Illuminating Reality     

An Old Growth Activist Life     

A commentary by David Orton                                                

                                 Big Trees, Not Big Stumps: 25 years of campaigning to save wilderness with the
                                 Wilderness Committee
, by Paul George, paperback, 500 pages, 2006, Western Canada
                                 Wilderness Committee, $40 Canadian,  ISBN: 1-895123-03-8.


                    Big Trees, Not Big Stumps  is an excellent and important book by Paul George, summing up 25
            years of work of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC or WC2), which was formed
            in 1980, and to which he has given his environmental activist life. (He has also been involved with Green
            electoral politics both in British Columbia and in the federal party.)  This book is not only about the
            work of the author and WC2 but, perhaps more importantly, it illuminates important lessons about old
            growth forest protection struggles, particularly in a B.C. context. One key tactic is stalling the habitat
            annihilators: "Use the tactic of delay: anything that delays the destruction of a wilderness area
            increases your chance of saving it."
(p. 499) George is someone who has significantly imprinted in
            a positive sense what remains of wild nature in Canada. As Thoreau said: "In wildness is the
            preservation of the world"
and, perhaps it is this credo which has oriented Paul George and so many
            deeper environmentalists who have worked with him in various campaigns.

                    Big Trees, Not Big Stumps deserves to be made known in environmental and green circles.
            Paul George is someone who has a burning passion for the wild, which does not seem to have
            diminished with age. He is someone who has made a real difference. George's book took three and
            one half years to write and, of course, reflects his perspective and philosophy. I would like green
            and environmental activists to know about this book, especially those who work with forests and
            protected areas and wildlife. The book outlines various conflicts within the environmental community
            in BC.

                    This is the second important forest book which has come out in the summer of 2006. The first
            being  Wild Fire: A Century Of Failed Forest Policy, edited by George Wuerthner, published
            by the Foundation for Deep Ecology by arrangement with Island Press, 2006, 322 pages,
            paperback, ISBN: 1-59726-069-X. It presents the arguments of why wilderness ecosystems need
            wild fires, as they need top-of-the-food-chain predators like bears, wolves and cougars in order to
            remain ecologically intact.

                    Others who are based in B.C., involved in forest and wildlife struggles and more personally
            familiar with WC2, may be in a better position to comment on Big Trees, Not Big Stumps.
            However, I did live for a couple of years in B.C. at the end of the 1970s, living on the Queen
            Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) and Vancouver Island. Forest and wildlife issues have been
            important for me, even though I have worked on these issues mainly in Nova Scotia. My
            environmental work in B.C. was mainly  involvement with the Tsitika Watershed and the South
            Moresby Wilderness Proposal with the BC Federation of Naturalists. For the forest industry in
            B.C., as across Canada, industrial forestry still clings to one basic meaning: "Forest 
            management for the primary production of timber."
(Brief of MacMillan Bloedel on the
            Tsitika, April 1974.)  Ancient, really now remnant temperate rainforests, with their unique
            ecology and wildlife and with some trees that are over one thousand years old, mean nothing
            except a lot of money for the forest industry - and short term jobs for the loggers who cut the
            trees down.

                    I do not claim to have read all the text, it is such a massive book of five hundred pages,
            but I have read various parts and gone through it all and looked at the many illustrations. This
            includes reading  the excellent compressed  30 page text chronology of "the key events
            pertaining to the environmental  movement primarily in Canada and especially in B.C.
            with an emphasis on Western Canada Wilderness Committee's involvement"
, (pp.467-
            497) which is crucial for understanding just what has been accomplished, and what were some
            of the obstacles along the way. The chronology, apart from the first three items, starts in the
            eighteenth century and includes various wildlife extinctions and burgeoning human population
            markers, as well as key land-use and conservation decisions. This chronology orients the text
            and shows the thinking of Paul George and what he considers important. For example: "Make
            respect for aboriginal rights one of your  major principles."
(p. 499)

                    There are a lot of valuable insights for forest activists in this book, see particularly "Campaign
            Insights Summarized"
on p. 499. Its overall orientation is on the deep ecology path: "Everything
            possible must be done to counter our culture's drift away from nature."
(p. 499) One of the
            sections in the text is headlined "WCWC continues to promote a global shift in consciousness
            through applied Deep Ecology."
(pp. 324-325) There are also references to Councils of All Beings
            held by WC2 and to deep ecology and other ecophilosophy texts.

                    I have always thought the Wilderness Committee did a lot of very good work in mobilizing the
            public in support of old growth forests and the need to set aside many  more protected areas and in
            their encouragement of old growth and wildlife research. Often the WCWC  led and governments
            were forced to follow, when an outcry for a new protected area became too deafening. This Committee
            also opposed salmon farms, oil and gas exploration off  the coast of BC, grizzly and black bear hunting,
            the aboriginal Makah grey whale killing, etc.


                    The Western Canada Wilderness Committee has focused on British Columbia, but it also has
            conducted important forest and wildlife campaigns in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario -
            calling to end logging in Algonquin Park, as well as  involving  itself in some international struggles.
            In all these provinces named, it has had offices. The book Big Trees, Not Big Stumps lists about
            49 protected areas, parks, and park reserves (p. 465) which WC2, along with other environmental
            groups and aboriginal organizations plus the concerned public, has had input into protecting. It is an
            impressive list and includes what have become household names for the environmentally aware in
            Canada, names like South Moresby (Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve), the Carmanah Valley,
            the Tsitika, Stein Valley, Clayoquot Sound, etc.

                    WCWC realized the importance of building a social base of supporters in order to protect old
            growth forests in B.C. and to incline public consciousness in this direction. It has now, apparently,
            over 30,000 members. (p. 460) Many people were first introduced to the wonders of old growth
            temperate rainforests through their work. In addition to demonstrations at the B.C. legislature in
            Victoria, this was done for example by producing many tabloid-size newspapers in large production
            runs giving basic information about an area which the Committee was trying to make a candidate for
            formal government protection. Door-to-door canvassing in urban areas was also part of this, and
            raising  money was considered secondary to building support for the objectives of the Wilderness
            Committee. Trails were built by volunteers in old growth areas previously inaccessible (sometimes
            destroyed by loggers and diehard defenders of industrial logging) to bring the public into such special
            places: "Getting people into the wilderness for a transcendent experience empowers people for
            years, if not for their entire lives."
(p. 499). The Committee built research stations high in the tree
            tops of old growth forests, as well as on the ground. They encouraged the university scientific
            community to work in the tree canopies and to start documenting various unknown species of animal
            life slated for extinction, if clear cut industrial logging was not halted. Artists were taken into old growth
            forests and musicians were mobilized.  I think all this work brought out the, for many, the hidden
            natural history treasures of old growth forests and showed for all to see  the narrowness and rigidity
            of the dollar blinders of  industrial forestry and their government supporters.

                    There were risks to the work, including financial risks. One thinks of how the core group of
            activists inside WC2 must have worried about this. For example in October 1990, "WCWC's debt
            now exceeds $700,000."
(p.480) The Committee always worked within bourgeois legalities, i.e.
            "within the law." They very publicly, according to the text, proclaimed this and said they would
            not take part in civil disobedience. Thus, "WCWC never participated in blockades." (p.173) 
            A big problem for me personally was the Wilderness Committee offering a reward for anyone
            caught tree-spiking: "WCWC offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest
            and conviction of any tree spiker in B.C. This offer still stands today."
(p. 59) One can
            disagree with tree spiking (depending on the circumstances), but to offer such a reward is not
            acceptable. It is an example of bending far too much in search of a mainstream (always ephemeral)
            respectability when environmental conflicts erupt.

                    Of a similar nature is the harsh denunciation of the Squamish 5 activists, called "eco-terrorists"
            (p. 473) by George. It is clear from these, and other examples in the text, that the WCWC oriented
            not only itself but sought to influence other activists in the environmental  movement to "work the
            system" and not operate outside what the system considers "legitimate" protest. Yet it is the rules
            and alleged  legitimacy of this political and economic system, which has allowed the ongoing
            destruction of the natural world in Canada. From a deep ecology perspective, it would seem to me
            that this is an anthropocentric or human/corporate centered legitimacy. This is not an Earth-centered
            or ecocentric legitimacy, where remnant old growth forests have real "standing" -  that is, a legitimacy
            bearing in mind the long-term interests of all species and the Earth itself, plus also long-term human
            interests. What the government "giveth" regarding parks or protected areas, when under quite enormous
            citizen pressure, the government can "taketh" away. This can be the case when governments change,
            or industry wants a park's boundaries altered for logging or mining reasons, or want to "privatize" those
            attributes of wildness that make parks special for so many of us. Nothing can be permanent in our
            existing growth-oriented society where nature is for sale in the marketplace and the spiritual imbeddness
            of humans in the natural world has long disappeared as a human  motivator.  As environmentalists
            motivated philosophically by deep ecology, we should not accept for this society to define the
            legitimacy of our endeavours.

                    As Arne Naess, the Norwegian founder of deep ecology, put it: "The earth does not belong to
So we cannot support "ownership" of forest lands by governments, corporations, or for
            that matter aboriginals, and demands for monetary compensation by taxpayer monies when remnant
            wild forested lands are given protected area status. Crown lands should not be compensated for when
            transferred to park or protected area status. Deep ecology opposes the idea of "private property" in
            nature, that one can "own" other species and the land itself. Ecocentric land legality in Canada would
            mean "usufruct use" where there is the right of use, but one is ultimately responsible and accountable to
            some form of ecocentric governance much wider that human society. Original aboriginal land occupancy
            in any country should be given priority consideration, from a human or social justice perspective, but
            nature itself must remain a commons and not be privatized.  Putting the Earth first does not yet have a
            legislative framework in Canada, although deeper greens are working on this. Support for bourgeois
            legalities by environmental activists therefore can only be conditional, not absolute.

                    In conclusion, by this commentary I would like to salute Paul George and all those who have
            worked with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Whatever the contradictions which the
            Committee has struggled with, the record of achievement is quite astounding. The book Big Trees,
            Not Big Stumps
successfully captures this. It deserves a place on the bookshelf.

            October 31, 2006

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