Recruiting Old-Growth Forest is an Act of Faith

Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island are healing forests for the future.

Golden light rays shine through the dense, green canopy of an old growth forest on Vancouver Island.
Photo by Melody Charlie

Old growth forests are essential to Indigenous peoples’ culture and spirituality, and a resource that must be preserved for future generations.

Every year, thousands of tourists descend on accessible pockets of old-growth rainforest on the west coast of BC’s Vancouver Island, drawn to towering, 1,000-year-old trunks as tall as lighthouses. For the Indigenous peoples who live on this land, these trees don’t exist for a fleeting experience of wilderness; they are home. They carry knowledge, medicines, and tradition.

“Our forests were [our] church,” says Tla-o-qui-aht master carver Joe Martin, who specializes in the craft of harvesting and shaping trees into traditional dugout canoes and bentwood boxes, which can be used to carry ancestors and ceremonial regalia. “It was our church, because it provided everything,” he says.

For the Indigenous peoples who live on this land, these trees don’t exist for a fleeting experience of wilderness; they are home.

Tla-o-qui-aht territory spans the biodiverse region known today as Clayoquot Sound. For over 14,000 years, Tla-o-qui-aht people have cared for the old growth, carefully taking what they need from bark, branches, and trunks for essential needs — like food, medicine, and clothing — in ways that preserve the integrity of the trees and forest. But today, just out of sight of the busiest parks, large patches of clear-cuts and slashes of logging roads reveal a different set of values.

When a forest is clear-cut, web-like underground fungal networks that shuffle resources, like carbon and water, between trees are broken. And the many species that depend on healthy forests experience aftershocks for generations. To restore these connections — long confirmed by traditional knowledge — some nations are finding ways to permanently protect what little old growth remains, and heal what’s been severed.

By remediating previously logged forests, First Nations forest guardians create space for trees to grow 250 rings — bands of tissue that grow under a tree’s bark each year — and beyond. These stewards are guided by teachings like His-shuk-nish-tsa-waak, the Tla-o-qui-aht phrase meaning “We are all one.”

The land of salmon and cedar

Vancouver Island is massive, measuring over 425 km from end to end. Floating off the southwest corner of Canada, it holds dense temperate rainforest, intricate fjords, snowy peaks, and salmon-nurturing rivers. The island is also home to 50 First Nations and three distinct Indigenous language groups: Kwak’wala, Coast Salish, and Nuu-chah-nulth (including the Tla-o-qui-aht). Before colonization, these peoples lived alongside healthy forests and waters.

Last year, protests against old-growth logging took place on Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht territory within the Fairy Creek watershed near the island’s southwest coast, leading to one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. In response to these blockades and an independent review of old-growth forest management, the province proposed a series of temporary old-growth logging deferrals to be advanced in collaboration with local First Nations. But Indigenous leaders, scientists, and environmental advocates say the proposal covers just a fraction of what needs to be permanently protected.

About 20% of BC’s publicly managed forests are old growth, but the deferrals cover only about 4.6% of BC’s total forested area — meaning most old-growth trees are still at risk of being chopped down — according to an analysis of provincial government data by the Wilderness Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving wilderness and wildlife.

Tla-o-qui-aht master carver Joe Martin (right) shapes a traditional dugout canoe with help from Matt Seitcher.

On Vancouver Island and surrounding areas, just 9% of the densest low-elevation forests — which have the most biodiversity and the biggest trees — remain. A mapping analysis by the Wilderness Committee found the government accelerated approvals for old-growth logging outside of deferral areas over the last year.

The valleys of staggering ancients within the Fairy Creek watershed are a two-hour drive from BC’s capital, Victoria — readily accessible to concerned protesters and journalists. But less attention is given to northern Vancouver Island, where logging spearheaded by Vancouver-based Western Forest Products steadily cuts through old-growth forests. The forestry company brought in over US$1.1 billion in revenue in 2021.

Last year, the company announced it will defer harvesting of 2,500 hectares of rare, ancient, and priority old-growth trees. That’s less than half the size of Manhattan, only a little bigger than the City of Victoria.

About 20% of BC’s publicly managed forests are old growth, but the deferrals cover only about 4.6% of BC’s total forested area.

Torrance Coste is the Wilderness Committee’s national campaign director. He closely follows efforts to protect these forests. Looking at other indicators of old growth, such as forest types capable of growing the biggest trees and holding the most biodiversity, “the numbers get much smaller,” he explains. “And that’s why there’s so much fuss over ‘the last’ of the best old growth.”

Industry representatives maintain logging more profitable old growth is necessary because it creates jobs that help surrounding communities. But historical trends tell a different story. Between 1991 and 2018, BC forestry jobs have been cut by 45%, while the quantity of wood harvested annually is only 8% lower, explains Thomas Martin, a forester-in-training who has logged old growth on Vancouver Island.

What was once done in days with two-man saws and horses, now takes a matter of hours, he says. “The reality is, even without additional conservation measures, the industry will continue to mechanize and automate — meaning more jobs lost.”

Dark practices, dark forests

Tla-o-qui-aht master carver Joe Martin says old growth is essential to his peoples’ culture and spirituality, and a resource that must be preserved for future generations. As an ex-logger, he also understands the need to harvest trees. But he questions the way it’s done. “Why cut the old growth in the first place?” says Martin who chalks it up to corporate greed. “The speed of the way things are going today is really ridiculous. It’s kinda like ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.’”

Walking through the forests of Tla-o-qui-aht territory — near the midpoint of Vancouver Island’s west coast — there’s a palpable shift when moving from old growth to second growth. In areas that have been logged and replanted, trees are densely packed, all the same age, type, and size. They march on without variety, their growth (and that of the understory) inhibited by the dim light trickling through a crowded canopy.

Stumps the size of table tops now mark what used to be. Without the dappled light of multi-storied canopies and protective low branches of large cedars, fish-bearing streams are left exposed and overheat — an issue compounded by a rapidly warming planet.

Acts of faith

Andy MacKinnon is a forest ecologist, professor, and politician who lives in BC’s at-risk coastal Douglas fir zone in the densely developed Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group lands of southeast Vancouver Island. Here, less than 1% of the original old growth remains. Even with proposed deferrals, many of these trees are slated for logging on a rotation of 50 years or fewer, he explains.

“If you want to have old-growth forest [here], you have to regrow it,” says MacKinnon. In these slow-growing forests of the Pacific Northwest, this will take not hundreds but thousands of years. “It’s not something you’re going to see in your lifetime. It’s an act of faith.”

Thoughtful stewardship can speed up the process. Restoring previously logged forests in order to accelerate ecosystem recovery is sometimes called “recruiting” old growth. By selectively removing some of the trees in crowded stands and leaving them to rot as nurse logs on the forest floor, stewards can help light enter from above. The remaining trees can take up space. Native species of shrubs like salal and huckleberry can flourish, supporting marbled murrelets, black bears, lichen, arthropods, and other life.

Decades of intensive logging right up to the water’s edge have left nearby watersheds in vulnerable shape.

There is one big caveat: “All efforts to purchase, and leave, and restore old-growth forests are all simply imperfect attempts to do what we could do by not logging some of it in the first place,” says MacKinnon. “So long as we’re clear that one is not the substitute for the other, I’m a strong proponent of restoration.”

The Wilderness Committee’s Coste agrees. “Restoration projects shouldn’t be used to justify continued status quo clear-cutting or to avoid necessary conservation and changes to forestry regulations. Like any environmental project, restoration is not immune to being used in efforts to greenwash,” he says.

How guardians heal the watershed

“All along the mountains and sea” — that’s what “Nuu-chah-nulth” means. Travelling to Wanačas Hiłhuuʔis, or Meares Island, is a journey to a rare and unique type of forest, nestled in Clayoquot Sound amid spectacular mountain views. A short boat ride from tourist-friendly Tofino, the island is home to ancient temperate rainforest nourished by nitrogen from decaying salmon, carried to the forest floor by bears and eagles. Behemoth western hemlocks with trunks like triceratops legs rise up to the skies. Glimpses of them dominate social media profiles, their wholeness too large to capture in one shot.

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation declared Wanačas Hiłhuuʔis a tribal park in 1984. As a result of Indigenous-led advocacy and the 1980s’ and ‘90s’ famous “War in the Woods” blockades against clear-cutting, many other ancient trees in this region now carry some special protection. An additional strip of forest adjacent to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve was announced as an old-growth deferral area by the province last fall.

But decades of intensive logging right up to the water’s edge have left nearby watersheds in vulnerable shape. Foresters dug gravel critical for salmon habitat out of rivers and streams to build roads, explains Saya Masso, natural resources manager and tribal parks director for the Tla-o-qui-aht nation. He adds that riverbeds have been clogged with boulders and rocks because of landslides triggered by clear-cuts, which remove tree roots’ ability to hold the soil together.

The cascade of impacts on salmon and the species that rely on them led loggers, biologists, forestry professionals, and local First Nations to found the Central Westcoast Forest Society — now known as Redd Fish Restoration — in 1995. Today, the Tla-o-qui-aht nation partners with this celebrated nonprofit to employ four tribal park guardians who restore priority watershed areas.

As First Nations, we need to participate in that economy so we can weigh the cost of logging versus the cost of seeing that tree standing.

Masso explains that they restore streams “back to the ancestral channel and reestablish these oxygenating riffles and pools where salmon can survive the drought of summer.” When salmon thrive, the water and trees are nourished with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to become healthy ecosystems that may withstand climate change.

“You could either wait 175 years for the river to wash it out and make these pools again, and the trees to grow back,” he continues. “Or you could go in and… engineer them. And you can take [about] 100 years off of that recovery.”

In other areas, guardians thin out densely planted stands of second-growth forest. Sometimes they remove garbage, plant native flora, or close logging roads. Their work is funded by a combination of grants and support from the region’s booming, multi-million dollar tourism industry.

More than 75 local tourism businesses have signed up to become Tribal Park Allies, contributing 1% of revenue to support the guardians program. The Ecosystem Service Contribution, as it’s called, gives hundreds of thousand of tourists who descend on Tla-o-qui-aht forests and beaches each year a chance to give back to the local community and the forests they depend on. The goal is for the program to be self-sustaining and employ 10 year-round guardians, says Masso. But there’s still a way to go.

Masso reminds us of the Aboriginal title case that resulted in a historic injunction forbidding forestry company MacMillan Bloedel from logging on Wanačas Hiłhuuʔis in 1985, protecting the very drinking water the tourism industry relies on. And yet, he says, he’s still trying to get hotels to sign up to be Tribal Park Allies. “We need to resolve our relationship to tourism,” he says. “Because a million people come here… and we’re living on grants.”

A mature cedar with traditionally stripped bark

Beyond deferrals and protected areas, the Tla-o-qui-aht nation is exploring ways to use accessible, previously logged forests — such as a nearby area known as Kennedy Flats — for sustainable value-added forestry that could create jobs processing harvested trees locally. The more revenue the nation can bring in through sustainable harvests and programs like Tribal Park Allies, the more power they have to leave other areas off limits.

“Foresters, they just need to produce a board that comes out of the mill and can be sold, and that can be done with old growth or second growth,” says Masso. “But [with] old growth, there’s more impacts. Our culture entirely depends on them.”

“As First Nations, we need to participate in that economy so we can weigh the cost of logging versus the cost of seeing that tree standing,” says Masso. “We want to be deriving a benefit from it in a meaningful way. Because we have language programs, and lunch programs, and social programs. And longhouses and roads to build, and schools to run.”

Restoring nature and culture

Further north up the island, smaller communities are separated by long distances and brash clear-cuts that come right up to the highway, shocking visitors outside Port McNeill on the east coast of Vancouver Island in ’Na̱mǥis nation territory.

Tła̱lita’la̱s (Karissa) Glendale, who is Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, works as the forest relations coordinator at Sierra Club BC. With communities facing struggles from Covid-19 to poverty, she’s energized by work to restore her people’s culture. She reflects on social venture Nawalakw’s efforts to teach youth Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw practices and Kwak’wala language at a healing lodge on ’Na̱mǥis territory near a heli-logged forest.

“We’re actually physically back out there and our presence is known,” she says. With her people back in the forests, it becomes harder for logging companies to damage ancient forests and the Indigenous knowledge they carry, she says. “My hope is that more of our people will do that in different areas of our territory again.”

Still further north, on the northwesternmost tip of the island, is the territory of traditional Chief Ye-kue-klas (Sonny Wallas) of the Gwat’sinuxw (Quatsino) nation, who grew up speaking Gutsa. His people carry history and legends from the last major ice age more than 10,000 years ago, when five tribes amalgamated to survive glaciation in Klaskino village on Mquqᵂin (Brooks Peninsula) — an abundant rectangle of forested land jutting out from the northwest coast of the Island.

“With them logging so close to our old villages, I fear that they have logged into our grave trees,” says Ye-kue-klas, alluding to his people’s tradition of burying their dead in cedar chests nestled into branches of old-growth cedar. Ye-kue-klas also recalls another nation that was forced to bring in old-growth red and yellow cedar from outside their territory to complete their Big House, a sacred place of community, ceremony, and governance, constructed with intricately carved posts.

It’s not only for our future generations. It’s for the entire world’s future generations.

As a former foreman for his mother’s silviculture company, Ye-kue-klas has seen the benefits of restoration work. “My mother’s company wasn’t for taking anything out,” he says. “It was for helping the trees grow and helping the forest. We would do tree planting, fertilizing, creek cleaning, spacing, pruning. And she employed up to 98 workers at one time.”

Nobody from the nation is doing that work now, Ye-kue-klas says. But he’s grateful to see younger generations reconnecting with their language, and restoring traditional laws and holistic understandings of forests. The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw worldview recognises how communities, cultures, economies and environments are interwoven. “It’s not only for our future generations. It’s for the entire world’s future generations,” says Ye-kue-klas. “With global warming and air pollution, forests are Mother Nature’s defense.”

Today, Ye-kue-klas is one of three traditional chiefs who govern with the potlatch, a complex institution of governance rooted in reciprocity, which was outlawed by Canada from 1885 to 1951. Historically there were 14 more traditional Gwat’sinuxw chiefs. Ye-kue-klas explains those roles are currently considered “sleeping,” and will awaken when individuals from the families they represented are ready to once again take up their positions in the old ways of the Big House.

Just as relations between watersheds, forests, and salmon can be repaired to feed future old growth, so too can teachings and governance nourish relationships that help ensure old-growth forests remain.

“Everything’s in a circle. Everything has a purpose,” he says. “Even when there’s death, it supplies life for other living things.”

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.