What was life like in the era before cell phones, computers and televisions. Did British Columbians feel closer to nature when they worked outside in the elements rather than within the artificial confines of a building? In this mornings program I ask Mike Manson, a descendant of one of Cortes Island’s oldest European families, and Mike Moore, one of our better known eco-tour guides, how public attitudes towards nature changed since the first settlers arrived.
People’s Attitudes Towards Nature Changed
There has been an even greater shift since 1792, when Captain George Vancouver wrote “an awful silence pervaded the gloomy forests” of Desolation Sound. He reported soil only capable of producing “a few small onions” and “a scanty crop of indifferent berries.” His crew tried their luck in the ocean, but “not a fish at the bottom could be tempted to take the hook.”
The First Settlers
Vancouver also wrote about vast stands of virgin timber, humpback whales, wildlife, and land free for the taking.
His writings spurred the wave of immigration that brought the first European settlers to Cortes Island.
Mike Manson’s grandparents were among them. The word “environment” was probably not in their vocabulary. Nor did they have access to the vast sources of information that we have today. Alone, with a gun and a few hand tools, John and Margaret Manson carved Sunny Brae Farm out of the wilderness.
Wolves preyed upon their sheep. Fearful that they might also attack humans, the Mansons made a safe place for Margaret in the attic of their first home. John eliminated the perceived threat in 1890, when he poisoned the last wolf on Cortes Island.
Ironically his grandson, Mike, was among those to witness the first evidence of the wolves return 82 years later. The carcasses of seven partially devoured sheep were found in a neighbour’s field.
Now wolves and humans co-exist on Cortes.
“We have sheep and I’ve built big fences. Six foot tall fences so I don’t have to worry about the wolves. My sheep always get locked up at night,” says Manson.
Wolves have never preyed upon his sheep.
“It is not an uncommon occurrence to hear them howling at night, or to be walking in the trails and see their scat, “ says Moore. “Cortes Island has one of the closest wolf human interfaces. For the most part, I think the attitude on the island is that we should co-exist. We know that top predators are really important as a keystone species,” says Moore.
The island’s other large predator, cougars, are seldom seen. They were hunted to near extinction by early settlers. The local population was starting to recover when the wolves returned.
“At one time, this coast was far more populated than it is now. There were little communities and farms all over the place. It wasn’t an easy way to make a living. In fact whole communities folded because the government did not live up to its promise to provide transport for agricultural products back to civilization,” says Mike Moore.
A surprising number inhabitants grow a significant amount of their own food. Some even sell their surplus to neighbours or the local food-co-op.
Mike Manson put aside his desire to farm the land for 27 years before he left surveying and returned to the ancestral plot on Cortes Island.
Fishing was once an important industry in the waters around Cortes. There was a cannery on Redonda Island by 1916. Mike Manson remembers seeing four trollers from his home most days during fishing season in the 1960s. One day there were seven.
“We don’t really have anybody who goes out and commercially trolls for salmon off of Cortes Island anymore. … There is prawn fishing in the area. Of course the mainstay for us is clams, oysters and mussels … The oceans just aren’t as productive as they once were,” says Moore.
“By the 1930’s this whole area had pretty much been cut down. If you stand back on a vessel, on a boat, and look at the shoreline of Cortes Island, you can look and will occasionally see a tree that seems to stand head and shoulders above the others. Those are some of the remnant old growth. There is very little of that around,” says Moore.
When MacMillan Bloedel came to clearcut at Squirrel Cove again, in 1990, they found more than 100 Cortes residents blocking the road. Consequently, this section of forest was not harvested.
“The next time Mac Blo came back they had to come up with a whole new paradigm. The next place they cut was what is now known as the Siskin Lane Properties. Instead of going in and clearcutting, they cut in cells. That allowed for a multi-age forest to persist. They weren’t selectively logging; they weren’t single tree extraction or anything like that. They were actually logging, but it was very small clearcuts which would rejuvenate being surrounded by more mature timber. The idea being that in 15 to 20 years they’d come back in and take another light pass.”
Now Cortes is being logged by an alliance of the island’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants.
“To some degree, we are in charge of our own forests, our own economy. We can choose how to sell the logs. Unfortunately it is still part of the timber supply area. It is still part of the B.C. economy in general. So the Minister of Forests calculates the annual allowable cut which I think far exceeds what the socially allowable cut would be. I would argue that it also exceeds what the allowable cut should be in regard to the environment and ecosystems that those tree grow in.”
If the Cortes Community Island Forest project succeeds, it will be a model for sustainable logging in British Columbia.
When People’s Attitudes Changed
Moore traces the shift in public attitude towards the environment to two British Columbian events in the 1990s.
The world’s attention focused on Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island, in 1993. More than 11,000 participated in the three-month-long protest against clearcut logging.
Another tipping point was the Reach for the Unbleached Campaign, spearheaded by the Cortes Island Seafood Association. Our area was surrounded by pulp mills: in Powell River, Campbell River and there were more pulp mills down in the straight of Georgia. They were pumping out pollutants that negatively impacted the quality and viability of the shellfish industry. The shellfish lobby’s response prompted regulators to make pulp mills clean up their output of dioxins and furans.
“That was a major shift, when environment starts taking precedent over the big industry model of economy and we see that persisting now where I sit on a tourism board for the Discovery Island Marine Tourism Group .… and we have over the course of the last five years been invited to hearings where forestry companies have exceeded the visual quality objectives in their cuts and because landscapes [and] view scapes are so important to tourism in the area … we have been invited to give testimony as to the impact on our clients and thereby our business and our economy..” said Moore.
Top Photo Credit: Ervin McKay at Sunny Brae Farm in 1926. Cougar Smith tracked the cougars from Sunny Brae to Hague Lake – photo courtesy Mike Manson
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 W. Kaye Lamb, The Voyage of George Vancouver, 1791–1795: Volumes I–IV ]