Direct action in defence of old-growth forest

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Image: Used with permission of the Fairy Creek blockaders

Carole Tootill and Joshua Wright are residents of British Columbia who are heavily involved in forest protection activism. Scott Neigh interviews them about the Fairy Creek blockades, which are protecting some of the last big-tree, old-growth forest on Vancouver Island from clear-cut logging.

Tootill grew up in B.C., and first got involved in environmental and forest protection issues as a university student in the 1980s. By the time she moved away to Ontario a few years later, it felt like movements were winning important concessions and that B.C. was on the path towards protecting its old-growth forests.

When she moved back to Vancouver Island in 2014, she took a trip around the island that, she said, left her aghast at what she described as the "devastation." It became very clear to her that old-growth forests were not being protected.

Wright grew up right next to industrial timberlands and from a young age saw forests that he loved getting destroyed. He started to take an interest in forest protection issues about five years ago, when he was 12 years old. He has been doing his own research using publicly available satellite imagery, government and industry documents, and so on.

This past summer while using Google Earth, Wright spotted Fairy Creek -- a sizeable area of intact old-growth forest in the San Juan Valley on Vancouver Island, near Port Renfrew. He found that a company called Teal Jones had permits to build roads into the valley for subsequent clear-cut logging, and the process of building those roads had begun. Around that time, another activist happened to put Tootill in touch with Wright, so they compared notes and decided they needed to act.

In the last two decades, a lot of environmentalism focused on forests in B.C. has taken the familiar form of click this, share that, donate here, email there, respond to a government consultation, and show up for the occasional demo. Tootill and Wright have done their share of this, but both have the sense that it just hasn't been working. They say that if you look specifically at big-tree, old-growth forest, only about one per cent of what used to exist now remains, or about 35,000 hectares. They estimate that, at current rates, the rest will be gone in about three years.

B.C.'s NDP minority government -- which governed with the support of the Green party -- was elected in 2017 on a platform that included a number of promises related to forest protection. Despite an ongoing series of public consultations, Tootill says, "They have done the opposite." She says that loss of old-growth forest has actually accelerated under the NDP.

In response to the threat to Fairy Creek, Tootill put out a call for an initial meeting. More than two dozen activists showed up, and they agreed that direct action was necessary. That same day, they blocked one of the roads being built into the Fairy Creek area. Not long after, they blocked the other.

The relationship between the blockades and the Indigenous people whose land they are taking place on is complicated. Though they have tried, as of the time of the interview they had not yet established a connection with the nearby Pacheedaht First Nation's band council, which they say benefits financially from the timber industry. But they have had grassroots Pacheedaht elders and youth activists visit the blockades and speak out in support of what they are doing. They say on their website that they continue the blockades under the invitation of Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones.

The original demands of the blockades were that the B.C. government release the report from their old growth strategic review, end all old-growth logging, and commit to working with First Nations on forest protection. The company and the government have said very little in response to the blockade -- there has been no hint of the kind of heated rhetoric, or militarized and criminalizing responses, that such actions often face. This may be connected to the recent snap election call by the NDP, made after this interview was recorded.

But earlier in September, the government did release the old-growth review and announced measures to defer logging in a handful of old-growth areas. Wright points out that a deferal is not the same as permanent protection, and that many old-growth areas, including Fairy Creek, remain completely unprotected.

Whatever happens, the blockaders say they are not leaving until their demands are met. They are winterizing their camps and preparing for the long haul.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the Fairy Creek blockaders.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

Editor's note, September 30, 2020: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of one of the Fairy Creek blockade's spokespeople. She is Carole Tootill, not Toothill.

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