By Donella Meadows
–August 1, 1996–
The English settlers called them the Queen Charlotte Islands. Ten thousand years earlier the first settlers called them the “people islands” — Haida Gwaii. They lie off the Pacific coast of Canada, 30 miles below the southernmost tip of Alaska. Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, these islands are covered with magnificent forests that are the subject of bitter controversy: jobs versus trees. But the people of Haida Gwaii are realizing that’s a false choice. Jobs and trees rise or fall together.
Big logging came late to remote Haida Gwaii. But when the clearcuts started, they were thorough and efficient. I have seen a picture of Lyell Island, rising steeply from the sea, a sharp straight line dividing its green, still-forested half from its brown half shaved completely bald.
The Haida tribe and the white enviros were appalled by the clearcuts. They petitioned, they demonstrated, they stood in front of logging trucks, they made such an uproar that finally in 1987 logging was stopped on the southern tip of the archipelago. A national park was created there called Gwaii Haanas — “place so beautiful it inspires awe.” In reaction a furious anti-green group called Share the Rock started up and spread to become Canada’s Share movement, equivalent to the U.S. Wise Use movement.
Leslie Johnson, one of the environmental leaders, says of the Gwaii Haanas fight, “Some people felt like losers, but the winners didn’t feel good either. And the companies said essentially, now you’ve got your park, but we’ve got to keep making the cut, so we’re going to hit the rest of the islands harder. We still had a problem, but people didn’t want to fight like that any more.”
When you ask different folks, you get different theories about why the fight was transformed into cooperation. Some say it was because Haida Gwaii is made up of islands. Overcutting becomes obvious when you can’t kid yourself that it can keep going on over the next ridge forever.
Some say the sense of limits was strengthened by the Haida and enviros doing their homework. They mustered facts to support the sinking sense of every logger that the glory days couldn’t go on forever, and that even while the big cuts lasted, they were not creating many jobs. Maps appeared with clearcuts shown in yellow, engulfing island after island. Brochures gave the numbers. Two million cubic meters of wood cut on Haida Gwaii each year — more than twice the sustainable rate — creating 427 direct jobs on the islands and 1,823 jobs elsewhere. Ninety-six percent of the cut exported as raw logs. If they were milled and processed on Haida Gwaii, the same number of on-island jobs could be maintained with 82 percent less cutting.
Another theory to explain the community coming together is that there was a clear common enemy — the combination of the government and the big timber companies, especially the biggest, MacMillan Bloedel (“MacBlo” to the islanders). The government has handed over 95 percent of Haida Gwaii timberlands for the big companies’ exclusive use. Because of sweetheart deals and government subsidies, the big companies pay just a fraction of the stumpage tax that local companies have to pay. MacBlo makes huge profits while shipping lumber away to distant mills, laying off local workers, and generally muscling its way around.
I’m sure all these theories are partially correct, but the one unique cause I can see for Haida Gwaii’s transformation is the day of visioning put on by a local group called Global Links. What do you want the future of these islands to be? was the question, asked in such a nonthreatening way that all kinds of people — Haida, Share the Rock, enviros, business owners, loggers, even Ministry of Forests officials — came to answer it.
“First we had panels and group sessions that let everyone speak,” remembers Leslie Johnson. “Then we asked people to write out their private visions for our future, put them unsigned into a basket, and pull out someone else’s. We went around the circle and read them, and we couldn’t tell which was whose. It was incredibly moving.”
Surprise! No one wanted to wipe out the forests. No one wanted the logging industry to die. They wanted logging at a sustainable rate, so there would be jobs for their children. They wanted more benefit for the community from the massive flow of resources extracted from their islands. They wanted both the companies and the government to stop treating them like a Third World country. They wanted more control.
After that day, the next steps were obvious. Representatives were elected to an “Islands Community Stability Initiative.” That group, which included loggers, environmentalists, Share members, and Haida, hammered out a consensus document that was presented last February to the Ministry of Forests. It demands that the cut be reduced to a sustainable level, that all timber sales be open to competitive bidding, that sales volumes be reduced so small businesses can compete for them, that stumpage taxes and subsidies be equitable, that community forests be created for local management and use, that areas sacred to the Haida be protected, and that an Island Forestry Commission be created to review the state of the forests, inform the people, and carry out long-term planning for logging on Haida Gwaii.
The Ministry has basically agreed to these terms. Nothing like this has happened in Canada before.
“We had to come together. We knew we couldn’t go on like this,” says Leslie Johnson. “We realized that the companies didn’t have the interests of the employees at heart. We saw the trees disappearing. We finally understood that community needs are more important than any of our special interests. And we found that if we let people speak rather than tell them what they should be thinking, the answers will come.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996