodiversity, or biological diversity—some of them rare. In June, the U.S. interior department formally listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species, and officials estimate that protecting its ancient habitat in northern California, Oregon and Washington could cost 28,000 logging jobs. Only about 10 per cent of U.S. old-growth forests remain; the number is 40 per cent in Canada—and shrinking.

About four kilometres past the Black Hole, the Pacific Rim Highway divides—Tofino to the right, Ucluelet to the left. For the two towns, this paved piece of geography is, in its way, as crucial as any mountain or forest. As recently as 1981, says a study for the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, tourists turned right and left in about equal numbers. But by 1988, the study says, about 70 per cent of visitors were choosing Tofino, and it speculates that “the fact that Ucluelet’s viewscape has been intensively logged and Tofino’s has not is a key factor.” Ucluelet officials dispute the numbers and the conclusion, but there is no question that Tofino residents have struggled mightily to save trees from the chain saw. Beginning in November, 1984, and on into the winter of 1985, people gathered by the boatload to prevent MacMillan Bloedel loggers from landing on Meares Island, whose two heavily forested mountains provide Tofino with its postcard-perfect backdrop. Led by the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, which was founded in 1979 and now claims 600 members, the environmentalists allied themselves with the Clayoquot and Ahousat native tribes, who have lived in the area for centuries and had proclaimed Meares a tribal park. In March, 1985, a provincial Court of Appeals banned any logging there until the aboriginal rights case is settled—it is still pending before the B.C. Supreme Court.

In June, 1988, Tofino residents blocked would-be road builders at Sulphur Passage, 27 km north of town. Langer, who had migrated to Tofino that winter after dropping out of the University of Toronto, twice spent several days in makeshift tree houses in blasting zones, climbing ropes toting her food and water. Over the next three months, authorities arrested 35 people for disobeying a B.C. Supreme Court civil injunction against the protest, and Langer and 19 others spent from three to 45 days in prison. “We all decided that intimidation won’t work,” she says defiantly, “and we’re willing to do it again.”

Such well-publicized episodes have given Tofino its image as the “green” capital of the Canadian coast. It is certainly a colorful place. On a summer day, the long-haired crowd chewing bran muffins and raisin spice cake on the porch of the Common Loaf Bake Shop could well have time-travelled from Vancouver’s Gastown in its hippie heyday. Fishermen ply the sound in search of salmon, while visitors shop for native art, rent kayaks or board whale-watching boats sporting “Save the rain forest” stickers. But the green image does not always hold: Tofino has no waste-treatment system and dumps its sewage directly into the ocean.

In any case, the Tofino chamber of commerce has called for a moratorium on old-growth cutting in some parts of Clayoquot Sound until residents arrive at a plan for sustainable development. MacMillan Bloedel officials say that, at current cutting rates, it will take about 50 years to harvest the remaining allotment of old-growth trees; environmentalists put the number at about 20 years, but say that the difference is beside the point. The old forests will still be gone, they argue, and the second growth—either replanted or growing back naturally—will not contain the same biodiversity or even sustain the forestry industry at its present levels of employment. “We’re basically like a Third World country,” says Dorothy Baert, an environmentalist who runs a Tofino sea-kayaking business. “We’re simply being raped of our resources.”

Michael Mullin, a fisherman who is a veteran of the Meares fight and one of Tofino’s representatives on the provincial task force, says that there is no underestimating people’s passions—including a fringe minority who advocate driving spikes into trees to ward off loggers. “At meetings, some people think I’m a radical,” he says. “Well, the radicals aren’t at those boring meetings. There are people willing to spike trees and blow up equipment—the emotion is enormous.” Maureen Fraser, owner of the Common Loaf Bake Shop and a Tofino alderman, says that she cannot get the town’s essential message across to Ucluelet’s Mayor Larsen. “It’s his community that’s going to benefit from changing practices in the logging industry,” says the 41-year-old Fraser, driving to Ucluelet to buy juices for her shop. “His response is ‘Are you guys ever going to be satisfied and just leave well enough alone?’ I just can’t get through to him.”

Larsen recalls his conversations with Fraser this way: “I say to her, ‘Quit trying to save us. We don’t need saving.’ ” Sitting behind the desk at his waterfront diesel-engine company, the 49-year-old Larsen, wearing jeans and a denim shirt, points out the second-storey window at the mountain across Ucluelet Inlet, most of it logged bald with some sections growing back. “I’ve sat here and watched this for 20 years,” he says. “I don’t need to be convinced that the trees grow. They grow like crazy around here.” He complains that Ucluelet people do not have time to fight their Tofino opponents. “We’re regular Joes who go to work every day,” he says, “and we’re being forced to spend a lot of time defending ourselves. And certain people in Tofino seem to have nothing but time. I’m not sure what those people do.”

Ucluelet, stretching along Peninsula Road, which parallels the inlet, is hardly a one-industry town—its livelihood is also in fishing, government services and tourism. But about 200 residents work in forestry, and officials say that, if the environmentalists have their way, the town will be devastated. Actually, most residents insist on calling their Tofino adversaries “preservationists”—implying that they want to set aside all the old forests for parks. And they make the most of Tofino’s hippie image: graffiti at the Pacific Rim junction, recently erased by the highway department, said “welfare bums” with an arrow pointing towards Tofino, and “workers” pointing towards Ucluelet. Some Ucluelet residents also decry the involvement of such outside groups as the Victoria-based office of the Sierra Club and the Vancouver-based Western Canada Wilderness Committee—Vancouver, they say with wry smiles, the biggest clear-cut in British Columbia.

The core of Ucluelet’s pro-logging movement is the 800-member Share the Clayoquot. Founded in November, 1989, it is one of seven Share groups that have sprung up around the province in the past three years. Michael Morton, 40-year-old chairman of the local Share group, says that Share is designed to give rural resource-community residents “a fair say in the ongoing land-use dispute.” Still, Morton, who is also a supervisor at MacMillan Bloedel, acknowledges that the company is among the contributors to Share the Clayoquot. And Maclean ’s has learned that the provincewide Share groups are formulating a request for forest-industry funding in the $1-million range, a figure that Morton also does not dispute.

The Share message is spelled out in a poster showing a hearty group of loggers posing around felled trees, with the inscription “Do not let your love of wilderness blind you to the needs of your fellow man.” William Sutherland is one such man. “You think you’ve got the world licked,” says Sutherland, a 28-year-old logger and Share member with a wife and two young children. “And then all of a sudden, this comes up.” Sutherland has put his Ucluelet house and new truck up for sale, fearing the worst from government officials. “What are you going to do if they decide, ‘OK, give it to the preservationists, the hell with the loggers’? What do I do?”

Another Ucluelet logger, 33-year-old David Edwards, insists that his fears are not of economic distress but of having to confront environmental protesters. “If you want to call me a redneck, OK,” he says, “but I can get pretty upset about people standing in my way of making a living, especially if they don’t know the facts. That’s my fear—of hurting somebody, just getting mad.” Edwards’s wife, 30-year-old Carmen, shares that concern. “Dave’s friends are all loggers,” she says, “and they’re really scared for their jobs, and they talk silly sometimes—it just scares me. Violence is not going to solve anything.”

The MacMillan Bloedel helicopter lifts off from Tofino and clatters over Clayoquot Sound. The sky is a rich blue, the water below smooth and shiny, and the craggy mountains still show patches of snow in summer. They also show bald spots, like human heads shaved for medical operations. One of the most glaring is at Cypre, where logging roads and clear-cutting on an unstable mountainside caused severe erosion two years ago. “That’s not something we’re proud of,” Don Dowling, a MacMillan Bloedel divisional manager, says over the headphones. “That’s not something we think should happen again.”

The forestry firms loom over the Clayoquot Sound dispute as surely as the helicopter—and they have a serious image problem. Tofino activists even contend that the companies have tried to pit the loggers themselves against environmentalists—in part to obscure the fact that mechanization, not land preservation, is largely responsible for a 12-per-cent decline in B.C. logging jobs over the past decade. Industry officials deny that accusation. But as Frank Lucci, a vice-president of Fletcher Challenge, says bluntly, “Our industry basically has no credibility whatsoever.” That, he adds, is a result of industry mistakes and of the environmentalists’ skill in making their case. Sierra Club literature warns that clear-cutting destroys not only the forest but “our options for the future,” while the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is publishing a lavishly photographed book on Clayoquot Sound next month. Says Lucci: “Old growth, animals, the beauty of nature, they’re very emotional things. In some cases, you’re almost talking about a religion.”

Industry officials are preaching their own | gospel. MacMillan Bloedel alone is spending $ 1 million this year on TV advertising, a speakers’ bureau, a telephone hotline and forestry tours, In Tofino, a MacMillan Bloedel “forestry centre” features films, video games and an electronic true-or-false test that states, “Forests in British Columbia are managed according to ecological principles.” Answer: “True.”

The company is also trying to show a willingness to change. The MacMillan Bloedel helicopter touches down at Tofino Creek, part of the 1,800-square-mile area known as Tree Farm Licence 44. The B.C. forestry ministry has given the firm a 25-year lease to log and manage the tree farm, which includes Clayoquot. And Dowling and two engineers explain that, as part of their arrangement with the provincial task force, they have agreed to experiment with the techniques of the so-called New Forestry at Tofino Creek.

Those techniques, current among some U.S. and Canadian scientists in the West, are based on studies of how forests regenerate after such natural calamities as fires. They reject complete clear-cutting and call for some trees and plants to be left behind to help the forest recover. Some of the Tofino Creek area has already been clear-cut—a massive scene of destruction littered with stumps and rocks—and the company’s literature is adamant in its defence of the technique. But in some parts of the tract, Dowling says, the company is leaving live and dead trees standing, as well as coarse, woody debris to improve biodiversity. It is also leaving larger strips of trees along the creek so as not to disrupt the salmon.

Dowling concedes that the experiment is limited and that the firm would not even be trying it without pressure from Tofino environmentalists. But he finds a certain irony in the situation. Pointing towards Virgin Falls, a narrow cascade tumbling from the mountainside, Dowling says: “If there were 10 people in a year who came here before, I’d be very surprised. Now, we build a logging road here, we’ve preserved a picnic spot by the falls, and people in Tofino are saying, ‘Gee, protect this whole area — it’s a wonderful recreation area.’ Well...”

For the moderate forces in Tofino and Ucluelet, the search is for that elusive middle ground. Clive Pemberton says he knows where it is: in better, more responsible forestry. Pemberton, 36, an unlikely looking logger with an earring and long hair falling down his back, is an engineering crewman for MacMillan Bloedel. Although neither Dowling nor the salaried engineers mentioned his name during the helicopter tour, Pemberton is the one most responsible for implementing the New Forestry techniques at Tofino Creek. He is also a union activist and a staunch critic of the company, which he says “wouldn’t mind overcutting because the short-term profit would go up, and that’s where their major concern lies.”

In a sense, Pemberton straddles the Tofino and Ucluelet camps. Sitting in his cedar boat in Ucluelet, he explains that he was an early contributor to the Friends of Clayoquot Sound but became disillusioned. “They’ve broken away from wanting good logging practice and don’t want to see any old-growth logging at all. And I can’t go along with that because I realize the need for paper and wood products. If we stop logging here, then we’re just going to log somewhere else on the face of the earth.” Pemberton is now one of the directors of Share the Clayoquot but says he is “uncomfortable” with that group as well. “They’re too job-oriented,” he says. “They’re bottom line is they don’t want to see any job loss at all. And I find them to be fairly right-wing politically—just their attitude towards environmentalists.”

Now, it is up to the provincial task force to suggest a solution to the impasse to the B.C. cabinet. Tofino Mayor Penny Barr, who sits on the task force and says that she is always looking for the “middle of the road,” adds that a complete ban on old-growth logging is just not realistic. In April, the province settled a similar dispute over the Island’s Carmanah Valley by setting aside just over half of the 2 7-square-mile area as parkland while allowing MacMillan Bloedel to log the rest. But a similar compromise seems unlikely to satisfy staunch advocates in Tofino or Ucluelet.

In his diesel-company office, Ucluelet’s Mayor Larsen, who immigrated from Denmark at the age of 14, points up at a framed black-and-white photograph showing his family in the old country—a family of proud-looking blacksmiths. Loggers, he says, are every bit as proud. “No one’s going to come along and say, ‘Now you’re passé, we think you’d make a good waiter,’ ” adds Larsen. “These are hardworking people, and you don’t just tell them what they’re doing is wrong. Because it’s not wrong—no one on God’s green earth is going to tell me that it’s wrong.” But Tofino alderman Fraser, standing atop Radar Hill, a former Second World War installation outside town, draws a different conclusion as she gazes at the stunning 360-degree sweep of surrounding countryside. “I can’t imagine that what’s there”—she points to a heavily forested area—“is going to look like that”—she indicates a clear-cut section. “But how we’re going to stop it is beyond me.” For residents of Tofino and Ucluelet, at the end of an otherwise gentle island summer, the storm warnings are already in effect.