I usually can’t read through an entire academic paper—the executive summary suffices. However, one paper sustained my attention a few years ago when I was researching a profile of University of British Columbia fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly.
In 1995, Pauly penned a paper titled “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries.” OK, I admit it doesn’t exactly sound like a riveting page-turner, but it explores a concept that has resonated strongly within the scientific community. In essence, Pauly showed how fisheries scientists repeatedly use the beginning of their own careers as a reference when doing research. It’s a relativist perspective that impedes them from grasping former abundance, leading to a baseline—and sense of what is ecologically normal—that is constantly diminishing.
This simple concept—or in Pauly’s words, “syndrome”—is insidious and emblematic of something we as humans share; a decidedly short-term perspective that can be interpreted much more broadly than the plight of global fisheries.
Take the forests on the east side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, as an example. In essence, this is my backyard; the zone where I spend the bulk of my recreational time these days. Not long ago, a photographer friend from BC’s Kootenays came to ride and shoot on some of the trails around Cumberland, which I usually rave about to anyone who will listen. However, he was underwhelmed, not by the trails themselves but more by the setting. It seemed no matter what direction he trained his lens, there was either a logging clearcut in the frame or the entire frame was a clearcut. At first I felt a little foolish, even slightly hurt. Like when you over-recommend a favourite film or book to a friend so enthusiastically that the only option is unfulfilled expectations.
Then I thought a little deeper and it struck me how desensitized I and most people who live adjacent to industry of some sort—and that’s the majority of the planet’s population—have become to landscape-scale ecological alteration and destruction. So desensitized that, in the case of Vancouver Island’s east coast, pedalling a mountain bike or trail running through a clearcut has taken on a degree of normalcy; in other words, our baseline of what is considered ecologically normal has shifted. On Vancouver Island, it’s only when we visit postage stamps of primal landscape like Cathedral Grove, located between Port Alberni and Qualicum Beach (impressive as it is, it’s a rather sad ecological museum), the towering Douglas-firs of Miracle Beach or some of the protected mountain valleys of Strathcona Provincial Park, that we are reminded of how the landscape once appeared.
If you live in Yukon, home to an area larger than Germany but with .05 per cent of the population, your ecological baseline would be vastly different. Last summer, my two older sisters paddled for the three weeks down the Wind River, which lies in the vast Peel River watershed. They witnessed minimal traces of industrialization or development—some trapper cabins, an old mineral exploration road, bush plane airstrips and a few other paddling parties—however, the region has been widely staked for mineral exploration and its future is uncertain. For years, controversy has swirled around the Peel and Wind, with three First Nations, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society taking the Yukon Government to the Supreme Court of Canada. My sisters are some of the lucky few to experience such an extended immersion in wilderness—a rare privilege these days.
Back on Vancouver Island, there’s a similarly fierce battle underway over the logging of ancient forests in the upper Walbran Valley, a region a mere 80 kilometres from the provincial capital of Victoria that has once again become a flashpoint of protest against the relentless quest for the remaining pockets of unprotected old growth on the Island. Clashes between the interests of logging and conservation in the Walbran are nothing new, dating back nearly three decades.
In 1998, after years of protests, court injunctions and blockades, the provincial government set aside the Carmanah, lower Walbran, Cullite and Logan valleys to create Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, a process that had begun with the protection of the lower Carmanah in 1990. The upper Walbran was given over to logging interests and designated a Special Management Zone. Things went quiet until 2014 when environmentalists learned about logging plans for the upper Walbran by the Surrey, BC-based company Teal Jones Group, which claims that accessing this valuable old growth timber is key to its future operations. However, according to the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, of the 89 primary valleys on Vancouver Island (valleys greater than 5,000 hectares emptying directly into the ocean) only six remain undeveloped or less than two per cent logged.
That’s an astonishing statistic to ponder, actually an embarrassment, when you consider that all Vancouver Island has to show for this rapacious rate of old growth logging today are largely mothballed mills, former boom towns like Gold River now trying to reinvent themselves as retirement destinations (that’s a novel idea) and massive barges of raw logs getting towed to the Lower Mainland for sorting and shipment to overseas mills. It’s no wonder there is such public distrust of forest companies, which are meant to be stewards of the woods.
Across the water from Vancouver Island, on the Sunshine Coast, local outdoor enthusiasts are in a fight over logging in the Eldred Valley, a stunning coastal watershed and home to massive walls that lure adventurous rock climbers looking for Squamish-like granite without the constant roar of Sea-to-Sky commuters and traffic jams at the Golden Arches drive-thru lane.
This is not about to log or not to log. The forest industry is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, a key foundation of BC’s economy. Like it or not, we owe a debt to forestry for the road access it provides to some of our favourite climbing, hiking and backcountry skiing destinations, not to mention what it contributes to the economy. I worked for years in the silviculture sector, tree planting, brushing and running crews. For a time I even surveyed and hung ribbon in ancient forests on Vancouver Island, to demarcate logging boundaries for the soon-to-arrive fallers. I remember the feeling of hiking through those silent forests with the soft carpet of moss underfoot and light filtering through the branches overheard. The conflicted emotions I experienced might have been similar to what a soldier feels the night before an assault. Not to overstate the point, but the sense of impending doom was compelling.
We live in a new reality today. For every log felled—or for that manner, every tonne of ore extracted from the ground, or net full of fish hauled from the ocean—we as a society need to ask if we are getting the most value possible from precious natural resources and whether or not we are managing them in the best, most environmentally conscious manner possible. In Canada, we’re not there yet. Far from, it I’m afraid. And I’m reminded of this every time I take a rip on my local mountain bike trails and see another new clearcut with mountains of timber deemed not economically valuable—we call it slash—piled up in preparation for fall burning. Such profligate waste would, I’m sure, baffle a forester from Scandinavia or many other so-called advanced nations that have better come to terms with the delicate nature of the Earth’s resources.
Until we get there, the distrust between industry and the public will continue. Sure there are successes, like the old growth valleys along BC’s central coast protected as part of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. But elsewhere, we continue to fight over table scraps in places like the Walbran and Eldred valleys, and our baseline of what is ecologically normal continues to decline.