Clayoquot Sound

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Clayoquot Sound

Clayoquot (pronounced CLACK wit) Sound, located about half way up the west coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island, is a spectacular complex of interconnecting ocean inlets, rocky islands, and narrow fjords cut into densely forested mountains. Home to black bears, cougars, wolves , bald eagles, marbled murrelets, five species of salmon , and lush with ferns, mosses and other water-loving plants, the area contains the largest remaining tract of temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island. It also contains the southernmost pristine, coastal rainforest valleys in North America. The forest is dominated by Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Douglas Fir, many of which can grow to 300 ft (100 m) high and 15 ft (5 m) in diameter, and live over 1,500 years.

Temperate rainforests only occur in areas with a mild, humid climate where a cold ocean is close to mountains. They need at least 80 in (190 cm) of rain spread fairly evenly throughout the year to keep the vegetation moist and lush. These conditions occur only along the west coasts of North America, Chile, New Zealand and Tasmania. Today, over half of these magnificent forests are gone and the only remaining large tracts on earth are in southeastern Alaska, coastal British Columbia, and Chile. This thin band of coastal temperate rain forest contains some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth and has more biomass (volume of organic material) per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world.

Countless complex and unique ecological processes take place in ancient forests, most of which scientists don't fully understand. A typical, old growth rain forest contains trees of all ages, but many are between 250 and 1,000 years old. A verdant collection of ferns, mosses, and lichens carpets the forest floor and forms thick blankets that smother fallen tree trunks and drape the branches of standing trees. Battered by centuries of wind and rain, the canopy of the old growth forest is ragged and uneven with many broken treetops and snags. A single ancient tree can provide life-sustaining habitat for innumerable species of insects, birds, and small mammals that burrow in its bark, nest in its branches, den in hollow cavities in its trunk, and feed on the garden of vegetation that festoons its branches. Many of these animals never descend from the forest canopy and have yet to be studied by scientists.

Dead trees also play important ecological roles in the forest. Standing snags are home to many species of insects and cavity-nesting birds. Fallen tree trunks, decaying slowly on the humid forest floor, provide nutrients and habitat to a flourishing community of fungi , insects, and other woodland creatures. Tree seedlings germinate and thrive on the spongy, nutrient-rich wood of fallen "nurse logs." Over 90% of the trees in the temperate rainforest grew initially on these nurse logs. Salmon connect the coastal forest to the sea. Vast schools of salmon ascending the rivers to spawn provide a key food for at least 22 animal species including bears, eagles, and Orca whales . When they die, the salmon fertilize streams, providing most of the nutrients that support aquatic life that will feed young salmon until they return to the ocean. Furthermore, salmon carcasses, dragged to the shore by creatures that feed on them, provide up to half the carbon and nitrogen that nourishes streamside vegetation.

With about one quarter of the world's remaining temperate rain forest, British Columbia has been the site of intense controversy over forest harvest policies and practices, and Clayoquot Sound has been the focal point for much of that debate. For more than 20 years, the area around Clayoquot was the site of confrontations and mass demonstrations both for and against logging . In 1993, the area witnessed the largest peaceful civil disobedience action in Canadian history. Clayoquot became an international environmental icon. Protests in support of activists there were held at Canadian Embassies throughout the world, and a boycott of Canadian timber products threatened the country's biggest industry.

Part of the basis for opposing further logging is the scarcity of coastal, temperate rain forest. More than 73% of Vancouver Island has either already been logged or is slated for future harvest. While about 13% of the Island's area is set aside in parks or preserves, less than 6% of the original rain forest is protected. Of the 170 watersheds (valleys) on Vancouver Island greater than 10,000 acres (about 4,000 hectares) in size, only 12 remain undeveloped, and half of those are in Clayoquot Sound.

Logging protests began in Clayoquot Sound in the early 1980s, focusing first on Meares Island, where 90% of the forest was designated for harvest. Environmentalists and First Nations people work together to stop this logging. In 1984, the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht Bands declared the island a Tribal Park, and loggers were turned away. This was the first logging blockade in Canadian history, and it attracted strong local and national support. The two largest logging companies working in Clayoquot Sound at the time were MacMillan Bloedel and the International Forest Products (Interfor). Together, in the 1980s, these two companies were cutting nearly 1 million cubic meters (32,000 large truck loads) per year from Clayoquot Sound forests.

In 1993, the British Columbia government announced a new forestry and land-use decision that aimed to compromise between environmental, economic, and social needs of the area. It would reduce the size of clearcuts, and set aside areas deemed exceptionally valuable or sensitive. A Sierra Club mapping project revealed, however, that 74% of the ancient temperate rain forests would be harvested under this plan, and that many of the protected areas were bog and marginal forest. Through the summer of 1993, mass protests and road blockades occurred on a daily basis at Clayoquot Sound. Altogether, more than 12,000 people traveled to this remote location that summer to protest old growth forest logging, and 856 were arrested for blockading roads into logging areas. Rather than simply paying a fine and going home, many of the protesters insisted on going to trial so they could express their love for the forest and their dismay that it was being cut down. A collection of statements made in court was published in Clayoquot Mass Trials: Defending the Rainforest.

As protests continued, tempers flared. Radicals on both sides of the controversy engaged in hostile and destructive acts. Property damage included several logging bridges burned, equipment vandalized, and tree spiking. On the other side, angry loggers attacked and injured several protestors. In August, more than 5,000 people from all over British Columbia attended a demonstration in the nearby town of Ucluelet to support logging. A poll conducted about this time found that 52% of British Columbians support the Clayoquot Compromise (in favor of continued logging) while 39% opposed it. Fifty seven percent of the respondents opposed the blockades, with 35% in favor and the remainder undecided. About the same time, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council announced that Native bands would not support any land-use decision in Clayoquot Sound that excludes logging. It said such a decision would affect the area's economic viability and further alienate the land from potential Native use.

Probably the most powerful weapon in the environmentalists arsenal was a worldwide consumer blockade of Canadian wood products. A highly effective public relations campaign mounted in Europe, Australia , and the United States made logging of ancient forests at Clayoquot an international scandal. Several large firms including General Telephone Company, Scott Paper, Walmart and Home Depot announced that they would no longer buy or sell wood or wood products harvested from old-growth forests in an unsustainable manner. To counter the bad publicity, the Provincial Government reduced the harvest at Clayoquot from 959,000 cubic meters in 1988 to 0 in 1998.

In 1999 MacMillan Bloedel signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the First Nations Tribal Council and several national environmental groups. The memorandum set up a joint venture called Iisaak Forest Resources, owned 51% by the the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, and 49% by MacMillan Bloedel. Iisaak promised it would not log areas larger than 2,470 acres (1,000 hectares) in any of Clayoquot's untouched valleys, and would practice sustainable practices focused on small scale logging, non-timber forest products and eco-tourism rather than clearcutting of old-growth trees. However, it said, during a transition period of 50 years or so, some old-growth logging will continue until second-growth timber grows big enough to harvest.

This joint venture presents a dilemma for many environmentalists. On one hand, they want to respect indigenous land rights, and often regard native people as having greater environmental knowledge and sensitivity than those who haven't lived on the land for so long. On the other hand, if the forestry practices of the native corporation turn out to not really be sustainable, it may be difficult for environmentalists to criticize their former allies. The Friends of Clayoquot Sound, for example, refused to sign the Memorandum of Understanding because they don't support any further cutting of old growth trees for any reason.

In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. However, this title doesn't give the rain forest any further protection. Perhaps more valuable is the establishment of the Pacific Rim National Park along the coast south of the town of Tofino. Nearly 125,000 acres (50,000 hectares), much of it old-growth forest ,is included in this new national park. MacMillan Bloedel, once the largest logging company in Canada, has been bought by the U.S.-based Weyerhaeuser Corporation. Weyerhaeuser says it intends to continue collaboration with Iisaak joint venture and will honor the memorandum of understanding on management of Clayoquot Sound. Meanwhile, Interfor continues logging ancient forests, and environmentalists fear that the cumulative effect of many small cuts will be the same as if massive clearcuts had continued.

Much of the recent environmental activism in Clayoquot Sound has focused on salmon farming. Protestors claim excess food and feces from caged fish pollutes water in the Sound. Antibiotics and chemicals used to prevent diseases in the densely packed fish pens can harm other sea life, and escaped domesticated fish can be a threat to wild populations. Furthermore, fish farm employees often kill marine mammals and sea birds that approach open net-cage salmon pens.

It remains to be seen whether sustainable forestry can preserve the ancient forests or new regulations on fish farming can protect wildlife and water quality . Even in its less than pristine state, however, the Sound is a beautiful place and offers great opportunities for a variety of types of outdoor recreation .

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



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MacIsaac, Ronald and Anne Champagne, eds. Clayoquot Mass Trials: Defending the Rainforest.. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1994.

Mackenzie, Ian. Ancient Landscapes of British Columbia: a Photographic Journey Through the Remaining Wilderness of British Columbia. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine Publishing, 1995.

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Ross, Andrew. Chronology of Clayoquot Sound events. October 1996. Department of Political Science, University of Victoria, BC. [cited July 9, 2002]. <>.

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Clayoquot Sound

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