Activist standing alone in a forest

A Brief History of Forest Activism on Cortes Island

[researched and written by Mike Moore, edited and produced for radio by De Clarke]

Cortes Islanders are very aware that we live on an island. The landbase has a very defined perimeter with the ocean; but the way the land wraps around and encloses the island’s many harbours and bays means that the land has a very intimate and close connection with the ocean. We know that the land, lakes, creeks and ocean are all interrelated.

Standing on a Cortes beach allows one to see what is happening on the lands around us in a bigger perspective. From Smelt Bay, we could witness the clearcuts sprawling across the mountainsides on Vancouver Island. From either side of Sutil Point, we could see the pulp mills in Campbell River and Powell River belching steam and smoke into the sky.

Industrial clearcut on Vancouver Island, Vancouver Island Big Trees website

And being a community that harvests both wild and farmed shellfish, we also knew that those pulp mills were polluting the ocean and threatening our livelihoods. Reach for Unbleached! — a campaign to promote the use of unbleached paper products — began in 1991 right here on Cortes Island, after dioxin contamination from pulp mills using chlorine compounds closed many shellfish beds on the BC coast. Alongside this campaign, the Friends of Cortes were instrumental in publishing the Watershed Sentinel, with the first issue going out in January 1991. This magazine continues to this day as an independent eye reporting on environmental issues affecting us locally and globally. 

As the editorial from their first issue explains, “We all live in a watershed; we all live in a series of watersheds nested inside one another like Chinese boxes. Water runs from the land and road beside my house into the ditch, which drains into the creek, which tumbles its way into the sea at Whaletown Lagoon…. When we each look after our watersheds, the earth will look after herself. And us.”

Hague/Gunflint Watershed map, Friends of Cortes Island

Of course this all happened at the same time as the Squirrel Cove protest and blockade against Mac&Blo [Macmillan Bloedel]. Cortes Islanders felt ourselves under siege by corporate forestry giants both at land and at sea. But with imagination and passion this community was ready to resist corporate profiteering from our natural environment.

Cortes Logging Protest, 2011, Watershed Sentinel

In the mid 2000’s, Forestry parcels began to be sold off to gyppo loggers. As the Bartholemew Road cutblocks were being cleared, the logger attempted to get approval to subdivide; but the Cortes community pushed back against “Log and Flog” tactics. Through public meetings and a petition, the community was able to block the rezoning of these lands so that they would stay zoned as forestry and not be subdivided into residential lots.

My memory of the time was that “we would rather look at clearcuts that will eventually grow back with time, than see the land divided up into little lots” — and lost to the forestry economic landbase, while making huge profits for the developers. By not allowing those lands to be rezoned, the community set a clear precedent and message: loggers would be forced to pay taxes (however low forestry land taxes are) on unproductive clearcut land, or sell it as F1 forestry land at a much lower profit than residential lots would yield. There certainly is an appetite within the community for more housing opportunities on the island, especially for low cost housing. But potential loggers and developers of forestry land need to consult with the community first before any cutting begins. 

This is in contrast with a proposal made by Cortes community members for the Siskin Lane and Eco-initiative lands. These local developers presented the community with a plan and asked for public input, and only then went through the rezoning process to take the lands out of F1 Forestry before any cutting or development was done. Both properties to varying degrees provided both higher end and lower cost islander-friendly opportunities for purchase as well as trails designated for public use.

At the same time that these developments were going on, Hank’s Beach — which has high community recreation value — had been sold off as forestry lands to a private buyer who was going to build on it and deny community access. Renewal Land Co, who was also developing the Siskin Lane lands, was able to purchase the Hank’s Beach lands off of the private owner and then Renewal gifted the lands to the Cortes Island community. It is now operated as a regional park.

In August 2013 the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources finally issued a Community Forest Agreement, covering approximately 3,869 hectares of Cortes Crown Land, to the Cortes Forestry General Partnership. The negotiations for this agreement had been in process since the summer of 1999 when the Cortes Ecoforestry Society and Klahoose First Nation signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to create an ecologically managed community forest encompassing 2/3 of the island.

Now that those forest lands are in the hands of the community through the Forestry Partnership, we have had to continually evolve our logging practices to
(a) satisfy the needs of being economically viable,
(b) practice forestry within the parameters of eco-forestry management and community acceptance, and
(c) satisfy the Ministry of Forest’s demands that we log the annual allowable cut volume. This is a target cut figure the Ministry sets, which is much too high and goes against ecoforestry guidelines and community wishes.
Our Forestry Partnership provides local jobs, supplies the island mills with logs and provides firewood cutting opportunities to islanders — while respecting sensitive ecosystems, wildlife corridors, climate change and human recreation and cultural use.

Local logs for local mills, Cortes Community Forest Co-op

Mosaic, on the other, hand is proposing logging far in excess of what is ecologically suitable. They are talking about taking 60-80% of the annual growth as predicted by their most optimistic estimates of their most productive lands — and they plan to do that annually for the next 3 years at least. Very few jobs will be created for islanders, and most of the logs will leave the island and probably the country..

In some ways, Cortes Islanders are in a strong position for negotiating; we are well known for our activism and were once labelled as “Socially Inoperable” by IT. But we are also in the process of negotiating with Mosaic for the Children’s Forest.

Indeed, perhaps the highest goal for Mosaic’s private forestry lands would be an outright purchase, so that sensitive areas could be protected and suitable forestry land could be managed in conjunction with existing community forest lands.

But the first step is for open public consultation with Mosaic. Please keep an eye out for a community meeting with Mosaic being proposed for later in April.

To help readers understand the scale of the problem, here are a couple of maps (from Sierra Club BC) showing original (pre-settler) old growth forests in our bioregion, and that same region as of 2017. Logging has intensified since 2017.

[Featured Image: Cortes Islanders Rejoice as IT temporarily withdraws logging crew, Ancient Forest Alliance.]

This article was originally published on April 4 and reposted April 8th to be in the front page line-up for the Saturday Roundup,