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Defending Life: The Importance of Civil Disobedience

Old-growth Trees.

Their ancientness, embodied knowledge, and powerful presence elicits profound reverence. Walking in the forests of Vancouver Island has literally had me falling to my knees, from awe and respect. Some of the oldest DNA on Earth is found in trees, given that they are some of the oldest beings on Earth. When you walk among giants whom 10 people linking hands cannot encircle, you realize that these trees are living beings, elders who have survived incredible natural events as well as human machinations. Some are called witness trees…witness not just to some catastrophe, bearing the scars in their bodies, but witness to much of earth and human history.

Vancouver Island is part of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest ecosystem. Trees naturally cover the rugged, deep, and isolated valleys of rolling mists during months of rain. Red and yellow cedar, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and hemlock to name a few. Here these trees are considered “old-growth” from 250 years old. They, however, can live to 1500 years and beyond. Some trees soar 330 feet (nearly 100 metres) into the sky, impossible to see the growing tip from the ground. The Cheewhat Giant is a Western red cedar, bordering the Carmanah and Pacific Rim Reserves, considered to be about 2000 years old, the oldest in Canada. Imagine…its life started at the end of the Ancient Roman Empire!

The oldest tree is south of us, located in California, a bristlecone pine almost 5000 years old. It began its life during the Ancient Egyptian civilization. The biggest tree, by girth and volume, is a giant 2000-year-old sequoia, also south of us in California. So, the west coast of North America is a special series of ecosystems.

Clearcutting trees increases the temperature of water, which disrupts salmon spawning and reduces rainfall, leaving remaining trees vulnerable to drought and “blow down”. It enables landslides which destroy salmon spawning creeks. And we know, in this dance of life, salmon feed the trees as well as mammals and other life forms…in an ancient yet fragile life cycle.

While many believe that old-growth logging is a thing of the past in Canada, this is definitely not the case! On Vancouver Island, at least one third of all logging is from productive old-growth forests…as, of course, they net the most profit for their effort. Many important forests in the province of British Columbia have now been protected, but only after significant public outcry. That said, only 20% of the original forest on Vancouver Island is left. Today, of this 20%, only 3 to 7% are the productive old-growth forests with the biggest, oldest trees and intact ecosystems. The current protest at Fairy Creek is focused on preserving one of the last untouched watersheds of ancient trees, 2000 incredible hectares within the 60,000 hectares within this timber forest license. Using civil disobedience to protect forests has had many forerunners, both in Canada and globally.

In 1985, a Haida blockade on Lyell island, in their traditional territory of Haida Gwaii, helped save an old-growth forest after 13 years of failed negotiations with Macmillan Bloedel forestry company. Out of this protest came a national park called Gwaii Haanas and a Haida heritage site. It also helped to bring treaty recognition to First Nations within Canada. Only in taking their forest protection movement global—appealing to the UN as part of Indigenous rights as well as asking Europeans to boycott BC forest company products—were the Haida successful. Still, there have been blockades as recently as last year to protect the overcutting and clear cutting of red cedar outside the park, the tree so pivotal to their identity, survival, and sense of place.

In 1988, the Carmanah Giant, a Sitka spruce 95 metres tall…the tallest in Canada, was found. The Western Canada Wilderness Committee was successful in lobbying for the eventual protection of the whole Carmanah Valley as a provincial park. However, further north, it took the largest mass arrest in Canadian history—of 932 people—to protect forests in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. The o