The battle for Haida Gwaii’s cedars

In 1862, a smallpox epidemic wrought devastation on Haida Gwaii, part of a wave of introduced diseases that killed an estimated 19,000 Haida people, leaving only several hundred survivors.

The advent of industrial forestry a century later advanced swiftly, much like that epidemic, wiping away ancient forests and cedar trees that the Haida had worked with for generations.

The protests at Lyell Island, ensuing court cases, and emerging efforts between Haida and non-Indigenous residents on the islands, solidified opposition to that onslaught and united much of the population in efforts to protect more forests and to try to ensure that local communities benefitted from what logging remained.

Since 2012, under a new co-management committee consisting of both Haida members and members of the provincial government, logging rates on the islands have been held to around 930,000 cubic metres of “timber” per year. For the decade prior to that, the “allowable annual cut” was nearly twice that rate.

Timber is the word typically used by the forest industry to describe trees destined for the chopping block and conversion to building materials.

One cubic metre of timber is equivalent to about one telephone pole’s worth of wood. If that many poles were spaced an average distance apart like you see on most city streets, you could run 930,000 poles from Vancouver to Halifax and back and then do it all over again.

While logging rates have fallen dramatically on Haida Gwaii, one thing remains largely unchanged from the years since industrial forestry began. Virtually every tree logged on the islands is taken away by barge.

If those trees are spruce or hemlock, many end up in the holds of ocean freighters and are shipped overseas for processing, never to enter a mill in B.C., let alone be processed on Haida Gwaii.

If they are prized cedar trees, they are barged off the islands to be turned into lumber, fence posts, panels, shakes or shingles in distant sawmills in the Greater Vancouver area — an ongoing irritant for island residents who for decades have grappled with their islands being a fibre basket mined by others.

“If they were doing it sustainably, using the logs in place on-island, having a mill for value-added products or something of benefit to the Haida Nation, that would be a different thing entirely,” says Steven Lloyd, a health care worker who moved to the islands from Vancouver eight years ago and who frequently watches those barges moving up Masset Inlet, the body of water that cleaves deep into Graham Island, the large island on the north of the archipelago.


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IMAGE: A stump from an ancient cedar tree at a Husby Forest Products logging operation at St’aala Kun — the site of an occupation blocking old-growth logging on Haida Gwaii last year. Photo: Garth Lenz