Old-Growth Trees and New Coalitions

B.C. Forest Workers and Environmentalists

Woodworker Brent Browning feels something special about the forests around Barkley Sound. "When I stand in that spot, I never feel lonely," he says. "I feel like I'm standing in a place where a million people have already been."

Browning worked nearby at MacMillan Bloedel's Sproat Lake operations near Port Alberni, B.C., for 29 years until the camp was shut down in 2002. He moved down to Ladysmith and now works at Western Forest Products Chemainus Division, but he still has a cabin up around Barkley Sound where he goes hiking and fishing. He has an almost poetic appreciation for nature but doesn't consider himself an environmentalist. "I still appreciate the beauty but I can also see the company side: if you log it, it will grow back."

When it comes to old-growth forests and clear-cut logging, woodworkers and environmentalists have stood at opposite sides of the road for nearly 20 years. One well-publicized example of conflict between the two groups happened in 1993, when blockades were set up to prevent MacMillan Bloedel and Interfor from logging the 265,000 hectares of forest around Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino (one hectare is 10,000 square metres). Nearly 900 people were arrested by the RCMP for blockading a logging road, the largest civil disobedience action in Canadian history.

Loggers saw the environmentalists as "tree-huggers" who wanted to save every tree and kill forest industry jobs in the process. Environmentalists saw loggers as minions of the forest companies, people who would gleefully clear cut ancient forests, nature's beauty and environmental consequences be damned.

Paul Cienfuegos, a former labour liaison with Friends of Clayoquot Sound, wrote in 1997: "We simply could not fathom that loggers might also have a strong desire to protect the forests - so as to ensure themselves and their children a secure forest job base well into the future. In addition, we could not distinguish between the corporation and the workforce. We perceived them as having the same values: cutting the forest down in order to get rich."

Fast forward to today and you'll find both sides have found a lot of common ground - and it's not just the one covered in sphagnum moss. Western Canada Wilderness Committee campaign director Ken Wu says the catalyst that prompted the adversaries to bury the hatchet was the B.C. Liberal government. Since being elected in 2001, it has used its majority to bring in legislation and change existing regulations to mainly benefit, it seems, corporations - at the expense of both workers and the environment. "All of a sudden," explains Wu, "they started to deregulate all the environmental laws and also the laws that protected the jobs of timber workers. So, both of us were getting attacked and one policy that seemed to bring us together at first was the extent of raw log exports."

The forest workers' campaign to ban raw log exports and the environmentalists' campaign to stop old-growth logging both found a home under the shared banner of forest sustainability. If trees are harvested in a sustainable manner and second-growth trees are used to their full potential - and a value-added industry is promoted - there should be lots of jobs and less reason for companies to consider logging the scant remaining old-growth forests.

The Sierra Club of Canada's Rob Duncan says that during those earlier days of conflict, when environmentalists and loggers actually sat down together to talk, they often found they were in agreement on a lot of issues. "The companies would often step in and try to cut off such conversations," he says, "in order to protect their own markets for specialized products, and keeping shareholders happy."

Duncan spent 14 years in the forest industry himself, doing everything from tree planting to ecosystem research and analysis, so he understands both sides of the issue. "Timber is being shipped to U.S. and overseas mills and manufacturers and the final products are sold back to us - value-added commodities that could have provided jobs, tax revenue and more money for local communities instead of going out of the country." He describes the current practice as basic resource extraction - hauling and logging. And, according to some reports, not even that is being done efficiently. In a June 2007 report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, "Wood Waste and Log Exports on the B.C. Coast," Ben Parfitt says that, in the past two years, on average, one in three usable logs were either exported or left on the ground to rot.

The amount of usable logs wasted in 2005 would have filled 103,826 logging trucks and kept two large sawmills operating. Parfitt contends this directly corresponds to increased raw log exports and mill closures.

The wasted logs not only represent lost jobs, but the rotting wood emits carbon dioxide into the air, adding to the greenhouse gases (unlike living trees, which help remove carbon dioxide). So, there are mutual concerns that can be addressed in ways that help everyone.

The three issues that have galvanized public support across a broad spectrum are raw log exports, water quality, and long-term sustainable use of the surrounding forest lands.

Competition from overseas mills, where wages and environmental standards are both lower, means lower profits from B.C. operations. It only encourages companies to harvest on an economic schedule instead of one dictated by the maturity of the trees.

Rita Lajeunesse, a log scaler in Port Alberni, B.C., says trees she planted 33 years ago when she worked as a tree planter have already been harvested. They were supposed to have been harvested in 70- or 80-year cycles, but trees are being harvested more rapidly than in the past. Younger, smaller trees are being cut. So, to achieve the same volume as before, more of them are being cut. And exporting these raw logs deprives local communities of jobs, whether in sawmills or pulp and paper mills, not to mention the value-added potential of door- and window-frame plants and furniture manufacturing.

"It's unsustainable for the communities because if you keep exporting the logs, what's going to go into the sawmill," says United Steelworkers representative Scott Lunny. "And if you can't run the sawmill, what's going to go into the pulp mill. And if you can't run the pulp mill, who's going to pay for the hockey rinks, and the taxes that support other public services in the community. When you start talking in those terms, I don't find it surprising that you have a broad range of people who realize they have a common objective."

In the U.S. in 2006, the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club formed a Blue/Green Alliance, its slogan being: "Good Jobs, A Clean Environment, and a Safer World." It brought together 850,000 Steelworkers and 750,000 Sierra Club members. Its first executive director, David Foster, is a former district director of the USW.

"The Blue-Greens say if there's an industry not prepared to invest in the environment, that means they aren't prepared to invest in your jobs either," says Lunny. "They say, 'Show me a company that's refusing to adapt and adopt progressive environmental technologies and we'll show you a company that's probably going to be closing down that plant shortly.'"

Already almost two-thirds of the logging of Vancouver Island is in second growth. "The total transition to second growth trees is inevitable," says Wu. "Why not do it now, instead of waiting until all the unprotected old-growth forest is gone? Cutting the old growth while expanding raw log exports as mills shut down takes us in precisely the wrong direction."

B.C. coastal forests are home to some of the biggest, oldest trees on the planet. Look at a 30-story building and imagine a tree that tall. Or imagine a tree nearly 2,000 years old or five metres in diameter. That helps to convey the almost tangible sense of the sacred one experiences standing in the midst of these forest giants. The old-growth forests, made up of giant Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and both red and yellow cedar trees, are habitat for an amazing range of bio-diversity. This includes large mammals such as wolves, cougars, black bears and elk. "It also includes old-growth-dependent species that can't flourish in younger forests," explains Wu, "such as marbled murrelets, Vaux's swifts, long-eared bats and, on the adjacent mainland, spotted owls." These natural features cause environmental groups to demand that the precious remaining old-growth forests be protected.

The valley bottoms are where the greatest abundance of diversity of plant and wildlife are found. From a logging perspective, they are where the biggest and most accessible trees are located and, on Vancouver Island, 90 per cent of the valley bottoms have been logged.

There is a lot of mutual support as the United Steelworkers, the Pulp and Paper Workers of Canada, and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada are now working with groups like the Sierra Club, the Green Party of B.C., and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. It's made for some interesting sights: woodworker union reps speaking alongside environmentalists at public rallies and receiving cheers; a Sierra Club rep participating in a meat draw at a Duncan, B.C. showing of a film about raw log exports.

Most recently, the Wilderness Committee publicly supported striking coastal forest workers (members of the United Steelworkers) this past summer and fall. Wu even went up to Duncan to address a rally of striking workers. "Most people were very supportive," says Wu of his attendance, "but there was a small group that at first was opposed to our presence. They had a mistrust of environmentalists because of our big battles in the 1990s but, once the leadership of the union started talking to them and told them we were on the same page on many of these issues, they actually came and thanked us."

In the early 1980s, B.C.'s coastal forest industry employed more than 30,000 people. Today, the number has dropped to less than a third of that. On July 20, 2007, the more than 6,000 USW members who work in B.C.'s coastal forests went on strike. The key issues were contracting out, severance pay, and a return to regular schedules of work. The flexible hours granted the employer in the last contract, imposed on the union in 2004, had disrupted family life, social life, and community life for the workers and contributed to fatigue and risk of injury and even death.

In the past two years, there have been 65 deaths of forest workers - a record 43 of those were in 2005. In 2006, there were 94 serious injuries to forest workers and a coroner's jury in one investigation confirmed that unsafe shifts and contracting out had increased the likelihood of injuries and fatalities in the workplace.

"People may ask why the Wilderness Committee is supporting a strike by forestry workers," said Wu in a committee press release in September. "The fact is, in order to establish sustainable forestry on Vancouver Island, it's also important that the thousands of workers in the industry are also treated justly and fairly. That's what a compassionate society would ensure, in order to minimize conflict and maintain a decent life for people while we work to sustain nature."

"The crux of the issue, from our perspective, is that solid economies and solid social systems - communities - are based and founded upon a healthy ecosystem," says Duncan of the Sierra Club of Canada. "That's the primary thing that has to be considered."

"Our pulp mill is dying now," says Port Alberni log scaler Rita Lajeunesse, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1-85. "They're forced to depend on sawmills that are only running half-time now, in order to get wood chips. A friend of mine who worked in the pulp mill said that, a year and a half ago, the local paper mill was buying wood chips from the States, made from logs we had exported down there. I just found that an awful thing to hear."

Lajeunesse grew up in Port Alberni with the forests as her playground. Today, she works at Hayes Forest Services Sarita Division. At the dryland sort, Lajeunesse measures the length and diameter, at both ends, of incoming logs so they can be sorted according to size or grade, and species.

Port Alberni is a city of 18,000 located on the Alberni inlet. It calls itself "The Salmon Capital of the World" and, at the foot of the surrounding Beaufort Range, many varieties of fish are spawned and reared. It's a beautiful spot with lots of outdoor recreation opportunities that are
enjoyed by locals, as well as tourists who help support the local economy, now that mills are shutting down in the area.

Lajeunesse worked for 30 years at Hayes' dryland sort at China Creek until it was shut down a few years back. With her seniority she was able to get a job at a different division, but it's a lot further to commute. "Some of us started meeting for coffee and discussing what we could do," she recalls. "We had various concerns about the logging that was taking place around the community. It was scaring us. The logging cuts were getting too big. It was going into the creeks and rivers. The areas we'd played in as kids were now clear-cuts."

Wayne James, also a member of USW Local 1-85, lives in Port Alberni and works as a boom man at Hayes Franklin Division. Out on the water, James runs a boat to push bundles of logs from the dryland sort into designated 70'-by-300' pockets. The bundles are stacked in lots of 35 to 40, which are then towed away to mills for processing.

On Barkely Sound, James will often see eagles, whales, seals, and even salmon when they leap from the water. "There I am," he says, "and I can see all of nature around me. It's quite the job to be able to do that plus get paid for it."

James was driving back into Port Alberni after being away one month and was alarmed to see what had happened to the surrounding landscape during his short absence. There were bare patches where stands of second-growth trees had been harvested. "I said, 'Holy crap! They cut that down really early.' It was still a really young plantation and not ready for harvesting. It blew me away," he says. He was so incensed that he wrote a letter to the local paper. After his letter was published James was contacted with an invitation to join the coffee meetings Lajeunesse describes.

The group of now five Port Alberni forest workers who were angry about what they saw happening around them met regularly at Smitty's restaurant to talk about it. Out of these discussions, the Save Our Valley Alliance (SOVA) was formed.

The discontent behind the alliance included more than a handful of upset forest workers. Members of the community were concerned over boil-water advisories, which were confirming their fears about what can happen when logging is carried out in sensitive watershed areas. When a public meeting over water quality was held at Cherry Creek Hall, Lajeunesse stood up and invited everyone for a combined pancake breakfast and rally on the highway outside of town, known locally as "The Hump." "And that," she says, was "basically the start of the protests. A lot of us met together. We were just all fed up."

Careless logging practices can cause debris, gravel and earth to wash down into the creeks and streams during a rainfall, jeopardizing the sensitive fish habitat. In 2006, winter rains sent six "debris flows" down the mountain side, spreading destruction on local properties. An investigation by the Private Managed Forest Land Council - long criticized by community activists as being a rubber-stamp committee for the forest industry - determined that extreme weather was the cause of the slides, not the company's logging operations. Still, as the Victoria Times Colonist reported, "the highly visible logging, the water turbidity caused by the debris flows, and the exporting of the timber fused in peoples' minds and became a lightning rod for public discontent."

The smaller groups and individuals who became involved in the protests eventually took on the SOVA name. "We just sort of adopted each other," says Lajeunesse. She and James are members of the alliance's action group. "Early on," says James, "I had decided, with the action group, that I would try to employ tactics I had seen the environmentalists use in their campaigns - their war in the woods.' Some of the campaigns were very successful and some weren't. You try and learn from those."

A symbolic victory was achieved in January 2000 when Clayoquot Sound was recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Last year, the B.C. government announced an agreement which protects the two million hectares of the Great Bear Rain Forest. Some other areas that have been all or partially protected due to environmental campaigns include the Carmanah and Lower Walbran valleys and Meares Island.

During the protests at places like Clayoquot Sound and other old-growth sites, the forest companies had assured their workers that everything was fine, and denigrated the arguments being made by the environmentalists. Today, the forest workers can see jobs disappearing as companies are shutting down lumber mills and pulp and paper mills, or reducing their operations, as fully loaded logging trucks barrel down the highways with logs destined for lumber mills in the U.S. or Asia. Today, the workers realize they have been misled and feel decidedly betrayed.

Brent Browning, a member of USW Local 1-80, has spent most of his life as a woodworker, working weekends while in high school and quitting school to work full time. He's worked in the shop, the warehouse, and set chokers. He's been a first aid attendant, worked on the boom for a while, and even tried blasting and falling. "I liked doing it," he says, but he now sees worker pitted against worker as people from other areas scramble for the diminishing number of forest jobs - the result of mill closures and, now, the sell-off of forests.

Early in 2007, B.C. Forest Minister Rich Coleman removed 28,500 hectares of land owned by Western Forest Products and 90,000 hectares of Island Timberlands' private forest lands from the companies' tree farm licences. This means the land owners are freed from the usual restrictions on raw log exports, annual allowable cuts, and maintaining the area as a forest, opening the way for companies to sell off or put the property to other uses. The Western Forest Products section of land includes ocean shoreline at Jordan River west of Victoria and is a popular spot used by locals for camping and windsurfing. The Island Timberlands property is in the Comox Valley and includes two lakes, a waterfall and mountain-top views. Both companies have their properties listed for sale on a real estate website.

While local zoning by-laws keep the properties from being subdivided into residential-sized lots, nearby communities fear suburban sprawl infringing on their wilderness areas, forest industry workers see lost job opportunities, and environmentalists picture the devastation caused by asphalt roads and house construction on the land. This scenario further illustrates Ken Wu's observation that it was government policies that helped bring together former adversaries.

Meanwhile, some of the big forest companies of today lack the community connection of their predecessors of long ago and tend to be ruled by spreadsheets and shareholders, who are often American.

Browning, musing about forest companies in general, says "When shareholders are in the U.S., that can affect the decisions. Do they care what goes on here? I don't know. They don't act like they care. They own the land, but if they sell it off, they make money but it takes away the jobs."

"The companies would like us to believe the environmentalists are the enemy of the logger and that's not really the case," says Lajeunesse. "We were always so polarized in our thinking, but everybody has come around. A lot of environmentalists have come to realize you have to have an economy and the logging industry realizes in order to continue, it has to be sustainable." Adds Wu: "We don't want to end up fighting 20,000 timber workers when we're trying to create sustainability in the woods." And, after all, the workers want the forests to survive, too.

"My main focus is on two things,"says boom man Wayne James: "Sustainability of the forests and raw log exports." Does James consider himself to be an environmentalist now? "Absolutely," he says, without hesitation. "If you had asked me that question 15 years ago, I probably would have answered differently."

Carole Pearson is a Victoria-based freelance writer who specializes in labour, human rights and the environment.