Why people are risking arrest to join old-growth logging protests on Vancouver Island
Close to 25 per cent of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest is in B.C., mainly along the coasts
The RCMP has recently been arresting protesters who had set up blockades to prevent the logging of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. Environmentalists say the Fairy Creek watershed, near Port Renfrew, is the last old-growth area left on southern Vancouver Island, outside of protected areas.
The contested forested areas lie close to the internationally known West Coast Trail, and within the unceded traditional territory of several First Nations, including Pacheedaht and Ditidaht.
Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old and are part of rare ecosystems that some independent estimates suggest make up less than one per cent of the remaining forest in B.C. Close to 25 per cent of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest is in B.C., mainly along the coasts.
The demonstrators established the first blockade in August 2020 along the logging roads into the Fairy Creek watershed, where Teal-Jones has a “tree farm licence” to harvest timber and manage forest resources. Now dozens of people, including some First Nations youth, have been arrested for violating a B.C. Supreme Court order that restricts protesters from blockading the logging roads.
This dispute resembles the protests over Clayoquot Sound (also on the west coast of Vancouver Island). Dubbed the “War in the Woods,” more than 850 people were arrested in 1993 for blockading logging roads. That protest, sparked by a decision to allow logging in the area, was the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history and a seminal event in the history of the environmental movement.
As a researcher of social movement and environmental issues, I have been surveying the general public and environmental activists about their attitudes and behaviours for about three decades. I am particularly interested in environmental conflicts and the factors (such as social networks) that explain why people get involved in collective actions to protect the environment or to protest against such actions (pro-industry protesters).
This research can shed light on current and future conflicts. People who support the goals and values of a movement can be drawn into it, what social movement scholars call “the mobilization potential.” However, involvement is often contingent upon other factors, such as social ties to other participants.
‘War in the Woods’ redux?
The connection between Fairy Creek and Clayoquot Sound was highlighted when Tzeporah Berman — a high-profile environmentalist and a leader of the Clayoquot protests — was arrested at a road leading into the Fairy Creek watershed in May.
Berman, who is also the director of the environmental organization Stand.earth, co-ordinated the blockade in Clayoquot Sound 27 years ago. She was arrested then too, although the long list of charges was eventually dismissed on constitutional grounds. No large-scale industrial logging occurred in Clayoquot in the aftermath of the protests.
More recently, anti-logging protests focused on the old-growth forest in the Great Bear Rainforest. Environmentalists, the forestry sector, First Nations and the B.C. government eventually worked together to establish a 2016 agreement to protect the Great Bear Rainforest.
Since then, various environmental groups have continued to campaign to protect old-growth forests. But these efforts have often been overshadowed by protests against oil and gas pipelines and overarching activism about climate change.
Understanding beliefs about old-growth forests
An old-growth forest is one that has not been disturbed by large-scale human activities, such as industrial logging. In B.C., these forests have been growing since the last ice age, about 10,000 years.
They include gigantic trees such as red and yellow cedars, Sikta spruce, hemlock and Douglas firs, which are sometimes as tall as a football field or soccer pitch is long. One thousand-year-old trees may be the most iconic features of coastal old-growth forests, but the forests also promote biodiversity by providing habitat to numerous wildlife species, many of which do not thrive outside of old-growth forests.
Logging has contributed to the dramatic decline of B.C.‘s old-growth forests. One independent study suggested that the majority of B.C.’s productive old-growth forests have been logged, and there are plans to log the majority of what remains.
In a 2007 survey, my group found that 75 per cent of the general public completely or mostly agreed that “clearcut logging should not be allowed in old-growth forests.” So did 93 per cent of environmentalists.
We also asked about the statement: “Some forested areas should be set aside in order to protect endangered and threatened species (e.g., the spotted owl, the spirit bear).” Here, 94.2 per cent of the general public and 98 per cent of environmentalists completely or mostly agreed.
In 2005, I surveyed members and supporters of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, one of the main organizations involved in the protests. That study asked people about various types of civil disobedience, and found that 90 per cent of environmentalists believed that blockading logging roads greatly or somewhat helped the cause, and 84 per cent believed that occupying trees greatly or somewhat helped the cause.
It is difficult to assess the outcomes of social movements, but civil disobedience has been successful in the past. Media attention, changing public opinion and disruption can put pressure on governments to change course.
Protesters have been blocking access to logging roads and positioning themselves high in trees to disrupt harvesting operations in the Fairy Creek area, drawing the attention of the media and the public and putting pressure on government. The RCMP responded slowly at first, but recently began to enforce the court injunction and have restricted access to the protest sites.
While the protest has been going on since late last summer, its activities have recently heated up. Environmentalists want the government to adopt the recommendations from a new advisory report on old-growth forests. It seems likely that the protest will grow.
A large number of people see civil disobedience as being effective and are willing to do it. Once the B.C. government eases COVID-related restrictions, more people will likely become involved in protests. Pleasant weather and flexible summer schedules may encourage others to join. Satellite protests regarding the threat to old-growth forests will also continue in urban centres.
The RCMP says it has arrested more than 100 people already, and 75 seniors from the Victoria area have joined the protest at Fairy Creek. This may just be the beginning of another “War in the Woods.”