SEATTLE — The battle at Fairy Creek, a fight over some of the planet’s oldest trees, has raged for two summers and has led to the most arrests ever for a protest in modern Canadian history.
At stake is some of the last unprotected old-growth forest on the south end of Vancouver Island. Arrests have been ongoing all summer of opponents attempting to blockade the forest in and around the Fairy Creek watershed. The watershed itself is off-limits to cutting under a two-year pause enacted last June. But some of the biggest old-growth forest just outside those boundaries is being logged by Teal Cedar Products Ltd.
Tensions in the woods escalated last week, when a temporary ban on logging because of fire risk was lifted.
The Rainforest Flying Squad, as opponents call themselves, put out a pitch on social media for reinforcements at blockades and resistance camps. The loggers positioned their equipment to restart the cut.
Clashes with police have turned violent, with police and demonstrators alike airlifted to the hospital for treatment of injuries. In sworn affidavits logging opponents said they had been punched, pushed, kicked and their masks ripped off and faces pepper-sprayed by police.
Teal Cedar, based in Surrey, last spring sought and obtained an injunction in the Supreme Court of British Columbia that has allowed police to enforce so-called exclusion zones against demonstrators, to allow the company to pursue logging under its license, granted by BC Timber, an agency of the B.C. government.
While public access can’t be denied to public land, police under the injunction are charged with preventing people from obstructing, impeding, or interfering with logging work in the Fairy Creek watershed area.
Opponents have been using an ever-changing range of tactics to block access to the forest for logging. They have dug trenches and locked themselves in the bottom. Built tripods in the road with sitting platforms atop. Hoisted themselves up in treetops for tree sits. Locked their arms in concrete devices buried in the road or inside of tree stumps. They have suspended themselves from bridges, and built a beaver dam-like structure across the road inset with urine in jars and piled with feces.
Police have responded with tactical teams and airlifted ATVs by helicopter to access the most remote demonstrators. They have bulldozed camps, seized cars and opponents’ property, and denied media free access to observe, photograph and record events.
More than 185 complaints had already been filed with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as of Sept. 8, including reports of excessive use of force, lack of police identification, refusal of medical attention and inappropriate interference with legal observers and the media.
The battle over the rainforests of Vancouver Island started 30 years ago. The fight back then was over the old growth at Clayoquot Sound, and was marked with more than 900 arrests of logging opponents. The arrests over Fairy Creek’s old growth have by now surpassed that and are nearing 1,000.
Opponents last spring began working to frustrate the cut with peaceful blockades, tree sits and demonstrations that have drawn .
The rainforests of coastal B.C. are jewels unique to their place, nurtured by drenching rains in winter and sea fog in summer. Lichen in the canopy take nitrogen straight from the air, holding it in their tissues where rain and fog drip carry it to the soil. Some of the lichen species here are found only on old-growth trees — just one of the beautiful associations in a complex ecological system that has evolved over thousands of years. Losing parts will affect the whole.
Marbled murrelets tagged in Washington have been heard calling in forests here scheduled to be logged, and so have western screech owls, a threatened species, said Royann Petrell, emeritus biologist at the University of British Columbia. “This is the habitat that is under siege,” she said at a recent news conference of scientists opposed to the logging here.
Also at risk are rare species including northern goshawk, western toads, northern red legged frogs and brown bats.
An independent panel in 2020 convened by the B.C. government for a review of old-growth forest management called in a report released last April for a new approach, including immediate deferral of cutting in old forests where ecosystems are at very high risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.
Yet the province is continuing to cut the last of its old growth. “We need international attention to this issue,” said Suzanne Simard, professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia and author of “Finding the Mother Tree.” “These are the world’s forests.”
About 75% of the forest is more than 250 years old, and the most venerable trees are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. One yellow cedar has been measured at nearly 10 feet in diameter — one of the top 10 largest trees known to exist in Canada.
This nearly 3,000-acre Fairy Creek watershed is unprotected, other than by a two-year deferral on cutting enacted last June at the request of several First Nations. But the old-growth trees immediately adjacent to the watershed and near it are available for logging now, under cutblocks and roads permitted by BC Timber.
Simard’s pioneering research has revealed complex workings of old-growth forests that make them of unique value for biodiversity and forest health. Big, old trees also are an irreplaceable bulwark against climate change because of their unmatched capacity to store carbon.
And old growth already is vanishingly rare in the province — and going fast. Less than 1% of the forest left in the province is composed of the productive ground growing massive old trees, some more than 1,000 years old, including coastal temperate rainforests on Vancouver Island.
Unlike the U.S., which outlawed cutting old growth on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and California with the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, it’s still open season on the unprotected rainforests of B.C.
A ruling on July 20 by Justice Douglas Thompson of the Supreme Court of British Columbia found the police tactics at Fairy Creek to be unlawful.
“These police actions have seriously and substantially impacted important liberties within the injunction area, including the ability of individuals to circulate freely, and freedoms of assembly and expression, including freedom of the press,” the ruling states. “ … It follows that the RCMP do not have legal authority for these actions.”
Sgt. Chris Manseau, division media relations officer for the B.C. RCMP Communication Services, said in an email to The Seattle Times: “… we have continued to provide media and public access to the area, based on each day’s police enforcement activities. The Commanders in charge of the operation liaise regularly with legal counsel to ensure we continue to align our operations with the judge’s directions.”
But Matthew Nefstead, an attorney based in Victoria, on behalf of three logging opponents filed another complaint in the Supreme Court of British Columbia last week. He called out police actions including denying vehicle access to the logging area, arresting and removing opponents who are not violating the injunction, and using excessive force, including pepper spray, punching and choking of demonstrators.
Police also are denying media access by designating media observation areas distant from events, limiting media access to the sites by car, requesting that media be accompanied by RCMP escorts, and arresting media members without cause, according to the complaint.
“The RCMP appear to have gone beyond their role as impartial enforcers … and have instead engaged in a campaign to terminate the movement to protect the ancient forests of Fairy Creek, and to limit the ability of the media to document the events,” the complaint stated.
That action is scheduled to be heard in B.C. Supreme Court this week. A second action brought by the logging company will seek to extend the injunction, which expires Sept. 26.
Teal Cedar did not respond to repeated requests for comment.