Old-Growth Douglas Fir and Cedar, Sonora Island - Great Bear Rainforest (photo: Camille ErikssonThe Great Bear Rainforest is so vast that it’s taken me four years just to visit the extraordinary old-growth forested valleys and islands, and communities of the central and north coasts of British Columbia – Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Hartley Bay, Kitimaat Village. However the Great Bear Rainforest also encompasses some of the south coast – historically most hit by industrial logging, placing at high risk many significant old-growth ecosystems.  And it’s what’s happening particularly on Sonora Island that has at last drawn me to visit the southern region of this very special rainforest.

Sonora Island is the ‘tail-end’ of the Great Bear Rainforest (or depending on your orientation, it’s the head of the Great Bear).  It’s around 160 square kilometers of primarily mountainous terrain, and mostly under forest cover. Homes are sporadically located along its coastline with access by boat and floatplane only.  It’s part of unceded aboriginal traditional territories of three First Nations.

Like so much of the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest, Sonora has been subjected to unsustainable levels of industrial logging from last century onwards, placing many old-growth ecosystems at high ecological risk.  Yet there remains on Sonora amazing stands of old-growth forests including Douglas firs, which sadly are becoming rare on the coast and Vancouver Island.

Northern Goshawk, an at-risk species key to assessing the health of the Great Bear Rainforest, also inhabits the island. In fact I was privileged to see two nests of this special bird of prey and to hear its unique call. Very special – I was quite taken by its eerie cry.   

Under the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, the region is supposed to be logged under Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM). Key to EBM is a system of logging regulations intended to lift the region out of its high-risk status over time; logging companies have to identify and set aside at-risk ecosystems and habitat of key species like the Northern Goshawk (EBM is slightly different for the north and central coasts, where the majority of old-growth ecosystems aren’t at high risk).  

We expect then that all logging companies in the region should be operating under EBM rules and working towards greater levels of protection as per the 2009 Agreements. However on Sonora Island, as I and a few other environmental allies recently found out at the invitation of the community, it appears TimberWest Forest Corporation has not been properly adhering to the spirit and intent of EBM.

TimberWest identified blocks for clear-cutting on the island which they called ‘second-growth’. However given the impressive local ecological knowledge and understanding of EBM, members of the community have contested this and other ways in which the company is managing its operations. Sonorites identified significant old-growth ecosystems which are in deficit across the region and which under EBM should be managed differently (ie set aside). Indeed, in visiting these old-growth ecosystems within the proposed blocks, it’s so clear this is the case.  

Old-Growth Douglas Fir and Cedar, Sonora Island - Great Bear Rainforest (photo: Camille Eriksson)

I was lucky to go on two field trips in the last few weeks and each time I became more impressed with the beauty and rarity of these old-growth forests – aside from the huge trees, how often these days can one drink from a free-flowing stream without worry of contamination. I was also amazed by the intimate knowledge and passion Sonorites have for these stands, and with the deftness of our hosts – I couldn’t even keep up with a young mother and her 14-month old at her back as we clambered (well they clambered, I lumbered) over extraordinarily twisted, rocky, at-times steep and knotty-rooted terrain with the rich deep scents of massive cedars and firs decomposing everywhere.

Site visit with company officials, provincial government officials and members of Forest Practices Board to Sonora Island proposed 'cut-block 11-370' (photo: Camille Eriksson)

Accompanied by company officials, we were told the cut-blocks were all ‘second-growth’ forests (although, naturally disturbed by fire and wind a century ago, some these forests haven’t been logged), and that there were insufficient old-growth trees to designate the forests as old-growth ecosystems. And yet in one proposed cut-block (11-370) I saw a lot of old-growth trees – in fact the community took it upon itself to count and label up to 160 old Cedar and Douglas fir. We were also shown a logging road punched through what was once a stand of old-growth, if the huge trees lying by the side of the road was anything to go by. The more we walked the more it became clear that such activity will be, and is, fragmenting interconnected veins of old-growth ecosystems.

Early stage of road building to old-growth stand, Sonora Island (photo: Tavish Campbell)

Where the road is slated to go through, 'cut-block 11-370' (labelled old growth trees in the background) (photo: Tavish Campbell)Mom and 14-month old in cut-block 11-370 with old-growth Doouglas Fir labelled by community (1 out of 160)(photo: Camille Eriksson)

The proposed cut-blocks and the roads built (and yet-to-be-built) were planned without landscape-level plans that inform where under EBM old-growth areas - ESPECIALLY those at high ecological risk – are to be set aside. It was so evident that such areas deemed ‘second-growth’ and yet never logged, were old-growth ecosystems. Some of the photos in this blog make that pretty obvious.

In essence, since Sonora Island has a deficit of significant types of old-growth ecosystems, planning by the company at the broader scale should have happened under EBM to protect some of these ecosystems. This didn’t appear to happen. Indeed it seems that TimberWest, given past practice, didn't appear to take the proper and prudent approach to planning under EBM. 

To their credit, TimberWest is responding to community concerns: they’ve agreed to set aside some areas of concern, and have committed to producing landscape-level maps.

But I remain perturbed over a number of issues: how does TimberWest intend to harvest on Sonora given it’s at high ecological risk; definitions of ‘old-growth’ and ‘second-growth’; what the spirit and intent of EBM fundamentally is; and the provincial role - where was the oversight in ensuring TimberWest was properly following EBM?

Community and visitors comparing logging plan to on the ground reality in 'cut-block 11-370', Sonora Island (photo: Camille Eriksson)Site Visit to Sonora Island old growth 'cut-block 11-370' with company officials (photo: Camille Eriksson)

Further, what I’ve encountered in this situation is a microcosm of what’s underway at the macrocosm level as we and our environmental allies seek to help fully implement EBM across the entire Great Bear Rainforest, in collaboration with the logging industry and the governments of British Columbia and First Nations of the region. More specifically is a core issue: how to square the need to set aside endangered old-growth ecosystems that happen to be the most productive in terms of high-value timber.  

Sonora Islanders, in their sleuthing and vigilance have raised many important questions as to how and where harvesting is taking place under EBM. Given the amount of historic logging of old-growth in the southern part of the Great Bear it’s going to take a long time for ecosystems to bounce back to  healthy levels. But Sonorites and their passion for protecting what remains have initiated a ‘course-correction’ on the island they call home. Let’s see if TimberWest gets Sonora back on course. Stay tuned.

Old cedars and the community exploring 'cut-block 11-370', Sonora Island (photo: Camille Eriksson)


Eduardo Sousa photoEduardo Sousa is senior forests campaigner for Greenpeace            Canada working with First Nations, the provincial government, industry and environmental allies towards safeguarding the Great Bear Rainforest of coastal British Columbia, and Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island.