Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 232

In 1893 Stanley Smith went off in search of a lost explorer in the vast Coast Mountain wilderness between Squamish and Chilko Lake — 150 kilometres of rugged terrain that contains valleys like the Sims, Clendenning and Upper Lillooet. Accompanied by a Mr. Doolittle, Smith made the trek without maps or any knowledge of the area. The pair made it across some of B.C.'s roughest and most majestic terrain — instantly securing themselves a solid toehold among the legends of Coast Range mountaineering. Although Smith and Doolittle did not find the missing hiker, they did write descriptions of the vast area they were experiencing. Glaciers, ice falls, raging rivers, tall waterfalls and trees… plenty of big trees. One hundred years later Randy Stoltmann, a tireless environmentalist and alpine adventurer from West Vancouver, turned his skills to studying and protecting the vast wilderness Smith and Doolittle had crossed. After an avalanche in the Kitlope Valley killed Stoltmann in 1994, close friends took his proposal to protect 260,000 hectares of land in the Elaho-Upper Lillooet area under the NDP government's Protected Areas Strategy and renamed it in his honour. The area has not been approved by cabinet as a study area for protection, and the future of the Stoltmann Wilderness Area is unclear. Now, a high profile campaign by the Vancouver-based Western Canada Wilderness Committee has many eyes on the Elaho as they wage a battle to protect the last great stands of red cedar/Douglas Fir on B.C.'s mainland West Coast. The Wilderness Committee, like Stanley Smith, are searching through the vast area to find something. Smith was looking for a lost hiker, the WCWC trailbuilders and organizers are looking for record-sized trees to aid in their fight to save the Stoltmann Wilderness Area from logging. The pressure to log is there right now as the area is included in Tree Farm Licence 38, recently purchased by logging giant Interfor from logging giant Weldwood for a reported $140 million. With tree farm licence agreements granting exclusive cutting rights in the area and approved five-year logging plans in hand, Interfor is camped on the doorstep of the proposed Stoltmann Wilderness Area — just like 100 members and supporters of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee did last weekend. They came 100 kilometres up the Squamish Valley Road and camped in the middle of a 100 hectare clearcut on a soggy B.C. Day long weekend to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and to push for the Stoltmann Wilderness Area to at least be given study status. "We don't buy into the numbers that the government says they are trying to protect 12 per cent of the province as parkland and protected areas," Joe Foy, WCWC campaign director, says as we hike down the Randy Stoltmann Survey Route, which has been created by Wilderness Committee volunteers over the past two months. "If the government can guarantee the population of the Lower Mainland is only going to grow 12 per cent then it wouldn't be a bad idea, but the population of the south-west corner of this province is heading toward 5 million and we are going to need much more than 12 per cent of the province protected." The smell of old growth forest wraps the trail in a pungent envelope as we hike through the moist bush. Directly behind me on the trail is Paul George, founding director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. A cross between an earthy Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia, 54-year-old George is the patriarch of the 15,000-member WCWC. With an annual budget of $1.8 million, an office and store on Vancouver's Water Street and 11 staff members, George and the Wilderness Committee have come a long way in a decade-and-a-half. But so has the logging road that stretches along the Elaho River from Squamish, the logging capital of the Sea to Sky Corridor. As Foy, George and the preservationist supporters of the WCWC gathered in the clearcut last weekend, Loggers Sports Days in Squamish kicked into high gear. Celebrating 100 years of logging and looking forward to an uncertain future, families who have for generations existed on timber dollars want to harvest the valuable timber in the proposed Stoltmann Wilderness Area to keep B.C.'s economic engine going just as much as the Wilderness Committee wants it protected. In the debate over the future of logging in the Squamish Forest District only one thing is absolutely clear — uncertainty. The 1995 Annual Allowable Cut announcement for the Soo Timber Supply Area, which contains the Squamish Forest District and Tree Farm Licence 38, was supposed to be released last month. The logging industry is bracing for another cutback in the amount of timber that can be harvested in the area. With Spotted Owl Conservation Areas, the Protected Areas Strategy and the implications of the Forest Practices Code, industry insiders are suggesting the AAC could drop 25 per cent — with massive implications for the families of logging communities like Pemberton and Squamish. "We're losing members because people are having to move out of the area to find logging jobs," says Cheryle Bass, executive director of the Squamish-based Soo Coalition for Sustainable Forests. The Soo Coalition came into being on June 20, 1993 when logging industry supporters decided they needed a voice in the growing debate over preservation of old-growth timber and the presence of the endangered Northern Spotted Owl in the Squamish Forest District. With the support of logging companies, industry workers and the mayors of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton on side, the Soo Coalition has been the loudest voice in the region for embattled forest workers. Since its formation, the Soo Coalition has been the Wilderness Committee's diametric opposite — the forest industry's Yin to the preservationist Yang, and the presence of the two organizations prompts the other to fight fire with fire. The Soo Coalition, with its $100,000 annual budget and 956 members — who pay $10 for individual memberships and $100 for a corporation — may be planning a membership drive. Bass says people who have been in the forest industry all their lives are not going to start making plans to open bed and breakfasts to capitalize on tourist dollars in the corridor, they are going to move elsewhere in search of work. WCWC supporters like John Clarke, a sprightly mountaineer who has been carousing the high alpine ridges of the Coast Mountains for over three decades, say the low elevation trees in the Stoltmann Wilderness Areas are too valuable not to be protected, while Bass and the rest of the Soo Coalition say the giant cedar and fir trees of the area are too valuable to be protected. An interesting parallel appears. The Soo Coalition is losing members because the number of logging jobs in the area is declining. On the other hand, the Wilderness Committee may be losing members because of a number of successful campaigns to save trees and protect land in areas like the Boise Valley, the Stein Valley and their most recent and successful campaign — the halting of logging plans for the giant spruce groves of the Upper Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island's West Coast. Nearly 8,000 WCWC members from last year have not submitted their $30 annual dues. On June 8, two large protected areas were announced. Premier Mike Harcourt and Forest Minister Andrew Petter declared the Lower Mainland Protected Areas Strategy a success, saying only another 2.5 per cent of land needs protecting to reach the 12 per cent goal in the Sunshine Coast, Squamish and Chilliwack Forest Districts. The 6,000 hectare Tetrahedon Wilderness Area on the Sunshine Coast and the 38,000 hectare Pinecone Lake/Burke Mountain in Vancouver's backyard, were both hailed as great leaps forward in environmental protection. The Tetrahedon, billed as a rare remnant of yellow cedar/hemlock forest actually turns out to be mostly rock and ice after all the deals were done. Pinecone Lake/Burke Mountain stretches north from Coquitlam to the south end of Garibaldi Provincial Park, and contains very little of the valuable low elevation trees necessary to protect biodiversity in the area. George and his supporters say the Stoltmann proposal will fill gaps in the biological and political puzzle which has become land-use planning in B.C. "People judge you by your accomplishments and I think we have a pretty impressive list of successes," says George. "We are going to push like hell to make sure the Stoltmann Wilderness Area does not get logged." The Wilderness Committee has located the Elaho Giant — the third largest Douglas Fir in B.C. — and the Stoltmann Trail leads right up to it. When Foy, George and the rest of the hiking party finish the 25 minute walk through towering cedars and the soft, green moss of old growth there stands the majestic Elaho Giant. Thirty feet in circumference and 1,100 years old, the tree can withstand major forest fires, but if the road proposed by Interfor goes ahead the trees around it will go the way of the ones along the Squamish Valley Road — at times a seemingly endless clearcut. As George rocks back on his heels and looks up the tree, he says there are more record trees nearby and the WCWC has started a province-wide petition to stop road building in the Stoltmann Wilderness Area. Two more petitions hit the streets in Squamish and Whistler last week asking local mayors to stop their support for unsustainable logging practices. George says if the logging is allowed to go ahead, B.C. will be one kilometre further down the road to ecological genocide. "It's like when you're drinking a bottle of wine," George says, cracking a small grin. "People don't realize there's not much left until it's almost gone and then they worry about it. The logging industry has been drunk on dollars for years and the bottle is almost empty… the panic has begun."