OCTOBER 15, 1985 - VOLUME 6 - NUMBER 14
Company Might and Native Rights
by Michael Mullin
TOFINO, British Columbia-There is a battle raging in Canada between the local people of Meares Island and the forestry industry-what's at stake is an intact old growth forest that covers the 8,000 hectare island.
Two large timber companies, British Columbia Forest Products and MacMillan Bloedel Corp. hold cutting rights to Meares, a beautiful island of steep and rugged mountains. Off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Meares is the only large island in the area that has not been logged already. Despite a few, very small patches of hand-logging that have regrown, Meares' temperate rainforest contains some of the largest cedar trees in Canada.
The province of British Columbia considers this land part of the provincial Crown forests and has allocated cutting rights under the "Tree Farm" system. Meares Island, however, is also the indigenous home to the Clayoquot and Ahousat people. One of their principal villages, Opitsaht, is on Meares Island. This beautiful beach village, which has been inhabited for around 4,000 years, sits at the foot of Lone Cone mountain.
These native people consider the forests and foreshores of Meares Island theirs. They have never ceded this land and do not recognize the cutting rights granted by the province. In April of 1984 the Chiefs of the Clayoquot Band declared Meares Island a Tribal Park.
The confrontation between the native peoples and the forestry industry over Meares Island came to a head in November 1984, when a crewboat from MacMillan Bloedel attempted to land on Meares Island to begin logging. The logging crews were first blockaded offshore and then after allowing them to land, Moses Martin, Chief Councilor of the Clayoquots, welcomed the crew as "visitors" to the tribal park. Reading from the original 1906 timber license, Martin pointed out that all "gardens and traditional reserves" were exempt. Although MacMillan Bloedel turned back rather than risk confrontation, the multinational company took the issue to the courts seeking an injunction against those interfering with their right to log. After a series of legal hearings and appeals the matter now rests before the British Columbia Supreme Court, scheduled to begin in the fall of 1986.
Western Canada is dependent upon the forest and the salmon. These "people of the cedar" need large old growth trees for straight grained wood, as well as cedar bark strips from living trees for weaving. The forest also supports the grasses, herbs and medicines traditionally used by the people. Modern clearcut logging destroys the forest system, and even if more timber is grown, it would take 500 years to approximate the complex ecosystem of a mature rainforest.
Environmental costs following clearcutting of a west coast hillside begin with the loss of the thin topsoil and erosion. Siltation ruins salmon streams and eel grass beds important to spawning herring and migratory waterfowl. Heavy rainfalls and steep unstable slopes make landslides common. Slash burning and the use of herbicides for alder suppression add toxic chemicals to the runoff, which contaminates important clam beds and expanding mariculture operations.
A government sponsored Planning Team was mandated to develop alternatives for Meares Island. The team recommended three options to the provincial Cabinet Environmental Land Use Committee (ELUC).
In the final ELUC decision, the recommendations of the team were ignored completely. The logging companies were given the right to log 90 percent of the island, while the other 10 percent was safe only for another 20 years. Faced with what many considered an undemocratic refusal to allow for the best interests of the area, Friends of Clayoquot Sound, one of the groups involved in the team, collaborated with the Clayoquot Band in the 1984-85 winter-long campaign of confrontations and blockades making logging im
This congruence of native right, environmental need and economic good sense has created difficulties for MacMillan Bloedel and the Conservative government. MacMillan Bloedel is primarily a Canadian company but has subsidiary operations in Oregon, the southeastern United States and Australia. Major control of MacMillan Bloedel rests with Noranda Mines, which is owned by the Bronfman/Brascan consortium.
British Columbia's forest industry has been on the brink of crisis for some time. The same company that insists it needs Meares' timber has recently fired 2,500 workers and shut down the Port Alberni mill twice this summer.
Rather than process high value wood in British Columbia, for example, whole logs are exported to Japan, where many are stockpiled in anticipation of future shortages. As the best forests are liquidated, costs of extracting inferior and harder to reach wood go up-a formula of rising costs and declining values ensures future trouble. But the need for foreign exchange overrides regional concerns. British Columbia Forest Service formulates cut allowances based on dubious inventory analysis and highly optimistic planting forecasts. While the forest sector generates the lion's share of British Columbia's revenue, it gets a pittance for desperately needed reforestation. Without massive silviculture programs the future of the forest industry is bleak. Cutting the last remaining stands of old growth will not solve the problem, it will only compromise the possibilities for an alternative approach.
On Meares Island, the lines have been drawn. Local residents willing to put themselves between a chain saw and a tree have inspired an outpouring of regional and national support, especially from native groups throughout British Columbia. Together, these groups are challenging the logging industry's claim that it has the right to level 4,000 years of history.
Michael Mullin is the director of Friends of Clayoquot Sound in Tofino, British Columbia.