Yes, the trees are gorgeous. There's not really a debate about that, and there's something undeniably numinous about these Sproatt Mountain old growth trees that is completely absent from second growth forests and tree farms. Their slender stems are the markings of man, lined up all in rows along the mountain face for efficiency.
Here though, in this swath of untouched forest, nature is nature, pure and wild. You can't hear the highway and stepping away from the trail, deeper into the woods, is like a different country altogether where the spoils of modernity, cars and buildings and temperamental people, are not at all present and, for a brief period, it's easy to imagine they had never existed.
On the Runaway Train trail the trees lining it have been spray-painted with a blue-green band indicating they're marked for harvesting. If it weren't for delays in logging permits, they would have been taken already, leaving a wide clearing that would be visible from the highway. These aren't old growth trees but the moss covering every fallen log certainly make it look like they are.
This is just one of four areas that were set to be logged as part of the Cheakamus Community Forest's (CCF) harvesting plans for 2010 beginning this week at Brew Creek - to be completed mid-December - as legally required by provincial law - and a serious bone of contention in the community that has begun to divide it, even though nothing has been cut yet.
On one side, we have the people affiliated with the CCF - the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Squamish Nation, Lil'wat Nation and the contractor hired to carry out the harvesting, Richmond Plywood - all of whom are insisting that the CCF will engage in sustainable harvesting practices. On the other side is a handful of community members who reject the very notion that old growth trees should be logged at all.
Meet Pina Belperio, one such community member. She sees blockades in the near future. Bodies chained to trees, mouths chanting environmental and anti-government slogans, that sort of thing. Police strapping handcuffs on the protestors after an injunction is filed by the province to allow the logging to continue.
"In this day and age we should not be having these fights to log old growth forests. It's sacrilegious, pretty much," Belperio says.
For her, and many people in the community, old growth trees are not just a natural resource - they're an endangered species that need to be protected at any and all costs.
"We have people from around the world coming to look at these trees," she says. "I just came back from Europe where you don't see an old growth tree of any kind. I was telling them what was going on here and they were just shocked. They were saying, 'Well this is the reason we come to places like Canada in the first place.' That's their image, all these trees. They're saying, 'You guys are doing it right, at least you're protecting stuff that we've gotten rid of like hundreds of years ago already.'"
Many of the protesters, in their rhetoric, are quick to blame the RMOW but fail to mention the First Nations' role in the partnership. All of them entered into the partnership to have control over what's harvested and where. The need to "save the trees" is important, but they can't save 'em all.
"I find it frustrating," says Lucinda Phillips, head of Lil'wat land and resources and CCF board member, "because they (the protestors) don't seem to be listening to the actual true facts of what they are doing. They hear 'logging' and that's all they hear. They don't hear details. We can share and educate them as much as we can but at the same time they do not understand it. It's just frustrating."
The CCF says it will retain 30 per cent of the old forest area in its tenure. In its Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) Plan, drawn up by Ecotrust - a nonprofit whose purpose is to build the conservation economy in coastal B.C. - it has given the community forest a framework for how to manage the forest to uphold social, ecological and economic sustainability.
"Considering how logging practices have been in the last 50 years... and the way it's moving now, I think it is a pretty good selection of what we're doing now," Phillips says.
John Hammons, a retired forester who is working for the CCF on a volunteer basis, says they're trying to protect the richest biological areas first, those around the watershed, and then see what's left. They'll keep adding until they reach 30 per cent of old growth in their mandate to protect.
"It's kind of like a cheque book - you keep a tally of how much area you have, and you build it up until you have 30 per cent. You want to make sure that it's spread out across the forest and it represents all the conditions."
"What we're trying to pick (is) a higher level of protection than would normally be done. There are biodiversity requirements and you have to leave so much behind (when cutting), but we're setting the hurdle a bit higher."
The entire town, the ski hills and everything, came from harvesting in the 1960s. There has been extensive logging history both in Whistler and the Callaghan. The sightlines from the gondolas on Whistler Mountain are dominated by second growth trees.
According to numbers provided by the Ministry of Forests and Range, between the 1940s and 2000s, 6,866 hectares of forest had been harvested in the 30,284 hectare area that is now the CCF. Some 227 hectares of that were harvested in the 2000s, including the 9,000 cubic metres that were harvested in the Brandywine and Brew Creek area last year.
If the same rate of harvesting continues in the CCF at 20,000 cubic metres per year, that would mean only 10 hectares of forest would be cut in the 2010s.
According to a fact sheet on the RMOWs website, there are 12,175 hectares of old growth forest in the CCF and less than 1,400 hectares to be logged, or about 10 per cent of what exists.
The whole area used to be part of the logging company Western Forest Products' tenure area before a 2006 amendment to Bill 28 where the province took back 20 per cent of the timber from large licensees and allocated it back to smaller tenure holders such as wood lots, First Nations tenures and community forests. This is where much of the volume in the CCF became available.
The minister had allotted 10,000 cubic metres per year for a community forest to be managed by Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish. Only Whistler signed on, and Lil'wat and Squamish Nations offered 5,000 cubic metres from their own tenures to the annual harvest to be part of the CCF. The tenure was awarded on April 9, 2009.
The way the laws are written, the CCF has to harvest those trees because the province still retains ownership of the land and the revenue they earn through the harvesting (i.e. stumpage rates) helps to fund health care, education, highways and other programs throughout the province. The CCF must harvest or else the tenure will revert back to the government.
Many people see this as not just a good thing but as mandatory for preserving British Columbian society.
"Every night I watch on the news, (people saying) 'Don't close my elementary school," says Dave Southam, operations manager for the Squamish Forest District. "Well, this is one of the ways that we're trying to fund (those things). The province goes out and tries to generate income. You can just as easily say that the tourism industry will bring in that income as well. I don't know. I don't have the socioeconomic study that says one is better than the other. I just know that they're trying awful hard to meet the needs of both right now."
He says the CCF could technically back out of its tenure agreement but that the implications of that are the province would give the logging tenure to another company with less vested interest in preserving old growth, amongst other things. Old growth means good wood. There would be more logging, at a bigger and more industrial scale.
"This is not interior mountain, pine-beetle, 100 hectare clear-cuts. This is small-scale forestry, low-impact - that's what they want and they accepted in the management plan and that's how they got their tenure awarded," he says.
Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed, who could not be reached for comment for this story, told Pique previously that, "A lot of the tourism products you see depend on forestry. It wouldn't exist if forestry hadn't built the roads, if forestry hadn't maintained the roads, and many of those roads would in fact be closed if it wasn't for forestry. We need to understand that there is a symbiotic relationship."
But this is exactly the problem for some people. It's not just about cutting the trees down, it's about preserving Whistler's greatest assets. As the tourism focus moves away from winter-only sports, away from the mountains and Whistler Village into backcountry territory, there's a greater urgency to preserve the forests and old growth that make mountain-biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling etc. part of a unique Whistler experience.
One of the more aggressive critiques was by Van Powel in his "Oly and the Fat Cats" video where "Oly," after discussing with a tree its impending doom, asks tourists not to visit Whistler until the cutting of old growth had ceased.
Allan Crawford, owner of Canadian Snowmobile took out several full-page ads in local newspapers, pleading with officials to "PLEASE cancel your outrageous plans to cut down trees," due to the irrecoverable long-term losses to the tourism industry that may come as a result of old growth logging.
Crawford briefly became the torchbearer for a cause he believed in but never really wanted to be the face of. He recognized from the start he was in a difficult position and that people would object to the "snowmobile guy" lobbying the "green" municipality to save the trees.
As a result, Crawford has backed down from his role in the campaign to stop old growth logging in the region.
He still fundamentally disagrees with the removal of old growth but he told Pique previously that he's not against cutting trees if it's selective and for a purpose - for example, it supports the burgeoning eco-tourism industry that many people believe Whistler is set to become a leader in - and it maintains the outdoor aesthetic that people come in from around the world to experience.
Peter Ackhurst, a forestry consultant with the CCF, says they're working with all backcountry tour operators with overlapping tenures to ensure that the logging plans accommodate their businesses. The CCF reached an agreement with Crawford that they would not harvest on his tenure in 2010 in order to develop integrated plans in how to develop trails and logging roads and accommodate each other. The CCF is acting like a co-operative in this regard, and the message is that the forest is big enough for everyone to do what they need to do.
"There are plenty of (backcountry businesses) that want to co-operate. We've had several meetings with them. We had one in the middle of September and everybody talks about being very positive and supportive of the whole thing," Ackhurst says. "There are benefits to all sides."
Dan Griffin, director of planning for WORCA, told Pique in an e-mail that the effect of logging in the community forest has been a big concern. They asked the CCF early on to build consideration for trails into the harvest plan.
The issue, he wrote, is that according to provincial guidelines, trails are only considered if they have been officially authorized or established under Section 57 of the Forest and Range Practices Act.
"In Whistler, the only trails covered under this are Comfortably Numb and the Flank. Needless to say, negotiating with the CCF is pretty important," he wrote.
As it currently stands, Runaway Train is doomed - although WORCA may restore the trail after logging has been completed.
They've come to an agreement with the CCF and Griffin wrote that the CCF is "committed to keeping the lines of communication open and working with WORCA on a case by case basis. They've also been granted a seat on the RMOW Forest and Wildland Advisory Committee, which reviews the harvest plans early on and reports to council.
"Really, it's a lot more support then a local group of riders would get in any other community. Certainly a lot more then we would get from a commercial forestry operation."
In the end, even with all the cooperation, the talk about "sustainability" and "preservation," the CCF, like any community forest - like any forest area in B.C. - is all about logging. Forestry had been inextricably linked to B.C.'s social, economic and political make-up since before British Columbia joined confederation, and it will remain a leading industry. All board meetings and luncheons, all public hearings, all interviews with media, were underlined with the fact that trees will be cut. That's just the way it is. Most Crown land in the province is working forest and will be preserved as working forest to ensure that the province continues to benefit economically from forestry.
Those who are opposing the cutting of old growth forests are asking for a fundamental paradigm shift, where logging is not an essential revenue resource. For them, the very idea of logging in a resort like Whistler is outdated, a practice of a bygone era when "sustainability" and its affiliated terms were non-existent.
"There are a variety of issues and I feel like we (Whistler) should be setting examples in the world and not falling on the status quo that B.C. has been a logging province since forever - right?" Belperio says. "These trees belong to everyone. They're part of the common good, so I don't think it's up to us to kill these (trees). I feel like we should just be smarter, that we shouldn't just do things because the government is telling us to do them... I find them very short-sighted."
She doesn't believe that the 10 per cent of old growth the CCF plans to take will be all it takes. It's a slippery slope, and even if they don't cut those trees now there is always tomorrow and the day after that.
"Maybe I'm just jaded or Catholic or whatever but just seeing what council has done this last term, seeing what has happened with the Olympics, I just don't trust them," she says. "I have to put blind faith in them that they will manage (the forests) well but to be honest I don't have any. I have no trust in them," she says.
"It's hard to stand up on your soapbox and say trust me," allows Dave Southam, "but if I look into the effort that (the CCF has) put into it up front, I'm very impressed."
The bottom-line, he says, is that everyone in the CCF has been up front and very transparent about their plans. Nothing shady is taking place and everyone is doing their best to accommodate everyone in the community.
Naturally, however, any controversial decision will have a parade of people voicing their dissent.
And that's understandable in this case. The trees are gorgeous, but, Southam says, "Let's make sure we're making our decisions on fact."
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