Jack Knox: ‘Generational amnesia’ softens fight for forests

Jack Knox mugshot genericMaybe if they scattered Pokémon Go characters among Vancouver Island’s forests, people would notice the loss of old-growth trees.

Or maybe our treehugger stereotype is outdated.

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Or maybe we’re so over-stimulated by a steady diet of daily crises — terror attacks, drunken airline pilots, doping at the Olympics, Melania Trump’s plagiarism, the Taylor-Kanye feud — that it’s hard to get worked up about stories that take longer than a day or two to sort out. Maintaining a constant state of social media-driven self-righteous outrage can be exhausting. We’re built for sprints now, no longer have the stamina for marathons.

Which is what came to mind the other day when the Sierra Club of B.C. warned that “high and increasing old-growth logging rates on Vancouver Island will lead to an ecological and economic collapse unless the B.C. government changes course.”

The environmental group wants the provincial government to phase out the cutting of ancient trees and speed the transition to what it calls sustainable, value-added, second-growth logging.

This sort of story used to send Islanders flying to the barricades (to which they would then chain themselves). Carmanah, Walbran, Meares Island, the Texada lands on Salt Spring — the names of logging protests fall off the tongue like those of Second World War battlefields.

The future of the forests was once seen as being inextricably linked with the identity, economy and culture of the Island, and the resulting tugs-of-war were big news, not just here but abroad. In 1993, the legendary War in the Woods, the massive campaign against Clayoquot Sound logging, drew international attention as 850 protesters were charged. Activist rockers Midnight Oil —whose big, bald singer, Peter Garrett, later became Australia’s environment minister — played a concert at the protesters’ camp. Environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy, Jr. (another kind of rock star) waded into the fray. International pressure, the threat of boycott, eventually contributed to B.C. forestry reform.

It would be wrong to drag out some “if a tree falls in the forest” metaphor and say nobody cares about this stuff anymore. They do — and in the mainstream, too. In May the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of hemp-hatted hippies, called on the province to expand protection of old-growth forests in areas where they have, or are likely to have, greater economic value if left standing.

Also, the recent agreement over the future of logging on the central coast — what the romanticists like to call the Great Bear Rainforest — shows the maturation of the process, demonstrates what can be done when the players choose collaboration and negotiation over confrontation.

Still, the sense of urgency, the buzz that once pushed the issue to the front of the public’s consciousness, is absent.

The Sierra Club’s Jens Wieting cites a couple of potential factors. First, the subset of people who might usually be expected to bang the drum are invested elsewhere, often in issues related to climate change: LNG, oil pipelines, the Site C dam.

Yet the preservation of ancient trees, which serve as a carbon sink, is key to that issue, he argues. A 2009 Sierra Club report estimated Vancouver Island old-growth logging has cost almost six times as much carbon as B.C. puts out in a year.

“We need the forests in the fight against climate change,” Wieting says.

He also talks about what B.C. writer J.B. MacKinnon called the 10 Per Cent World, one in which people are used to having just a fraction of the natural diversity and abundance as they had before. We suffer from “generational amnesia,” forgetting what was in the past and accepting what we see today as normal. Remember that a century ago the Island was covered in old growth, Wieting says.

A Sierra Club analysis found that between 2004 and 2015, a total of about 100,000 hectares of old growth were cut, leaving only about 384,000 hectares of “relatively productive, unprotected old-growth rainforest ecosystems.” At that rate, it won’t take long to run out, robbing the Island of biodiversity, clean air and water, and long-term forestry jobs, it argues.

Sounds dramatic. Not Pokémon Go dramatic, but still …

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