Killing the golden goose

By Briony Penn, September 2013

Government’s reluctance to limit logging in wilderness areas makes no sense when you do the math.

Somewhere around July of 2005, the tourism sector in British Columbia, for the first time in history, outstripped the forestry sector in GDP—in fact it outstripped all sectors including oil and gas—and hasn’t relinquished that position. 

During the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, the GDP of forestry only increased 6 percent while tourism increased 23 percent. Vancouver Island and Vancouver Coast and Mountains regions attracted most (79 percent) of that tourism activity for BC, so the hot spot is right here on the coastal islands. In 2011, tourism on Vancouver Island increased 4 percent in just 12 months alone, beating all other industries hands down. 

These statistics come from a recent government report called The Value of Tourism. One would think that smart government analysts would naturally prioritize budgets and land use decisions around the growth sectors. 

Yet British Columbia’s government is not doing that, which is surprising given it is led by a party that ran on a platform of jobs, jobs, jobs. So why not? 

Ralph Keller, owner of Coast Mountain Expeditions in the Discovery Islands for 27 years, asked that question five years ago when timber companies began in earnest to liquidate the wilderness that people were coming to his lodge to see. Many Victorians will be familiar with the Discovery Islands, which lie between Campbell River and Desolation Sound and include Quadra and Cortes along with many other lesser-known islands. Only a few hours drive from Victoria, they attract many of the eight million residents of the Salish Sea, along with international visitors. People go there to kayak, fish, sail, eat fresh seafood, watch grizzlies, beachcomb, wander under the old growth and gaze at the views. One of Keller’s guests, Francois, makes a typical comment: ”Coming from far away France, I couldn’t think of a better introduction to Canada than these islands, some of the last gems of our crowded and drifting planet.” 

Such tourists don’t travel from France to see clearcuts, hear chainsaws and avoid log booms in their kayaks. As Keller says, “In today’s sophisticated tourism market with tools like Google maps and TripAdvisor, people are checking out for themselves where they can find first-class wilderness and if they don’t see it, they don’t come.”  

So Keller talked to the other operators around the Discovery Islands and they started to do the math. There are over 120 tourism companies from lodges to marinas, which are completely dependent on tourism in the area. In just this collection of islands, the 120 businesses generate directly $22.3 million in revenue each year and employ 625 people full-time or seasonally full-time. Since the vast majority of these businesses are family operations like the Kellers, half the employment activity isn’t even captured in these statistics. If you add up self-employed business owners and contractors then the stats for jobs double. If you add in Campbell River businesses which rely on the Discovery Islands for their tourist clientele, those figures double again. 

The Discovery Islands came in as the second most lucrative marine wilderness destination in BC after Tofino/Pacific Rim for provincial tax revenues. So it’s no surprise that Victoria, as the entry port for island tourism depends on the Discovery Island/Tofino destinations for a large portion of its tourism dollars. The argument for good management of wilderness, therefore, lies very close to home.

Let’s compare tourism revenues with what logging brings in—a sector that government statistics say only represents 11 percent of the overall GDP activity for the region. Tourism operator Breanne Quesnel who has been operating the Spirit of the West Adventures Company for 17 years with her husband and business partner, demonstrates a typical comparison, using her own business base at Cracroft Island, which is directly opposite Robson Bight, the world-famous orca marine reserve. This area brings in millions annually in whale watching and ecotourism revenues. Quesnel has calculated that their one operation employs 656 person days of employment annually. 

According to Timberwest estimates, who have the lease to log the west slopes all around her operation, a one-off three-month contract for five logging contract workers is pretty much all the logging promises. There is little value-added since half of the wood from southern Vancouver Island gets exported as raw logs offshore. There is little stability because those contractors turn up for a few months then leave and never come back. Says Quesnel, “If it is a numbers game, we win hands down in jobs, revenue and taxes—every year, not just once every 100 years!”

Once they had built their business case, Keller, Quesnel and the other 120 businesses organized themselves into the Discovery Islands Marine Tourism Group, and met with district forest managers and companies to present their economic arguments about why logging impacts in the view corridors needed to be reduced. 

After two years of such meetings, they were told that there was nothing the leaseholders or district managers could do and that it was a ministerial matter. So in November of 2011, they sent a letter to Steve Thomson, then (and now) minister responsible for forests and Pat Bell, then minister responsible for tourism. They had three moderate requests: that at least one of them come to the Discovery Islands and meet with them to see and hear their concerns first-hand; that a hold be put on the proposed viewshed logging in the three remaining unimpacted marine corridors until after the meeting; and that government strike a land-use committee of stakeholders to negotiate the demands of the different major economic interests.

More than a year later, prior to the election, Pat Bell, finally told the Discovery Island operators that it wasn’t his job and to go back to the companies. Meanwhile Steve Thomson approved the BC Timber Sales’ tendering of the road building and logging in one of the three last intact corridors, the Lower Okisollo Channel, which connects Octopus Islands Provincial Park, Surge Narrows Marine Park and the tidal rapids at Cooper Point—pristine wilderness areas visited by tens of thousands of visitors annually. There was no shift in the existing logging intensity in the region. 

Over on Cracroft, Timberwest wouldn’t budge on clearcutting plans for the slopes around Breanne Quesnel’s operation despite various offers from the couple, including buying the net value of the trees to allow them to stand. 

Frustrated with the lack of responsiveness to their concerns, the operators went to the media and things started to change. The election saw a shift in the cabinet and the file was passed on to Naomi Yamamoto, the new minister for small business and tourism.

At the end of this July, an inter-ministerial delegation of public servants went on a day-long boat tour of the region and lodges for a fact-finding mission with tourism reps. Keller reported to Focus on the results of that day from a satellite phone on his boat (it is the height of his season and he’s touring officials as well as his guests). “It seemed productive. They were suitably impressed! The delegation wanted to meet again in a month. But meanwhile, the logging is poised to start as soon as the first rains come in September.” Yamamoto’s office responded with a promise to Focus of an interview with the minister when she returned from holidays at the end of August, stating that the fact-finding mission was consulting various stakeholders in the region and would report back in September. 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Forests appointed staff to review the visual quality objectives for all the tourism hot spots and make recommendations to the minister. Visual quality objectives (VQOs) are guidelines brought in to reduce the visual impact of clear cuts in high tourism corridors by locating cutblocks behind ridges in the view line. As Keller says, “This is a good step, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be confidence that what they say is going to happen will actually happen on the ground.” As an example, Keller cites skepticism around current ministry claims—and computer models illustrating—that the visual quality impacts of proposed cutblocks on Maurelle Island will be minimal. He points to the cutblocks on neighbouring Stuart Island, just across the channel from Maurelle: “The computer-generated VQO’s for Stuart Island didn’t look as bad as [the reality], so none of us trust the system. This view underscores the mistrust. And these cutblocks are going on everywhere.”

The lack of trust that companies will follow rules is not just confined to the VQOs. On Sonora Island, Timberwest, for instance, was supposed to follow guidelines on old growth retention under the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. When Fern Kornelsen and Ross Campbell of Mothership Adventures stumbled over flagging tapes in groves of endangered old growth trees, Timberwest had to “about face” and admit they had neither prepared high level plans identifying the endangered forest types nor even had a scientifically-accepted definition of old growth. Their definition was that “old growth forest becomes a second growth forest when younger trees growing up under the canopy of the ancient trees get bigger.” On both counts they have been sent back to the drawing board to try again. 

Mothership Adventures paid for the forest consultants to verify that Timberwest wasn’t doing their job and Timberwest is now revising plans. As Kornelsen states, “Why do citizens have to be the watch dogs over companies at their own expense? It is not our job; it is the forestry ministry’s, but it’s useless.”  

As Keller points out, the trouble is that even though the Discovery Island tourist operators’ demands are reasonable (“we aren’t even asking for parks, just a higher land use plan which recognizes the importance of the tourism sector to the economy”), the forest minister is limited in what he can do, because government gave away so many powers to regulate—including oversight. In 2003, radical changes were made to the Forest and Range Practices Act: Government threw away its responsibility to monitor and regulate. Instead, they rely on professional contractors, which is only as good as the professionals’ ability to distance themselves from the very small number of large corporate employers. Says Keller, “They’ve boxed themselves into a corner. What they need to do, especially in these hot-spot tourism areas, is identify the tourism values and get back control of these Crown lands for the public good.” 

The real question for Keller and others is: why would a government touting itself as pro-business, pro-jobs, with sound economic management, kill the golden goose? If the minister doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer in September, what is the group going to do? “Go back to the media,” Keller states. “We had National Geographic just up here rating us as one of the top places in North America to visit. Everybody else is seeing the real values here but the government. I thought these guys were businessmen but they’re back in the last century.” 

 

See www.DiscoveryIslandsTourism.org for more information.

Briony Penn has worked part time in the marine ecotourism industry on the coast for over 20 years. Such work provides an important part of her income as other sectors that she works in—environmental education, journalism and art—decline.