The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)
Chapter 14. Over the Horizon
A culture is no better than its woods.
—W. H. Auden, “Bucolics II: Woods”
AL WANDERER, HADWIN’S former colleague from Lillooet, could have been speaking for all woodsmen throughout history when he looked back over his own empty corner of British Columbia and said, “Good God, I didn’t think it was possible to log this much.” Anyone who has travelled in the woods of the Pacific Northwest would know exactly what he meant. Even now these forests have an infinite feel—until you see the clear-cuts and realize how extraordinarily efficient humans can be at altering the landscape. Out here, the empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order, but back east—that is, from Thunder Bay to Babylon—we find this hard to visualize because the clear-cutting happened generations before any of us was born. Treeless expanses look normal to us—“natural” even. We tend to look at time in a myopic, human-centred way, but trees offer an alternative means of measuring our progress (as well as our regression). Growing at a rate somewhere between stalagmites and human beings, forests can serve as a kind of long-term memory bank, revealing things about our environment, and even ourselves, that only our great-great-grand-parents could have told us. The short version of the forest’s message was well paraphrased by historian John Perlin: “Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs.”
In fact, the realization that the New World was not a bottomless cornucopia intruded surprisingly early on. By the 1630s, the beaver had already been extirpated from much of the New England coast, forcing fur traders to probe westward and northward, ever deeper into the forest. In 1640 the first deer-hunting ban was enacted (in Rhode Island) in an effort to preserve the plummeting deer population. Thickly settled areas such as Boston and southern Manhattan were being forced to import firewood from elsewhere on the coast well before 1700. At this time, a typical fireplace sent about 80 percent of its heat up the chimney and might consume twenty cords of wood per year (about a month’s work of cutting, splitting, and stacking for one man). William Strickland, who could be described as a forefather of the commodities analyst, was an early critic of the prevailing attitude toward trees: “What is not wanted for any present purpose is set fire to,” he observed at the end of the eighteenth century; “if care not be taken it will soon be very scarce….” But such prescient finger-wagging had little effect; the notion that North American timber might be finite seemed laughable—that is, until 1864, when a ground-breaking book called Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action was published by George Perkins Marsh. Marsh was a Renaissance man from Vermont, and he has been called America’s first environmentalist. In Man and Nature he laid out, in no uncertain terms, the negative impact of human behaviour on the natural landscape: “Man,” he wrote more than 140 years ago, “who even now finds scarce breathing room on this vast globe, cannot retire from the Old World to some yet undiscovered continent, and wait for the slow action of such causes to replace…the Eden he has wasted.” That year (1864) saw the creation of California’s Yosemite State Reserve, which included the continent’s first federally protected trees.
There was ample evidence to support Marsh’s thesis. With the westward push fully under way, the great oak and pine forests of the Great Lakes basin were melting away before a no-holds-barred assault of fire and steel. Within a decade, government and scientific bodies were sounding regular alarms, warning any who would listen about the dangers of timber waste, fire, and soil erosion that dogged logging and land-clearing operations the way vultures and coyotes followed the buffalo skinners. Those working closest to the land, in the nascent sciences of geology and forestry, were horrified by what they saw. “Nearly the entire territory has been logged over,” wrote one forester in 1898, describing the woods of northern Wisconsin:
The pine has disappeared from most of the mixed forests and the greater portion of pineries proper has been cut…. Nearly half of this territory has been burned over at least once, about three million acres are without any forest cover whatever, and several million more are but partly covered by the dead and dying remnants of the former forest.
Farther west, on the Great Plains, the buffalo population was meeting the same fate: by the 1880s, the most numerous herd species on earth—once numbering in the tens of millions—had been reduced to fewer than three hundred individuals. It was as if the New World had been invaded by legions of sorcerer’s apprentices: while they were able to summon up the world-changing energies of the steam engine, the circular saw, and the Sharps .50 caliber rifle, they failed—or simply refused—to grasp the greater implications of such superhuman capability.
Europeans had been through this before, and though it had taken them centuries to accomplish what the North Americans were doing in decades, they had fared no better. Their own native bison had been wiped out long since (the current population of around 3,500 European bison was generated from just 5 survivors). As it turned out, many European forests were brought back the same way the bison were—by systematic breeding. Silvaculture, the science of farming trees, was born in England in the mid-seventeenth century; its principles were quickly adopted by Europe’s scientific community, and by the mid-nineteenth century tree plantations were becoming widespread throughout the continent (stands of Douglas fir have been growing in Belgium since the 1880s). Silvaculture then made the jump across the Atlantic, but while “new” forests were soon sprouting up in city parks, and even on the treeless Plains, the science wasn’t applied to the New World’s stump fields until the 1920s, and then only in tentative, experimental applications.
In the early 1890s, while John Muir was founding the Sierra Club, “cut and run” logging communities were already turning to ghost towns in Idaho as their former residents pushed westward to the coast. By 1919, just as a group of wealthy Californians was forming the Save the Redwoods League, the first portable chain and circular saws began appearing on the cover of Scientific American. Six years later “lady conservationists” were actually tying themselves to doomed redwoods while huge machines such as the Washington Flyer were hauling trees out of the Northwest forests as fast as chokermen could cable them up.
What the chainsaw and its mechanical attendants—the bulldozer, log skidder, and self-loading logging truck—have done is to reduce the great trees of the Northwest down to objects that a man of average size and physical condition can fall, buck, load, and transport. Today, a tree three metres across the butt can be felled in ten minutes flat, and bucked up in half an hour. Afterward it is a matter of moments for a grapple yarder—essentially a huge mobile claw on caterpillar treads—to pick up the multiton logs and load them onto a waiting truck (no need for a spar tree anymore). In theory, then, a two-hundred-ton tree that has stood, unseen, for a thousand years and withstood wind, fire, floods, and earthquakes can be brought to earth, rendered into logs, and bound for a sawmill in under an hour—by just three men. In 1930 it would have taken a dozen men a day to accomplish the same thing. In 1890 it would have taken them weeks, and in 1790 it would have been a matter of months—assuming they were even able to fell the tree.
Meanwhile, smaller timber can be harvested by feller-bunchers—logging’s equivalent to the combine harvester. These frighteningly efficient devices can drive through a forest, cutting, limbing, and stacking trees in a single continuous motion. When first introduced in the 1960s, they worked only on open, level ground—a type of terrain that is in short supply on the Northwest Coast, but lately models capable of handling metre-thick logs on 30 percent grades have been developed. Equipped with powerful headlights, they can operate twenty-four hours a day. Safely belted in behind the joystick of such a machine, a logger can now roll through a mountain wilderness in air-conditioned, stereophonic comfort, harvesting the forest at a rate—and at a remove—that his grandparents never would have dreamed of.
Even Bill Weber, who has only been working in the woods since the late 1970s, expressed astonishment: “I never dreamed the old growth would be finished,” he said. Much of the wood he is cutting today would have been scoffed at by his parents’ generation. “Twenty years ago, we’d have looked at the wood we’re into now and say, ‘What the hell are we doing in this shit?’”
One of Weber’s colleagues, Earl Einarson, a fifty-four-year-old tree faller, expressed the logger’s conundrum as honestly as anyone. “I love this job,” he explained, gesturing toward the wild chaos of the old-growth forest he was in the process of levelling. “It’s a challenge to walk into a mess like this and get it looking civilized.” (This child of the atomic age would have won a sympathetic nod from any seventeenth-century settler.) Einarson paused for a moment and Weber, his supervisor, looked over his last falling cut while a big glossy raven lighted on a nearby branch that would no longer be there in another twenty-four hours. Not far away, an unknown and unnamed waterfall tumbled twenty-five metres into a shimmering pool. Einarson had seen elk pass through the day before; his partner noted an apparent decrease in deer and speculated that it was due to predation by wolves and cougars, both of which are abundant here. Einarson picked up his train of thought in air that was heavy with the perfume of cut and broken trees: “Another reason I like falling,” he said, “is I like walking around in old-growth forests. It’s kind of an oxymoron, I guess—to like something and then go out and kill it.” Like a hundred generations of forest dwellers before him, Einarson is also a hunter and a mushroom picker, and in the end he compared his work to hunting: “I’ve tried taking pictures [of animals], but it’s not quite the same because you’re not part of it.”
In this sense, logging isn’t so different from the Marine Corps, medical school, or even storytelling: for many of us—even the couch-bound readers of books—some sort of blood sacrifice is necessary in order to validate the experience. Of course, any of our lives, closely examined, can be found to hold gross inconsistencies; slaughterhouse workers, loggers, and stockbrokers are simply less insulated from them than the rest of us who benefit from their labours. It seems that in order to succeed—or even function—in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary.
Einarson and his team were cutting a right-of-way for a logging road that would make this remote piece of Vancouver Island accessible to heavy logging equipment. Right behind the fallers was an excavator attended by dump trucks filled with rock for road building, and less than a kilometre behind that was the world’s largest known yellow cedar tree, a massive thing more than four metres across with a trunk covered in shining, velvety moss. Yellow cedar is the longest-living northwestern tree, and this one could easily predate the fall of Rome. Environmental regulations called for it to be left standing within a tiny set-aside of towering red cedars; Weber’s and Einarson’s boss would later express his regret at not being able to take those trees too. In a matter of days, five men and their machines would transform this S-shaped strip of mountain wilderness that included trees three metres in diameter into a roadway that would be navigable by a grapple yarder, a logging truck, or, for that matter, a Buick sedan.
By the time these words are read, the centuries-old cedar, hemlock, and balsam of the cutblock known as Leah Block 2 will be a distant memory, long since processed into siding, two-by-fours, perhaps even the paper that has been recycled into the pages of this book. It will have been accomplished with unprecedented efficiency, but even that comes at a price—mechanization is, by far, the leading cause of job loss. The men on this crew can see clearly something their fore-bears seemed unable, or unwilling, to envision: the end. “It could be argued that we’ve squandered the resource,” observed Bill Weber. “We don’t have eight hundred years to replace an old-growth forest. In a few years we’ll just have guts and feathers left.”
What loggers like Weber and Einarson are seeing on their immediate horizon is a reality that their counterparts in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California are already living with. Collectively, these states have lost 90 percent of their old-growth coastal forest, while British Columbia, which originally had twice as much forest area, has lost 60 percent. West Coast loggers, who often find themselves at odds with local First Nations, have more in common with eighteenth century Nuu-chah-nulth, Tsimshian, and Haida than they might imagine: while extremely well suited to their environment and the traditional tasks required to survive in it, they are poorly equipped to do much else. Many loggers go into the woods before finishing high school, where “somewhere between a boy and a man,” as Weber puts it, “you’re making a man’s wage.” Like the Haida who rode the heady wave of the otter trade, these men found themselves in a situation that is nearly impossible to resist: here you are with a skill set that anywhere else would condemn you to a life of menial labour, and suddenly you’re prospering—pulling down fifty or a hundred grand a year in a rural area where living expenses are extremely low. But now these able men with their fantastic machines are racing to the finish line, and praying that they don’t get there before it’s time to retire.
Just as the Haida were reduced to subsistence hunting, fishing, and potato farming after the crash of the otter population, many West Coast loggers have—in about the same period of time—seen their incomes soar to heights commensurate with a physician’s—and plummet to those of a school bus driver, or nothing at all. In this sense, Weber, Einarson, and their long-dead Native counterparts are all expendable canaries in the coal mine of resource extraction. When it’s finished, these latter-day Nor’westmen will sail away, too, while their wealthy foreign backers search for the next big thing. Out here, the otter trade of tomorrow is oil and natural gas (over the past fifteen years, Prince Rupert has lost approximately 25 percent of its population due to downturns in fishing and forestry). Today, as when the sun touches the horizon, you can almost see the industry’s hurtling descent. Even for someone used to the frenetic velocity of urban life, the speed with which this latest logging road unspools across the mountainside and into this rare and lovely corner of the country is sobering. It is like watching the accelerating effect of time-lapse photography on a blooming crocus or a rotting apple, only on a landscape-altering scale.
WHILE THE LOGGING of old-growth forests in Alberta, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia’s interior continues at a rapid rate, the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest represent the end of the line. With the exception of the stunted woodlands of the far north—the boreal forests of Alaska, northern Canada, and Scandinavia, and the taiga of Siberia—there is nowhere new to log in this hemisphere. Anyone looking to China for virgin territory will be sorely disappointed: “Soil and water return to their rightful places,” pleads a Chinese prayer attributed to the second millenium B.C., “green colours return to grass and trees.” Most people alive today will witness the end of old-growth—big tree—logging, an industry that has been practised continuously and with undiminished zeal in the Northern Hemisphere for at least five thousand years. By some strange quirk of fate, the largest trees the world has ever known were saved for last—for us.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the fact that West Coast old growth won’t be seen again outside of a park for centuries—if ever—is just fine with many commercial loggers. To them, these trees are worth more dead than alive. Out here, the frontier age has not yet ended; Weyerhaeuser is not just in the wood products business, after all, they also sell real estate in the form of raw land, freshly cleared for settlement. Within the industry, this practice is known as “log it and flog it,” and it is a short-term investor’s dream: the landowner gets to liquidate his property not once but twice—first for the wood and again for the land—no need for expensive and time-consuming replanting or stewardship.
Gordon Eason is a senior manager and head engineer at Weyerhaeuser’s (formerly MacMillan Bloedel’s) North Island Division on Vancouver Island. In addition to being a highly respected forester, he is locally famous for having found the “Carmanah Giant.” After hearing an old timber cruiser’s story of a huge Sitka spruce growing somewhere in the Carmanah Walbran forest at the south end of Vancouver Island, Eason set out to find it. Since the old cruiser’s directions were vague and the Carmanah Valley is vast, Eason flew over the area in a helicopter. Whenever he saw a treetop higher than the rest, he would ask the pilot to hover while he hung out of the door and took a measurement by dropping a logger’s tape weighted with a bolt. Most of the taller trees he measured tended to be in the seventy-five-metre range—an impressive height for any West Coast species. As it turned out, these weren’t even close. When Eason let the tape go over the Carmanah Giant, the bolt didn’t hit the forest floor until it had registered over ninety metres—more than twice the height of Vancouver’s Dominion Building which, at the time of its completion in 1910, was the tallest building in the British Empire.
Gordon Eason has spent his entire working life in the logging industry. “I like spending time in the woods,” he explained; “that’s why I got into it.” His only complaint with his current job is that it doesn’t allow him enough time to be in the forest. In addition to having the highest density of mountain lions in North America, his territory represents one of the richest remaining reserves of big old-growth timber. By Eason’s rough estimate, based on an average annual cut of a million cubic metres, the “allowable” old growth remaining in his region will be gone in thirty-five years. However, it is important to note that all coastal old growth does not necessarily fit the stereotypical image of broad trunks and skyscraping tops. Particularly on mountainsides, old trees tend to be smaller due to shorter growing seasons and poorer soil. The most impressive trees tend to grow at lower elevation and in the best soil—valley bottoms, etc. These areas also happen to be the easiest to log and most of them already have been. Therefore, the twenty-five million cubic metres that Eason believes will be spared due to inaccessibility or environmental restrictions is likely to be some of the poorest quality—from both an aesthetic and an economic point of view. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that Eason’s estimated rate of cut won’t fluctuate over time, depending on the timber market and changes in harvesting policies and practices. In any case, it is almost certain that technological advances will enable cutting to proceed even more rapidly and efficiently than it already does.
Still, some things never change: in spite of the enormous power and influence wielded by big companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Canadian Forest Products (Canfor), the timber industry continues to ride the same roller coaster of boom and bust that it always has. Wars, prosperous times, and urban catastrophes like earthquakes and fires all signal banner days for the industry, while recessions, depressions, market gluts, and international tariff disputes result in mass layoffs and mill closings. Meanwhile, old-growth forests continue to be viewed with the same combination of awe, appreciation, greed, and contempt that they were in William Bradford’s, and even Plato’s day. In the timber industry these ancient woods are known as “decadent forests” because their days of rapid growth are long past and rot is often present—two reasons the industry is in such a hurry to get rid of them. Gordon Eason summed up the prevailing attitude with the same battle cry that loggers—and leaders—have been using for the past five thousand years: “Get that old shit off the landscape so I can get a decent crop out there!”
This is a more complex statement than it appears. It is intended, in context, without any particular malice; it stems, rather, from an unsentimental pragmatism. In fact, it’s no different than one of us driving past our local hardware store, as quaint as it may smell and as knowledgeable as its silver-haired proprietor may be, to get to a Wal-Mart. Most of us are led to believe we have more freedom and choice than ever before when in fact we are driven by the real, if shortsighted, demands of our wallets, sophisticated advertisers, increasingly large and powerful conglomerates, and a reactive response to the clock. In this way, tree farms and big-box stores have a lot in common: what they lack in long-term character, beauty, or “soul,” they gain in alleged efficiency and cost-effectiveness. It is a side effect of capitalism, the roots of which reach down into our collective attitudes toward nature and the life cycle.
In the modern forest as in the modern retail outlet, the emphasis is—now more than ever—on volume and speed. The “crop” Eason is referring to isn’t hay or corn, as it would have been a century ago, but trees—planted in tidy rows, and often in stands of single species rather than the mixed forests that nature prefers. These are the real biological deserts. Today, trees are bred for speed and are harvested on tight rotations of twelve to eighty years, which is, depending on species and region, the period of the most rapid—read: short-term-investment-friendly—growth. These small, easy-to-manage farm trees tend to be of inferior quality (ask any woodworker); they are often pulpy and loose-grained, and many of them will never be milled into boards at all.
This is the future of the world’s “working” forests: a predictable supplier of genetically modified fibre. Increasingly, houses, furniture—the things that form our personal landscapes—are being made not from wood, exactly, but from wood “products”: trees that have been ground into chips and sawdust and reconstituted by various means into boards, sheeting, and architectural features. These products have such names as Finger-joined lumber (smaller pieces of wood fitted together into boards); MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard); OSB (Oriented Strand Board); WB (Wafer Board); Com-Ply (veneer backed with strand board); cementitious wood fibre (shredded wood that is bonded with cement and formed into boards); Homosote (construction-grade cardboard); Celotex (a variation); Hardboard (a.k.a. Masonite, a denser, thinner version of Homosote); particleboard; and, of course, plywood, which has been around for nearly a century now. The upside is that these products are light, cheap, easy to work with, and make certain kinds of waste a thing of the past, though another kind of waste has been rampant. Millions upon millions of board feet of old-growth Douglas fir have ended up getting peeled for plywood and similarly large quantities of Sitka spruce have been pulped for newspapers and telephone books. This is hard to imagine when one considers that, today, a two-by-ten-inch plank of clear (knot-free) fir or spruce is a luxury item, which perhaps is what it should have been all along. We are slowly being forced to come to grips with the true value of wood, and it’s expensive stuff.*12
If you were to ask a logger today, What is the true value of wood? he would probably answer, “About a hundred and fifty bucks a cubic metre.” But a Vancouver building contractor named Duncan Schell penetrated to the heart of the question by responding with an oxymoron. “Wood is priceless,” he explained, “but only because it’s so cheap.” It may sound funny, but this is how our species has collectively evaluated this extraordinary substance that has been central to our survival and success ever since we first picked up a stick. However, Schell’s wisdom—so true for so long—is now being put to the test. Fifty years ago, magnificent trees were hauled out of the forest for a pittance, or simply cut and left to rot for the most whimsical of reasons. Today, logging companies are harvesting far lesser specimens with helicopters that cost $10,000 an hour to operate. Fallers can now be seen donning climbing harnesses and rappelling down cliff faces in order to get at previously inaccessible old-growth trees.
According to the Washington Contract Loggers’ Association, the average North American uses the equivalent of a log thirty metres long by forty-six centimetres across (approximately 6.5 cubic metres) each year. Meanwhile, the amount of wood required to produce an edition of the Sunday New York Times would fill the Haida Brave more than one and a half times (almost twenty-five thousand cubic metres of wood).*13 But even though our appetite for wood is enormous, it has been outstripped by even more rapacious forces. As the planet warms, twin plagues of fire and beetle infestation are laying waste to northwestern forests faster than loggers ever could. By the end of June 2004—early, as far as northwest fire seasons go—a thousand forest fires had been reported in British Columbia alone. These, combined with hundreds of other fires burning between Idaho and Alaska, generated a smoke plume that was visible from the Bering Sea to New York City. Meanwhile, the mountain pine beetle has been surviving recent winters in unprecedented numbers and is multiplying at exponential rates to become the most destructive beetle infestation in recorded history, in North America. As of 2005, 100,000 square kilometres of British Columbia’s interior forest were infested (an area roughly the size of Newfoundland), and that number could double by the end of 2006. An infested tree is generally dead within a year; if it is not logged within a few years, it loses its value as a source of lumber. After that it can be salvaged only for pulp, if anything. Left standing, it becomes fuel for more fires, which—in the absence of cold winters—are nature’s most effective means of controlling beetle infestations. As a result of these mass forest deaths, “fire sales” of bug-killed and fire-damaged timber are being held throughout the interior Northwest, increasing annual allowable cuts while reducing to “salvage rates” the province’s stumpage fees (the per-stump premium paid to the government, which is a key source of income for timber-producing states and provinces). It is a boon to forestry workers, if not to the actual market price of wood, which generally decreases in the face of gluts.
OUT IN HAIDA GWAII, the rain keeps most fires at bay and coastal timber is far less susceptible to the bug infestations that are devastating the interior. It is humans and the things they carry with them that remain the greatest threat to the islands. A terrible irony is that, philosophically, Hadwin was in sync with much of the local population: in December of 2000 an interracial group of islanders staged a protest—essentially, a no-confidence vote—against the Ministry of Forests’ handling of logging in the islands. There hadn’t been a demonstration of that kind in a decade, and this one was the biggest ever: 20 percent of the islands’ adult population participated. Since then there have been some striking changes, not just in the way logging is practised but in the status of the islands themselves.
Neither the Haida nor any other tribes on the west coast of Canada signed comprehensive treaties with the British or Canadian governments when their lands were first colonized.*14 A number of tribes are currently negotiating land claim settlements with the Canadian government, and they are headachingly complex agreements which may ultimately resemble one-time payments of cash, land, and/or percentages of local resource revenues. In 2003, the provincial government made the Haida an offer of 20 percent of the islands and their revenues, but the Haida rejected the proposal out of hand. The tribe has made it clear that it will settle for nothing less than Haida Gwaii in its entirety, including fishing and mineral rights to the surrounding waters. This isn’t new; after formally withdrawing from Ottawa’s comprehensive land claims process in 1989, the Haida threatened to issue their own passports. “We have absolutely no intention of ever selling Haida title to Haida Gwaii,” said former council president Miles Richardson to a journalist at the time. “We are not, as a nation, going to go cap in hand to any people.”
As far as this goes, little has changed in two hundred years. The only difference is that ever since the Haida (along with most other North American tribes) lost control of their historic lands, food sources, and personal destiny, they have been subsidized by the federal government. While subsistence hunting and fishing still play a major role in the lives of the Haida, unemployment—in the European sense of the word—hovers around 80 percent (about the same as in the Gaza Strip). In spite of this, few tribes have the media savvy and charismatic appeal that the Haida do.*15 As grim as some of their demographic statistics are, the Haida are a potent political and social force. This is an amazing accomplishment, particularly when one considers that the Haida are resurrecting themselves much the way botanists have attempted to resurrect the golden spruce. On a regular basis they perform large, inclusive ceremonies whose grandeur, complexity and sheer spiritual voltage is simply stunning. The healing and bonding power of these events is deeply felt—even by off-island visitors.
In 2002, the Haida won a landmark case which required Weyerhaeuser to consult with the tribal council before logging particular areas.†16One result of this is that the annual allowable cut for the islands has been reduced by roughly half, but rather than alienating local Anglo loggers, the Haida have been forming alliances with them. The Anglo residents of Haida Gwaii have spent generations on the front lines of the timber and fishing industries, and they have few illusions about the stated good intentions of powerful entities from off-island. Unlike many loggers, who fly into remote forests and then move on when the trees are gone, most of the residents of these distant, close-knit islands are in it for the long haul; they have nowhere else to go. In 2004, the Anglo residents of New Masset and Port Clements threw in their lot with the Haida, signing an accord that says, essentially, that they trust the stewardship of the local Haida more than that of Weyerhaeuser and the provincial government. Like the logging consultation clause, this is unprecedented in the history of North America. One of the signatories is Dale Lore, the current mayor of Port Clements; a logging road builder by trade, he, like many others, had a revelation in the woods. “I started out as a redneck logger,” he told a journalist shortly after signing the protocol affirming the Haida’s title to the islands in March 2004. “You know how to beat that picture of a clear-cut in your head? You talk about jobs, that it’ll grow back….” But the same questions that tormented Hadwin kept intruding: “What are we getting out of it, what are we doing for the future?” he wondered. “I can beat the picture; I can’t beat the epilogue.” There is some strong local opposition to Haida title, particularly in Queen Charlotte City, the government hub of the islands. “It’s not easy,” sympathizes Lore; “the unknown is scary.” But then he concludes with what sounds like a page from Hadwin’s book: “This is happening because the status quo is obviously fatal to us. People do not change willingly.”*17
THE FATE OF HAIDA GWAII represents the fate of the Northwest Coast in microcosm, and one of the most extraordinary things about these islands—and much of the North American mainland, for that matter—is how forgiving it is in the face of abuse. Unlike the desertified tracts of the Middle East, this continent—so far—possesses a tremendous capacity for regeneration. In New England, the cradle of the North American logging industry, remarkable changes have occurred as many farmers’ fields, which were abandoned after World War II, have reverted back to a forested state for the first time in centuries. In much of the region, the local fauna had long since been reduced to a suburban menagerie of squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and raccoons; thirty years ago, even deer and fox were a novelty. Over the past few decades, however, all that has changed; with the resurgence of the forests coupled with a parallel decrease in hunting, long-banished species have cautiously returned. Coyote, beaver, and wild turkey are commonplace now; the bald eagle is back, too, along with a well-documented explosion in the deer population (which poses a threat to native plant species). If this trend is allowed to continue, it is only a matter of time before the black bear, bobcat, mountain lion, and wolf reclaim their rightful places in New England’s long-altered ecosystem. The rivers of the Northeast are another matter: the Atlantic salmon population, in its wild form, has fallen by nearly 75 percent in the past twenty years. Today, the species exists primarily as a farm-raised caricature of itself whose flesh must be dyed pink in order to make it look “real.”
Five thousand six hundred kilometres away, at the far end of the logging continuum, Haida Gwaii faces a much more complex recovery scenario. While the Anglo population has decreased by more than 10 percent in the past decade due to lost fishery and forestry jobs, the native population is resurging. Meanwhile, plans to reintroduce the sea otter are stymied continually by fishermen and abalone hunters who resent the potential competition, despite the fact that it is humans who have devastated the islands’ once-abundant abalone. Further complicating matters is a recent proposal to lift a thirty-year-old moratorium on oil exploration around the islands. Ashore there is another major quandary: shortly after the last Dawson’s caribou was killed in 1908, Sitka black-tail deer were introduced to the islands; with no natural predators, their population has grown exponentially and they now number in the tens of thousands. No one anticipated that two of their favourite foods would be staples of the understorey: red cedar seedlings and salal. Compared to a century ago, many of these islands now have a parklike feel: there is no brush; you can see dozens of metres ahead of you. It’s beautiful, but the dearth of young cedar is alarming. Cedar has housed, clothed, and defined the Haida for millennia; now carvers are wondering where the next generation of poles is going to be found. The Sitka spruce is doing somewhat better; in the Yakoun Valley, clear-cuts replanted in the 1960s have already grown into forests of thirty-metre trees. However, some islands and mountainsides still look as if they have been skinned alive due to the severe erosion that followed the clear-cuts. It remains to be seen whether this new generation of planned forests will ever achieve the elegant and massive complexity of their wild forebears, or if the people who ultimately control them will have the patience and desire to find out.