Last week American forest conservationist Josh Wright discovered a giant Western redcedar on Vancouver Island that has since been dubbed the “Knight Tree.”
Wright lives on the Olympic Peninsula but grew up with the old growth on Southern Vancouver Island. He was involved with the Fairy Creek movement and told The Westshore that he “spent the past five or so years watching place after place, there, get destroyed by logging.”
The Knight tree stands on unceded Ditidaht territory in Caycuse Valley an area known for its old growth and the logging protests that took place and began in 2020 and continued for well over a year.
Vera Edgar-Cook, a Ditidaht elder told The Westshore, “I’m sad to see all the logging that’s happening in our area. I get, I guess, a sense of devastation when I see it.”
The discovery of the tree is a kind of harbinger of hope.
The massive cedar measures 3.88 metres in diameter which is wider than the width of a shipping container but only just qualifies for protection under the Forest and Range Practices Act’s Special Tree Protection Regulation. According to the regulation’s schedule for protection of a Western redcedar growing in a coastal biogeoclimatic zone, the Knight is just three centimetres over regulation. As a protected tree, under the act, it “must not be cut, damaged, felled, topped or destroyed.”
While this is good news for the Knight tree, regulations protecting it don’t extend to its neighbours. Unfortunately, most of the trees that surround the massive cedar which is located on Tree Farm Licence #44, don’t meet the 3.85m diameter measure deemed sufficient for their protection and, widening the lens to the scale of the watershed, none of the old-growth in the valley is, in fact, legislated for protection.
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Torrance Coste, national campaign director of the Wilderness Committee, said he is frustrated by the lack of logic and sustainability of current provincial old growth policy. “Examples like this one highlight how the bar for monumental trees in BC is too low—most of the biggest trees have been cut down already, and the largest ones left, themselves still wonders to behold, often don’t meet the minimum requirements.”
Wright echoes Coste’s criticism of the seemingly arbitrary regulations around logging, telling The Westshore, “I think it perfectly highlights the absurdity of other old growth policy right now where they’ve been making strides, but right now, they are still approving the logging of the best of the last old growth where they’re sitting.”
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Professional foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel (Tahltan Nation) submitted their landmark Old Growth Strategic Review (OGSR) report to the province in September 2020. The report declared that logging old growth was not sustainable and the authors made 14 key recommendations to the government, that included increasing Indigenous involvement, responding immediately to ecosystems at high risk, and implementing a three-zone forest management framework.
In his remarks on the three-year anniversary of the report, Grand Chief and Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip cautioned that “the OGSR recommendations are merely a stepping stone; we must go above and beyond. At this rate, there will be nothing left for our children. Stop putting profit and votes over people and get to work on saving our land, water, and air.”
Edgar-Cook also laments the loss of trees and habitat since large-scale logging began on her territory. “It’s not right because all these animals that live around here because of where they’re going. Now, a lot of them are going into the cities and there is talking about wolves attacking dogs and stuff and bears being in communities because of their homes being ruined.”
And it’s not just the impact of logging on animals she’s worried about. Centuries-old cultural practices that represent the livelihoods of her relatives are also at risk. “My auntie and her little daughter, they’re upset about it because the trees provide their lifestyle. They go out there to the forest for cedar bark when it’s the season, grass picking when it’s the season and then they weave with those things and they make their living with it. What will they do when the [cedar] trees are all gone?”
Protecting old growth is about leadership in action
Caycuse Valley, home to the Knight tree, was identified by the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel as a priority deferral area but it has been approved for clear cutting by the province. Coste is frustrated by the flaws with the government’s interim measures because “they don’t ensure protection of the most at-risk low elevation old-growth stands, the same ones that are being targeted for logging. Promises of a paradigm shift and commitments of funding to enable Indigenous-led conservation are important,” he said, “but they need to be paired with sweeping immediate measures and a great deal of will from government to ensure the last best pockets of old-growth aren’t destroyed while this important planning work is taking place.”
“The government has been strong on the former, but weak on the latter,” he said.
Wright agrees. “There’s been a lot of excitement about government announcements, and they sound exciting, but so far, and this has happened for years and years, we haven’t seen the announcements translate to any real difference on the ground in areas like in the Caycuse Valley.”
One of those exciting announcements came earlier in November when the BC government announced a $1.1 billion dollar nature agreement that will help the province achieve conservation and restoration goals via First Nations conservation agreements. It’s a mixed federal and provincial funding initiative with $563 million coming from the province with a $500 million federal contribution.
The funds will be dedicated to supporting First Nations in establishing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) that will include old growth protection, endangered species and habitat recovery and compensation for existing licensees. The agreement will double protected areas in BC from 15% to 30% over the next seven years.
It’s the hope of organizations like the Ancient Forest Alliance and the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance that pushed relentlessly for the agreement, that the devastation will end, at best, or be greatly curtailed, at very least.
Edgar-Cook says her band’s council leadership is also failing to step up to protect the trees. “They don’t know the value of the land. Now we’re in the middle of getting a new chief and council and I really want to express to them that the forest needs to be saved. And apparently that’s what could help, is if the government or whoever gets that statement from the First Nations people like me to save it.”
Wright insists that the voices of Indigenous forest defenders like Edgar-Cook’s be heard above all others but he thinks the broader public can agree that any tree that is two metres thick and 400 years old, should not be cut down. “If they’re serious about protecting these big trees and ecosystems, they should move that threshold down.”
For now, the Knight stands.
The Wilderness Committee is holding an old growth info night at their Victoria offices on Nov. 30 for members of the public who wish to learn more about new developments in old growth forestry and new government policies.
Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Capital Daily