Whose woods these are, I think I know


Globe and Mail, Monday, May 1, 2000

If you've ever seen anyone pay $150 for a pair of rubber boots, you know what motivation is.

They held a barn dance and two auctions last Saturday night on Salt Spring Island at the Farmers' Institute hall. Before they went home in the dark night, the people at the dance left more than $20,000 on the table -- including $150 for the shiny new gumboots decorated with bright flowers by a local artist.

Anyone who raises money for a cause in this country knows how hard it is to attract 450 people to an event where they're asked to empty their pockets. Or to raise $20,000 in one night in a community of 10,000 residents.

But the people of Salt Spring are motivated, roused, committed. Their island, they say, is being trashed by a logging company. Their idyllic dream of a pastoral refuge that seems to float in the strait between Vancouver and Victoria is under siege.

Salt Springers are an eclectic mix of old farm families, ex-urban artists and telecommuters, bed-and-breakfast operators, runaway retirees and specialty crop growers hiding in the woods.

The island is lush and peaceful, a favoured weekend retreat for city people. Picture mountains dressed in firs, rolling sheep pasture, sea views at every turn, even a sprinkling of small, quiet lakes for summer boating and swimming. It's a style of life that has attracted wildlife artist Robert Bateman, radio host Arthur Black, folk singer Valdy and a few thousand lesser-known artists and musicians.

And there is money on this island, both old and new. In the 19th century, it was home to British remittance men, the black sheep of wealthy families who received a stipend from home as long as they stayed far away.

But now the black sheep are the companies cutting the island's forests, and the remittances are collected to fight them off. The $20,000 raised on Saturday boosted the total to nearly $500,000 in just four months, to be used to battle the logging and buy back some of the forest land. Nearly half that total, the story goes, came from the chequebooks of just two donors.

The chain saws are tearing through up to five acres a day in the mountain forests owned by a group of Vancouver entrepreneurs called Texada Corp. The devastation, a familiar scene in British Columbia, has left stumps and scarred earth, even to the edge of a Buddhist retreat high on a mountain top.

Much of Texada's 5,000 acres is destined to be leveled in the next two years and supposedly sold as housing lots -- despite a rather bleak market for clear-cut property.

And although Texada claims they are replanting forests and protecting stream beds, islanders are alarmed at the rate and extent of the cut. They claim the company has broken its own code of environmental principles. Texada has promised to preserve old-growth forest on its land, but islanders have counted up to 270 growth rings on some of the fallen trees.

The confrontation has spawned a protest camp and road blockades. A paraplegic woman in a wheelchair chained herself to logging equipment and protesters have been roughed up by loggers. Some of the young protesters have climbed trees to get in the way of the logging and further blockades are planned.

On nearby Vancouver Island, at another prime recreation area called Horne Lake, Texada is creating even larger clear-cuts on steep slopes near a provincial park. Horne Lake is favored by rock climbers, lakeside vacationers and wilderness campers, and is known as one of the best caving areas on the coast.

The image of Samson pulling the pillars down around him comes to mind. The B.C. forest industry has declined dramatically in employment and wealth-generation in the last 20 years, leaving tourism as the fastest-growing and most important sector of the economy.

But the industry still cuts big holes in the forest, which restricts other uses and spoils the wilderness landscape that attracts tourists. A more enlightened government in Victoria might protect the most sensitive tourism areas from the ravages of clear-cut logging. But the NDP regime remains mute on the devastation at Salt Spring and Horne Lake.

Now the Salt Spring protest lobby is taking its case against Texada to Manulife Financial, which holds a $16-million mortgage on the company's properties. The protesters have demonstrated at Manulife offices in Vancouver and sent a barrage of letters and postcards to the company's head office in Toronto. They plan to bring their complaints to events like the Manulife Literary Arts Festival in Victoria this month, and the opening address by Manulife CEO Dominic D'Alessandro at the International Insurance Society meeting in Vancouver in July.

The chain saws keep buzzing; the logging trucks keep hauling timber out of the woods. But it appears the battle to preserve the wilderness setting on Salt Spring will only continue to intensify and migrate off the island.

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