September 17, 1999 Features & Images » Feature Story


One day in the woods The conflict in the Elaho Valley defines the competing values in British Columbia in the 1990s By Amy Fendley "The truck was driven by a large man with a moustache wearing green coveralls. He had a passenger, the truck accelerated and swerved slightly towards me as it went past the spot I was standing on the side of the road. The driver is known by me to be the explosives worker from the crew assigned to this roadway." Part of Michael John Vessey’s statement to the RCMP. Vessey, 24, a former sawmill worker and concerned resident, was present at the Stoltmann protest camp on Wednesday, Sept. 15 when a group of men destroyed the camp. Six white Interfor trucks lined up along the Lava Creek bridge. In front of them a fearless young woman sat on stacked milk crates, refusing to let them past. For weeks this summer this was a typical scene in the Elaho Valley. Loggers, their wives and children, and protesters all met face to face, each side unwavering in their opposing points of view but existing peacefully — if uneasily — with one another. There was no shouting when we arrived in the Elaho late in August, no verbal insults or physical violence, only silence and the waking sound of a beating drum. People quietly held their own conversations, a wife of one of the loggers hid her emotions while the baby she was carrying on her back began to cry. Some danced that night. In the rain. Others sat reflecting around the campfire. Word, the DJ who had been stationed at the camp over the weekend spun rhythms and ballads which echoed through the night and into the Elaho. It had been a day heavily laden with fear, anger and loss. Three female protesters had been arrested. The rainy Sunday was spent hiking the ancient Douglas Fir Loop, a magnificent sprawl of 1,300-year-old/$20,000 trees. Here, in approximately 16 km of the 120 km Elaho watershed, part of the proposed Stoltmann National Park, is where one of the biggest stand-offs since Clayoquot is taking place. It is a conflict that fundamentally defines British Columbia in the 1990s. It is fired by the clearcut — and legal — logging practices of International Forest Products’ (Interfor). It pits the economic arguments for logging against the economic arguments for tourism; the provincial government against First Nations; the environment versus B.C.’s number one industry; nature against the machine. Vessey is asked to recall what happened in the Elaho on Sept. 15. "I want to tell you and as many people as possible what happened today. "Friends and I were sitting around the campfire at about 6:30 a.m. when the first truck from Interfor arrived. This was a large red pick-up with explosives signs on the side. I tried to wave this truck down. I was not impeding his way at all; but I waved my arms and held my hand up as he drove past me at a high rate of speed. I also yelled for him to stop. The window was down and I am as sure as humanly possible that he heard my warnings." The protesters, a group of about 30 photographers, conservationists, artists, concerned citizens and one tree-sitter had been gathered at the public demonstration camp. The camp had been set up by PATH, the People's Action Against Threatened Habitat, and the Forest Action Network for much of the summer, trying to raise public awareness about the Upper Elaho Valley. On the 15th of September, things got ugly. According to witnesses, more than 100 frustrated and highly aggressive men literally slashed and burned the camp. They entered the camp at 6:30 a.m. and began an intimidation campaign that was to last over six hours. "The event on Wednesday appeared to be triggered by another protester who had climbed a tree and again stopped road construction," reads a press release from Interfor chief forester Rick Slaco. "The company has continually counselled our employees to remain calm and to avoid confrontation. The incident is being investigated by the RCMP. Interfor will co-operate fully with the investigation... The company urges the protest groups to stop their illegal action and respect the land use decision made by Government in 1997." "At 8 a.m. a call was made to the RCMP informing them of the danger to human life that was in the process," Vessey wrote in his statement to the RCMP. "Shortly after the time the first truck went by, there was a steady increase of Interfor trucks coming in through the road and over the bridge. No attempt was made to stop these trucks. People were sitting peacefully out of the way on the side of the road. Several of the trucks swerved towards people as they drove past at extremely unsafe speeds. Several people in the trucks spat at the people on the side of the road as they went past. One person in a passing truck threw a Gatorade bottle at people as he drove past. Many verbal threats were yelled out of the windows of the passing trucks. Many people in the trucks held up their middle fingers while passing. The entire morning was a steady stream of angry faces in truck windows threatening life and bodily harm. After about 15 or 20 trucks passed, my anger turned to fear for the lives of my friends. I kneeled at the side of the road with my hands together as though in prayer." The extraordinary variety of wildlife thriving within the proposed Stoltmann National Park, what the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is calling the biggest wild area with the largest tract of old-growth forests left on B.C.’s southwest coast, is what so many are fighting Interfor and the province to protect. The WCWC was granted permission by Interfor to establish a research camp on site, and has been pushing for several years to have the Stoltmann preserved, arguing that only 20 per cent of the earth’s original wild forests remain, largely in three main wild-forest countries, Brazil, Russia and Canada. The WCWC expanded its initial 260,000 hectare proposal for the Stoltmann to 500,000 hectares and called for national park designation after the provincial government declined to protect most of the area. The province’s explanation was that through the Protected Areas Strategy it had already protected areas that are representative of the various bioclimatic zones in B.C. As well, the province has little appetite for getting involved in the Elaho conflict after being hit recently with court decisions ordering it to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to forest companies for the loss of forestry lands. The current Stoltmann National Park proposal stretches along the western boundaries of the Resort Municipality of Whistler and as far north as the Upper Bridge River Valley. The headwaters of the Squamish and Lillooet River systems as well as the Sims, Clendenning Mountain Range, Upper Elaho and the Upper Lillooet valleys are part of the 500,000 hectares. Combined, the WCWC says the four contiguous valleys make up half of all the large unlogged valleys in the region, only 5,000 hectares of which are left in the 4.2 million hectare Lower Mainland region. The proposed Stoltmann National Park is also within the traditional territories of the Klahoose, Lil’wat, Sechelt and Squamish First Nations. In the fall of 1995 WCWC began building the 30 km hiking trail from the Upper Elaho through the Stoltmann Wilderness to the Meager Creek Hot Springs. The trail would be a prime feature of the proposed national park. "The Upper Elaho isn’t the best we’ve ever had," said Joe Foy of the WCWC. "It’s the best we have left. We have a special responsibility when we look at the creatures of the wild, the grizzlies, the wolves and goats, we have to be on the front line." The park would link with existing parks to include Rainbow and Cougar Mountains and the Callaghan Valley. "I was spat on several times. I was personally threatened and insulted many times.... Three men stopped about 30 feet from the people on the roadside and asked that they be able to talk with us with no cameras on. We did not stop filming..." Next month Charles Caccia, a Liberal MP and former federal environment minister, will be presenting a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons calling for national park protection of the area. Last weekend Caccia toured the valley with delegates reporting to the Council of Europe, which represents the European nations of Turkey, France, Lithuania, Belgium, The United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, and Russia. They came to inspect Canadian forestry practices as a result of a motion from Belgian representative Paul Staes condemning current Canadian forestry practices. Staes’ motion reads in part: "Observing that a quarter of the forests concerned are located on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia; noting that the Government of British Columbia has authorized a number of multinational companies to exploit the greater part of these forests and that they are worked for the purpose of producing paper handkerchiefs, telephone directories and toilet paper, moreover using wood from thousand year old trees; noting that Canada has no legislation on threatened flora and fauna; observing that indigenous peoples such as the Nuxalk are threatened in their distinctiveness and their cultural survival; noting that Canada has a reputation for environmental protection and that these operations, liable to destroy every remnant of the unique natural features of these temperate rainforests could impair its international image; and furthermore would urge European companies to rescind any contract with producers using wood from non-sustainable timber industries." "There were a group of loggers who had grabbed two people with cameras and were forcefully removing them. The victims were one male and one female. Two people on the ground each had about four or five loggers manhandling them. The female victim, when I went over to plead for people to stop hurting her seemed to be strangled because someone was pulling her camera which was strapped around her neck and under one shoulder. She was screaming in pain and crying, and pleading with them to stop. "The loggers began to pick on anyone who didn't have their gear in their hands and were still brutally destroying equipment and searching for more cameras." West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast MP, John Reynolds (Reform), doesn’t think Canada needs another national park, based on the conservation values British Columbia established in its Protected Areas Strategy, which protected 12 per cent of the province. "I think the fact that Caccia would support the park without even seeing it, is amazing," said Reynolds. "The government has announced that there are to be no more national park designations in B.C., so it’s not even an issue. There’s no question about it, there are literally thousands of acres like that all over B.C. It’s B.C. land, we own it, we’ll do whatever we want with it. We have a lot of parks in B.C., we’re right up there doing a good job, and there’s nothing they can teach us about logging. Our practices have improved, our people in the logging industry are the best in the world, they can teach anyone." "As each truck sped past me I yelled: ‘Please don't hurt anyone, please don't hurt any people’." "What we’re fighting against is the biggest legislation in B.C., the Forest Practices Code," says a First Nations citizen who requested he not be named. "They’re not going down, (Interfor) have stepped up their operations. It’s the biggest one we’re going to be against in the treaty process. There is a solution, through the cycle of life, but no one’s going to go there if they continue with tunnel vision. This is all new and it could be very explosive, not just from my side, but from all sides." "The men told us that they had more than a hundred men with them in the construction zone and asked us to: ‘Pack your stuff up and get the fuck out.’ "They said if we did not start packing immediately that they would be unable to control their men and: ‘People will get hurt.’ "We told them it was completely legal for us to be where we were and until the courts ordered us to leave we were happy to stay where we were." B.C. Supreme Court heard last Friday that the group of 100 loggers included an Interfor employee, identified by WCWC’s tree survey camp co-ordinator James Jamieson, who video taped the alleged assaults and laughed the entire time. Squamish RCMP obtained a search warrant for the Interfor office in Squamish but failed to turn up the tape. When questioned in court about the tape’s whereabouts, Interfor lawyer Bill McNaughton replied that the tape had been given to five unknown persons who then threw it into Lava Creek. Justice Glenn Parett’s response was: "You understand that ‘the dog ate my homework’ is not a sufficient explanation?" Justice Parett has since granted a court injunction to increase the buffer zone around Interfor’s work site to 500 metres during working hours. Another 24-hour exclusion zone extends 200 metres wide on both sides of the access road, stretching a kilometre south of Interfor’s work site. Anyone found in violation of the court order, that is, in the area without written permission from Interfor or the WCWC, will be jailed. The WCWC is requesting an emergency meeting with Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh to ensure the Crown asks for a special investigation of the events of Sept. 15. The WCWC wants the alleged assailants prosecuted and wants charges brought against Interfor, claiming the company aided and abetted the alleged assaults by allowing their employees use of company vehicles and satellite radios to facilitate the incident. As of Sept. 21, no charges had been laid, although the RCMP investigation is continuing. Thirteen protesters have been arrested in the last five weeks. "I believe half an hour elapsed when a lot of men walked down the bridge from the construction zone side and approached the banner suspended overhead. Many threats were yelled from this mob of about 50 or 60 men. They wanted us to: ‘Go home now, or go home dead’." From the access road, massive poplars, fir and cedar can be seen, disguised behind the long, pale green coats of old man’s beard. Elaho beaches of deposited sediment, the volcanic micro-slough of Mount Garibaldi are all around. Evidence of an ancient volcanic explosion dominates a panorama of pristine wilderness laden with wildlife and the illusion of endless time. It will soon be winter. From December to the end of February, up to 1,000 Eagles soar back into the Elaho Valley, where they prey upon the salmon that come to spawn and die in the river. "The ropes were cut and our banner was cut to shreds. The men now started to march towards us. As they were coming I heard someone say: ‘I still have my knife’. "From this point on the situation descended into chaos. I showed some people a trail into the woods which I thought offered the safest escape. The marching mob came straight towards us and also fanned out into the woods on both sides. Everyone who did not try to run away sat down near the fire and concentrated on being as calm as possible. My friend and I were sitting facing each other. Loggers began to cut the ropes off the tarps with knives. The tarps and suspending logs were dropped on our heads. I was struck in the temple with a log." "It’s 1999, and while people are thinking about the last thousand years, we’re trying to protect it for another thousand," says Foy. "These are millennium groves, the trees are thousands of years old. The three biggest tourism hubs in B.C. are Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler. Protecting wild places is good for the economy... think of the Coast Mountain range like you would the Rockies." "‘This is Canada, you can't do this here, it's illegal,’ I said. I was answered by a logger who replied: ‘We can do whatever we want and we'll do a lot worse. They let you people sit here too long and we're fed up now.’ "Many people issued threats to me personally and many people referred to us as the ‘scum of the earth’. I said we wanted to save the earth. I was told to get a job. "I noticed some loggers manhandling a very young boy and went over to ask them to stop. I asked them to have some self respect and told them the boy's age, 15. They insulted the boy, pushed and slapped him around, and said something like: ‘Bugger the little bastard’." "We’re unravelling our creeks, how our water system works, disrupting fisheries and wildlife habitat, eliminating species before we even know they’re out there," comments Douglas Gook, a Quesnel logger in support of sustainable selection system logging. "This current ‘crop rotation’ method is failing us and we’re completely depleting our natural resources. If we keep going this way, there’s not a hope of it being sustainable for future generations. I think there needs to be a re-distribution of tenure, back into the hands of the community." "I am being asked by the RCMP to finish up my statement because they want to go home. I will also add that I was refused food by the RCMP, though they knew I had not eaten all day. I will also add I was not allowed to make a phone call to my parents before starting this statement, though they are still worried for my safety. Since I must finish now, I will say I am satisfied that the majority of the violence I witnessed is in this report and I'll stop here. One thing I'll add is that all our remaining gear was piled up and burned as soon as gasoline was located." The camp is now demolished. Many people are left with violent memories and scars from Sept. 15. And in Stoltmann Park, the dinosaurs roam in guilt, anguish and fear.

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