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Ongoing protest over old-growth logging on Vancouver Island marks one year


PORT RENFREW, B.C. — In the year since the first camp was set up to prevent old-growth logging around the Fairy Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island, an expert in Canadian environmental movements says the protests have made a mark on politics and public discourse.

Advocates have been calling for an end to old-growth logging in British Columbia for decades, but the issue flared again recently with more rallies, people speaking out and media attention, said David Tindall, a professor in the sociology department at the University of British Columbia. 

Tindall said he believes certain changes would not have happened without the ongoing blockades near Port Renfrew, B.C.

He points to the speed of the B.C. government's decision to approve the request of three Vancouver Island First Nations to temporarily defer old-growth logging across about 2,000 hectares in the Fairy Creek and central Walbran areas, and to the federal Liberals' election pledge to establish a $50 million old-growth fund. 

Whether the public memory of the Fairy Creek protest persists over time — like the so-called War in the Woods over old-growth logging in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino in 1993 — could depend on the province taking action to set larger areas of old-growth forests aside from logging for good, Tindall said. 

"I think if the provincial government just kind of makes some small-scale changes to plans and then continues business as usual, you know, two or five years from now, then (the protest) won't really be on the minds of people as Clayoquot was."

The recent flurry of arrests may also deter some people from joining the blockades, making it more difficult for the group to sustain its presence, Tindall added.

Since May, the RCMP have enforced a court injunction granted to the Teal-Jones Group, the forestry company that holds the harvesting license in the area. 

The Mounties have said protesters' tactics include locking themselves into precarious structures above the ground and trenches dug into the road.

The protests continued after the B.C. government approved the deferral request from thePacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations in June.

Kathy Code, a member of the protest group dubbed the Rainforest Flying Squad, said in an interview that parts of both deferred areas were already set aside through old-growth management and wildlife habitat areas. The same can be said of nine other areas temporarily deferred from logging by the province last year, she added.

Research from Rachel Holt, Karen Price and Dave Daust — independent experts appointed in June to advise the province on old-growth management — shows that less than three per cent of the most productive old-growth remains across B.C.

The deferral of logging in the most at-risk old-growth ecosystems is among the top recommendations in a report last year from an independent panel on old-growth management, which the B.C. government has pledged to fully implement.

The No. 1 recommendation from that report was "for government to engage with First Nation rights and titleholders and that's exactly what we're doing," the ministry said in a statement, adding it expects to announce additional deferrals soon.

The Pacheedaht First Nation has signed a forest revenue-sharing agreement with the province and Chief Jeff Jones has asked the Fairy Creek protesters to leave, saying the nation is working on a resource stewardship plan that will guide forestry activities. 

The Teal-Jones Group said all harvesting and road-building in the deferred areas has been suspended and most of its work in the area involves second-growth forests.

The protest group says its members are staying at Fairy Creek at the invitation of Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones and old-growth forests outside the deferred areas are still at risk of logging with road-building or cut blocks planned or already approved.

The number of arrests since the RCMP began enforcing the injunction at Fairy Creek in May is over 800, similar to arrests made during the 1993 War in the Woods, one of thelargest acts of civil disobedience in recent Canadian history.

Two years after the protests ended in Clayoquot Sound, the B.C. government changed its policies on clear-cutting forests.

Code said protesters are staying put at Fairy Creek even though the RCMP have broken up their main kitchen, medical and communication stations.

The protesters allege police have used excessive force, such as pepper-spraying people's faces at close range, shoving and throwing them to the ground, she said.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP said as of Thursday, 21 of 91 complaints it has received about the conduct of police enforcement at Fairy Creek fall within its mandate and will be investigated.

RCMP media relations officer Sgt. Chris Manseau said over email he cautions anyone viewing videos of recent arrests circulating online "to keep in mind that they do not fully capture the events leading up to or following the interactions."

The injunction is set to expire on Sep. 26 and Teal Jones said it has applied for an extension, which the protest group is set to oppose.

— by Brenna Owen in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2021. 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

The Canadian Press