Between 250 and 300 witnesses participated in a traditional Coast Salish/Squamish Nation verification ceremony in the Sims Valley on April 28 in an attempt to show Interfor there is widespread public and First Nation support for preserving the area, specifically cut block 72-4 which was scheduled for logging this summer.
If a story or an event is ever doubted, all the witnesses to that event are called forward to testify before the council and band members at an 8,000 year old ceremony known as a te x waya7ni7m (tach way natum). Hereditary Chief Bill Williams initiated the ceremony after an employee of Interfor, the forestry company that owns the rights to log block 72-4, questioned whether there was any interest in preserving the area despite the fact that 1,500 participants in the Witness program have used it for weekend retreats over the past four years.
Prior to the ceremony, however, Interfor announced that it would voluntarily defer the cutblock until the company could discuss the future of the area and ascertain whether there are any wilderness or cultural values to protect under the Forest Practices Code. Interfor made an application to Squamish Forest District manager Paul Kuster to downgrade the block to "informational status" and Kuster approved the application.
"Interfor now has no legal authority to go ahead with road building or timber harvesting in the area," says Kuster. "For Interfor to take it off informational status, they would have to go through the whole 60 day public consultation process, and advertise their intention to log in the area."
Later this month, stakeholders will tour the area to determine what the values are before proceeding to either recommend some form of partial or full protection for the area, or to put 72-4 back on the chopping block.
"One element that Im keen to find out more about is this trail that goes from Sims Creek (through 72-4) to Princess Louisa Inlet," says Kuster. "We want to see the trail ourselves, it may help us in regards to the outcome if people pitch for some protection for the trail or cultural heritage values."
The Squamish Nation went ahead with the ceremony, which was held on the main logging road through 72-2. Before it was harvested last season, 72-2 was toured as part of the Witness program, a Squamish Nation program that teaches people about the land from a natural and cultural perspective. Part of the tour was an 800 year old red cedar with a hollow stump that had been used by bears as a denning tree which was cut down by Interfor in 1998 despite the efforts of Witness participants to have it spared.
"What have we witnessed since 1997? Every year the roads advance another eight to 10 miles, seeking out timber," said Williams. "Two years ago this was a forest. I used to come here with the Witness program when it was a forest, and now I no longer recognize it."
Williams, the son of a logger, says he is not against progress unless it interferes with areas that are of interest to his people.
"We understand that we have to go with the culture of the day to survive, but never forget where we come from It is our sacred duty to look after the forest, after the beings that inherit the forest."
More than 20 Witness participants shared their experiences with the Witness program, many of whom had seen and been inside the bear denning tree before it was logged. Some speakers criticized Interfor, while others were more optimistic now that the Squamish Nation has entered the battle.
"We, as individuals, cant stop progress," says Williams. "As a group we can voice our opposition. That voice does get heard every once in a while by the people who make the decisions."
For its part, Interfor has agreed not to log in any traditional Squamish Nation territories, including the Upper Elaho Valley, until the Nations claims in those areas are settled. Interfor is also helping the Squamish Nation with its legal costs.