Interview with Bobby Arbess from FOCW
Who are the Friends of Carmanah/ Walbran?
B: We are a small, 100% volunteer, multi-generational collective of concerned citizens from a broad cross-section of society, who work for the protection of the endangered ancient temperate rainforests of the Walbran Valley, unceded Pacheedaht/Qwa-ba-diwa territory, 3.5 hours drive from Victoria B.C (Lekwungen territory), upstream from the fabled West Coast Trail, Pacific Rim National Park and about 35 kilometres northeast of Port Renfrew.
We advocate for economic alternatives to continued logging of the last five percent of the remaining low-elevation old-growth forests on south Vancouver Island, contained within the Carmanah/Walbran rainforest - that would also benefit local forest-dependent and First Nations communities. These alternatives include labour-intensive, job-producing ecological management of second-growth forests, small cottage industries harvesting non-timber forest products and both First Nations ethnocultural and eco-tourism.
We are dedicated to developing recreational infrastructure to provide public access to the area e.g. hiking trails, boardwalk construction, campsite and interpretive facilities in threatened rainforests adjacent to Carmanah/ Walbran Provincial Park - whatever gets people out there to enjoy and help protect this outstanding environment!!!
We attempt to raise public awareness of the natural beauty of the forest and logging threats to the ecological integrity of the watershed. We build ties with members of the Pacheedaht and Qwa-ba-diwa First Nations in whose ancestral territory the Walbran Valley (Ka:xics - meaning Big River in Pacheedaht) is located. We support and publicize on-going scientific research into the threatened geology and ecology of the area. We host the Facebook page, Walbran Central and the Friends of Carmanah/Walbran Community FB page and the Friends of Carmanah Walbran website. We also hold regular educational events and rallies.
Our roots as a group extend back into the 90’s when we were organizing direct action during the Road Stops Here campaign, in which individuals acting independently out of their own freedom of conscience engaged in sustained and creative road blockades, tree-sits and other forms of work slowdowns, which prevented the construction of almost 15 kilometres of road-building in the summer of 1991.
At the moment, our focus is gaining protection for a 485 hectare area of contiguous ancient forest north-west of Walbran river, along the boundaries of Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park, in the heart of the watershed. And to call for a moratorium on logging and road-building activities in a 1600 hectare buffer zone around the park, in an area known as Special Management Zone 21, which under the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan, is supposed to integrate forestry, biodiversity, recreational viewscapes and retention of outstanding old-growth forest values. It is the position of our group that the current old-growth logging in this area is inappropriate and should be halted, pending a broad community consultation process that comes up with a better plan for the protection of all the non-timber values associated with this rare and non-renewable ancient forest.
The Carmanah Walbran Valley has a history of uprising against commercial logging dating back to the 80's and 90's, which you were involved in. How did that come about and how were you able to get the Provincial government to buy back the tree licences from Macmillan Bloedell?
B: Well, the whole ancient forest movement on the south island anyways, was kick-started by a lone hiker, the late Randy Stoltmann, who worked with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) and who was the first white guy to lay eyes on what is still the tallest recorded tree in Canada - the Carmanah Giant, a spectacular Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) in the Lower Carmanah Valley, in an area that was being actively logged in the mid-80s. WCWC led a very effective public awareness campaign that was supported by its trail-building work from the headwater of the watershed to just inside the river mouth, unveiling some of the most exquisitely beautiful living cathedrals of iconic ancient forest environments seen anywhere on Vancouver island or the world; and which allowed the public to see an entirely unlogged watershed slated for the same kind of colossal clearcut destruction that at the time had decimated most of the area outside Carmanah and it's lesser known neighbouring watershed to the south, the Wallbran Valley.
This marked the beginning of a high level of public engagement around the protection of these disappearing forests. Soon afterwards, a trail-building campaign started in the Walbran Valley. What that giant Sitka Spruce was to Carmanah, giant Western red cedars were to the Walbran. Whereas Carmanah had the tranquil, lush alluvial river flats for meandering in awe under the giant spruces, over the ridges the Walbran had a more rugged landscape of waterfalls, remote lakes and emerald pools amid steeper, rockier terrain and a lot of karst limestone formations. Everyone who has been to either valley, will say the same thing: It cannot be logged. It is not for sale. It is simply too sacred! When a largely settler movement with a significantly weaker sense of place in relationship to the land than indigenous culture has had for literally aeons, comes so unanimously to the same conclusion as more and more people have about the cutting of these forest cathedrals, there is something very powerfully correct about people taking this kind of stand.
As I mentioned, in the summer of 1991, two transnational logging companies with timber licenses to clearcut all of the Walbran Valley, Macmillan-Bloedel (TFL 44) and (in TFL 46) New-Zealand based Fletcher Challenge (who had incidentally been forced to invest in logging old-growth in Canada after the ancient Kaori forests in New Zealand were entirely protected by a ban on all old-growth logging) had been approved to punch sixteen kilometres of logging roads through the entire watershed, including over forests which had public witness trails built through them.
International forest activists joined local citizens at the bridge over Walbran river to take a stand of peaceful direct actions against these road incursions and after a sustained stand-off lasting 78 consecutive days and dozens of arrests, only three kilometres of roads had been built. With pressure growing to stop the destruction, the IWA locals representing forest workers in Duncan, Port Alberni and Port Renfrew met with reps from the ENGO community, including Friends of Carmanah/Walbran (I was there) for a twelve hour meeting over BBQ chicken that resulted in the South Island Forest Accord, which explicitly acknowledged that it was corporate greed of the major logging companies liquidating the last of the "green gold" in the ancient forests and poor forest management: overcuttting, mechanization and raw log exports for the maximization of shareholders' profits, that was the primary cause of both deforestation and job loss in local industry towns. It was agreed, put more positively, that if the resource were managed more sustainably for the interests of the communities, human and nonhuman, directly depending on them, that there could be large tracts of old-growth forest set aside in parkland, with no job loss.
This agreement became the template for the NDP Peace in the Woods platform in the 1992 provincial elections, an election they won. Shortly after that, the new government struck the Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE), a multi-stakeholder roundtable negotiations to look at how to implement a plan to protect a minimum of 12% of representative ecosystems in a protected areas strategy. As a result of this process, the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan came to be as the guiding document in the drafting of the park boundaries in the creation of the 16,000 hectare Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park in 1994.
All of Carmanah valley was saved (adding the upper watershed to the lower valley around the Carmanah Giant, that had already been protected by the former SoCred government) and roughly half the Walbran watershed. And two smaller watersheds with low timber values, less than 3500 hectares south of the Walbran, were protected.
The experience of the conservation sector sitting around the table at the time, was that the timber industry had stacked the process and that there was not adequate representation of the low-elevation ancient temperate rainforests offered up for park protection. Indeed the most contentious and many people argue amongst the most beautiful and, to this day, most recreationally used area, around the the waterfall in the Central Walbran, hydrologically the heart of the valley, containing significant stands of some of the largest and oldest standing Western red-cedar trees in the world in the Castle Grove, with one tree aged at approximately 1200 years old, was left on the chopping block, to the satisfaction of the timber interests bearing heavy influence on the decision.
This area, left outside the park, was designated for restrictive forest harvesting in a 1600 buffer zone, known as Special Management Zone 21 where logging could continue but with protection of the outstanding old-growth forest, biodiversity and recreational values.
Did this set a precedent for future protests?
B: What was widely perceived as an inappropriate park boundary and an area of contiguous ancient temperate rainforest people had taken a serious stand to protect, but still subject to the demands of resource extraction, was the seed for the current conflict in the Walbran valley.
Forest activists like myself vowed that if ever the industry were to cross the river and try and open up logging on the northwest side of the river, they would be met with resistance.
After twenty-five years of calm in the pristine remnants of unprotected ancient forest in the Central Walbran valley, across the bridge on the northwest side of Walbran river, a new licensee, Surrey-based forest products company Teal Jones, submitted a logging plan for eight cutblocks in the area, an action likened to someone pushing a big stick into the center of a hornet's nest, prompting a massive public backlash reminiscent of the early 90s.
What's going on now ahy should people care?
B: In September of this year the government gave approval for the first of the company's proposed eight cutblocks and the Friends of Carmanah/Walbran established a "witness camp" at Walbran bridge to maintain a steady vigil against these logging plans and to monitor the daily logging developments on the ground and communicate back to activists outside of the valley via satellite phone. At this time, heavy industrial logging and road-building, blasting and helicopter logging operations have advanced aggressively to the park boundaries, within the designated buffer/ SMZ area. Activists, responding to the daily assaults on old-growth forest ecosystems in the area, have taken it upon themselves to engage in independent direct action, blocking road-building crews, tree falling and log trucks for days on end, in breach of several court orders sought by the company to stifle land-based dissent, but which to date have not been enforced by the RCMP.
At stake is a rare, irreplaceable world-class remnant of one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, containing more plant biomass than anywhere else on earth, worth far more standing as critical habitat for the many species that depend exclusively on large tracts of old-growth forests for their continued survival, as a critical carbon sink helping to mitigate against runaway climate change. And for it's outstanding long-term recreational and tourism values, rather than as short-term profit on the global shake and shingles market.
How were Teal Jones able to get tree farm licenses in the Valley? Is it true that they were giving political donations to various parties?
B: In 1954, in exchange for a $10,000 bribe from Western Forest Products, Forest Minister "Honest" Bob Sommers granted the first timber license, introducing the current forest tenure system in BC. Without any consultation or consent from First Nations, companies purchase cutting rights to vast tracts of forestland, can extract original forests in exchange for stumpage fees, incidentally the lowest in the industrialized world and a commitment to replant; converting biologically-diverse, multi-aged, multi-layered, mixed-species natural forests that have evolved relatively undisturbed since the retreat of the last ice sheets into monoculture tree plantations with very little value for habitat and producing a far inferior quality of wood than the primary forests they replace.
Over time, stipulations under the TFL agreement that required the licensees to supply mills with timber and to maintain community stability have been removed by free market governments like the current Liberal regime, to facilitate greater corporate profits by exporting raw logs out of the country and cutting union labour out of the chain of production.
Teal Jones is merely one of a long line of licensees in TFL 46 and is actually one company, which to its credit, that mills wood here in BC. They, like many big businesses, contribute to the campaign coffers of both the Liberal and NDP party, to make sure that they receive political patronage and support from government. Unfortunately, the Friends of Carmanah/Walbran don't have such coffers accrued through exploitation of public resources, to ensure we will have the government's ear when we need their help to protect the forest for the benefit of all, not just the corporate interest.
I wanted to ask more about Indigenous involvement currently. Are "divide and conquer" tactics used in First Nations communities by logging companies (as mining companies do in impoverished Aboriginal communities in Australia)? And who is Peter Knighton?
I would have to say in all honesty that I am not in a position to comment on or make judgments about issues that are being dealt with internally by the First Nations communities in the Walbran valley.
I do know that the area is considered part of the Pacheedaht unceded traditional territory and that the band council definitely has strong ties with Teal Jones and are themselves very involved in the business of industrial logging, with their own company, Queesto, that has a Tree Farm License on the West Coast Rd. and logging operations contracted to them adjacent to Carmanah/ Walbran Provincial Park in TFL 44; and plans to build their own mill.
With any kind of development, you always have to ask the three basic questions: Who decides, who benefits and who is most impacted. As far as I know, these questions are being asked by some Pacheedaht members, as much as they are anywhere else and straight answers, like anywhere else, are not always forthcoming!
Old- growth logging has been pursued by band leaders,as a form of much- needed economic development in a community facing chronic financial poverty. These plans and particularly the band council's support for Teal Jones logging in contentious areas in the Walbran valley, in exchange for a promised supply of monumental cedars sourced from the slopes of Walbran river, has stirred up some controversy in the community, and like in any community, those issues will be dealt with to varying degrees of satisfaction by the members involved. All that said, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has been an outspoken advocate for the forest, himself visiting the witness camp and participating in land- based protests and requesting a hunting cabin be built in his name in the Central Walbran, which I understand the band turned down. To what extent he is supported in his community, I don't really know.
Peter Knighton who is the brother of the hereditary chief of the Qwa-ba-diwa First Nations, whose village, before the forced relocation of coastal indigenous peoples onto reserves, was located at the mouth of Carmanah river. Peter and his wife, Monique, live there spring through autumn, within Pacific Rim National Park, which was created on their territory. He has asserted traditional jurisdiction, never ceded, which therefore gives them the right to re-occupy the village site and to sell supplies to back- packers on the West Coast trail. Peter is a longstanding friend of many of the older members of FOCW and is a strong advocate of protection of the temperate rainforests in his ancestral territory, which does include the Walbran valley.
FOCW is supportive of a conservation land designation in the Walbran Valley akin to the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks in Clayoquot Sound, that enshrines traditional First Nations jurisdiction and allows economic development that protects the forest-base e.g. tourism, harvesting of non-timber resources, non-industrial logging etc. in which there are long-term benefits to the community, unlike the boom/ bust cycle of clearcut logging that liquidates forest resources, leaving little for local communities.
What are some of the different ways people an help out with the campaign?
B:People need to figure that kind of stuff out for themselves, really. Being committed to getting informed is a minimum first step and prerequisite of citizenship. Then making a point of making your views known to your elected officials is another necessary action to take. Democracy works best on the basis of consciously removing your consent for those policies you cannot fundamentally agree with and by advocating for alternatives that are better for people and planet. If you have money, make donations. If you have a skill, share it. If you have an extra wood stove, share that! If you have time, give of yourself by attending rallies or building trails or painting signs or organizing an event in the community or writing posts in online blogs, social media sites or letters to the editor. Just get engaged wherever you feel you can most passionately express yourself and remember the words of the prophet who said that anyone who thinks they are too small to make a difference, never slept in a room with a mosquito! We are all part of something bigger than ourselves. The community of kindred souls is amazing! Find your voice and play your part and don't give up. Another great saying is: at first they ignore you, then they curse you, then they fight you, then they jail you, and then you win!
What are your thoughts on civil disobedience?
B: In society there is a continual gap between the law and what is truly just, equitable and ecologically sustainable and so civil disobedience is a necessary function of both democracy and of the evolution of law. It is a time-honoured and noble tradition around the world and is an effective tactic in gaining public attention to issues systemically ignored, and for pushing social crises' to the point of resolution. Like any other power tool, it needs to used responsibly and as a last resort when all legal avenues have been exhausted and citizens have no other recourse to address an injustice. It often produces positive results and was a central part of the massive public campaign gaining protection for the 16,000 hectare Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park in the early 1990s.
*This is an old interview (from 2016, I think). I didn't take any of these photos and don't remember where I got them from so let me know if one of them is yours and i'll credit you :)
**The latest campaign: https://laststandforforests.com/