The War in the Woods has changed complexion since I first started covering hostilities more than 20 years ago as an environmental war correspondent in the Clayoquot Sound combat zone.
For me, the fight in those days was defined by brazen environmental opportunists like MP Svend (White Swan) Robinson who was most dangerous if you happened to be standing between him and a TV camera. This news just in — I was not a friend of the environment movement.
Jump ahead two decades and we find a much different contest being waged on the forest floor and in the boardrooms. While the spoils of war are still the remaining stands of old growth and the ecosystems that support them, the field of battle has shifted and the combatants’ tactics have evolved.
A good example of changing times is the current environment-versus-logging impasse on Cortes Island. It is more a war of words and diplomacy than the bitter blockade combat that defined the Clayoquot. The land in question is not public, it is private. And the gulf island ecosystem in question is not just sensitive, it is hyper-sensitive.
On Cortes, at least, the face of the environment movement has changed. The patchouli anarchy that defined it 20 years ago has mellowed and matured. The career enviros are still there, but their ranks have filled out with an eclectic gathering of regular folks — from kids to their grandparents to more than a few retired loggers.
Currently, an unofficial time out is being observed in the standoff between Cortes Island’s environmental activists and Island Timberlands, a subsidiary of Wall Street giant Brookfield Asset Management.
It should be noted that while this drama plays out on tiny Cortes, the Brookfield boardroom is in a state of high anxiety because of China Investment Corp. (CIC) is considering purchasing a sizeable chunk of Island Timberlands. CIC is the investment arm of the People’s Republic of China with $200 billion of China’s foreign exchange reserves to play with. No pressure there.
On Cortes, three things are remarkable. First, the resident environmentalists and Timberlands have been debating the company’s logging plans for about four years without coming to serious blows.
Second, the environmentalists are not trying to ban logging altogether. They are asking for Timberlands to adopt an ecosystem-based approach — eco-code for selective logging that spares old growth.
Third, Timberlands has exercised a measure of restraint and has not immediately sought an injunction. Efforts are being made to bring the two sides together for what the environmentalists call “an informed discussion about the best use of the resource.”
Back in the early 1990s, the provincial government was fully engaged attempting to referee such conflicts even though there was precious little common ground. Twenty years later, with dialogue increasingly in vogue, the question is: Where is the provincial government?
A big issue in the Cortes dispute is the extent to which our government regulates activity on private land. The private foresters claim they are governed by more than 30 acts and regulations. However, the environmentalists say companies like Timberlands are allowed to apply a model of “professional reliance” which means that there is little meaningful regulatory oversight.
It’s a pity the current administration has all but forsaken its role as steward and peacekeeper in the woods. A measure of leadership would go a long way right about now. M