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Feature

They might be giants, Part II

For more than 1,000 years the Elaho has been left relatively undisturbed. Now things are changing, within and outside the valley

Logging versus preservation – it’s an emotive issue. Not least in old growth forests such as British Columbia’s Elaho Valley, which houses some of the oldest and biggest Douglas fir and red cedar trees in the world. Amongst those trees reside black bears and grizzly bears, wolves, cougars and mountain goats.

Standing poles apart in the debate over the future of those trees are the hard-line environmentalists who want to preserve what is left of the world’s rapidly shrinking natural landscapes, and logging communities whose livelihood depends on harvesting trees. Somewhere between the poles, with direct stakes in the issue, are tourist operators keen to market the outdoor experience to a nature-seeking clientele and First Nations trying to reclaim their cultural and economic territorial birthright.

It was with these various factions in mind that I started hiking the 22 km trail from the Elaho Valley to Meager Creek, with fellow Whistlerites John Meyer and Cavan Dykeman. Two days into travelling through some of the most spectacular scenery in British Columbia we met fellow hikers, Mark Crosbie and Susan Hynes from Vancouver. Our subsequent discussion on the pros and cons of the logging debate only served to reinforce the range of views on the Elaho.

Looking down on the Meager Creek valley from Hundred Lakes Plateau, Meyer said: "The scenery I have seen over the past couple of days I will carry in my head forever – the green carpet of trees as far as you can see. To now look down these logged areas is quite devastating."

Hynes agreed. "I’ve been through clearcuts on Vancouver Island that look disgusting after the de-foresting and have no problem saving certain areas as there is lots of land. It doesn’t hurt to save places like the Elaho so people can see what B.C once was like."

Crosbie described his views as middle ground. "I don’t agree that B.C should be preserved as a playground for people who live in the Lower Mainland. There has to be compromise," he said. "Stopping logging altogether isn’t feasible for B.C as it would have a profound effect on communities that depend on this type of industry."

And as Dykeman pointed out, loggers through to environmentalists utilize the forestry resource because "everyone needs wood and everyone needs paper."

Meyer believed that logging is OK in certain areas, so long as the "extremely wasteful" practice of clear-cutting is stopped.

"They (forest companies) waste a large percentage of what they cut as the trees are too small, and they only slash and burn unnecessarily to increase profits," he said. "We could easily heli-log, but there is no motivation because (the forestry companies) would not make nearly as much money as they do now."

However growing public pressure against clear-cutting could see more innovative logging practices. Richard Slaco, chief forester for International Forest Products (Interfor), said his company is looking into logging options for the Elaho, such as variable retention harvesting, retaining "standing trees" to act as buffer zones in public recreation areas and in some cases, heli-logging.

"I see great opportunities to combine tourism and forestry interests in the Elaho because it is relatively close to Vancouver and there is a nice road up the valley," Slaco said. "I’m talking about developing hiking trails, tours and white-water rafting. I took my kids rafting down the Elaho River a couple of weeks ago and it was a great way to see the tree farm."

And what of the habitat of resident bears, wolves and moose? Would selective logging harm their ability to survive in the Elaho?

Slaco said researchers from the ministries of the environment and forestry are collecting information on natural habitat prior to any future harvesting in the area.

The Squamish Nation, in its push to create more employment and economic opportunities for its people, is also investigating the concept of combining forestry and tourism opportunities in the Elaho. Both the Squamish Nation and Lil’wat Nation of Mount Currie have overlapping claims in parts of the Elaho Valley. Squamish Chief Bill Williams said Aboriginal people account for a disproportionately high percentage of the unemployed in B.C. and the goal is to reverse that trend.

As a result, the Squamish Nation has launched two studies – one being the Land Use Plan (LUP) discussed last week in Part I of this feature, and the other being an eco-tourism product development strategy for all Squamish Nation territories. The former was released as a draft version in June with a final plan now imminent, and the latter should be made public within the next few weeks.

Chief Williams said: "The (tourism) study examines the impact of tourism in all Squamish territories, including the Callaghan and Whistler, as well as future development areas such as Cloudburst Mountain and Brohm Ridge."

One of the report consultants, Dr Brian White from Capilano College in Vancouver, hinted that, "some of the ideas that will come out of the study are just fantastic, (and) more involvement from the Squamish Nation will benefit the whole region."

But what degree of influence can First Nations realistically exert over areas such as the Elaho when their territorial claims are still in dispute? Chief Williams admitted that on the surface their bargaining position does not appear great.

"They (provincial government) still don’t acknowledge Squamish Nation in the whole process of public land use when they don’t bother talking to the landlord (First Nation)."

However he said he is still very hopeful of a positive outcome over the LUP because of the strong public support.

"The government has to listen to the people who voted them in and there is overwhelming support for us to keep the plan like it is," he said. "We are trying to reconcile those economic interests with the Squamish Nation’s vision of the land in ways to benefit Aboriginals and the general economy of the region."

Aside from the government, will Interfor recognize and accept the Squamish Land Use Plan and its inherent restrictions on logging? Slaco said the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Squamish band just over a year ago, which laid out a collective intent to find opportunities to benefit both parties. He said while logging has stopped this summer out of respect for the LUP process, Interfor has not made any specific agreement not to log. He added that the expiration of the American softwood lumber agreement, which subsequently saw a new tariff placed on Canadian softwood exports to the U.S., had also reduced the amount of harvesting being carried out by Interfor.

Slaco said any proposal to give Crown land protected park status has to go through the official government channels.

"It is not up to us (Interfor) to make the final decision over what becomes of the public land because it is up to the public process," he explained. "We understand not everyone likes to see areas being harvested, but you are never going to satisfy everyone."

Noting the overlapping territorial claims of the Squamish Nation and the Lil’wat Nation in the Elaho, Slaco said it is not up to Interfor to recognize one group over another. He said compensation would be required if the company were to lose access to cutting rights it has been granted in the Elaho, on the grounds of profits lost and the subsequent human cost of laying off staff.

However Joe Foy, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee campaign co-ordinator, believes Interfor should get no compensation in the event of the LUP or similar plan going through.

"Since the scandal broke last year about Interfor undervaluing the quality of timber cut in order to pay lower stumpage fees it is clear that they owe B.C taxpayers around $100 million and should repay that in debt for nature swaps," he said.

Foy estimates the timber value in the Sims and Elaho valleys to be between $6 million and $10 million – approximately one-tenth of the money he says the company owes the province.

(The Ministry of Forests has since closed the loophole in forestry legislation that allowed logging companies to practice grade-setting and in some cases resulted in reduced stumpage payments to government. The MOF is in the process of implementing a new market pricing system, something that logging companies have been wanting for years. Under the former system, stumpage fees were not adjusted for any depreciation or increase in timber market values, thus on average lowering provincial returns.)

However the most pressing issue for many environmental groups is to stop the exportation of raw logs and set up mills that can add value to forest products in B.C.

"Some of this timber got at rock bottom prices from places like the Elaho was sent off to foreign mills as raw logs in an effort to boost Interfor profits," Foy said. He would like to see a log market created in Squamish where value-added producers bid for logs, rather than letting a few big companies control the resource.

"We should follow the example of Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound where First Nations are the majority shareholder in the logging and more local jobs are created through the value-adding process."

However Foy fears that such changes could be years away, because of the political power the forestry industry still wields in the province.

"Even though tourism is the biggest employer on the block it doesn’t carry the weight that the old timber unions and timber companies do," he said. "Old political power doesn’t give up easy. We have everything in the Elaho that we had 5,000 years ago – in less abundance but we still have all the bits and pieces. It’s a tremendous draw that few other countries have, but this large powerful forestry industry is an impediment to the growth of the tourism industry."

Geza Vamos of Ecomountain Tours in Squamish agrees. He said tourism is not recognized as an industry that needs a land base and is constantly sidelined by forestry interests.

"There is a common misconception that tourism pays low wages compared to forestry and that forestry is more important in B.C. Tourism is the number one industry here but the government puts very little resources into it," Vamos said.

Forestry, which is still B.C.’s number one industry by dollar value, is a much different industry than tourism. The Ministry of Forests has approximately 4,000 employees, compared to the Crown Corporation Tourism B.C.’s 108 staff. An additional 15 government staff members also work directly on tourism issues through the Ministry of Competition, Science & Enterprise and the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management.

Vamos has been running commercial interpretive tours in the Elaho Valley since last year. Business is not great.

"Selling trips in the Elaho is extremely difficult because people don’t think of B.C as a hiking destination and there isn’t the marketing strategy or mentality in place at the provincial level to change this," he said.

By comparison, New Zealand has done a much better job marketing its world famous multi-day hiking trips, such as the Routeburn and Milford Sound tracks. But Vamos is hopeful the situation in B.C. will improve with time.

"We sell the Elaho-to-Meager Creek hike under the name Coast Mountain Traverse because it describes the nature of the low mountain crossings, and hopefully one day it will rival B.C.’s West Coast Trail, which also took a long time to become well known."

Vamos is skeptical about Interfor’s interest in the Squamish LUP and believes it could be a tactic to avoid dealing with tourism interests. Like WCWC’s Foy, Vamos said he is putting his faith in the Squamish Nation to highlight economic benefits other than forestry in the Elaho.

Back at our viewpoint overlooking the expanse of Meager Creek Valley and the mountains beyond, it seems impossible that this 22 km hike is not on the province’s "must-see" tourist map. Yet it seems Vamos is right. During our three days of hiking the trail over the Labour Day weekend we saw only four other people. A private paradise almost all to ourselves.

The final dip

Private that is, until we completed the final leg and reached Meager Creek Hot Springs, located 70 km northwest of Pemberton. There is something quite surreal about spending several days being at one with nature and then finding yourself in the equivalent of a public bathhouse. At least 60 pink-hued people lay like basking seals in and around a series of beautifully designed Japanese-style hot springs, some next to the rushing Meager Creek.

The hot spring complex has undergone its own wars in recent years – a war against contamination caused by human overuse, a battle against government pool regulations that originally demanded chlorination of the waters, a fight against the slips and floods of the unstable natural environment, and now conflict with people who resent paying the $5 cover charge for the upgraded facility. Angry words were being exchanged between the fees collector and hot springs soakers when we arrived.

Mike Sato, president of Sea to Sky Onsen Inc manages the hot springs through an arrangement with the Ministry of Forests. He said up to 80 people a day use the facility during the peak summer period and at least 10,000 people are expected to visit by this November. He said the set-up and operating costs have been so expensive that he is at least two years away from breaking even. But he wants to open similar facilities elsewhere.

"There are lots of other potential hot springs in the Squamish-Mount Currie area but developments on Crown land are a very long process and most business people would give up," he said. "But it’s the dream for me. I love the natural hot springs."

Being able to relax in the warm or hot waters, (you choose), of Meager Creek Hot Springs after three fairly strenuous days of climbing up and down hills, over log bridges and onto mountain plateaus, is something close to heaven. It also gives you time to contemplate the whole Elaho to Meager Creek hike experience.

The Elaho hike has most things that outdoorsy people like: breathtaking beauty, wildlife, solitude and a degree of challenge. The only thing really lacking is accessibility, as both trailheads are fairly remote – although this may also be a blessing. Two vehicles are needed, or someone willing to pick you up, if you want to avoid either having to walk both ways or long pre-trip shuttle drop offs.

This access issue may become less of a challenge if a WCWC plan to build a hiking trail linking Whistler to the Elaho goes ahead. As it currently stands, "The trail will start in Whistler Village, use existing trails up into the Rainbow Lake area, traverse into the Upper Soo Valley’s old-growth forest, climb up into the headwaters of the Squamish River, snake its way along the Elaho Valley just below the Pemberton Ice Cap and join the Elaho Trail on the Hundred Lake Plateau," according to WCWC information. The proposed new trail is on hold pending the outcome of the final Squamish LUP.

In the meantime, hikers must juggle with the shuttle situation or walk the trail twice back to their vehicle. Doubling back can yield benefits. For instance, in our haste to start hiking we whizzed past the biggest tree of them all, the Elaho Giant, on the way to the trailhead. The massive Douglas fir hides in a small patch of forest left standing in a clearcut. Having overshot the tree on our hike in, we realized we could see this landmark when we picked up the truck.

Three days later we returned under the cover of darkness, having persuaded another friend to make the shuttle. We soon located WCWC’s familiar pink ribbons marking the spot.

Slipping and sliding over wet roots on the trail I thought to myself; "this had better be good." After a few minutes my flashlight beam lit up a wall of bark. My brain took a moment to register that this was a single tree, some 2.7 metres in diameter and 47.5 metres high. We had saved the best until last.

The sense of awe and timelessness at being among these silent giants of the Elaho came flooding back. According to the WCWC, the Elaho Giant is the third largest Douglas fir in B.C. but there is a huge amount of unexplored territory out there, and who knows what secrets are yet to be revealed.

The next twist in the battle over the Elaho’s future is anyone’s guess. On the surface, the forestry industry appears to be taking a less hard-line approach in its bid to work with First Nations.

"We need to find tourism interests that are compatible with forestry use and make a win-win situation where both industries flourish," said Slaco. "Throwing away one business at the expense of another is just picking and choosing, and is not the answer."

Whether this more conciliatory attitude is due to growing public pressure for involvement in land use decisions or the high profile environmental protests, or a combination is hard to pinpoint. But it is all a positive sign.

Environmental groups such as the WCWC also appear willing to make some compromises, but Foy said the old logging days are over.

"Who wants to tie the province’s economic future to an industry whose days are obviously numbered?" he asked. "Most recently, the Oregon forest industry hit the wall and rather than go under, other industries finally broke free of the political straitjacket and the economy took off. B.C is just one of the last to go through this."

The degree of change in the B.C. forest industry remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the whine of chainsaws felling the giants of the Elaho lies in the past, and the forest continues to grow as it has done for 1,000 years. Go and hike it while you still can.




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