Despite promised reforms, Fairy Creek is far from over
Deferrals and changes to logging legislation is coming. But the activists aren’t leaving
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Deferrals and changes to logging legislation is coming. But the activists aren’t leaving
The first thing you need to understand about Fairy Creek, if you’ve never been to Fairy Creek, is that the real fight isn’t in Fairy Creek. It’s beside it in Granite Creek, and above it at Ridge Camp, and to the west in the Walbran Valley.
Most of the Fairy Creek watershed is already protected with wildlife and old-growth management areas that stop logging, even if temporarily. On satellite imagery, Fairy Creek looks like a darkly veined emerald. Old trees line a steep valley lush with green.
Shift your eyes to the right on the satellite image, and you’ll see bone-coloured patches of clear cuts and logging roads that squiggle along the landscape like beetle tracks under bark. This is the Granite watershed, immediately east of Fairy Creek, just over the ridge that separates the two valleys. Most of the green in this valley is second-growth forest, but there is some old growth left, especially in steep areas bordering on alpine quality. At the upper-left edge of the Granite watershed is a mountaintop forest of ancient yellow cedar trees currently being logged by Teal Jones.
This is what people set out to protect all the way back in August 2020 when the first blockade was established.
Daily satellite images showed a logging road being built into that stand of old yellow cedar. The threat was clear to a group of activists who care about the area. They pitched a tent, set out an orange cone and called it River Camp. That was the start of the Fairy Creek blockades.
More than a year later, as the logging has sprawled throughout the area and rhetoric on all sides has sprawled with it, the basic questions that were then so clear—what is being protected, and what threat does it face?—have become increasingly complicated.
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“John Horgan keeps saying there's no logging happening at Fairy Creek,” said Natasha Lavdovsky, a citizen scientist and artist at Fairy Creek. “That's because the problem with this movement is that it has been called the Fairy Creek blockade. It's not.”
The way Premier John Horgan sees it, his government and the Pacheedaht First Nation elected leadership gave the protesters what they asked for: Fairy Creek. Why they remain seems a mystery to him.
“We have said the individuals that are continuing to squat in Pacheedaht territory refused to take yes for an answer,” Horgan said at a press conference, unrelated to Fairy Creek, on Sept. 28.
“They said no logging in Fairy Creek, and the Pacheedaht and the government agreed with that. There is no logging in Fairy Creek. Despite that, they persist.”
The Fairy Creek watershed has had almost no disruption from humans. But Lavdovsky says it's just one watershed, and what matters about old growth forests is the connections among the whole ecosystem.
“You can't make these arbitrary boundaries based on where the water is flowing,” she said. “It's not just the water that is creating the connections throughout the ecosystem. It’s the movement of the birds and the insects and the animals and the distribution of mycelium and the ability for the forest to retain moisture.”
Since those first blockaders arrived in August 2020, thousands of people have gotten involved, police have made more than 1,168 arrests—making it the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history—several applications have been brought to court, and Teal Jones has continued logging where they’re able to get access.
In June, the elected leaders of the three First Nations in the area—Pacheedaht, Dididaht and Huu-ay-aht—declared a two-year deferral on old-growth logging in the Central Walbran and Fairy Creek watersheds while they develop stewardship plans. Teal Jones and the government agreed to the deferrals. Some people thought that meant the protest at Fairy Creek was over, including Premier John Horgan who said he hoped the deferrals would end the protests.
But anyone familiar with the maps knew differently.
Correction on Nov 30 at 8:00 am: A previous version of this article listed Natasha Lavdovsky as a "citizen scientist, artist, and protester at Fairy Creek." Lavdovsky was not at Fairy Creek as a protester.
The deferrals cover the core of Fairy Creek and the Central Walbran valley, but leave areas surrounding the valleys proper open to logging. Two main spots near Fairy Creek are at what’s being called Heli Camp and Ridge Camp. Heli Camp—so named for the way Teal Jones drops off loggers via helicopter to fell the yellow cedars with chainsaws—is at the top of Granite watershed where observers noticed the new logging road last year. Ridge Camp is on the other side of Fairy Creek, also higher up on steep slopes.
On Sept. 28, the injunction expired by order of the court, which cited “unlawful” police behaviour. Police mostly left the area, but Teal Jones appealed and asked for an interim injunction, which was granted. A temporary injunction was reinstated on Thanksgiving weekend until the appeal could be heard. A panel of three judges heard the appeal Nov. 15 and 16; their decision is expected any day.
During the few weeks of October when police were not enforcing in large numbers, forest defenders started to rebuild hard blocks and rudimentary camps. Most of their previous camps, including the expansive Roadside HQ at the intersection of Granite Main and Pacific Marine Road, had been demolished by police in August and September, pushing the remaining protesters into the bush.
When Capital Daily visited Fairy Creek in mid-October, Roadside HQ looked like a log jam across the road, with a few tarps and a 30-foot high tripod balanced above the pile. Only if you knew to look would you see the glint of a windshield through the criss crossed logs.
Buried under the logs was a silver sedan, completely covered, and holding two land defenders: a Pacheedaht woman, Whale Tail Jones, and the other an Anishinaabe woman, Raven Brascoupe. Within a week, RCMP resumed enforcing the temporary injunction and demolished almost all remaining hard blocks. Both Jones and Brascoupe were arrested. They subsequently returned to Fairy Creek.
In the last two weeks of October, the forest defenders started playing “cops and loggers,” where they hide from loggers among the trees and announce their presence with a bullhorn. Safety regulations prohibit active tree falling if anyone is within a certain radius. Protesters count on workers to follow the safety code, thereby delaying felling a few hours at a time and adding to the expense of logging in the area. Organizers have their eye on winter weather, saying they just need to hold off logging until the weather stops the work until spring.
The province hasn’t said much about Fairy Creek, even as it’s working on modernizing old-growth management policy.
One proposal to amend the forestry policy—Bill 23, Forest Statutes Amendment Act, 2021—will increase opportunities for Indigenous input in forestry planning, and expand the mandate of the stewardship plans to be ecological landscape management plans, where right now they are harvest plans.
Currently, the stewardship plans are created by industry and submitted to the government for approval. The bill proposes making that process start with the government, a move that will put BC “back in the driver’s seat,” Forestry Minister Katrine Conroy said when she introduced the bill. Other proposals in the bill are to get more input from First Nations and the public, and provide holistic information about harvesting and landscape management plans to the public.
Bill 23 doesn’t specifically address old-growth forests, and even if it passes into legislation this session, it will take years to be implemented in practice—cold comfort to those concerned about the logging happening right now.
But a couple of weeks later, the province announced a proposal to defer logging in 2.6 million hectares of high-risk old-growth forests. It came with a complicated caveat: no deferrals would be enacted until the Indigenous title-holders agreed to them. This has been met with mixed reactions.
On one hand, including First Nations in decisions on their land is in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But on the other hand, is it just offloading the hard decision to First Nations? That’s what it looks like to Torrence Coste, the national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.
“It's not a fair choice for very many Indigenous communities. These are nations that have had everything stolen from them for 150 years, and a lot of them make money through logging. If we're saying, ‘It’s up to you,’ but not potentially offsetting any losses, then that's not a real choice. Not after 150 years of colonialism, it's not a fair choice at all,” Coste said.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) agrees, calling it a “hot potato” approach to managing old growth.
It’s “skittish and unfinished,” says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the UBCIC. “If BC really wants to make good on its commitment to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Inidgenous Peoples, and tackle climate change, it needs to provide comprehensive financing for Nations to end destructive resource extraction on their lands and waters.”
Conroy said in the proposed deferral announcement that any discussion about conservation funding—a model of providing financial benefit for not logging or extracting—would be discussed during the two-year deferral period. In other words, alternate sources of income to replace forestry royalties might be on the table.
Coste agrees that getting full consent from First Nations should be the standard, but he’s frustrated that it’s only being applied to protection.
“It’s a good new standard, but it’s a double standard, because that's not what logging is held to,” he said. “If you hold a license to log a certain area, the law requires you to inform the First Nation of your plans and ask them their thoughts. But you don't have to wait for yes or no. … To require agreement from First Nations for conservation, but not for logging, that's not a fair standard.”
The Huu-ay-aht First Nation planned to host their own old-growth summit Nov. 23, but postponed it until the new year due to flooding and the provincial state of emergency. In the meantime, they issued a statement saying they’ll take the recommended deferrals into consideration as part of their own Hišuk ma c̕awak Integrated Resource Management Plan.
“We will take time to carefully review the proposed deferrals, but more importantly conduct our own Huu-ay-aht analysis. We will then advise the BC government of our decisions,” they wrote in a press release signed by the head hereditary and elected chiefs.
The focus of the summit is, in part, to sort out discrepancies in the data showing how much old growth is actually left. Is there 3% big-tree old growth left or 30%?
Huu-ay-aht say forest advisors don’t agree, and in order to make informed decisions about resource management on their territory, they need to “close this science gap.”
They’ve invited a full slate of experts to the summit, including Al Gorley and Garry Merkel, who wrote the old growth strategic review, Rachel Holt, who was on the old growth technical panel, the hereditary and elected chiefs from Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations, and others.
If the Bill 23 amendments had been in place before the harvesting plan for the area surrounding Fairy Creek was approved, there would have been a lot more public engagement.
There are two steps under the proposed changes: first is an overall landscape management plan, which is meant to consider the ecosystem as a whole, not just harvest plans. Right now companies submit stewardship plans for Forest Development Units, which are broad area plans, and not very specific. By the time companies apply for cutting permits, there’s no requirement to consult.
Under the new plan, there’s also an extra step in which a logging company has to specify where roads and cut blocks will be, and engage with First Nations and the public before any cutting permits are issued. It also includes opportunities for the public to have a say in overall landscape management objectives, and then companies would have to follow that guidance.
But none of that applied to the Fairy Creek area’s logging operations. Following the current legislation, nominal efforts were made to engage the public; Teal Jones bought small ads in two Cowichan Valley newspapers in 2017, inviting comments on its new stewardship plan for Tree Farm Licence 46—which covers a large area—and provided few specifics.
But none of that matters to the protesters still scrambling to block access on the dirt roads. Their numbers are dwindling, the hard blocks are smaller and fewer, but they’re still there. As they wait for snow that will pause logging for the winter (there’s already a dusting at Ridge Camp, and more expected as the next storm system comes through) much of the movement’s energy has shifted to the city with rallies and protests.
Saul Arbess was one of the people who set up the very first camp last August, and was there periodically throughout the winter. Now back in the city, he says the movement has grown beyond where it started. “We’re not just concerned about our areas around Fairy Creek, there’s the rest of the province, too. We’re coordinating with blockades around the province now, working for change.”