Forestry
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mount Cain was built by loggers—but now logging has come to the mountain

The North Island ski area is divided over the start of logging just outside of its boundary

By Andrew Findlay
August 9, 2022
Forestry
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mount Cain was built by loggers—but now logging has come to the mountain

The North Island ski area is divided over the start of logging just outside of its boundary

The view from the top of Mount Cain. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
The view from the top of Mount Cain. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Forestry
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mount Cain was built by loggers—but now logging has come to the mountain

The North Island ski area is divided over the start of logging just outside of its boundary

By Andrew Findlay
August 9, 2022
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Mount Cain was built by loggers—but now logging has come to the mountain
The view from the top of Mount Cain. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Campbell Wilson has been skiing at Mount Cain for 30 years. He’s also taken on the myriad behind-the-scenes tasks needed to keep the hill running: he’s been the go-to person to plow the steep logging road that allows skiers access to the hill; he drives the snowcat and grooms the runs when others are asleep; he takes his skis off, even on powder days, to repair a broken t-bar. 

Wilson, a builder by profession, knows the mountain and its surrounding hills like he knows the backroads of Sointula, on Malcolm Island, where he lives. But in the fall of 2020, Wilson noticed something had changed: a new logging road that Western Forest Products (WFP) had pushed into the upper headwaters of the Tsitika River watershed, just north of Mount Cain on the slopes of Hapush Mountain.

“It was a bit of a shock. You could see it right from the Ridge Run,” Wilson says. “I just felt we should have known about it.” 

Wilson can hardly be described as a tree-hugger: he supports logging and says it’s an important part of the northern Vancouver Island economy. But he’s not happy that the first time many Mount Cain locals learned about logging plans for cutting old trees in an area known by skiers as “Wooly Woods” or “Wooly Mammoth Glades” was after the roads had already been built.

“It’s such an important visual aspect of that bowl. When you look in any other direction, all you see is a patchwork of logging,” Wilson says. “I’m okay with that but this forest has huge recreational value for Mount Cain.”

Other concerned citizens have been considering a protest. On the BC Day long weekend, a half-dozen of them met at Mount Cain to discuss the possibility of “direct action” to prevent further logging on Hapush shoulder.

Rather than a blockade or some other form of protest, the meeting organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, says they came away feeling a bigger picture approach involving the ‘Namgis, on whose territory Mt Cain sits, is the best way forward. 

“I grew up skiing the backcountry around Cain and thought there was no way this would ever be logged,” he says, adding that ‘Namgis hereditary chief Ernest Alfred was also at the meeting. “It’s a complex situation up at Cain. We might look into expanding the Mount Cain Alpine Park or maybe even look into the possibility of a tribal park. It’s such a shame that it took so long to have this discussion.”   

Logging up the mountain   

WFP crews have already started falling trees on Hapush shoulder. In many ways logging and Mount Cain go together like snow and skiing, but they are increasingly awkward companions. The small ski resort sits smack in the heart of Tree Farm License (TFL) 37, which is held by WFP, but its roots in logging are deep.   

The ski hill got its start in the early 1970s with a small club of snowmobilers and skiers, who had begun exploring Crown land around Cain for skiing potential. Most of them worked in the forest sector. Bill Coyne donated a portable rope tow that he had designed and built himself, and in 1974 it became Mount Cain’s first rustic ski lift, on a gentle slope near the base of the West Bowl. That pioneering lift was abandoned years ago, and the club eventually became the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society (MCAPS), which today operates and manages the ski hill.   

Hapush shoulder faces the West Bowl, one of Mount Cain’s favorite backcountry ski runs. It’s an off-piste adventure that requires people to make their own educated judgments about snow stability and safety, and to bring appropriate equipment. But when the conditions permit, it’s a dreamy 400-metre drop to the foot of a bowl encircled by a steep fringe of forest plunging from cliffs and alpine cirques. From there it’s a short ascent back to the ski area. 

Other skiers go further afield to ski through mature stands of mountain hemlock, amabilis fir, and yellow cedar trees like those on Hapush shoulder. The skiing is as uniquely West Coast BC as are the yellow cedars with trunks as stout as an Austin Mini. Some of the world’s largest yellow cedars are found on Vancouver Island. Coastwide, the future of this tree is uncertain in a changing climate—as is the future of reliable snow and skiing at coastal, low-elevation places like Mount Cain, where more wet days than snowy ones are predicted as the temperature rises.   

According to the Ministry of Forests, 100,000 hectares of yellow cedar on the central and mid-coast of BC are showing signs of stress and decline. Though research is ongoing, forestry experts believe long-term climate change is the culprit (when snow melts earlier, the roots of yellow cedar are susceptible to damage from late season frost.) Less is known about the health of yellow cedar on Vancouver Island, where they are most common at high elevations. What we do know is that logging companies are going ever higher up the mountainsides—to places like the Hapush shoulder—to cut old-growth trees now that much of Vancouver Island’s unprotected low elevation and valley bottom forests have been logged. 

Woodworkers love yellow cedar’s golden-coloured, rot-resistant wood. At West Wind Hardwood in Sidney, yellow cedar, also known as cypress, currently sells for between $10.50 and $13 per board foot. In Japan, the current wholesale price for premium grade North American yellow cedar is up 20% from last July. 

A delicate line

The Regional District of Mount Waddington holds the lease for the land on which the ski area sits, including the cabins, day lodge, ski lifts (two T-bars and one rope tow), and other infrastructure, but the non-profit MCAPS runs it.   

Since 2007, an average of 9,400 skiers and snowboarders per year have visited Mount Cain to ride the lifts, ski its 21 in-bounds runs and abundance of accessible backcountry areas, rent cabins, eat food, and drink beers in the lodge. The volunteer-run mountain has a hardcore cadre at its heart, skiers like Wilson who devote as much time to maintaining the hill as skiing on it.

But the mountain is gaining a greater and greater profile that goes beyond its local roots. In 2019 Matchstick Productions, a Colorado-based action film company, traveled to northern Vancouver Island to shoot Frozen In Time, calling Cain “The best ski area you have never heard of.” But the secret was already out. The film crew experienced the best Cain could offer—blue skies, deep light powder, and the colourful cabin and après parking lot scene that has become legendary.   

The film also captured the massive amount of volunteer effort and dedication required to keep Cain going. Last season, the hill took in $640,000 in revenue, a sixth of that in the form of grants. Though Cain has always run on a shoestring, according to Erin Pickering, chair of the MCAPS board, the past few years of COVID-19 have been good to the mountain’s bottom line. In addition to enjoying a few profitable years, the society recently received a grant in early 2021 for almost $875,000. It was one of 38 Rural Economic Recovery grants totaling $20 million, part of BC’s multi-billion dollar COVID-19 response, and the money will help fund a new day lodge at Cain.

Pickering says the society is aware of the “grumblings” about logging on Hapush shoulder but says it’s beyond the ski area boundaries and beyond the society’s area of responsibility. She also notes that “Cain is built on the backs of loggers.” Pickering says the board sent a letter to WFP expressing some of the concerns about the visual impact of the planned logging. Beyond that, the society isn’t making any public comments about it.   

The society’s board walks a delicate line when it comes to logging around the ski hill. Several of its members work in the forest sector, including one current and one former WFP employee. The company supports the ski hill with in-kind contributions in the form of expensive equipment for road maintenance and wood products for improvement projects. Though Mount Cain draws skiers from around Vancouver Island and beyond, it’s the backyard mountain playground for Port McNeill. The town’s mayor Gaby Wickstrom has been a vocal opponent of any additional reduction in old-growth logging and told Capital Daily last year that 80% of Port McNeill workers depend on the forest sector for a paycheque. 

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Babita Khunkhun, WFP’s senior director of communications, says the company had “proactive discussions” with Mount Cain regarding their logging plans.   

“We incorporated feedback from Mount Cain into our planning, which included revised visuals and greater tree retention within the harvest area to accommodate their interests. Following harvesting, the area will be promptly planted and managed to grow into a vibrant natural forest,” Khunkhun said in an emailed response.

When Capital Daily contacted Andrew Ashford, the ministry of forest’s district manager for northern Vancouver Island, for comment, he redirected the request to Nigel McInnis, a forest service spokesperson. 

“Established VQOs [Visual Quality Objectives] are always considered in forest planning and this is a legal requirement,” McInnis says, adding that WFP is “exceeding legislative requirements by engaging the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society during the development of these cutblocks.”

If the forest company is exceeding public engagement requirements, then Doug Stern, a 67-year-old Campbell River resident and Cain skier, wants to know why the first time he knew about the impending logging on Hapush was only after WFP had bulldozed the road right-of-way. The fact that the MCAPS board is satisfied with the company’s response doesn’t surprise him; he says the society is forced to play nice given the logging company’s presence on the mountain.

That didn’t mean he had to agree with them. Two years ago, after seeing the road cuts, Stern posted a question on his Facebook page, asking, “What’s the plan?” According to Stern, a Mount Cain board member who also works for WFP told him, “It’s all good, we have all our permits.”

Last fall, Stern made another social media post about the logging on Hapush.

In a response, another local cautioned him not to bite the hand that feeds them: ”Mt Cain wouldn't exist if it were not for WFP and couldn't afford to maintain the access road for which WFP is the primary user who controls as well as maintains the lower portions,” he wrote in response.   

Stern, a former Parks Canada conservation officer, has been a volunteer ski patroller at Mount Cain for the past decade. The logging slated for Hapush shoulder will cover approximately 33 hectares—less than half the size of Beacon Hill Park. However, Stern says he has witnessed clearcut logging creep up the mountains and encroach ever closer to the Mount Cain boundaries. 

He believes WFP at least needs to dust off its visual quality objectives for this part of the forest, which haven’t been updated for 20 years.

As for the company’s efforts to alter the cutblock to lessen the impact, Stern isn’t impressed. 

“Instead of a rectangle, it’s a wavy line with a couple of tree islands. Those usually end up as blow-down,” he says. ”Why do they have to log right next to a ski area?” 

Nearly five decades after its founding, Mount Cain is a little local ski hill with a big following, but still smack in the middle of a working industrial forest. That has never weighed heavily on the mountain before, with the logging taking place far out of the skiers’ tracks. But now the ski hill that logging built will have to reckon with its roots.   

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Mount Cain was built by loggers—but now logging has come to the mountain
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