This article first appeared in Harrowsmith Magazine.
What can you do when your Neighbours aren’t Neighbourly?
Here’s how local organizations can help protect their lands from vulture loggers.
When you live in the country, it’s usually with the expectation of quiet solitude coupled with abundant natural beauty. So when a new property owner in the Shuswap watershed in the southern B.C. interior began clearcutting his recently acquired 4,000 acres last summer, naturally he ruffled a few feathers. “There was no warning. People woke up and the feller buncher machines were outside the windows and they went 24 hours a day,” says local resident and a regional district director Eugene Foisey. People in the area complained about the incessant noise and even called the police but the new owner, says Foisey “claimed he was a farmer working his land and so exempt (from noise abatement laws) under the Farm Act.” Foisey is no stranger to the logging industry - he’s a lifelong logger himself – but says of this logging, “This was particularly egregious.” The woods he says were totally clearcut, right down to the creeks.
Robert Frost famously wrote, “Good fences make good neighbours” and by that spoke to the importance of neighbours developing a good working relationship. But when land is appreciated only for its assessed value, relationships with the neighbours take a back seat. With the increasing demand for natural resources, coupled with ceaseless urban sprawl, land use conflicts abound across rural Canada.
We depend on our neighbours to act in a co-operative and considerate fashion but when they choose not to, we have to rely on local laws. Unlike say, Fisheries and Oceans, which is governed by federal law, crown land is a provincial responsibility and a patchwork of laws exists across the country. Commercial logging operations are governed by provincial laws. For example, loggers must leave a riparian buffer zone along creeks for watershed protection in British Columbia. Such laws don’t apply to private land owners. Will Horter is the executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit group that advocates for sustainable land use. Of private land use laws controlling logging in British Columbia, says Horter, “They’re so generalized they’re useless. They’re pretty much of a joke. And they’re not enforced.”
A consequence is what some disparagingly call “vulture logging” – clearcutting by individuals who look for rural lots that they can purchase, log and resell for quick profit. Private land owners can choose to selectively log so that the log harvesting is hardly noticeable, or they can cut everything down as quickly as they like. They can sell off the barren land and move on.
That’s what Eugene Foisey and residents of the Shuswap watershed were up against after their own vulture logger moved in. Foisey and other residents in local Cherryville organized themselves into a group called Friends of Responsible Ecological Sustainable Timber (FOREST). The group began by trying to speak to the landowner. When that didn’t work, they began lobbying different levels of government, held protest rallys on the piles of left-over slash, videotaped the clearcut logging operations, held townhall meetings and raised as much media attention as they could.
On secluded Denman Island in B.C’s Gulf Islands, the same thing happened in 1997. Almost one-third of the island was purchased by logger/developer Mike Jenks through his company Jemi Holdings. (Currently Jemi owns about 25,000 acres in B.C. with interest in 106,000 acres in Ontario.) Clearcutting began within two weeks despite local protests. Wayne Quinn of the Islands Trust, a legislated council of trustees mandated to preserve the Gulf Islands, led a legal battle to stop the loggings. “We went through a trial and an appeal after that and we lost both times,” he says.
After seeing the loss of forests on Denman and other neighbouring Gulf Islands, residents of Saltspring Island were determined to the stop clearcutting there in November 2001. Again, large parcels of land had been purchased by an absentee landowner. But Saltspringers in a high-profile effort united to block the vulture logging, even going so far as to chain themselves to the logging trucks. They also campaigned to raise money to buy the land back. Local resident, author and well-known radio personality Arthur Black led a last minute fund-raiser featuring naked men and fig leaves. The provincial government added to the pot raising a total $16 million to purchase the land to be set aside for parks.
Chalk one up for the little guys.
Says Wayne Quinn today of future legal battles against private land clearcutting, “We have to use the tools available to us and those are limited to the development permits required for steep slopes, watershed or ecologically sensitive areas.”
It’s too late for some of the lands in the Shuswap but Foisey and FOREST carry on the fight. “We’re pushing for new bylaws with a bite but at the same time offer small landowners a carrot to preserve the forests,” he says.