2001 Cascadia Times

Last Stand for a Broken Wilderness

by Robin Klein

The last century of the millennium witnessed the retreat of a great North American wilderness — the massive trees, teeming salmon runs and healthy grizzly bear populations that once ruled the continent — and reduced much of it to what remains today in the far Northwest. Soaring growth, development, and fuel consumption depleted resources, exhausting lands across the U.S. to the Canadian border, except for some relatively small intact remnants in the lower 48.
However, vast wilderness harboring large wildlife remains north of the border, with little protection. In the coming decade, decisions will be made in British Columbia that will determine its fate. The decisions could heal some of the broken wilderness, possibly even foster grizzly re-habitation of the North Cascades in Washington. Or ravage U.S.-style, southern B.C.’s wilderness forever.

Today the road from Squamish to Lillooet, Highway 99, marks the frontline in a face-off that holds the future of that wilderness. At odds are First Nations, ski resort developers, environmental protectionists, and logging companies. Efforts to protect the land clash with the logging that presses into lush groves of 1,000 year-old trees, and with development plans for a new mega-resort. Environmental organizations like the Western Canada Wilderness Committee want the B.C. government to designate two large adjacent wilderness areas on the northwest side of Highway 99, as national parks to protect them from exploitation: the proposed Stoltmann (near the world famous Whistler resort) and Lillooet areas.

Battles for the Stoltmann

At the heart of the Stoltmann, and the site of the most intense conflict, is the beautiful Elaho Valley, home to ancient groves of red cedar and some of the oldest giant Douglas fir trees in the world. Last fall tensions reached the snapping point in the Elaho as International Forest Products (Interfor) logging trucks hauled massive trees away from the valley. During the last year and a half, arrests of a dozen protesters, a yearlong jail sentence for a great-grandma, international boycotts, and violent attacks by loggers in retaliation to protests, heated this treasured place on Squamish First Nation land.

Since Interfor bought rights in 1995 to log much of the Stoltmann, including the Upper Elaho and Sims Valleys in a license transfer authorized by the B.C. government, stands of ancient trees have been felled in areas found to support the endangered spotted owl and limited grizzly populations. Outraged conservationists escalated protests in fall 1999 when Interfor began building a road north of Lava Creek in the Upper Elaho. Arrests ensued for blocking construction. In September 1999, a mob of more than 70 enraged forest workers attacked eight encamped conservationists, hospitalizing several. Five of the forest workers were tried last December 7 in Squamish, and convicted.

The summer 2000 witnessed a continuation of the conflict as road construction resumed following ceased winter logging operations. Environmental groups launched an international campaign to discourage consumer purchases of Interfor wood products, targeting Interfor and West Fraser Timber (a company engaged in logging the Great Bear Rainforest in coastal B.C. along with Interfor).

“They (Interfor) are the worst of the worst” with regard to destructive forest management practices, says Catherine Stewart of Greenpeace Canada’s forest campaign. “So we are encouraged to learn that some large consumers now are working to eliminate consumption of Interfor products, and that certain companies have declared a two-year stay from purchasing endangered ancient forest wood.”

The campaign and additional attention drawn by public figures like Pierce Bronson and Robert Kennedy Jr. to the need to preserve old-growth forests, has caused furniture giants Ikea (Sweden) and Home Depot (USA) to stop buying wood from such controversial forests anymore. But groups worry market pressure isn’t enough to stop the logging.

“The B.C. Ministry of Forests’ own analysis concludes that current rates of harvest are averaging 28 percent above the government’s own assessment of what can be defined as a ‘sustainable’ rate,” according to a Greenpeace Canada press statement.

Hardly anyone has drawn more media coverage worldwide to protecting the Stoltmann than Betty Krawczk, a 71 year-old grandmother and one of the protesters arrested and sentenced in September to 365 days in prison for blockading logging trucks in the Upper Elaho. It is a harsh punishment by Canadian standards, the longest sentence ever delivered in the Province for such an offense. She says that as a grandmother and great grandmother she had to do it, and while not happy about giving up her precious retirement days to sit in jail, she would do it again.

As a concession, recognizing public alarm at cutting down 1,000 year-old trees, Interfor spokesperson Steve Crombie reported to the Vancouver Sun, “we won’t cut trees which are over 900 years old anymore.” Apparently logging 850 year-old trees will continue.

“They’re nuking the hell out of that place,” says Northwest Ecosystem Alliance’s Joe Scott, referring to the logging destruction he witnessed on a recent trip to the Stoltmann.

Confusion and Politics

Under pressure from conservationists, the resort municipality of Whistler along with local business organizations commissioned a study to evaluate the effects on the local economy of the proposed Stoltmann wilderness area. The One Whistler report, released last August, gave a thumbs up to protecting the area, stating many more jobs would be created by preserving the Stoltmann as a wilderness park than would be maintained by logging it. Despite its findings however, pressure from logging interests forestalled a decision by the Whistler municipality council on whether to recommend protection for the Stoltmann. Complicating matters further, the logging community of Squamish, upset over the One Whistler report, commissioned its own study, Economic Impact of the Forest Industry on the Squamish Region, which found contradictory results, particularly in salaries, finding a loss of jobs and economic benefit should the Stoltmann be designated protected.

“I believe that eventually the municipality (of Whistler) will take a position. For now it is still being studied. We are concerned about social impacts on neighboring communities,” says Diana Waltmann of Whistler municipality. Whistler mayor Hugh O’Reilly is said to support protection, according to environmental groups.

Concerned too are the rightful owners of some key areas in the Stoltmann region including the Elaho and Sims Creek valleys. The Squamish First Nation “has been cautious about weighing in,” says Chris Player of WCWC. “They are supportive of preservation and are starting to do their own inventories in the area including cultural resources.”

Last fall members of the Squamish First Nation carved and erected a large totem, the Cedar Woman, on a 22-km hiking trail into the Elaho. She watches over the valley and reminds visitors of its importance to its aboriginal people. Squamish cultural teacher Aaron Nelson Moody took about a year to carve the 10-foot figure. The trail winds through spectacular groves of ancient red cedar and Douglas fir that include the 1,300 year-old “Elaho Giant,” one of the largest Douglas fir trees in Canada, and passes by clusters of alpine lakes, finally terminating at Meager Hot Springs. The Elaho Valley is the largest old-growth forest in southern B.C., and the longest continuous stretch of forests ranging from low to high elevation in the B.C. lower mainland.

The Squamish seem to have been the most influential in curbing logging in the Stoltmann. When First Nation representatives finally told Interfor to stop building a road further north in the Elaho Valley last September, Interfor stopped, temporarily anyway. Interfor is currently in talks with the Squamish regarding logging plans in their territory.

“We’ve never been at the table before,” says Moody. “in the last couple of years we’ve been, I guess, asserting our rights. Now they are finally starting to recognize them.”

Joe Foy of WCWC is hopeful regarding First Nation influence and says his group would support alternative designation of the Stoltmann as a tribal park reserve. He is not so optimistic about possible B.C. government protective intervention.

“The prospects for government representatives doing anything positive [regarding protection] are next to nil, especially with a new crop of anti-environmental elected officials (the Alliance Party),” says Foy. “Hopefully, we’ll have a more liberal crop by spring. Meanwhile, every year, the logging continues. There are only so many years left.”

Preserving Wilderness Riches: Percentages Real and Rhetorical

The B.C. government proudly announced last month that with the designation of 65,000-acre Snowy Provincial Park on the Canadian/Washington border in the Northeast Cascades, and others in Canada’s Okanogan desert, the Province finally reached its goal of preserving 12 percent of British Columbia, the first Canadian province to attain that mark. The government strove for 12 percent because that was the figure set forth in an international forum in a U.N. report by Norway’s premier, as a goal for developed countries. The report was admittedly not based in science. Parks comprised just 6 percent of B.C. back in 1991. But controversy surrounds interpretation of whether 12 percent should be saved of the total land-base, or of all ecosystems. And there is the concern that the 12 percent figure is arbitrary and ought not be applied to B.C., given its disproportionately high bounty compared with the rest of the world. Southern Alaska, also resource rich, has set aside more than 40 percent of its land, while the lower 48 and nearly every other developed country falls far short of 12 percent.

B.C. Premier Ujjal Dosanjh emphasized that the 12-percent goal is “just a number,” increasing forest industry worries that the government intends to further restrict logging in the province. Dosanjh wants to see as much of the province protected as possible to ensure a sustainable environment and forest industry, and refuses to commit to holding park creation at 12 per cent, a goal set by the province in 1992. According to a report to the Vancouver Sun, a second phase of park creation could begin very soon.

Only about 20 percent of the Stoltmann area is forest and only 10 percent has timber value, according to Chris Player of WCWC. Most of it is mountain and glacier. British Columbia could conceivably preserve much more than 12 percent of the land base and never protect any treed areas. Groups like WCWC are concerned that while the government is protecting mountaintops, it is not preserving the biologically rich lower valleys.

“Most of what is protected is usually unusable forests, of low habitat value,” explains Player.


Skiing the Bears Away at Melvin Creek

Adjacent to the proposed Stoltmann, further up the road, and more remote, is the proposed Lillooet protected area. WCWC has been trying to obtain protected status for this region for nearly 30 years, longer than any other. In addition to the threat of continued logging in the area, former ski champion Nancy Greene Raine has forwarded plans to develop a massive ski resort in a fragile high mountain pass in the Lillooet area at Melvin Creek that environmentalists say would have far more devastating impacts on grizzly bears and the regional environment than the Whistler/Blackcomb resort ever had.

The Melvin Creek area is home to coastal B.C.’s southernmost robust grizzly bear population, and constitutes a proposed grizzly recovery corridor. It is also home to herds of mountain goats, wolves and other large wildlife. Some think it could be an important link to wilderness further south in Washington’s North Cascades where grizzly bears are struggling. Those grizzlies along the Washington/B.C. border have been identified as the most threatened by the Canadian government.

But Doug Zimmer, subcommittee chair of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Management Committee for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes the North Cascades bears are destined to be forever on a wilderness island. Development of southern B.C.’s lower valleys has severely diminished habitat, cutting off the range and essentially isolating the U.S. North Cascades grizzlies.

Southern B.C. grizzly bears fare better than their northern counterparts, they are more reproductive and larger. But loss of habitat has made them scarce. While Washington has prime habitat and protection, it has few grizzlies and their numbers are declining. One U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official called that grizzly population “a phantom.”
Island or not, both Joe Scott of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and Zimmer agree that the North Cascade grizzly bear population is unsustainable without augmentation through importation of bears. Recovery plan recommendations developed in 1992 by U.S. and Canadian representatives call for bringing in young healthy breeding females from similar habitat further north in coastal B.C. Zimmer says that without bringing in new bears, grizzlies will become extinct in the U.S. North Cascades in less than 30 years. Augmentation takes many years and cannot occur without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and that has not yet been started for lack of funds.

Zimmer says it will take about $2.8 million and five years to complete the process before downward trends in population can begin to be reversed.

Meanwhile, Melvin Creek developers received the go-ahead from the B.C. government to proceed with preparing plans for the four-season resort including an environmental assessment, despite opposition from the St’at’imc First Nation. St’at’imc members have been picketing the Canadian Venture Exchange in Vancouver daily since August of last year to discourage potential investors from financing the resort. Without local First Nation support, government approval would be considered tenuous and the investment risky.

The stalemate in the Lillooet is a political one. First Nation members currently comprise the majority of residents in the Lillooet region and recognize that the development of the Melvin Creek resort, on par or greater than world-class Whistler/Blackcomb, would increase the non-native population many times, dwarfing the political clout of indigenous people.

“The fundamental reason why there is a dispute between the aboriginal peoples in Interior B.C., and the Nancy Greene Raine Consultants Inc. is because of damages her company would create to the pristine wilderness which the people of British Columbia are fortunate to have in their backyard,” states a press release from the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.


New Push for Canadian Endangered Species Protection

Until now Canadian law has woefully lacked protection for endangered species, despite a recent poll showing a whopping 94 percent of Canadians would support endangered species legislation, 79 percent favoring mandating government protection. The poll also shows large numbers of rural Canadians favor the protection even if it means limiting activities of resource-extraction industries and paying higher taxes.

The Liberal government introduced a Species at Risk Act last year, but it died when the prime minister called a fall election. Environment Minister David Anderson just re-introduced the bill in February.

Hanging in the balance are the critters and the wilderness that supports them. If spotted owls are indicative of the health of old-growth forests, grizzly bears can be considered a sign of intact wide-ranging wilderness. In southern B.C., they’re struggling, the fate of their habitat pending. It could go either way. If WCWC and other conservation organizations get their wish — full protection for the Stoltmann and Lillooet areas, and for endangered species in the south — the wilderness will have ceased to retreat, at least for now. But, should logging companies and Nancy Greene Raine be given the right to seize their booty, the edge of wilderness will creep that much further north, and the North Cascades parks will become further isolated on a wilderness island.