Big trees, big stumps and broken promises

A trip to the Fairy Creek Blockade.

As a storyteller I often find myself in either beautiful places, or, more commonly, formerly beautiful places now fragmented by industrial activities. With Raincoast this has included time in the Fraser Estuary documenting habitat restoration and raising awareness about the proposed Terminal 2 expansion and in the Gulf Islands recording clear cut logging and intact Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats we are working to protect. 

During a steep hike back to Headquarters from Ridge Camp, where forest defenders have been blocking road building into the Fairy Creek headwaters, we came across an area that was  ideal for a drone flight. Mid-flight, as I looked down at the drone’s viewfinder, I realized this was one of the first times I had seen an intact valley that didn’t look like patchwork – a landscape scarred by logging, leaving patches of clearcuts or second or third growth trees at different ages. The only other time I’d seen expansive areas not blemished by logging was in the Kitlope, an area protected from logging and, since 2020, also protected from trophy hunting, thanks to Raincoast’s Coastal Carnivores campaign.

Seeing this intact valley, which has been used and managed by Pacheedaht peoples for thousands of years, was breathtaking. We had walked up the other side of the ridge where the road was about to crest into this watershed. Conversations were fresh in my mind from speaking with people who’ve been blocking the road construction since August of 2020. The adrenaline that courses through my body any time I fly my drone kept my emotions at bay. This was one of the last unlogged watersheds on Vancouver Island – and it’s under imminent threat from logging by Teal Jones. 

Panning my drone over to the neighbouring valleys, the impacts of industrial logging and government inaction were clear to see, making Fairy Creek stand in contrast as the one unlogged valley. Huge scars on the land lay just over the ridge line, in valleys that once looked like the one so many are trying to save. 

Drone photo of a heavily logged watershed.
Valley neighbouring Fairy Creek Watershed. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Drone photo of unlogged watershed.
Fairy Creek Watershed. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Drone photo of a heavily logged watershed.
Valley neighbouring Fairy Creek Watershed. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Fog moved into the lower reaches of Fairy Creek and I landed my drone on the nurse log next to me. 

Fairy Creek Blockade

Last week I visited the Fairy Creek Blockade, a group of people opposed to old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek watershed, and beyond. They’ve been blockading road building into Fairy Creek, and old growth logging in nearby groves since the summer of 2020. So far, more than 200 of the peaceful forest defenders have been arrested. 

Sign hung in a tree that describes how people have been blocking road building into Fairy Creek since August 2020.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Photo of an ancient yellow cedar tree with a sign at the root that says Fairy Grove
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Photo of road location tape tied around a tree.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Photo of ancient yellow cedar trees from below.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation

For the last two years, I’ve been documenting clearcut logging on Salt Spring Island, and with Raincoasts’s Gulf Islands Forest Project, on Pender Island too. On a small island such as Pender, these relatively small clearcut patches can have a disproportionate impact on the landscape. I wanted to go to the Fairy Creek Blockade to see this intact watershed and support the Indigenous people and land defenders who’ve been protecting this place. 

Being at the blockade was intense. With such heavy police presence, tensions ran high and things were constantly changing. After coming back to Headquarters  from Ridge Camp, I edited my images and gave them to the folks running media for the movement to be included in the daily updates that get posted on all the Fairy Creek Blockade’s social media channels. 

Many people there said they initially came to check out the blockade for a couple days, but had been there for 2 – 4 months. The commitment and dedication of the people in this movement helped drive home the sense of urgency that continues to grow around the need to protect these last swaths of Vancouver Island’s old growth forests.

Tents on a logging road at Waterfall camp.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

On the following Saturday, we met at 5am to hike supplies down the road to Waterfall Camp, which served as a safety net before the loggers could get to Ridge Camp. Unlike the hike to Ridge Camp, which is through beautiful intact yellow cedar forest, walking to Waterfall Camp is up a logging road lined with clear cuts and second growth forests. The contrast was stark. When walking on a logging road, you don’t get the cool microclimate, fresh air or the soft ground of the forest. Instead you’re met with sore joints and dehydration. 

When we walked back down from Waterfall Camp, Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones, Hereditary Chief Victor Peters, and Bill Jones’s nephew were trying to drive up to Waterfall. Police were blocking the road and said they were upholding the injunction granted to Teal Jones this past April.

“I’m not sure what’s happening here or why we have no access to our territory. This is an insult to our nation. We have been living with insult, aggravation and oppression for long enough… I will tell the police to open the gate,” said Elder Bill Jones to the over 200 of us there in support. 

The police didn’t open the gate. The steep road wouldn’t be safe for Jones to walk up, so he turned around, but invited us to walk up. 

“I welcome you here. You come with us to walk the land.” There were over 200 of us that walked past that gate, through the old growth, led by Chief Victor Peters and other Indigenous people from various nations singing together. It was a powerful day.

Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones and Hereditary Chief Victor Peters at a gate with their fists in the air.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones and Hereditary Chief Victor Peters talking to police.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
People walking up to Waterfall camp on a logging road.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Indigenous people leading the walk with drums in hand.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Government inaction

Last year, an expert panel was assembled by the BC government to determine how the province might better manage old-growth forests. The report, containing 14 recommendations, was accepted by the government, yet since then, little progress has been made, despite minor steps like implementing small deferral sites. 

Fairy Creek has been bringing this inaction to light. Forest defenders are showing up by the hundreds by invitation of Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones. It can be difficult to understand when the Pacheedaht band council released a statement stating old growth activists are, “not welcome.”

Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones wrote, in response to the statement released by Hereditary Chief Frank Queesto Jones and Chief Councillor Jeff Jones, that “Speaking from the coastal experience, colonial political actors and systems have been attempting to disrupt our sovereignty since their forceful arrival here. The force has taken many forms of violence, targeting the bodies, minds, and spirits of our peoples… This is indeed an oppressive system, whereby governments crush all hope and consciousness of its membership to the benefit of our political elite.”

Zooming out to Premier John Horgan’s announcement that his government would better involve First Nations communities in decision making going forward. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, responded to a question on the subject posed by Jackie Lamport in the Capital Daily podcast, who asked if it felt like an important moment when the premier announced this:

“We’ve said many times that it’s not an issue of who’s doing the logging, it’s an issue that logging is taking place in old growth forest stands. And that’s contrary to the promises that Premier Horgan made during the last election. It’s contrary to the expert panel’s recommendations that the Horgan government continues to promise to implement, but their policy has been to talk and log.”

I heard and learned much on my brief visit and these words have stayed with me,

“I implore people to continue to stand with me to protect our forests from destruction and colonialism because we need allies on the ground to stop old growth logging in my home territory, and for my future generations and relatives.” – Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones 

For Fairy Creek and the last remaining old growth.

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