Man and woman in the woods

Cortes Island Ancient Forest #3: Delight Lake Watershed

Originally published on Heartwood, Field Notes

One of the challenges that communities such as Cortes Island face when negotiating with logging companies on behalf of the forests is that they are often not even sharing the same language.

The timber companies think in terms of cost-benefit analyses, risk management, and cubic meters of timber—terms that are quantifiable and can be translated into quarterly returns for shareholders. To them, the forest itself is just a store of value that gradually appreciates as the forest grows bigger each year. The timber companies cannot actually realize that value until the timber is harvested and the resource is liquidated. According to the Wall Street Journal, in these times of volatile markets, ultra-wealthy investors are looking to timberlands—not for recreational purposes—but as a hedge against inflation.

If this way of thinking about the forest seems foreign to you, imagine how it must feel for rural communities that have inhabited these forest lands for over a century—not to mention First Nations, who have been nourished by the forest for millennia. Many Cortesians that I have met possess an almost mystical connection with the forest—one that is unquantifiable and deeply spiritual. Forest communities also have a heightened awareness of the innumerable ecological services and non-monetary qualities of a healthy living forest.

Take for instance the Delight Lake Watershed, which has been purifying the water for the inhabitants of Cortes Island—human and otherwise—since the last ice age. When the rains fall, the water is filtered through the roots of the trees, as well as the underground network of mushroom mycelium, and collects into wetlands and lakes. This matrix of mycelium—what mycologist Paul Stamets calls, “the interface between life and death”—is also busy decomposing organic matter and transforming it into nutrients and fertile soil, from which life is able to spring once again. Meanwhile, the tree roots are holding the topsoil together, preventing it from being washed away from the solid bedrock into the ocean. And aboveground, the trees are busy cleaning the air by breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen—one of our best defenses against climate change.

These are just a few examples (that we are aware of) of the ecological services that a forest provides. And it does all this naturally, asking for nothing in return—except to be allowed to stand. But none of these values factor into Island Timberlands’ equations, because they cannot translate them into revenue. And although the land is their “private property”, they certainly are not living anywhere near it, so they are not connected to it in the same physical way that Cortesians are. What little stewardship is being done is not done in the spirit of cultivating a healthy forest ecosystem, but with the sole intention of maximizing timber value.

That is why some forest advocates have begun to quantify some of these ecological services in order to be able to make an economic argument for leaving a forest standing. For instance, how much would it cost to build a water treatment facility on Cortes, and to transport in healthy topsoil, and to clean the air, and all the other things that a living forest does for humans? Or another argument I have heard is, how many people come to Cortes each year to experience the wildness of Cortes Island’s forests? How much money do these visitors spend on food, gas, shelter, and ecotourism? This number likely far exceeds the value that stays on Cortes when raw logs are taken from the forest and exported to foreign mills.

When you do the math, there really is a strong economic argument to be made for leaving ecosystems in tact and allowing them to continue providing the services that they naturally provide. And for some more economically minded folks out there, this argument may be very persuasive. Those who maybe aren’t as ecologically aware sometimes need to have those services quantified to be able to understand their value. But I truly believe that one walks a slippery slope when attempting to make an economic argument for preserving ecosystems.

The reason why big investment firms like Brookfield Asset Management, don’t consider the value of these ecological services in the first place is because they are non-monetary services. As long as the forests are standing, these services will continue to do their work for free. While the community may benefit, there is no profit that can be extracted. But what is to stop some savvy investor from harvesting the timber, contaminating the water supply, then starting up a bottled water company in order to sell bottled water to this new market that just opened up? This may seem far-fetched, but it’s the same logic of the oil and gas companies that are now drilling in the arctic—where global warming has melted the ice, revealing new petroleum deposits that were previously inaccessible.

So you can see how making a business case for preserving ecosystems may be a solid argument for forest communities that are thinking in terms of generations, but for shortsighted business tycoons that are being spurred by immense debt pressures, fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, and straight up greed, there is always going to be some other profit-making scheme that looks more attractive in the short-term, and will generate bigger quarterly returns.

At the end of the day, one can only quantify what one already understands or is aware of, and the more we learn about the old-growth forest, the more we realize how little we actually know. For one, there are thousands of species of mycelium living in the ground and in the trees that have yet to be categorized or even discovered. These rare or unknown mushrooms may hold the cure to untold diseases. Who knows what we have yet to discover about our ancient forests—what other profound services they provide to humans, of which we have yet to become conscious. And how does one even begin to quantify the psychic and spiritual healing that can be derived from a long walk in the woods?The answer is simply that these qualities of the forest are unquantifiable. So perhaps the right way to move forward is not for forest communities to try and speak the language of the timber companies, but for timber companies to learn the language of the forest—a more holistic language. And with new words come new ideas, whole new ways of thinking, and ultimately new business models.