The Walbran Valley Conflict: New Year, Old Problems?

Written by Caitlin Jakobsen, a second year Resource and Environmental Management student and shameless idealist who loves writing, a good cup of tea, and the elusive concept of sustainable development!

It’s a new year in a world that appears to be signaling a global intent to pursue sustainably minded development goals in the wake of the heralded Paris Agreement. But what if I were to tell you that environmental activists are currently fighting for that very same battles they were over 20 years ago? That at least certainly appeared to be the case with the current Walbran valley conflict, which made we wonder:  Is the world actually making real world progress towards living a more sustainable future, or is it merely a buzzword confined to the desks of policy-makers and environmental activists?

As of January 4th, the Wilderness committee was in court challenging the Teal-Jones logging company’s injunction that would prevent law-abiding citizens from venturing within 50 meters of any logging activities occurring within its 8 forest cutblocks until the end of March. This attempt to avoid conflict arguably follows from the actions of three independent protestors who temporarily blocked the company’s work in the area in early November. These cutblocks are located within the central Walbran valley, one of the last low elevation low growth forests located on central Vancouver Island.  The Wilderness committee and other environmental activists and supporters feel that this boundary is meant to scare-off the public in an attempt to prevent them from witnessing the events currently taking place in the valley.

Ecologically, this valley is significant. According to the Tyee, the Walbran is low-elevation old-growth habitat, which is important for multiple species at risk. It also purifies local water supplies and is of cultural significance for Indigenous peoples. The Walbran valley and the conflict raging within it is also a place with political and historical significance, as it was considered “ground zero” for the BC’s “war in the woods” over 20 years ago in 1991.  The “war in the woods” got its name for the environmental protest of British Columbia’s logging practices, which at the time supported the unsustainable logging method of clear-cutting. This conflict was concentrated in the Carmanah and Walbran old-growth forests. In light of this, I believe we must ask ourselves: are environmentalists really making progress on fundamental issues relating to sustainable development, or have we been lulled into a fall sense of progress through holding endless conferences and protests while little change actually takes place?

Here is a map that shows the remaining old growth on Vancouver Island

and the surrounding mainland. Photo credits to http://vancouverisland.com

Teal-Jones, while arguably right to be criticized for its placement of its forest cutblocks within the Walbran valley and its recent injunction, is by no means championing the clear-cutting policies of its predecessors. In fact one environmentalist characterized Teal-Jones as “progressive company” before seeing their Walbran plans, and the it continues to receive multiple certifications for its sustainability practices, which are only granted if the company strictly follows third-party audits of their activities on a regular basis.  These practices include leaving at least 10% of a given cutblock as unharvested wild forest, and preserving areas of cultural, spiritual, or specific vital habitat (including karst habitats), according to the company’s posted Sustainable Forest Management Plan.

To me, the current conflict in the Walbran valley is not a larger sign of failed progress by environmentalists but instead serves as evidence that our environmental standards have been realized. I know that may seem contradictory but hear me out!  In resource management (as explained by SFU Professor Duncan Knowler) environmental issues often fall victim to issue attention cycles, wherein there is a period of wide public support for a given issue followed by a gradual decline of public interest. This is in part due to the fact that for an issue to be salient to the public for a prolonged period of time, people often need to see clear evidence or easily imaginable negative outcomes of what might happen or is happening as a result of human caused environmental “crimes”.  Yet it is often difficult to concretely show how or if negative changes are taking place in ecosystems as complex as the Walbran Valley.  I would argue that the 1991 protests, seen as successful, may have only been so because it was easy for the public to imagine how a barren, clear cut forest landscape would threaten if not destroy the ecosystem health of the Walbran. Today, such violations don’t appear to be as egregious or as easy to imagine; after all, Teal-Jones has a record of leaving some trees still standing, and their cutblocks only cover part of the unprotected Walbran valley. Nevertheless, environmentalists are protesting anyway, and that the Walbran conflict is currently being given substantial attention by both national and regional media outlets.

What might this suggest? To me, it signifies that we as a society are beginning to embrace a concept key to sustainability in the face of uncertainty: the precautionary approach. In other words, although we may not know exactly how or to what extent Teal-Jones activities will have on the Walbran valley’s ecological integrity (comparing this uncertainty to the near certainty in the 90s that clear-cut logging would completely devastate the Walbran ecosystem), we are willing to err on the side of caution rather than leave the ecological health of this incredible ecosystem to chance.  Thus, I would argue our environmental standards have indeed been raised: 2016 is set to be a period of continuing progress, not buzzwords.

Want to learn more about the Walbran Valley protests? Check out this video


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