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Buzz Cut

While British Columbia’s coastal forests gain protection, virgin old-growth in its vast interior is mowed down for the U.S. market.

By Paul Rauber

The powerful westerly that blew down from the icy summits of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains in the middle of the night threatened to send our tent and everything in it into Shack Lake. “At least it’s dry,” I said to my wife. That’s when the rain started. By morning we were covered by half a foot of snow, and resigned ourselves to tentbound hibernation.

If you’re going to get snowed in on an autumn camping trip, you could find worse company than Canadians. As we sat shivering in our tent, our British Columbian companions sprang into action, cleaning out the bear-ravaged miner’s cabin that gave Shack Lake its name. Soon we were drying our sodden woolens over an ancient cast-iron stove and sharing stories of wretched outdoor ordeals. Veteran wilderness campaigner Gil Arnold told of a mid-March excursion to the ominously named Tombstone Lake in Alberta’s Rockies, where for days on end the thermometer hit 30 below with 30-mile-an-hour winds. The trip included both hardy plaid-clad Canadians and pile-and-Gore-Tex-sheathed Americans, hunkered down in their respective tents. At one point, one of the Americans came scratching at the Canadians’ tentflap. “What are you eating in there?” he inquired. “Bacon, bannock, and rum,” they replied. “What are you eating?” “Freeze-dried death,” replied the miserable Yank.

Luckily for us, the Canadian conservationists on our trip to the Chilcotin region of southcentral British Columbia were also of the rugged frontier variety. Most seem to have homesteaded at some point in remote Yukon cabins, setting traplines and mushing sled dogs. When Arnold stumbled on a hike and sliced his thumb open on a sharp rock, he patched it up with duct tape. (Probably made it easier to stir his coffee.) On our way to Shack Lake we had stayed at the self-built, off-the-grid home of Dave Neads, a campaigner with the tiny environmental powerhouse BC Spaces for Nature, and his wife, Rosemary; our departure was delayed when Neads had to repair his water line, which had been chewed through by a bear.

When practiced by the Canadian timber industry, however, that same frontier spirit proves environmentally disastrous, just as it has with U.S. timber companies in these denuded United States. British Columbia’s forests are so vast that they’ve been treated as endless—with the inevitable result that they are ending. For example, half of the trees in the Chilcotin region (an area that covers 15 percent of British Columbia) were cut between 1988 and 1996 alone. Clearcutting accounts for 95 percent of the logging in British Columbia, with “cutblocks” as large as several hundred acres.

We had seen scores of these a few days previous, flying out from Nimpo Lake in a Beaver, the workhorse plane of the north, piloted by a veteran named Floyd. (“He’s been flying for forty years,” Neads reassured Joe Scott of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, a burly outdoorsman but an unhappy flyer. “That’s a good sign,” said Scott hopefully. “But then,” continued Neads mischievously, “there’s an increased chance of heart attack . . .”)

From the air, the clearcuts are irregular gray jigsaw pieces in a sea of lodgepole pine, with only the skimpiest fringe separating them from lakes, wetlands, and streams. British Columbia requires unlogged streamside buffers one-fifth to one-half the size of those in U.S. national forests—and none at all for streams less than five feet across.

In British Columbia, mighty logging firms like Weyerhaeuser and International Forest Products (Interfor) are free from a host of other environmental restrictions that rein in their colleagues to the south. Canada, for instance, has no Endangered Species Act. Cut levels on crown lands (which are owned by the government and hold 95 percent of Canada’s timber) may be restricted to protect biodiversity and some wildlife habitat—but not by more than 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Even in “high biodiversity” areas, British Columbia’s logging plans foresee leaving only 10 percent old growth over the long term. And timber companies can’t cut less even if they wanted: To protect timber and mill jobs, the province requires a minimum harvest, regardless of market conditions.

Political conditions, however, are starting to change. This April, thanks to a multiyear campaign by the Sierra Club of British Columbia and other environmental groups on both sides of the border, British Columbia agreed to prohibit logging on 1.5 million acres of the coastal Great Bear rainforest, and to defer logging on an additional 2 million acres until a more environmentally sensitive forest-management plan is completed. The Great Bear, one of North America’s largest remnants of ancient temperate rainforest, boasts mist-shrouded stands of 800-year-old cedar, roiling salmon streams, prowling grizzly, and the ghostly white kermode or spirit bear (see “Canada’s Forgotten Coast,” March/April 1999).

The Great Bear decision was a tremendous win for conservationists, but beyond such fortunate protected areas, British Columbia’s forest policy still remains one of liquidation and conversion to tree farms. In the Chilcotin, a Switzerland-size plateau on the dry, inland side of the Coast Mountains, forests of Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, and lodgepole pine are systematically mowed down. “The interior forest is forgotten forest,” says Neads. He got his own stark reminder several years ago when he and Rosemary noticed eerie bright lights in the hills south of their remote cabin: The clearcutting didn’t even stop at night. Seventy-five percent of British Columbia’s cut comes from the east side of the Coast Mountains, much of it from the Chilcotin, and 90 percent of that goes to the United States, half as wood chips for paper, half as two-by-fours.

Most of the 125- to 250-year-old pines in the Chilcotin aren’t big enough for anything else. While the Coast Mountains can receive up to 60 feet of snow a year, the Chilcotin gets only 10 to 15 inches of annual precipitation and 30 frost-free days a year. With such a short growing season, 200-year-old trees look like saplings. (In some parts of the Chilcotin, the volume of wood per acre is the same as that of a single tree on the coast.) Visiting the enormous log decks at the mill at Nimpo Lake, a tourist resort ringed with clearcuts, I didn’t see a single log more than a foot in diameter. And in the mournful stubble of a four-year-old clearcut nearby, there was no sign of replanting or regeneration, just the violent excretions of the feller bunchers, massive tractors that grab the trees, snip their bases with huge shears, and load them onto waiting skidders.

In the wishful thinking of British Columbia timber planners, this block will be cut again in 80 years. In the theory of “sustainable yield,” clearcut forests will regenerate themselves by then, providing another “crop” of trees. To speed this process, the province is hewing its virgin forests as fast as possible. “There is no second-growth cutting in the Chilcotin,” says Neads. “All of the forest being cut is virgin old-growth.”

Our chill mountain camp on the Chilcotin side of the Coast Mountains lay near the treeline, where clearcut gave way to krummholz, the low, twisty trees of the alpine tundra. Skirting permanent snowfields and flushing white-tailed ptarmigan, we labored up the mountain that rose 1,700 feet above us, stopping occasionally to admire the massive racks left by woodland caribou or to graze on the profusion of ground blueberries at our feet. Naturally the Canadians were in the vanguard, and we heard serial exclamations as each party reached the summit and glimpsed the amazing panorama before them. The central Coast Mountains filled our field of vision from the distant Bella Coola valley in the north to the heights of Waddington, Monarch, and Pagoda, with the deep trench of the Klinaklini River cutting through in the south. Far off in the river’s upper reaches in Hidden Valley we could see small puffs of dust—the logging trucks hauling the forest away to the mill at Williams Lake, 14 hours distant. (The coroner there is trying to put a stop to one-day round trips because of the high number of highway fatalities.)

At this time last year, BC Spaces for Nature was waging a desperate campaign to save the magnificent but little-known Klinaklini, one of the few rivers to cut through the rock wall of the coastal ranges to drain the interior. Its nearly 60 miles of riparian wilderness were being nibbled at either end by roads and chainsaws, even though the road in its tortuous lower reaches cost $1 million per kilometer to build—an expense that the province allowed Interfor to charge against the already minimal “stumpage” fee it paid for the trees. Thus Interfor pays only 25 cents (Canadian) for a cubic meter of wood instead of the more usual rate of $30. (By U.S. measures, this works out to 26 board feet for a penny.)

A few days later we piled into a float plane to survey the Klinaklini, named “the river that winds back on itself” in the language of the indigenous Chilcotin people for its snaky path. (The less poetic coastal Kwakwaka’wakw called it “eulachon grease” after the fatty smeltlike fish that crowded its mouth.) Steep, heavily wooded slopes and towering waterfalls rushed down to the river bottom, where the sparkling flood mirrored the mountains and sky above. Beaver engine droning, we fell into the reverie that magnificent country inspires: “Next summer, let’s visit that valley,” “I bet there’s trout there,” “Wow! Could we kayak that?” (The answer to the latter is no: At one point the Klinaklini enters an impassable canyon that requires a helicopter portage.) We passed Dorothy Creek, the inland terminus of an approved logging allotment, and were suddenly jarred to attention by the sight of brilliant red and yellow feller bunchers below, tearing the guts out of the wild forest.

Earlier this year, the destruction of the lower Klinaklini ended, thanks to the Great Bear agreement. The area up to Hidden Valley, where we had seen the dust of logging trucks, has been protected, although a late challenge is coming from mining companies, which may try to scuttle the deal with the province’s new ruling Liberal Party (which, despite the name, is more akin to the Republican Party in the United States).

The logging continues in Hidden Valley, but that too may come to an end as a result of an unusual challenge under the same international trade rules more commonly used to weaken environmental protections. The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and other conservation groups, in an odd coalition with the U.S. timber industry, are arguing that British Columbia’s lax environmental rules and below-market stumpage fees are, in effect, subsidizing its timber exports, giving them an unfair competitive advantage. “There’s too much wood being cut,” says Scott. “The wood is subsidized, so they cut large amounts, which tends to depress prices because the supply is so great. The lack of environmental protection in Canada is actually hurting U.S. industry.” The U.S. Department of Labor has certified that Canadian imports have been a factor in the closing of more than 50 U.S. mills since 1996. With the support of the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. coalition is asking for duties as high as 78 percent on lumber imported from Canada.

At press time, the U.S. Commerce Department was set to decide whether to impose the tariffs. If it does, Canada will surely appeal the case to a special NAFTA court composed of two U.S. and three Canadian judges, which could overrule the Commerce Department and reverse the duty. Based on the court’s rulings in similar cases in the past, Canada is confident that the NAFTA panel will bless the subsidized liquidation of its wild forests.

But those were battles for another day. If we were to engage in them, we’d have to leave Shack Lake, but the prevailing down-mountain winds threatened to delay our departure indefinitely. Maybe tomorrow, Floyd said. Tomorrow came, and though the wind was still kicking up, Floyd told us to get in the plane anyway, but to leave our gear behind. We taxied up to the head of the lake, turned around and roared back, but had to abort when we were three-quarters down the lake and our skids hadn’t left the water. I began to wonder how many days it would take to walk out through the new snow.

Then Floyd turned back around toward the head of the lake and opened up the throttle. At first I thought he meant to take off in that direction, but it was obvious that he couldn’t possibly gain enough altitude to clear the mountain. (Another Beaver had crashed a few weeks prior in a failed downwind turn in a similar situation.) Then I thought he was just in a hurry to get to the head of the lake for another run. Only when we were turning around again at full throttle up on one pontoon did I realize that he was buying extra speed at the start to get us off the water, barely clearing the treetops at the bottom of the lake.

It was more exhilarating than frightening. For forests and their defenders alike, there is nothing quite like survival.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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