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by Rob Wener

On August 29, 1963 a first generation Argon spy satellite inconspicuously orbited across the heavens watching the north coast. Its purpose was to address the developing Soviet Union's strategic missile capabilities. This perceived military threat was fueled by political and military leaders debating a supposed bomber gap, missile gap, and science gap. The political landscape of the era prompted the conception of a clandestine spy satellite program in the late 1950s. Military intelligence data from this program was declassified for "environmental studies" by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

The orbiting satellite's camera snapped the image high above Haida Gwaii on a sunny summer day in 1963 (Figure 1). A blink of technology from the cosmos sealed that moment in history. Instead of transmitting the data back to ground-based stations in digitized format as is the case today, the satellite jettisoned a film canister from space. It fell towards earth and was recovered mid-air by a specially equipped aircraft.

Figure 1 - Haida Gwaii, 1963

This 35-year-old photograph is remarkably easy to interpret: you can see trees, clearcuts, lakes, ocean, and the ever-present sea-fog enveloping the archipelago. The image also reveals a landscape endowed with a bounty of resources no longer available to this generation nor to future ones. The Council of Haida Nation's 1993 satellite image map (Figure 3 ) provides a comparison of forest cover and Figure 2 is a computer-manipulated photo of Haida Gwaii as it may have looked just a few generations ago.

Figure 2 - Haida Gwaii a few generations ago

Haida Gwaii's motherlode of quality timber has nourished the logging industry well in the last 50 years. Yet, in less than one generation we have effectively removed any options available to our communities' futures. What happened to "sustained yield forestry" and "maximum utilization" touted by the Forest Service since this 1963 photo was taken? Economic challenges and ecological realities are taxing this government institution's mandate to serve industry and the public. When the Forest Service was formed in 1912, nobody could have predicted the effect technology would have on the environment, and specifically the capacity to achieve unsustainable levels of Annual Allowable Cut.

Haida Gwaii's most productive tree growing sites occur mostly on the Skidegate Plateau. Logging clearcuts trace the pattern of the plateau (Figure 3). Access to this quality timber is still limited mainly to this area.



Figure 3 - Haida Gwaii, 1993 Council of the Haida Nation image


Wildlife habitat and Haida traditional use areas are important features on the Skidegate Plateau. The broad flat bottom valleys in the plateau provide a network of corridors for travel, access to timber sources, and protection from coastal winds for plants, birds and animals. Wildlife habitat has succumbed to progressive clearcuts, eliminating large-area interior forest habitat conditions that the Plateau once offered. Remnant stands of low elevation old growth in forest harbour red-listed (threatened) species of birds and plant associations.

The current state of the forests has dramatically altered habitat conditions for plants, animals, and people alike. The conversion of most of the Skidegate Plateau's forest into second growth systems is almost complete.

Look at Figure 1, 1963, Naden Harbour does not have a single road intruding its isolation, and Masset Inlet is relatively intact.

The problem is the scale of change to the forest cover in such a compressed time frame. The consequence of this change means a lot to any future community forest base that will rely on timber growing in lower productivity sites.

Also the requirement for the preservation of old growth wildlife habitat areas is having an increasingly restrictive effect on accessing timber in any remaining high yield sites. Options are diminishing.

Second-growth stands in the Plateau area are mostly juvenile wood (<20-30 years old). According to Forintek Corp, a Canadian wood products research institute, the increased proportion of juvenile wood relative to mature wood presents lumber production quality problems such as warping, reduced lumber strength, and reduced pulp yields. (pp. 12-14 Fortinek, Special Publication No.Sp-34).

Tomorrow's timber resource will be knotty, low density saw logs compared to the prime quality old growth being extracted today.

Healthy, functional forests do not sprout back in 80-100 years, as the optimal allowable cut rotation model suggests. There may be volume in the new forests, but biological diversity is missing from the formula. What grows on, below, above, and around a tree are critical ingredients to ensure the long-term health of a forest. Fungus, lichens, and flowering plants are some examples lacking in second-growth forests.

Imagining the forests of Haida Gwaii in the future requires some reflection and consideration by all inhabitants of our Island communities. Easily accessed large-volume stands meant the glory days of logging in Haida Gwaii. Today, we are faced with the prospect of accepting current challenges; these are reducing the AAC, implementing alternative harvesting systems, and phasing out the enhanced silviculture model of reforestation. The tree plantations currently being created in the wake of the massive clearcuts are essentially mono-height, mono-age, mono-species, and mono-density. It makes for a glorified Christmas tree farm. Cedar, hemlock and spruce trees cannot be cultivated like carrots when countless organisms rely on these trees for their survival.

Haida Gwaii's landscape parallels the exploitation of forests globally - it is happening everywhere. Fortunately opportunities still exist here to explore options - options that may involve examining our social connections to the land. All it takes is a walk on the Louise Dover Trail located across the road from the Sandspit harbour. A visit to this easily accessed old growth forest offers individuals an opportunity to take a long hard look at where we are going with the forests on Haida Gwaii.


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