SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2004

By Berry Wijdeven

It’s a gorgeous July afternoon, I am walking my dogs along the highway when a logging truck appears behind us. We hug the ditch as the rig roars by leaving behind a cloud of dust and the unmistakable sweet smell of cedar — red cedar.

The world has an insatiable appetite for red cedar. To the world, as to the Haida, cedar is a miracle wood. Strong, light, rot resistant, aromatic. It’s suitable for everything from roofing and siding to fencing and decking. Furniture. Art. Canoes. Longhouses. Totems. Bentwood boxes.

The logs on the truck are long but not all that big; ten, maybe fifteen inches in diameter. They’re nice looking logs. Nothing monumental, mind you, strictly second growth. A decade ago logs that size wouldn’t have generated much interest. But that was a decade ago.

Things are-a-changing, the world is running out of red cedar. The reason, according to a US Forest Service Resource Bulletin, is that, “western red cedar is currently being used more rapidly than it is being replaced in the forests.” In other words, cedar is being overcut. The United States, for all intents and purposes, is clear out of cedar. And what is left is locked up in National Forests (though with the current American administration “locked up” is a relative term. Unless you’re in Guantanamo Bay.)

By the time I got home from my walk, three more trucks have zoomed by. All loaded with logs. All second growth. All cedar.

Thank heaven for British Columbia, for as the US Forest Service Bulletin notes, “British Columbia’s tremendous inventory of red cedar … assures that high quality old-growth cedar will not soon disappear.” As a result, 78% of BC red cedar finds its way down south, adding up to more than 700 million board feet. Each year US households construct some 800,000 cedar decks. That’s a pile of cedar. Just the Canadian export of cedar shingles and shakes is worth $300 odd-million.

It used to be you would see a lot more old growth being transported. Logging trucks straining under the weight of massive cedars, sometimes only four or five age-old giants to a load. It never failed to inspire both awe and sadness.

Haida Gwaii is also running out of cedar, especially old growth cedar. A Weyerhaeuser report says there is less than 8% old growth remaining on its tenure (Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island), 61% of which is not harvestable. And whatever harvestable old growth forest is left, is chock-a-block with things that don’t respond particularly well to logging – culturally modified trees, monumental cedar, culturally important plant communities and wildlife habitat.

As I drive to town the next day I discover that the logging trucks have left behind little slivers of cedar bark, little crumbs, spread all along the highway. I decide to follow the crumbs to see where they originate.

Though the market for cedar is red hot, logging companies are not supposed to target a specific species, they are supposed to harvest the forest profile. Logging the profile involves harvesting the various species of trees to the percent they are represented in the forest. If a forest contains 25% spruce, 25% cedar, 25% pine and 25% hemlock, the trees that are cut down should have a similar percentage. Logging companies don’t like cutting the profile. Their relationship to logging the profile is like my relationship to vegetables: I’d rather not. I know in the long run it’s beneficial, but for now I’d rather stick to dessert.

The Western Red Cedar Export Association writes that’“Western Red Cedar is pivotal to the viability of the BC Forest Industry. This is particularly true on the coast [where] it is the driver of all harvesting.” This means logging companies really want to log cedar and log cedar they do.

A recent Suzuki Foundation/Western Canada Wilderness Committee analysis found that over the last ten years the Island’s TSA and TFL’s (TFL 25, 39 and 47) have systematically overcut cedar. Overcut by quite a bit, at times reaching levels double its presence in the forest profile. The analysis found that the high grading of cedar has been deliberate, even though the companies know it’s not sustainable.

So now they’re logging what’s questionably considered second growth. First up is the east coast where about one hundred and fifty years ago a huge fire razed the forest, giving the resultant new growth a “head start”.

The cedar bark trail continues for nine or ten kilometres until it turns off the highway and on to a logging road. After following the slivers for a few more kilometres I arrive at the cut blocks. It isn’t pretty. Logging never is. They may now call it Variable Retention, but visually the logged areas just appear to be smaller clearcuts. The waste piles are much larger than they ever should be, of course. But what strikes me most is the denseness of the remaining forest patches. Trees (up to 70% cedar!) are packed in tight, like sardines, straight as can be, just starting to fill out.

The trees look small. They may make spiffy telephone poles, but they certainly don’t offer the opportunities presented by mature cedar. It seems like such a waste, cutting them down before they get a chance to truly grow valuable. This might make perfect business sense, but from a sustainability perspective, the whole thing appears terribly short-sighted.

As I trace my way back to the highway, I’m experiencing mixed emotions. The presence of marketable second growth means that maybe now we can stop hammering the old growth. It means some employment for the Islands, a boost for the local economy. But as the cedar logs continue to rumble off into the distance, on their way to an eager marketplace, I can’t help but feel I’m watching the future of these Islands disappear.

Someone told me recently that one thing we’re good at here on-Island is growing trees. True, perhaps. It’s just that we’re no longer very good at growing old trees.