Give Me That Old Growth Religion: Finding Common Ground in the War in the Woods

Framing a Conflict  

I have a very cool job. I get to teach a mix of environmental studies and humanities courses at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. This includes courses from ‘World Religions’, to ‘Environmental Ethics’, and ‘Religion and Ecology’ to ‘Forest Ecosystem Management’. When I tell students that I studied forestry and theology in graduate school, I get looks that range from skepticism to amazement. This spring I taught, what to me, was a dream course. It was entitled ‘Sacred Groves: Trees, Forests and the Human Imagination’. The curriculum explored the entanglement between human cultures and forest ecosystems through readings in anthropology, ecology, ethics and sacred texts. The students were from many different faculties and backgrounds, and by the end of the course it was clear to me that we had just scratched the surface of the intersections and material in this interdisciplinary field.

During this time, the so-called War in the Woods had heated up in a remote old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Activists were defending road blocks from a court injunction that gave Teal Jones the right to log several areas of forest identified by activists as old growth in the Fairy Creek Watershed within unceded Pacheedaht First Nation territory. News outlets recycled familiar tropes about jobs versus ecological integrity, and we have witnessed numerous videos of RCMP officers aggressively extracting activists from precarious tripods or underground arm holds and enforcing illegal exclusion zones near cut blocks.

This skirmish was happening in the wake of the Province of British Columbia having revealed an official timeline for enacting a so-called “paradigm shift” in the way forestry is done. The Province has even endorsed all fourteen recommendations from the most recent Old Growth review panel. The report is entitled “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” written by long time foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorely.[1] The report includes yet another call for the province to shift toward “ecosystem-based management” that includes protecting some of the Province’s remaining old growth forests, especially in the most productive site classes within the Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH) biogeoclimatic zone which covers some 10.8 million hectares of BC (11.4%).[2] The recommendations even includes recognizing forests “intrinsic value for living things.” The term intrinsic value being a term that is typically only heard in environmental ethics courses, or invoked to critique the mechanistic, utilitarian approach to forestry embodied by industrial logging.

On June 17, 2021, during the peak of media coverage of the Fairy Creek blockades, Narwhal journalist Sarah Cox interviewed co-author of the Old Growth Strategic Review, Garry Merkel. The conversation was entitled “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” Throughout his comments Merkel continually returned to the fact that a successful paradigm shift in forestry would not be achieved only through advocating for top down policy changes. His thesis was essentially that only when we can start to think differently will we be able to act differently. And then the clincher:

A paradigm shift is a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s essentially a revolution in thinking…Think about it in your own life. For those of you who might have a certain religious orientation. Change your religion tomorrow and think like that. That’s what a paradigm shift is. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work to help people work through that (43:10).[3]  

It is not often that forestry and religion are discussed together, so Merkel’s comments lit up both parts of my brain. Merkel’s comments also resonated with historian Lynn White Jr.’s criticism of the anthropocentric wing of the Abrahamic faiths, in which the emphasis on a transcendent God at a distance from creation enabled Western civilization to think of the world as so much material given to humanity for our flourishing which has correlated with (if not precipitated) our current ecological crises.[4]

Political theorists may find fault with Merkel’s paradigm shift approach because of its emphasis on the importance of ideas and thinking over structures of power and economic pressures. This is a valid critique, but I fundamentally agree with Merkel’s view that our approach to old growth is as much about worldview as it is about money or jobs. The War in the Woods is not just about territory and power any more, it is also about ideas. It is largely a continuation of a culture war that has been waged for many decades.

In this essay, I will outline the context and complexities of the most recent skirmish in the battle to protect old growth forests in British Columbia at Fairy Creek. I will make the case for the quasi-religious nature of this conflict and assess Garry Merkel’s suggestions around orchestrating a Province wide paradigm shift. I argue that the essentially religious dimensions to the current old growth conflict mean that any kind of paradigm shift toward more ecosystem-based management will need to incorporate elements of the various conflicting worldviews to succeed.

Holy Wars

The most famous battle of the War of the Woods was fought in the late 1990s when activists blockaded access to a timber license on Meres Island near the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. This protest resulted in over 900 arrests, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (until Fairy Creek Protestors surpassed this record in 2021). Counter protests, called Ucluelet Rendezvous, attracted thousands of people as well, and vocalized frustration with the protests and support for the industry that continues to provide for over 60,000 livelihoods in BC.

Eventually the timber company MacMillan Bloedel agreed not to log the forests and First Nations’ forestry companies took over the major timber licenses in the area. In 2000 the area was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, but much of the bioregion remains without Provincial protected status despite the good faith agreements between First Nations logging companies and environmentalists. Emerging First Nations land management programs are re-embedding traditional and spiritual values into their land use plans.

In August of 2020 activists began to quietly blockade several access points to the Fairy Creek Watershed, just north of Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. Then, in May of 2021, the BC courts issued an injunction against the blockade giving logging company Teal Jones the right to access and harvest trees in the timber license area. Teal Jones was founded in 1946 by Jack Jones as a cedar shingle mill in New Westminster, BC and the company owns mills in the United States and Canada. Some activists have targeted the company and organized protests outside their current headquarters in Surrey, BC. Teal Jones responded by giving away tree saplings to the protestors as a token of their view that the industry is a leader in environmental sustainability.

The group primarily responsible for leading the protests and blockades is called the Rainforest Flying Squad. A Go Fund Me campaign associated with the group has raised over $700,000.[5] Theirs is a deep devotion to protecting one of the few remaining unlogged watersheds in southern Vancouver Island. A quick Google Maps search reveals just how unique the site is to the surrounding patch work of clear cut harvests in various stages of recovery, which appears as an ovate shaped valley of continuous green. 

In the meantime, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations have issued statements requesting that activists respect their territories and essentially pack up and leave. Each of the tribes has been devastated by colonialism, and standard procedure has been for logging companies to enter their territories, which are officially designated as “Crown Land”, and extract timber for the open market. However, in the new era of truth and reconciliation, rights and title, and treaty commissions, First Nations are winning more and more battles for greater control over how land is managed within their territories. The Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations are negotiating a treaty with the Province together, as on-reserve populations are comparatively small. They are also slowly gaining more economic ground by purchasing local businesses such as a resort and a gas station. Forest tenure agreements, which enable third parties to harvest timber from Crown Land are also being rearranged to ensure tribes get a fair share of timber revenues. The Pacheedaht have even opened up a local saw mill that processes old growth cedar trees for specialty products.[6] The Huu-ay-aht leadership has also been vocal about the importance of forestry to their local economy, and do not see ecotourism as a viable alternative (though perhaps a supplement) to forest harvesting.

However, not all the members of these nations agree with their leadership. For example, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has been a vocal defender of the Fairy Creek old growth forests, saying that activists are his guests. He has even stated publically that Frank Jones who claims to be the Pacheedaht hereditary chief was not officially passed that title by his father, making hereditary leadership contested among the Pacheedaht. Jones emphasizes that disease and colonial violence disrupted their traditional governance which included decisions over natural resource management. The Canadian Indian Act, which mandated democratically elected councils to be the nations’ official representation to the state were designed to disrupt systems of kinship and usufruct rights. This means that communities are often divided with respect to the legitimate leadership of their interests, and as in any community hold diverse views on controversial environmental issues.

Media portrayals of the War in the Woods in the 90s as now, often frame the debate about old growth as one between jobs and preservation, economic growth and ecological integrity. Even academic treatments trace these familiar songlines through the landscape. Geographer Bruce Braun wrote an analysis of the conflict in his book The Intemperate Rainforest (2002). In it Braun argues along social constructionist lines that the forest is a contested space. Nature’s impenetrable otherness absorbs our socio-political projections. In this case loggers and environmentalists clash over the contested meaning of forests as zones of ecological integrity versus resource extraction. Caught in the middle were the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples who had dwelt in the Clayoquot Sound by their own reckoning since time immemorial.[7] Braun assesses the forests through a political ecology lens that might be accused of erasing the agency, materiality and objectivity of the forest. Nevertheless, his argument shows how deeply contested a forest can be within a contemporary pluralist society.

In their own public relations materials, timber and forestry organizations boast BC’s high environmental standards and regulations, tree planting practices and the carbon sequestration potential of wood products used in buildings and furniture. Environmentalists argue that old growth have intrinsic value and harbor unique biodiversity. Old forests are also massive sinks of carbon and therefore provide a rich array of ecosystem services which makes them “worth more standing”, a common slogan among activists. Indigenous peoples and their relationships to forests are often marginalized from these dominant storylines, and have expressed resistance to both. At Fairy Creek, we are once again trapped between divergent views of what forests are for, and who gets to decide how we manage them. Yet social science and media portrayals miss altogether the deeply seated quasi-religious commitments of the various interested parties. In the next sections I will explore at least three of these commitments.

The Gospel of Efficiency

In forestry school, we learned that the succession of a forest begins with a phase called “Stand Initiation.” This could of course get going through natural disturbances such as fire or windstorms, but in a commercial forestry setting, this means planting trees in a harvested area.[8] In BC we plant somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 million seedlings each year on around 190,000 hectares of harvested area. Learning forestry, it always felt as though this first phase had a somewhat biblically Ex Nihilio—out of nothing—ring to it. Just as the Abrahamic god had created the world through words, benevolent foresters re-create the forest through an act of Stand Initiation—harvesting and re-planting. ‘In the beginning there was a perfectly spaced stand of commercially valuable trees…’

As historian James C. Scott has written in his book Seeing Like a State, the history of industrial forestry in Europe and North America is rooted in the rise of capitalist efficiency and the royal pronouncements of the 16th and 17th centuries.[9] As European wood supply began to dwindle with the rise of the industrial revolution, kingdoms and then secular governments sought ways to more efficiently manage trees and forests for a steady stream of an increasingly narrower range of commodities, primarily timber.

German forestry especially turned vast networks of medieval forest commons into agricultural cropland. Through the application of the sciences, they sought to simplify the forest community to maximize the growth of desirable species and to eradicate the presence of so-called pests and non-economic trees and shrubs. Mathematical equations were developed to calculate the volume of standing trees in a given stand, and estimate the trees’ growth rate. This of course enabled a predicable model of the steady flow of timber resources, and therefore cash. This worked out well enough for 1-2 rotations, but then the soil began to exhaust. Fertilization was often needed, and the forest had to be protected from fire. Bark beetles and other boring and defoliating insects were also more likely to swell in population due to the even-aged character of the forests, which essentially provided a vast arboreal buffet. Some areas after harvest didn’t recover well on their own so nurseries and replanting were needed to supplement natural regeneration. Forest commons were gradually converted into plantations, managed as intensively as any agricultural crop.

In North America, forests were ravaged by waves of agrarian settler colonists (many who were refugees from Europe) and timber operations. With an impending timber famine, forestry in the United States became institutionalized through the political muscle of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1898, Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot, a Europe-educated forester, to lead the Division of Forestry. In 1900 Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the first forestry school in North America at Yale. Pinchot was later appointed the first head of the US Forest Service. Pinchot’s approach to forestry and conservation in general had a major impact on the development of the forestry profession in North America.

In Canada, the first forestry school was established in Toronto in 1907, but the University of British Columbia did not open its forestry school until 1921. What began in BC as a corrupt and unregulated industry, was eventually tamed into the provincial timber tenure system still in place today. A major milestone in this process came in 1909 when Fred Fulton published his “Royal Commission Report on Timber and Forestry” known as the Fulton Commission. The recommendations for this report were institutionalized in the 1912 Forest Act.[10]

Rather than a focus on what we would now call conservation, early forestry legislation in BC was primarily aimed at ensuring the efficient harvesting of timber, the prevention of fire, and the ability to generate public revenues. Instead of allowing for the extraction of only the largest trees, tenure holders were required to harvest all available timber over a certain diameter.

Even the creation of forest reserves which eventually became the Provinces system of protected areas, was not initially about preserving forest ecosystems, rather, it was about ensuring economic sustainability and a supply of timber to future generations. From a functional linguistic standpoint, ‘ecosystems’ did not really exist yet and forests were seen as an inexhaustibly renewable resource that should be managed according to rational scientific principles. Forests did not exist for their own sake, but for ours. Yes, the National Park systems were getting going, but these were primarily about the beauty of Nature, and allowing those who could afford it access to experiences of the Sublime and Transcendent a la John Muir. Which, as we will see in the next section, are the roots of the quasi-religious views of contemporary ecological activists. 

However, it is not the case that this scientific approach to forest management was the opposite of a more spiritual, preservationist perspective that was emerging. Economist Robert H. Nelson convincingly argues that in fact the industrial approach too can be characterized as quasi-religious. While there are many narrower definitions of religion in the field of Religious Studies which restrict religion to its institutional or identitarian expressions, Nelson defines religion broadly as a “comprehensive worldview” or moral vision that is basically understood as true, or how the world works.[11]

Nelson argues that 19th century conservationists sought the fair distribution and utilization of resources for their “highest good” as a way to provide the most amount of benefit to society. This utilitarian view holds that using resources efficiently will maximize the benefits to the greatest amount of people through jobs and economic growth and using forestry techniques to meticulously measure and grade the forests ensures that a certain amount of timber volume will be available indefinitely.[12] The highest good therefore is the benefit of society. The vision of utilitarian conservation became the dominant framework for interpreting the forests of North America and guided legislation and management strategies that focused on the efficient use of timber.[13] Nelson dubs this utilitarian view the ‘Gospel of Efficiency’ as being a quasi-religious devotion to enlightenment rationality and a firm faith in the infinite abilities of humanist Science.

Nineteenth century progressives such as Gifford Pinchot and Fred Fulton saw forestry as a correction to the wasteful and plundering style of colonialism, and efficient use of the earth’s bounty as a sacred duty. They wanted to use science to effectively measure and manage the forests and pass laws that protected them in perpetuity for the use of future generations. Therefore it is essential to make a good account of the quantity of our forest resources and manage them efficiently for the good of the whole society.

For a forester or logger trained in traditional silviculture, an ancient forest may be beautiful, but from a management perspective, it is ‘decadent’, past its prime. It has entered into what is perceived to be a stagnant phase of growth where the trees are no longer growing vertically, secondary growth has slowed to nearly zero, and root and heart rots threaten the quality of the tree’s wood and structural stability. Certainly temperate old forests are places with high biodiversity, but they are not necessarily the places with the world’s or even the region’s highest biodiversity. Nor do old forests represent the full range of habitats of an intact forest ecosystem which would typically include stands at all stages of growth depending on the ecosystem’s disturbance regime, fire return interval, or Indigenous land management practices.[14] An old forest is not in itself an isolated ecosystem, but part of the wider ecological landscape.

In other words, according to the Gospel of Efficiency, cutting down old forests outside of protected areas in not a sacrilege, it is a duty. It is part of full cycle good stewardship of the land. It is the final phase that allows the whole forest’s growth to start over again (Ex nihilo). If efficient use of resources is your modus operandi, leaving those trees to rot and fall over (as they see it) is the real sacrilege. As loggers and foresters are often heard to say: trees grow back! Thus, for many rooted in this paradigm, rather than shifting the forestry sector toward wholesale ecosystem management, the system should continue to fine tune the constraints on forestry practices in order to account for previously unaccounted values, leaving old growth management to flourish in designated protected areas. Riparian buffers, proper drainage and culvert placement and replanting trees ensure harvesting does not impact salmon or biodiversity. With these forestry practices in place, and in some cases third party certification to ensure these practices are followed, it is believed that the forest industry can continue to provide wide ranging benefits to society as a whole.

Gaian Devotees

As a young forest grows, trees compete for light. After “Stand Initiation”, the forest passes through a phase of growth called “Stem Exclusion” in which the trees race to capture available growing space. The canopy becomes dense and the understory becomes dark with hardly any other plants able to grow. Eventually, some of the trees are out-competed and the forest begins to self-thin, which passes the forest into the “Understory Reinitiation” phase. Dead trees lose their needles or fall over during high winds and light begins to filter through the canopy. Eventually, there is enough light to support a vibrant understory of small trees, shrubs and ground cover. In the Pacific West, even long lived trees like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) begin to lose space within the canopy because they cannot regenerate in the lush shady understory they have helped create. More shade tolerant trees such as Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla), which have been hanging around in the understory begin to fill in the gaps. But their seeds are able germinate amidst the mossy duff and fallen logs. After the last Ice Age as plants recolonized the Pacific West, what is now classified as the Coastal Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone reached its current ecological complexity about 15,000-12,000 years ago. The slow maturing of a coastal forest can last hundreds or even thousands of years before a fire comes along and opens up enough new growing space for less shade tolerant species such as Douglas fir, Shore Pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta) or Red Alder (Alnus rubra) to recapture a site.

This story of how trees grow understands trees as primarily individual organisms in competition with each other. It was the dominant view during my time in forestry school, inherited from Gifford Pinchot and the Gospel of Efficiency. This approach was a conscious and empirically founded alignment with a view of trees that favored silvicultural treatments. In fact, during my forest succession courses, views that hinted at the special status of old growth trees, or forests as interconnected biomes were not so subtly mocked as so much sentimental nonsense.

Starting as early as the 19th century, the scientific silvicultural views advocated by conservationists such as Pinchot, came into conflict with what were we might now call preservationist views which valued aesthetics and wild nature. These understandings were classically embodied by John Muir’s movement to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed to supply San Francisco with water. In fact, initially allies, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had a very public falling out over the fate of Hetch Hetchy. Muir wrote of the plan:

That anyone would try to destroy [Hetch Hetchy Valley] seems; incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden. . . .

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.[15]

Muir’s religious allusions are clear and were meant to stir up the imaginations of American Transcendentalists and Christians alike. By setting his own affinity for Nature against the idolatry of Capitalism he delineated not progress as sacred by the world as a place of encounter with the Divine. He also makes reference to what I am calling the Gospel of Efficiency who propose that the utility of the parks is their highest good. While Muir’s recent reputation has been stained by his overt racism against Indigenous peoples, his ecological spirituality inspired generations of environmental activists who have come to see forests as sacred space, whose primary value is intrinsic rather than instrumental.

The preservationist view was influenced by the transcendental writings of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that view, Nature was maintained as a domain distinct from Culture, but was invested with sacredness as a foil to the anxiety-inducing drudgery of the industrial city. In contrast to the utilitarian view which saw a sacred role for humans in managing the forest, the Transcendentalist vision, elevated the experience of an imagined untouched Nature as a potential encounter with the Sublime qualities of the Divine. Said another way, in the utilitarian view wilderness needs redeeming, and in the Transcendentalist view wilderness does the redeeming.

Among Muir’s disciples in the west, old growth forests were valued primarily for their sacred quality, and the majestic size of their trees. John Muir’s advocacy for the Mariposa Grove and the Save the Redwoods League, worked to preserve these groves from the ax and saw. Many more activists across the world have done similar work as a labor of love in service of something greater than themselves, a common religious virtue.

Paradigms of Ecological Succession as Myth

Before we can discuss Muir’s contemporary successors in old growth preservation activism, I need to make a short detour through one of the most contentious debates in the biological sciences: Ecological Succession. The sides of this debate make up the cultural DNA so to speak of the current conflict. The debate revolved around the question of how ecosystems evolve over time. The term ecosystem, an abstract word describing the relationships between “organisms and their abiotic environments” was coined by Sir Arthur G. Tansley in 1935.[16] The main contenders in the debate regarding how ecosystems develop were ecologist Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) and Frederick Clements (1874-1945). Gleason saw plants as essentially individual organisms thrown together at random by evolution and making their way through their unique adaptations. The Clementsian view was that forests were in fact climate-determined super-organisms, who moved through phases of growth much like our bodies. This meant that disturbances like fire or logging were outside forces to the delicately balanced climax ecosystem. A climax ecosystem was the state that could hypothetically be sustained indefinitely without a disturbance. After World War II, as the Western world debated the merits of capitalism and socialism, Clement’s views fell out of favor in North America, both due to sufficient empirical evidence to support it within the existing academy, but perhaps also because it did not align with the individualistic, market-based civil religion of the era which was bogged down in Cold War with China and the Soviet Union.[17]

Among silvicultural and commercial forestry circles, Gleason’s view has essentially won out. However, environmentalists, and even many conservation biologists embrace the Clementsian view, which takes for granted the intimate, individual-blurring interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. During the first battles of the War in the Woods, ecologists enlisted this interconnected, super-organismic language to advocate for setting more old growth forests aside, arguing that species like the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) and the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) depended on these “climax” (late successional) forests to survive. In the late 1990s, some ten million hectares in California, Oregon and Washington were set aside from commercial harvest as part of the Northwest Forest Plan, which drastically reduced logging in publicly owned forests and shifted official policy toward ecosystem health.[18]

Despite the dominance of the utilitarian vision of forestry that overwhelmingly shapes forestry on crown lands in BC, the so-called Biogeoclimatic Ecological Classification System (BEC) which is used to categorize these lands is rooted in a Clementsian view of ecosystems. This means that the names given to forest types with this classification system enlist climax species as the climatic token of the forest type. My own forest ecosystem is the Coastal Western Hemlock because Western Hemlock is the shade tolerant species that persists through the late successional phase of forest growth, and barring disturbance would maintain dominance in the canopy in perpetuity. Yet, despite this classification, the region is dominated by mostly planted Douglas fir forests that will never reach their late successional old growth phase.

The more organismic understanding of forests embodied in the Clementsian view has been bolstered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelocks Gaian Theory (sometimes referred to as merely a hypothesis), which, starting in the 1970s affirmed that the earth’s complex interlocking lifeforms act as a sort of single self-regulating organism through a complex web of positive and negative feedback loops which maintain the conditions which are optimal for life.[19] The Greek myth of Gaia is used to bolster the contemporary science-based myth (story) of the earth as organism, or the forest as commune.

Scholar Bron Taylor has classified those who have translated Gaia Theory into spiritual terms, as a subset of adherents to what he classifies as “Dark Green Religion”, the way of life that affirms that nature, life itself, has intrinsic value and is therefore sacred.[20] For Taylor, this is a legitimate religious position outside of organized or institutionalized religion, but religion nonetheless.[21] Religion that enlists ‘bricolage’, the melding of spiritual and scientific understandings of the world into a meaningful worldview and praxis. Environmentalists in this camp have been consistently accused by conservation-oriented foresters of being neo-pagan nature worshippers. If the world is alive, if forests are complex ancient living creatures, then to destroy them is sacrilege. Gaian ethics would assert that we do not just live on planet earth, we are within and among the earth and their myriad creatures.[22]

In recent years, a slew of new studies in plant behavior and ecological science has affirmed the mythos that ecosystems are deeply interconnected.[23] The work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simmard for example, has become enormously popular. Through her rigorous and novel experimental methods, Simmard has documented loquacious tree communication networks that are facilitated through aerosols and most often through mycorrhizae, or fungi who form mutualistic relationships with plant roots of all sorts.[24] A real life ‘Avatar’, forests have been shown to be intimately connected with each other through these webs of fungi that Simard calls the Wood Wide Web. Popular writers and TED Talk manifestoes by Peter Wohlleben and Monica Gagliano have also echoed these messages, which mix science and storytelling.[25]

Activists who have adopted the Gaian stance are putting their bodies at risk to save large, old trees in the Fairy Creek watershed, understand their mission with the zealous urgency of crusaders defending a holy land from infidels. Just as sacred sites are more than just a collection of buildings, or strategic locales but rather places imbued with holiness, an old growth forest is not simply a unit of marketable timber, or even primarily a provider of human valued ecosystem services. Forests are unique and sacred places to those who have come to cherish them, even without having visited. With climate change advancing faster than many worst case scenario models, 1,900 species at risk in BC alone, and shrinking stands of easily accessible ancient coastal rainforest, activists can’t be blamed for their desire to take direct action while provincial leadership engages in what feels like so much “talk and log” tactics—commissioning another study, or employing an independent oversight body, while timber licensing continues unaffected.

Despite the economic value of large trees, and the sacred quality of old groves, there is controversy surrounding just how much old growth forests are left in BC. The Province’s data shows that nearly 23 per cent of BC’s 60 million hectares of forestlands belong to their definition of old growth which is defined by a standard age class cut off: 250 years old on the coast and 150 years old in the interior. However, conservation organizations such as the Ancient Forest Alliance and Sierra Club suggest that only 3 per cent of the remaining primary forests fit the age and structural qualities associated with this old growth phase. This is because forests in BC are stratified by site quality or productivity, which is ranked by measuring the average tree height at 50 years old on a given site. Thus forests that are both old and that contain large trees make up a very low percentage of the remaining primary highest productivity sites in our resource management area.[26]

Interestingly however, it would seem that activists are not merely interested in identifying and preserving old trees or intact ecosystems per se. There are many old trees in the interior or in more inaccessible areas like ridge tops or vast tracks of stunted boreal forests. But these trees do not grow to the same impressive size and girth as the coastal productive forests and are thus less valuable to both loggers and environmentalists. However we define old growth, there is enough volume left in these uncut stands that Garry Merkel admits that with current legal contracts and economic forecasts in place, the timber industry cannot survive without cutting at least some of the remaining coastal and interior old growth trees. To give you an idea of why, one well-formed, relatively rot-free ancient Western Red Cedar can bring in over $30,000. This economic irresistibility, and the kind of devotion these trees kindle from Gaian activists means there will almost certainly be more battles in the War of the Woods on the horizon.

Whereas the efficient management of forests is primary within the Gospel of Efficiency, and cutting old trees is a public good, in the Gaian mythos of many activists, cutting an old forest would be akin to tearing down a cathedral for its stones. The value of old trees and forests is inherent, and the ability to experience what is understood as an intact, integral ecosystem that is free of human tinkering is sacrosanct and our birthright as citizens. They are sanctuaries, and are upheld as a foil to the urban, industrialized places many of these non-indigenous activists hail from. 

Sacred Relations

The Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is revered as the Tree of Life by many Coast Salish peoples. According to some publically available tellings, Cedar used to be a generous man, who was always giving people gifts. The Transformer Being turned the man into Cedar so he could continue to give gifts. Cedar is at the heart of many Coast Salish cultures and provides both material and imaginal resources.

If loggers and environmentalists represent two extremes in the poles of old growth religion, the religiosity of First Peoples stands out as a unique third way that neither commoditizes old trees nor fetishizes them into sacrosanct precincts/objects. Rather, First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, as I understand their publicly available teachings and statements, view old trees as non-metaphorical kin whose relationship is held in a tight reciprocity among peoples, non-human and human.

In Western environmental ethics we often speak in terms of forests being valued either for their intrinsic value, in and of themselves, or for their instrumental value, the value they have for human’s which for the last 200 years has typically been measured in board feet of timber, but can include aesthetical or ecological values important to humans as well. First Peoples, who are often caught between this binary, hold to their own sacred principles which could be said to include aspects of both intrinsic valuation and instrumental use. This has been referred to as a kind of Relational Value.[27] This means that trees and forests can simultaneously be intrinsically and instrumentally valued. A Western Red Cedar can be a person and a resource when embedded in a social relationship of gift giving, exchange and reciprocity. This mixing of subject/object categories has been inherently difficult for Western resource managers and activists to wrap their arms around. In English speaking venues, one can often hear advocates of First Nations’ management techniques fluidly moving between the language of kinship and natural resources as they attempt to break down their relational worldview for outsiders.

First Peoples have not embraced the narrow view of forests as merely timber resources, but they do not view old growth forests as pristine wilderness. The forest is a place of abundant gifts, taken with gratitude and reciprocated with good feelings, prayer and offerings. First Nations revere the Cedar as a relative, and yet they also depend on Cedar as a source of fiber, timber and totem poles. The prayerful, elder-directed selective logging of some Nations looks very little like industrial forestry, though there are many Nations who are developing more revenue-oriented forest operations constrained by their own sacred teachings. And while preservation activists tend to use terms such as ‘virgin’ or ‘pristine’ rainforest to bolster their claims that the groves are untouched, intact, untrammeled and sacred, the groves they are advocating for often have a long history of anthropogenic influence and care. Reflecting this ontological disconnect, long time Tla-o-qui-aht activist Gisele Maria Martin said speaking of old growth forests, “We don’t have a word for ‘wilderness’ in Nuu-chah-nulth languages…The closest translation is ‘home.’”[28] This means that many places which have been advocated for using words like pristine, untouched and wild, are in fact often former resource gathering sites.

This is because as archeologists are now recognizing, thousands of so-called Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) up and down the coast have been intensively managed for their gifts. Many are Western Red Cedar that have been managed for cedar bark or cedar plank harvesting. Many of the old growth forests that remain such as those in Pacific Rim National Park, were once intensively managed ‘orchards’ of Cedar whose bark, wood, roots and leaves were harvested for a variety of uses. Some trees were left to grow to very large sizes so they could later be harvested as totem poles, canoes or long house beams.[29] This does not mean these trees were valued merely as commodities, nor does it allow for the view that Indigenous land management systems were a kind of proto-wilderness protection system. And as Nations reclaim sovereignty over their territories through the treaty process, activists seeking to lock up remaining old growth trees in expanded traditional wilderness areas will have few enthusiastic supporters among a major contingent of Coast Salish Indigenous peoples.

Ritual Protest and Reconciliation 

In an era of reconciliation, the widely successful strategy of building public pressure on a primary resource management agency through both lobbying and direct action is getting complicated. There is a ritual dimension to these strategies which focuses on the symbolic re-creation of the forces of darkness versus the forces of light, in which the supporter and activists are stand in for cultural hero. I do not say this cynically, but descriptively. The bravery of activists is admirable and the optics are undeniably favorable to their cause.

For many years activists have used these urgent public awareness campaigns to pressure and shame leaders into actions with success. The most recent campaign at Fairy Creek is often called “The Last Stand” and evokes the urgency of protecting old growth forests as non-renewable sacred sites with ecotourism, climate change and biodiversity enhancing perks. As in past campaigns they have enlisted petitions, call in scripts, and celebrity endorsements. In recent years, social media has allowed vivid daily reports that include photographs, videos and tallies of arrests with far reaching calls for action across a wide network of supporters and sympathizers. As I mentioned above a Go Fund Me Campaign associated with the blockades at Fairy Creek has raised over half a million dollars.

Activists are calling on Premier John Horgan to immediately defer old growth logging, and to permanently fund the protection of all remaining coastal stands. However, Horgan has said that in a time of reconciliation, the Ministry of Forests cannot simply make this decision without consulting with First Nations, a politically correct, but convenient dodge indeed. And yet, the Pacheedaht leadership have asked activists to leave their territory. They have also asked that the province defer cutting in yet unprotected cut blocks in and around Fairy Creek so that they can write their own resource management plan. Activists have not headed the call to leave their encampments, and the Province has agreed to defer some areas while others have still gotten the go ahead. Even after the deferral of some 2,000 hectares of cut blocks that include old trees, activists remain stationed at several blockades around the Fairy Creek watershed as of this writing. In fact, it appears that arrests are set to exceed the history making civil disobedience of the Clayoquot Sound protests of the 1990s.

After the deferral of the 2,000 hectares, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations released the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration which can be read online. The document celebrates the Nations’ sovereign right to manage their lands according to their own three sacred principles: ʔiisaak (utmost respect), ʔuuʔałuk (taking care of), and Hišuk ma c̕awak (everything is one). While the media has often portrayed the conflict as primarily between the timber industry and environmentalists, First Peoples at the heart of the conflict are often enlisted by the different sides to support their positions as is the case with activists siding with Pacheedaht Bill Jones or Teal Jones pointing to the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration as a justification for their own extractive form of logging.

First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island are not monolithic, yet the leadership has tired of settler colonialists from both sides assuming they know what is in First Peoples’ interest. In a long piece for the Narwhal, Sara Cox asked Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis what he thought about the blockade’s messaging. He said,

For years we’ve been subject to colonial policy…Some outside force — mainly the federal government — comes onto our land and says ‘we’re going to take care of you and we’re going to do things better than you’ve been doing.

Now I’m seeing some outside force saying, ‘oh you know what, we want to halt old-growth logging. And when we do that we want to halt the First Nations’ rights to harvest cedar for cultural purposes … we want to infringe on their Treaty Rights … I’m seeing systemic racism continuing. ‘You Indians don’t have the ability to carry yourselves, so we’re going to fight for you and we’re going to protect the old-growth whether you like it or not.’ That’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re saying. [30]

This is not to negate the tremendous harm that colonial resource management, which views forests through the lens of the Gospel of Efficiency, has effected on First Peoples. But mostly white, Western, and predominantly urban activists can sometimes simply invert the binary by asserting their own Gaian view of forests that don’t actually harmonize with the more relational land ethic of First Peoples.

            In this way, the performative, purposeful campaigns of Fairy Creek, while they present inspiring optics are oriented around a political tactic that was born within the colonial system. More Fairy Creeks are likely to occur in coming years, and activists, who claim to be on the side of decolonizing everything, will have to be more diplomatic with their messaging and tactics, and where possible play a supporting role to Indigenous led protest, blockade and campaign.

Will the ‘New Age’ of Forestry Ever Arrive? 

For now it looks as though the Province’s NDP government and public opinion are moving toward broadening the values that shape forest management in the province. It is not clear however if this will be a continuation of an essentially industrial forestry model with restraints, or a more totalizing transition toward a primarily ecosystem-based management. The Province has committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review panel, but this is easier publicized than done. Despite the momentum, and major public support in urban centers along the southern border, there are still many thousands of people who work for and depend on the forest industry especially in the Province’s east and north. These communities rely on organizing forests around a more rapid harvest rotation which does not typically see forests develop into the old growth phase outside of protected or other specially designated areas.

During the webinar with Sarah Cox, Gary Merkel suggested that the most difficult task ahead lie not just in getting top town legislation passed, but in getting buy-in from people who don’t want to see the Province change the way we do forestry too radically. In essence, Merkel seems to suggest that to accomplish this, what is needed is a kind of ecosystem-based evangelization campaign. Merkel recommends a three-pronged strategy:

1. Build understanding of the new ecosystem management paradigm by ingraining the paradigm shift and management strategies into local knowledge, experience and livelihoods.  

2. Build structures that reflect the new thinking, and document examples of where the emergent management strategies are being implemented successfully.

3. Take time to recognize the progress that has been made. Come together to relish in the art and culture inspired by the new thinking about forests, come together to share experiences, and celebrate (and I would add grieve what we have lost).

In addition to pressure for better legislation and funding for protection, Merkel envisions ending the War in the Woods by engaging in a war of ideas and building a network of institutions and events dedicated to the ecosystem-based vision of forestry. Yet, as Merkel admitted above, converting people to a new religion is hard work. Merkel is essentially arguing for an intergenerational struggle to marginalize the ideas of industrial forestry and the Gospel of Efficiency and embrace the integral ecosystems paradigm, which though not explicitly Gaian, lends scientific credibility to the Dark Green character of Old Growth Religion.

With the three perspectives discussed here all seeking to maintain or implement their visions of forestry, it is interesting to me that “A New Future for Old Forests” recommends shifting toward a three-zone management scheme for forests that roughly accounts for these three approaches. The first is protected areas, where forests are managed primarily as ecosystems and their associated biodiversity. The second is intensively managed timber zones, where productive forests and rural communities can continue to sustain a rapid rotation approach to forestry. The third, is less clearly delimited, and is defined as areas where some resource harvesting could happen, but with a much lighter footprint. This could include watershed lands, special biodiversity protection zones, community forests and Indigenous co-management or newly acquired harvesting licenses or agreements within traditional territories. It may well be that the future simply looks like a demarcated tentative co-existence between the three quasi-religious approaches to forest management, rather an full system conversion to ecosystem-based management, at least in the near and medium term.

For now it seems that top down political proclamations are not going to fully resolve this conflict no matter how well aligned the Provincial government becomes with ecosystem-based management. As Merkel has suggested, we will most likely need broader conversations about the nature of our worlds, “Inter-faith” style dialogues which seek for mutual understanding and common ground.


[1] Garry Merkel and Al Gorely, “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/forestry/stewardship/old-growth-forests/strategic-review-20200430.pdf

[2] https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/docs/srs/Srs06/chap6.pdf

[3] Interview with Garry Merkel by Sara Cox, “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=162617789229535&ref=watch_permalink Facebook Live link. Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[4] White Jr., Lynn. ‘The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.’ Science, Vol 155, Issue 3767, 1967 pp. 1203-1207. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203

[5] Rainforest Flying Squad Go Fund Me Campaign, https://www.gofundme.com/f/direct-action-for-ancient-rainforests Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[6] Government of Canada, 2020. ‘Successful Indigenous-industry partnerships in the forest sector: The People of the Seafoam’ https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/state-canadas-forests-report/successful-indigenous-industry-partnerships-forest-sector-people-seafoam/21197 Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[7] Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. (University of Minnesota, 2002).

[8] Ashton, Mark S., and Matthew J. Kelty. The Practice of Silviculture: Applied Forest Ecology. (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).

[9] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (Yale University Press, 1999).

[10] The Fulton Commission, https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/Docs/Mr/Rc/Rc002/Rc002.pdf  Accessed on Nov. 29, 2021.

[11] Robert H Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management: A religious question?’ Forest Policy and Economics 35 (2013): 9-20.

[12] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[13] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[14] Nancy J. Turner, Dana Lepofsky, and Douglas Deur. “Plant management systems of British Columbia’s first peoples.” BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly 179 (2013): 107-133. https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1077&context=anth_fac Access Nov. 29, 2021.

[15]  John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: Century, 1912), 255–257, 260–262. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The American Environment: Readings in The History of Conservation (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1968).

[16] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. (Cambridge University Press, 1994). . 

[17] Michael G. Barbour, “American Ecology and American Culture in the 1950s: Who led whom?” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 77, no. 1 (1996): 44-51.

[18] Spies, Thomas A., Jonathan W. Long, Susan Charnley, Paul F. Hessburg, Bruce G. Marcot, Gordon H. Reeves, Damon B. Lesmeister et al. “Twenty‐five years of the Northwest Forest Plan: what have we learned?.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, no. 9 (2019): 511-520.  https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.2101  Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[19] James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[20] Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (University of California Press, 2009).

[21] Taylor, Dark Green Religion.

[22] David Abram, ‘Perceptual Implications of Gaia’ https://wildethics.org/essay/the-perceptual-implications-of-gaia/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[23] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. (Suny Press, 2011).

[24] Suzanne Simmard, The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Allen Lane, 2021).

[25] Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world. (Greystone Books, 2016).See also: Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. (North Atlantic Books, 2018).  

[26] Sierra Club, 2020. BC’s Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity. https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/bcs-old-growth-forest-a-last-stand-for-biodiversity-report-2020.pdf Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[27] Kai Chan, Patricia Balvanera, Karina Benessaiah, Mollie Chapman, Sandra Díaz, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rachelle Gould, ‘Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 6 (2016): 1462-1465. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/6/1462

[28] Serena Renner, 2020. ‘The Deep Roots of BC’s Old Growth Defenders’, The Tyee, https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/09/16/Movement-In-Woods/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[29] Nancy Turner et al., ‘Plant Management Systems of British Columbia’s First Peoples’

[30] Sarah Cox, 2021. ‘Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades’, The Narwhal, https://thenarwhal.ca/pacheedaht-fairy-creek-bc-logging/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

3 thoughts on “Give Me That Old Growth Religion: Finding Common Ground in the War in the Woods

  1. The resonance of Merkel’s cross-disciplinary commentary for you that you wrote of early on in this piece sounds a lot like how I felt traveling through these words as a whole. Thank you for taking the time to get them down and share them! Looking forward to rereading.

    Like

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