Inside One Of British Columbia’s Disappearing Old Growth Rainforests

By Roy L Hales

screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3-43-47-pmMost of us have seen historical photographs of the great forests that once stood in British Columbia. Though his family has worked in the forestry sector for a century, Damien Gillis’ first view of a forest like this came during a six-day-trek into the Incomappleux Valley. The award winning Campbell River documentary film maker (Fractured Land, Oil in Eden) says, “it was like nothing I’ve seen before, just the way the ecosystem is really a cycle of life, death and rebirth right before your eyes.” Some of the trees he saw had been saplings around the time of the Roman Empire. The resulting documentary, Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux offers viewers a rare glimpse inside one of BC’s disappearing old growth rainforests.

Inside One Of British Columbia’s Disappearing Old Growth Rainforests

Still from Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux - courtesy Damien Gillis
Still from Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux – courtesy Damien Gillis

Speaking as someone who has been covering British Columbia’s forestry sector for two years now, I find the film both inspirational and eye opening.

“We’ve logged most of these really precious troves of biodiversity. At their peak, these temperate rainforests occupied 0.5% of the planet. So there was never really that many of them to begin with. British Columbia just happens to be a place where they thrived. We have both the coastal rainforest and this inland rainforest of the Kootenays. So much of that has been logged. On Vancouver Island we are down to 10% overall, of old growth forest, and in some case like Southern Island Douglas Fir it is down to 1%. We are still logging that at a pretty fast rate, 9,000 hectares a year on the island and the situation is similar in the Kootenays,” says Gillis.[1]

Logging The Province’s Decadent Forests

British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests perceives these old growth forests as decadent. They are replacing the indigenous forests with monoculture plantations of one or two marketable species. Gillis describes the resulting forest as “a poor human facimily of one of these perfect wild places that we could never create.”

Trees are often described as the lungs of our planet, but it takes a century for them to grow enough to fulfill this role and many forests are being cut on an 80 year rotation.

“It’s is really a double whammy. Your’re pumping a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere from the logging itself and then you’re taking away this capacity to sequester carbon for a century into the future and even at that you will never be anywhere close to what it was as an old growth forest,” says Gillis.

Selkirk Mountain Caribou Park Proposal

Craig Pettit, one of the founding Directors of the Valhalla Wilderness Society - courtesy Damien Gillis
Craig Pettit, one of the founding Directors of the Valhalla Wilderness Society – courtesy Damien Gillis

The Incomappleux’s old growth forest survived, in part because of it’s remote locaction in the province’s south eastern Selkirk Mountains. Now the Valhalla Wilderness Society is including it in their proposal for a 156,000-hectare Selkirk Mountain Caribou Park.

“There are three parks connected by our park proposal. One being Glacier National Park. The others (are) Goat Range Provincial Park and Bugaboo Provincial Park. So it captures old growth. It captures some wild unroaded valleys, which are largely unroaded because they are extremely dificult to access. So the timber in them has been deemed inoperable by the provincial government. In doing this we propose to protect very important habitat for grizzly bear, which are blue listed. Of course our mountain caribou, which are on the brink of extinction,” said Craig Pettit, one of the founding Directors of the Valhalla Wilderness Society.

He said that eight years ago there were 102 mountain caribou in this region; as of March 2016 there were 35.[2]

In the podcast above he and Damien talk about the caribou and some of the 40 other species at risk found within the Incomappleux. Roughly 11% of this valley is contained within the timber harvesting land base and approximately 2% of it has already been been logged.

They also talk about how British Columbia’s provincial government is subsidizing the logging of remote areas, like the Incomappleux, which would otherwise be too costly to clearcut. (Many American companies perceive this as enabling Canadian firms to dump low cost lumber onto their market.)

On a more emotional level, Gillis describes leaving the clearcut areas for the untouched Incomappleux as the inverse of what is described in Dante’s Inferno.

A Completely Different Area

“We’re walking through the outer edges of devastation and deeper into a beautful place…. I’m used to seeing clearcuts, having grown up on Vancouver Island. The real shock was the (primeval) forest itself and getting in there. There’s almost a doorway, the way we entered it. … There is a log that you cross over a creek leaving the last clearcut section behind and a little archway through the brush into this forest. Two or three steps on the other side and you are into this completely different world. It is a very sudden change. Everything: the look, the smell, the sounds, the feel of it – is completely different.”

They spent four days wandering through a forest. Gillis said it was difficult to know where to train his lens because there was so much to see.

“There are terms like nature deficit disorder, particularly with our youth. This speaks to this disconnection we have with nature,

There has not been any other period in human history when humanity has left such a huge visible human imprint on the landscape. Most people now live in cities or heavily industrialized places. We have lost touch with that experience of nature that has been fundimental to previous generations.

Gillis’ wife is an elementary school who takes her students camping in Vancouver’s Stanley Park every year. It is an eye opening experience because “most of these kids have never gone camping before.”

“That’s the most nature they have ever experienced and Stanley Park is nothing compared to the Incomappleux… We know, scientifically, that when you spend a lot of time in forests it reduces your blood pressure. And so, to be in a place like the Incomappleux you feel your heart rate slow down. Your stress washes away and you forget all the nagging little details of your day to day life. That stuff becomes, very quickly, unimportant … It is striking to me and indicative of how normalized this experience of being completely disconnected from nature has become in such a short time for our civilization,” he said.

“There are no losers or villains in this story. There is a company that holds the rights to log the valley but it is extremely uneconomical to log these places. They are so remote, the amount of truck ing involved, the logistics and these old trees don’t really provide a lot of valuable timber. If they were compensated for those licenses and able to move on to other places that made more sense, I think it would be fine for the company and make a great legacy for the government, something positive they could do. It wouldn’t hurt anybody and I think it would be universally appreciated,” said Damien.

Subsidizing Logging Old Growth Forests

Clearcut in the logged section of the Incomappleux valley - courtesy Damien Gillis
Clearcut in the logged section of the Incomappleux valley – courtesy Damien Gillis

He added, “I think if people really understood the degree to which we subsidize old growth logging, there would be a great deal of outrage. In these places where no logging company would expend the resources to log this relatively uneconomical timber we offer a huge discount on stumpage fees. .. Rates that are typically as high as $20 are discounted to as low as 25 cents. So we are talking about a hundred-fold discount in order to make it economical… These forests would not be logged if it were a true free market ..

“There are even situations called negative stumpage, which is just like it sounds …. it is a guarantee that if their total costs to harvest a particular cutblock end up being a greater value than the timber, then they get a credit to apply to a cutblock somewhere else.”

This is exactly the wrong direction to be going in right now… The forest sector needs to focus on the type of initiatives that will actually create good sustainable jobs in British Columbia and we should be leaving these ancient rare rainforests alone.”

Better Uses For The Money

The money that the government isn’t charging for stumpage rates could have been used that could have been used for schools and hospitals.

Now that Canada’s softwood lumber agreement with the United States has expired, these stumpage rates are proving to be a contentious issue in American markets. The U.S. Lumber Coalition claims British Columbia’s stumpage rates create an unfair advantage that enables us to dump lumber into the American market.

Gillis said this is happening at the same time that larger centralised logging corporations are replacing the small local companies of the past. As a result, there are fewer jobs coming out of the forests.

The film will have its world festival premiere during the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. You can see it at the Rio Theatre on Wed Nov 23, at 7:30pm (doors 6:30pm). There is another screening at the UBC Forest Science Center Nov 24 at 6:30.
This is part of the Valhalla Wilderness Society’s campaign to protect the Incomappleux by making it a provincial park. They recently launched a petition on that you can access here

Top Photo Credit: Still from Primeval: Enter the Incomappleux – courtesy Damien Gillis


  1. Roy L Hales interview with film maker Damien Gillis
  2. Roy L Hales interview with Craig Pettit, Directors of the Valhalla Wilderness Society

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