Between a forest and a debt

By Briony Penn, May 2011

Will the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation log the ancient forests of Flores Island?

Nuu-chah-nulth territory, the edge of the world where Captain Cook decided to anchor his boat and step ashore, is back in the news again—indeed it has hardly been out of the news over the last 200 years. It has a habit of making us reconsider how the West relates to aboriginal cultures and the rich natural environment that supports their commitment to self-sufficiency.

The deep sheltered sounds and forests on the west coast of the Island have been branded as bonanzas for two centuries. From fur traders to sealers, miners to missionaries, and loggers to fish farmers, they come from all over the world. They come to conquer but inevitably fail. They come to domesticate and the wild inevitably wins. The priests’ feral cows, Cougar Annie’s dahlias, and the Norwegians’ Atlantic salmon don’t linger long. 

From the “friendly” people Cook met at Yuquot to “friendly” whales, the Nuu-chaal-nulth have captured the world’s attention, but have never been captured themselves. These were also the first people to stand up against industrial logging at Meares Island and forge the first alliances with the environmental movement. Their protests led to the largest number of arrests for civil disobedience in Canada and the creation of a World Biosphere Reserve. 

Now, the Nuu-chah-nulth are back in the spotlight again with news of a different sort: their potential logging of Flores Island by Iisaak, the Nuu-chah-nulth-owned logging company.

On April 5, the Ministry of Forests issued a road permit for Iisaak Forest Resources to build 2.5 kilometres of logging road. Iisaak, meaning “respect,” jointly created in 1998 with Macmillan Bloedel, is now fully-owned by the five nations of the Central Region First Nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, including the three from Clayoquot Sound: Ahousaht, who have a reserve on Flores; the Tla-o-qui-aht, who are based around Meares Island; and the Hesquiaht in northern Clayoquot and Toquaht and Ucluelet to the south.

Though once again testifying to the Nuu-chah-nulth’s indomitable spirit of self- determination, the road permit has rattled a memorandum of understanding forged in 1999 between five environmental groups (Greenpeace International, Greenpeace Canada, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club BC, and Natural Resources Defense Council) and Iisaak Forest Resources to avoid logging in pristine, intact areas like Flores Island. The agreement followed on the historic 1995 recommendations from the Clayoquot Scientific Panel.

A lot has happened since then. In 2001, Iisaak made news with the first Tree Farm License (TFL 57) to become Forest Stewardship Council-certified. In 2005, the Central Regional First Nations bought out Weyerhauser (formerly MacBlo), making it the first 100 percent aboriginal-owned TFL. The last ten years have seen as many watershed plans following the guidelines of the Scientific Panel. In the last two years, the communities and environmental groups have been exploring possibilities of developing a conservation financing package to enable full conservation of intact areas and improvement of logging practices in valleys that are already partially logged. Everything from carbon credits to ecotourism is being discussed. 

However, loans incurred in buying control of the TFLs from Weyerhauser and Interfor have put lots of pressure on Iisaak to log in order to service that debt—hence the Flores Island plan.

Amongst the environmental groups, says Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee, the news of the road permit “put everyone in a tough position.” Foy wanted to pull out of the agreement as his organization couldn’t support logging in these pristine areas. 

Valerie Langer, formerly with Friends of Clayoquot and now with ForestEthics, characterizes Iisaak’s position as “between a rock and a hard place.” As she observes, the debt has led the First Nations to have to log in places that they didn’t originally want to log. She also points out that “the chiefs are taking the hit for all the terrible management of forests on the rest of the island.” The real culprit, Langer suggests, is the Province, which has prioritized getting plans in place that would open up logging in Clayoquot Sound’s intact old-growth areas rather than responding to science and facilitating conservation along with community well-being. “The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations are leading in this regard, and government is dragging its heels,” she maintains.

Groups like Ecotrust, under Neil Hughes, have been working with the Central Region First Nations for over two years to model different land use scenarios other than business-as-usual cut blocks, but have been hampered by lack of funds. “What we want to create is the financial analysis of doing things differently so that First Nations can make the best decisions,” he says. All of the work done to date on modelling the carbon and other values has been funded by infrequent grants and foundation money with no assistance from government. 

Eli Ens, tribal administrator of Tla-o-qui-aht, says his community is moving ahead with long-term plans for a Tribal Park in its territory (which includes Meares Island, first declared a Tribal Park during protests in 1984). This designation would reduce the annual allowable cut and bring the best of science, traditional knowledge, and conservation financing to the concept. In order to make it work economically, the Tla-o-qui-aht have already established the ecotourism Guardian program, and are interested in bringing in additional revenue from other sources such as carbon and non-timber products. As Langer suggests, what is needed to make that happen is a government open to helping facilitate that in various ways: reforming old resource tenures, reducing the annual allowable cut, and, as a priority, establishing the legal framework around non-timber products, carbon and ecosystem services. Ens has also been encouraging regional relationships with other partners like the Ahousaht and the sharing of experiences.

Thomas Paul, resource manager for Ahousaht says that they have embarked on talks with the environmental organizations to explore conservation financing in the interim to resolve the Flores Island issue. At press time, Paul was heading into a conference call. As Valerie Langer states, “The environmental organizations have never been the decision-makers; the chiefs are. We are trying to provide something that is beneficial for both the communities and conservation, but, at the end of the day, it is their choice.”

Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator.