Cub reporter's memories of Clayoquot Sound protest

Twenty years ago this summer and only a few months into my job at the Courier, my editor at the time asked the reporters if anyone was interested in heading to Vancouver Island to cover the ongoing protests at Clayoquot Sound.

While the story had no specific link to Vancouver, my editor believed that heightened local interest in Clayoquot Sound demanded the presence of a Courier reporter. (That's what I chose to believe anyway.) I politely waited to see if any of the senior reporters expressed interest. None did, so I happily volunteered. I'd never been to the Island or even seen a clearcut. The experience remains a highlight of my reporting career.

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In the era before the Internet and social media, word about the protest spread like wildfire around the globe. An estimated 12,000 people from around the world - including Australian band Midnight Oil - showed up during the summer of 1993 to camp out in a clearcut dubbed the Black Hole to protest the logging of the largest remaining stands of old growth forest in North America.

A peace camp was set up in the Black Hole where decisions were made by consensus at group gatherings. This often made for overly long meetings, but the atmosphere was always one of respect. Each day in a shady spot next to the beautiful Kennedy Lake, activists willing to get arrested attended information sessions to understand the legal ramifications. Organizers wanted those present to know exactly what impact an arrest might have on their lives. This was serious business and sessions almost seemed designed to discourage people from getting arrested. More than 850 people were undeterred, later tried in mass trials and jailed.

A daily routine was established that involved rising at 3:45 a.m. to reach the Kennedy River Bridge by 5 a.m. when two or three logging trucks passed by on their way to work sites. Hundreds of protesters lined each side of the bumpy road and stood in complete silence to "bear witness." The stillness of the early morning before the trucks rumbled past was one of the most powerful moments of civil disobedience I'd ever experienced. Those willing to get arrested blocked the road to prevent the trucks from entering the logging operation. I was struck by the huge number of protesters versus the handful of logging employees. In my naïveté, I thought there would be more loggers, not realizing until later that it doesn't take a lot of manpower to destroy forests - only massive machinery.

During the six-month protest, I recall letters to the editor in local papers and comments from people criticizing "the dirty hippies," a.k.a. the unkempt campers who lined the logging road each morning and whose images regularly appeared on nightly newscasts and in daily papers (when people still read those). Did people expect protesters camping in a clearcut to wake up at dawn and walk out of their tents with coiffed hair and wearing a power suit? While at the protest, I also attended a loggers' gathering in Ucluelet where anger at the ongoing blockades was palpable. The loggers and their families felt protesters failed to truly understand the impact they were having on their livelihood. You couldn't help but empathize with their concerns about losing jobs in an area with limited employment opportunities. The protest had clearly driven a wedge between communities, and how the issue would be resolved remained unclear at that time.

But I couldn't help but recall the words of a retired logger featured in a documentary I had seen a year earlier: "A 1,000-year-old tree is worth more standing in the forest than on the back of a truck."

Twenty years on, the Friends of Clayoquot Sound believe the protest was a gamechanger, one which helped lead to the Great Bear Rainforest campaign, the renaissance in First Nations land-rights discussions and the creation of B.C.'s first forest-practices code. Forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel pulled out of the area in the late 1990s and International Forest Products left in 2007. Logging tenures were then purchased by five local First Nations who formed their own company called Iisaak Forest Resources. While industrial logging has declined significantly, the cutting of ancient temperate rainforest has never stopped, according to the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. And almost all logs being cut in Clayoquot Sound are still shipped out unprocessed.

Friends of Clayoquot Sound celebrated the 20th anniversary of the blockades last weekend to reflect and confront the ongoing threats to the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. The work continues. It's heartening to know groups like the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, now among many others, remain hard at work. The 1993 protest may have seemed just about Clayoquot Sound when you were standing in the Black Hole. But with the benefit of hindsight, the protest can be seen in a wider global context. It's about what is worth saving. In other words, it's about the planet we live on.

fhughes@vancourier.com

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