In October 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan called a snap election to secure an NDP majority, after three years of minority government supported by the Greens.

In an attempt to appeal to Green voters, one of Horgan’s campaign promises was to honour recommendations for protecting old growth, as outlined by an expert review panel in the report A New Future for Old Forests.

That promise has gone nowhere.

Frustration with continued old-growth logging has grown in the past year. In the Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island, thousands of people have blocked loggers from accessing ancient trees, and the RCMP have made hundreds of arrests.

Mixed messaging from Horgan’s government has left the public unsure about what’s happening and what’s actually at stake. Here we try to answer questions about Fairy Creek — what it is, what it means to communities, and what will happen if logging persists.

What is Fairy Creek?

Located northeast of Port Renfrew on the territory of the Pacheedaht Nation, the Fairy Creek watershed is where much of the action started this year, as police began enforcement of an injunction to clear forest defenders out of the way of logging company Teal Jones. Fairy Creek falls under Tree Farm licence 46, a 59,000-hectare timber harvesting tenure held by Teal Jones.

But the name “Fairy Creek” has since been adopted to refer to the wider area under threat of logging, which includes Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht territory. With the last unlogged old-growth valleys found outside of B.C.’s parks, it contains some of the biggest yellow cedars in the world. The oldest tree is believed to be approaching 2,000 years in age and has a diameter of 9.5 feet.

The dead trees rot slowly, allowing a variety of flora and fauna to thrive.

These two usages of the term “Fairy Creek” have led to notable confusion. In June, B.C.’s minister of forests, Katrine Conroy, said that “no harvesting will happen in Fairy Creek while the Pacheedaht develop their own stewardship plan.” The announcement was met with excitement, but also suspicion, given that arrests were continuing. As it turned out, there was no announcement. Minister Conroy was referring to Fairy Creek in the narrower sense, and seemingly nothing had changed on the ground.

What makes a forest ‘old growth’?

Old-growth forests are complex ecosystems that have matured without human interference and damage to their growth and ecological balance. The B.C. government says that old-growth forests “tend to have more standing dead trees, or snags, and decomposing wood than younger forests.” The dead trees rot slowly, allowing a variety of flora and fauna to thrive while also serving as nursing logs for new trees that will often grow on top of them. If disturbed, old-growth forests take a very long time to recover, repopulate, and reach their former density — but severe disturbances mean they cannot recover at all.

Less than 1 per cent of all forests in B.C. are the type of old growth made up of big trees

Different kinds of trees mature at different times, so there’s no one age at which they become old growth. For example, long-life species such as western red cedar, yellow cedar and mountain hemlock stands, which can grow for one to two thousand years, are considered old growth when they are one-quarter into their lifespan. The B.C. government considers coastal forests to be old growth when their trees reach 250 years old. Some types of interior forests are considered old growth when they contain trees more than 140 years old.

Typically when people think about old-growth forests, they picture stands of tall, large trees reaching into the sky. That’s the kind of old growth found in the Fairy Creek area, which includes tree species such as douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce.

How much old growth is left?

Forests cover only about 30 per cent of land globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The majority of forests are found in five countries — Brazil, Canada, China, Russia and the United States. With just one third of remaining forests considered old growth, protecting what is left is paramount.

The B.C. government states that old growth makes up 23 per cent (13.2 million hectares) of the province’s 57.2 million hectares of forest. But the authors of B.C.’s Old Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity say this number hides the reality.

The presence of old, large and rotting trees is necessary for cavity-nesting birds — birds that make their nests inside trees.

Dr. Karen Price, one of the study’s authors, says that less than 1 per cent of all forests in B.C. are the type of old growth made up of big trees. “Around 3.3 million hectares of old growth is in protected areas,” she says. “But a lot of that is made up of small trees. So in our protected areas we only have 108,000 hectares of productive old-growth forests.”

In other words, big-tree old growth is very rare and endangered.

What does the loss of forest mean for life in the area?

Because they have reached maturity, old-growth forests provide a unique habitat for animals, plants and microorganisms. And unlike other types of trees, old growth is non-renewable.

“The problem is that forestry equipment and the process of clear-cutting, taking all the trees and killing them all, is fundamentally damaging to soil in two different ways,” explains Kai Chan, a professor with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

“One, it compresses the soil because heavy machinery is more than these soils would’ve been exposed to. These machines compress the soil, squeeze out the air and make it sometimes impossible for young trees’ roots to penetrate the soil. It might as well be rock.”

Soils are effectively alive. They form a network of live tree roots, fungi, sugar and other organic matter, and engage in a practice of mutualism that helps sustain and nourish the trees. This brings us to the second way that logging damages soil.

“When you clear-cut a whole area, you’re taking the lifeblood of that ecosystem and you’re destroying it. You’re fundamentally altering the whole ecosystem,” notes Chan.

The forests continue to play a crucial role in spiritual knowledge and cultural traditions.

Recent sightings of the endangered western screech owl in the Fairy Creek forests have reinforced concerns about the effect of logging on wildlife.

“Old-growth forests are crucial for quite a few species,” Chan explains. “Birds like the northern spotted owl are dependent on old-growth forests. The presence of old, large and rotting trees is necessary for cavity-nesting birds — birds that make their nests inside trees. They can’t get in, the wood is too hard, there’s not enough space in the trunk of younger trees.”

Ground-dwelling animals are also impacted. “If you walk in an old-growth forest, you realize that it is so much more complex. You have really large logs at various stages of rotting, it’s much more uneven ground, with many more places to hide and carve out dens. So lots of species are dependent on old-growth forests,” adds Chan.

What do these forests mean to people?

People from across the globe come to visit B.C.’s old-growth forests. Tourism is a top contributor to the provincial economy, and adventure tourism in particular is expanding quickly, having contributed $2 billion in revenue to B.C.’s GDP in 2016.

Spending time in forests is healing. A Japanese term for this phenomenon has even made its way into English: forest bathing. For many people, standing in the midst of a big-tree, old-growth forest is a spiritual experience.

Yet these forests are becoming more and more scarce, especially in southern Vancouver Island. Port Alberni, where old-growth forests are a main attraction, has lost 90 per cent of productive old-growth forests to logging. There is high tourist demand for the remaining old growth.

But instead, last month, his government released a document about “setting the intention” of “modernizing forestry policy.”

For Pacific Northwest Indigenous Peoples, the forests continue to play a crucial role in spiritual knowledge and cultural traditions. The red cedar, or “tree of life,” has is especially important. Traditionally, it had numerous practical and spiritual functions. Cedar bark was used to make rope rope, and even baskets that were strong enough to boil water in. Cedar leaves offered calcium-rich medicine. Babies were delivered into woven cedar cradles, and placentas were often buried at the base of an old cedar tree to ensure long life. The wood was also used to make canoes and coffins.

Indigenous Peoples harvested cedar wood without damage to living trees. B.C.’s forests are filled with culturally modified trees that are protected by the provincial Heritage Conservation Act.

What needs to change?

The provincial government describes the forest industry as a “cornerstone of British Columbia’s economy.” The forest industry accounted for $11.5 billion of the province’s total exports in 2020, and $1.3 billion of government revenue in 2020–21 came from timber sales, mostly to international markets.

Last year, an independent panel made 14 recommendations for old-growth conservation.

Some of the recommendations include involving Indigenous leadership in policy response and implementation on a government-to-government basis, implementing legislation that prioritizes the health and biodiversity of forests in all sectors and providing the public with accurate information “free of political influence” about the status of forests.

“What strikes me as very important is recommendation number six, which is that we need to immediately defer harvesting in at-risk ecosystems, to give it some breathing room to do land use planning,” Dr. Karen Price says. “That’s critical and should be happening now.”

Premier John Horgan, in the midst of an election last fall, said he would follow the recommendations. But instead, last month, his government released a document about “setting the intention” of “modernizing forestry policy.”

The protests at Fairy Creek are a sign of rising frustration at government inaction when it comes to protecting valuable ecosystems and addressing the climate crisis. They also point to an urgent need to shift policy to prioritize environmental balance over economic exploitation of precious, limited resources.

“We need to shift the paradigm from one where timber has priority to one where ecosystem integrity, biodiversity and forest resilience has priority,” says Dr. Price. “That doesn’t just mean protecting areas. It means changing the way we think about forestry.”

Akhila Menon and Aleisha Langmann are master’s students in journalism at the University of British Columbia. They are completing an academic internship with Ricochet this summer.