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Ecotrust in the News

The Weekend Sun
August 21, 1993
By Mark Hume

Voices of the Kitlope

At the same time that Bruce Hill was pulling his boat into the estuary of the Kitlope River, where mountains tower over a waving meadow of seagrass, Ken Margolis was sitting in his Portland, Ore. office studying detailed satellite images of western, North America.

Searching from Mexico to Alaska, Margolis, director of a non-profit environmental foundation called Ecotrust, was tracing a thin, fragmented line of green forest that had all but vanished in most areas. Meanwhile, Hill, a logger and fishing guide, was coming down along the coast, past swaths of clearcut timber, moving into the heart of what, from space, looked like a fragile ribbon.

Without each other knowing it, the attention of the two men was converging at a point on the map in northern British Columbia that is remnant of a lost world.

That was the spring of 1990 and they had just found the Kitlope — considered to be the last great temperate rain forest left on Eart h— where the thin line becomes a vast emerald jungle.

At the same time, forest planners were also aware of the great valley and were busy drawing up logging plans, setting the stage, it seemed, for another classic confrontation over old-growth logging in B.C.

But this summer, with the battle for Clayoquot Sound in full cry, the Kitlope issue has been quietly moving towards culmination without a single logging road blockade or angry confrontation.

Over the past three ears, the Haisla, the Indian band with a historical claim to the valley, have joined Hill and Margolis in a quiet fight they believe they are now on the verge of winning.

In the next few weeks, representatives of Eurocan Pulp and Paper, the company that holds the cutting rights to the entire area, will sit down with a government committee in an effort to find alternative logging sites.

The committee will not decide if the Kitlope should be protected; its job is simply to look for options. But if the group succeeds in finding another source of wood for Eurocan, the government will be in a position to carve a wilderness reserve half as big as Banff National Park out of the coastal forest.

If the committee fails, there may yet be a Clayoquot-style clash, because the bottom line for the company is that it needs a certain volume of raw material — and the native/environmental coalition has taken a hard stand against logging.

Victor Maskulak, a woods manager for Eurocan, said the confrontation now taking place over Clayoquot is the last thing his company wants to see on the north coast.

"Maybe this can be resolved at the committee level," he said hopefully.

But Maskulak cautioned that any decision on the Kitlope must be made with this basic formula in mind: trees equal jobs.

Almost every forested area that's set aside in B.C., he said, eventually must come from some logging company's inventory.

Eurocan has not calculated the number of jobs tied directly to the Kitiope, but Maskulak says if all the northern B.C. sites under study in Eurocans total cutting area are set aside as parks, the company will face a 23-per-cent shortage of wood. That will cost 104 direct jobs; 460 indirect jobs provincewide.

Eurocan has not given up completely on the Kitlope and still hopes to get access to four to eight percent of the timber. But it has acknowledged the environmental importance of the area by volunteering to shift its entire operation if it can.

"If there is another area that will give us the volume and quality of timber there's no question we'd replace the Kitlope," said Maskulak. "Our question is: where the hell is it?"

Maskulak said his company has recognized the importance of the valley and thought it had come up with a reasonable compromise when it offered to set aside 100,000 hectares.

"There's no doubt there are areas in that valley that should be preserved. Kitlope Lake and the tributaries to Kitlope Lake should be preserved. The river flats should take some consideration for preservation. As far as the rest of the watershed, once you get 15 kms up, it's a fairly typical coastal valley — steep mountains and good timber."

Maskulak said he's heard the argument the entire system should be preserved because its size means entire ecosystems will stay intact.

And he realizes that's an argument around which considerable opposition to logging has coalesced.

But Maskulak said the Kitlope issue cannot be considered in isolation — instead, the government has to take into account the demand for parks and other wilderness reserves throughout the entire region.

Maskulak, the woods manager for Eurocan's Skeena Sawmills operation in Terrace, said his company was on the verge of logging the valley in 1988 when it ran into a wall of opposition from the Haisla band.

"It was planned to go," he said. "All of a sudden things turned around. Things came to a halt."

Earlier this year, in what may have been a last bid to find a logging compromise, the company put forward a remarkable plan. Eurocan offered to let the Haisla run the entire Kitlope operation; guaranteeing them 50 jobs in the process.

The small band, with a population of less than 1,000 flatly rejected the proposal.

That decision may prove crucial to the fate of the Kitlope, because it has largely taken the sting out of the economic argument for logging. The group that has the most to lose, in terms of direct work, has now voted for preservation.

The Haisla plan: create a massive park for traditional use by natives, scientific research — and for the enjoyment of the people of the world.

"I think we're going to save the Kitlope. I feel sure of it." said Margolis, who, over the past 20 years, has spent most of his time fighting to save tropical rain forests.

"It's amazing the way all the pieces have fallen into place. We never would have guessed it might happen like this."

Nearly twice the size of Clayoquot Sound, the 400,000-hectare Kitlope spreads through a vast network of valleys that cut deep into the Coast Range, nearly 100 kilometres south of Kitimat.

No roads reach into the mountainous region, where the Haisla say the spirits of 300 generations haunt the forests.

When Margolis first turned his attention to temperate rain forests, in the spring of 1990, he was any thing but confident.

As be began skimming the satellite images, a troubling possibility occurred to him.

"Maybe we're too late" he thought.

Nobody had paid much attention to the temperate zone. But the burning issues of old-growth logging in the Pacific Northwest had reminded Ecotrust you don't have to go to Brazil to see rain forests being clearcut.

Hoping to find a forest so massive it could be its own buffer against a changing world, Margolis cast his eyes along the western edge of the continent. There was a lot of timber there, patches of old growth and the vibrant green of regenerated second growth, but precious little was ancient temperate rain forest—the dense, rich woodland that thrives in the moist climate along the sea.

Margolis found numerous pristine watersheds scattered along the coast, but all were less than 5,000 hectares. The old growth forest had mostly been used up, and what remained was fragmented.

"We found to our shame there were none left (south of the Canadian border)," he said. "It's all gone."

When Margolis turned to B.C., he paused at Clayoquot Sound. It was an area big enough to survive "islandization," a syndrome in which ecosystems crumble because the forest is too small to keep them functioning. But the satellite image showed sharp geometric shapes left by clearcuts in and around the area. And he knew there was going to be a war there.

Was there anything left untouched?

Margolis finally tapped his finger on the Kitlope. "There it is," he thought. "The last chance."

Just about then, Bruce Hill was pulling into the mouth of the Kitlope on a very different quest.

The big, burly logger and steelhead guide, described by friends as looking like an unmade bed, had been travelling the coast the hard way, by small boat, searching inlet-by-inlet for wilderness fishing rivers.

When Hill saw the Kitlope he thought, "Holy—. This is awesome."

A massive mountain wall guards the river mouth on one shore; on the other is a huge granite dome topped by an ice field. The milky green river pours into the sea through a wide meadow marked by bear trails and pungent with the smell of the tides.

Anchored in the estuary was a research boat. When Hill went aboard, he met a team of forestry planners. They told him they were going to blast a road along the north shore. Put a log dump on the flats. And float rafts of timber down the Kitlope.

I thought: "Log drives in a salmon river? Didn't they stop doing that in the '30s?" said Hill.

As he studied the logging plan, Hill felt his blood run cold. He'd worked cutting trees long enough to know what he was looking at: the end of the wilderness. And when he pulled out of the Kitlope a few days later, heading back to his home in Terrace, he knew he'd just been transformed into something he never thought possible. He'd become an environmentalist.

Almost before his feet hit dry land, Hill had founded a group to save the Kitlope. At first, it consisted of just himself and a friend.

Soon enough they were joined by anglers, local politicians and mainstream environmental groups such as the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

One of the first things Hill did was track down Yvon Chouinard, the president of a chic U.S. clothing company, Patagonia Inc., who was steelhead fishing on the Skeena River.

Recalling the meeting, Hill said he cornered Chouinard as the company president was coming out of the river in his chest waders, water running off him as if from a baptism.

"See there's this wild place it's just awesome it might have steelhead and it's threatened so we gotta save it," said Hill, reliving his frantic appeal.

"Yeah?" said Chouinard.

"We need to rent a chopper, go in there and get some pictures so we can start telling people about it and save the damn place. I figure it'll cost about $4,000 for the flight," said Hill.

"Do they take credit cards?" asked Chouinard, without blinking.

"So I'm going: 'Yeah! Yeah, they take credit cards!' and that's pretty much how it started," said Hill as he recalled the conversation in a recent interview.

When the rolls of film came back, Hill sent off slides to everybody he could think of.

"I didn't know what I was doing—but I knew I had to do something," he said.

He also knew that no matter what he did, the real key to saving the Kitlope would be the Haisla. It was, after all, their territory.

Margolis, meanwhile, had set in motion a research project that confirmed what the satellite images indicated: The Kitlope, at 400,000 hectares, was the largest intact temperate rain forest on Earth.

It had grizzly bears, wolves, five species of salmon, trout, char, bats, falcons, eagles, mountain goats, eulachon — and the remnants of ancient Indian villages.

The Kitlope, it seemed, had been used by the Haisla since the glaciers retreated. And the Haisla, People of The Rocks, whose oral history appears to go back to a time before the forests grew, hadn't really changed a thing in the valley since then.

But did the native people want to keep it that way?

Or did they want to pursue their own logging opportunities?

Margolis's partner, Spencer Beebe, picked up the phone and called the Haisla band office.

He got Chief Gerald Amos on the line — a soft-spoken highly articulate man who had done a lot of deep thinking about the Kitlope. Amos knew the valley system was special. Without wanting to sound proud, he said the Haisla always thought it might just be the greatest place on the planet.

Log the Kitlope? Unthinkable.

Explaining his position in a later interview, Amos said: "If your whole family history, if the knowledge of your family was in one book that was bound and rested in your possession — I think you'd protect that with your very being, wouldn't you?"

"I think that's what the Kitlope is. It's the Haisla book of knowledge.

"I don't think you'd allow your book to be burned or the pages torn out."

Amos told Beebe the Haisla were united in their opposition to logging. They wanted to protect the area—and share it with the world.

He said the elders had told him to do everything possible to make sure the Kitlope didn't end up like the Kitimat Valley, which surrounds their community and which has been entirely logged.

Down at the docks in the Haisla village there is a sign that constantly reminds Amos that industrial development can have a high price. It's a fishery closure notice. Shellfish in Kitimat Arm are polluted with dioxins.

Amos fears the Kitlope too will be ruined f the Haisla don't prevail.

He listened to Beebe outline the role Ecotrust would like to play providing organizational expertise, fostering scientific research and providing funding for projects. Then the chief smiled. They had an ally.

"'You ask me," says Amos "what I think of having Americans come in here. Well, I'll tell you. When the government closed Kitimat Arm to shellfish harvesting because of dioxins, they drew a line on the map from one shore to the other. And then they come back a year later and moved it twice as far down the inlet. They tell me that on one side of the line the shellfish are OK, and on the other they aren't fit to eat. Now, I ask you. Do the halibut know which side of the line they are on? Do the crabs? Does the line mean anything?

"I don't think so. I don't think, when it comes to issues like the Kitlope, when it comes to saving the last big temperate rain forest left on Earth, I don't think lines mean much. These things transcend borders."

Not long after the Haisla, Ecotrust and Hill got together in late 1990, big things started to happen in the Kitlope.

By the following year, scientists were arriving. They studied the bears and the forests and the frogs and the bats.

Everywhere they looked they found more diversity. In one field trip, the list of birds and mammals in the area jumped to 120 from 17. And they had just started. They mapped the bear paths and the grease trail the Haisla had used to trade eulachon oil into the Interior. They noted the culturally modified trees, where natives had once stripped bark to make clothing. They crawled on their hands and knees through the forest, catching insects, shrews and toads. And they all had the same reaction to the great valley.

"They were just blown away," said Hill, who with his jet boat has now ferried researchers into just about every remote corner of the Kitlope.

"The awesome thing about the Kitlope," he said, laughing with pure joy, "is that it goes on, and on, and on.

"This is certainly national park material. No doubt."

This summer, Hill, Amos, Margolis, a collection of Ecotrust directors, a gang of scientific researchers, Haisla elders and other natives gathered in the Kitlope to meet a special visitor.

Coming into see them was Environment Minister John Cashore, a church minister whose fate was interwoven with the Kitlope more than 20 years ago when he and his wife adopted a native Indian infant.

The child, it was to turn out, was the daughter of Cecil Paul, a Haisla elder.

"Some people have suggested this creates a conflict of interest, but I find that bizarre," said Cashore.

He said his job as environment minister is to get out and see the land and to speak as an advocate for the environment in cabinet.

The fact that his adopted daughter's biological father is a Haisla does not affect his judgment, he said.

But he had to admit the connection is curious. It's as if he was always meant to come to the Kitlope.

Standing on the beach one day earlier this month, he listened attentively while Haisla elder Allan Hall told the story of the stone man, a goat hunter who had wandered high on a ridge on the eastern shore of Kitlope Lake and who stands there still.

Cashore could see the hunter, high above, with his face into the wind and his stone cloak flowing down his back.

Turning west, Cashore looked across to granite bluffs where two Haisla that day had found an ancient rock painting. The face, daubed in ochre on a lichen stained rock, has a long curving mouth, wide eyes, and what appears to be crosses marking the ears. The face stares down Kitlope Lake, past a place where legend says the Haisla one day battled a war party of Haida who'd come to steal women and children for slaves.

"There's an awful lot of spiritual life living up and down that Kitlope," Hall told him.

With the press on hand, Cashore was cautious in his comments about the valley's future.

"I think there are the roots here of something that can come to a really worthwhile solution." he said.

"I don't think we can dismiss out of hand Eurocan and the working people. This is a tremendous time of change (for the forest industry) and there has to be sensitivity around that issue."

But you could tell by the way he walked along the beach at night, alone with his thoughts, and by the way he looked down on the valley after slogging to a mountain top that he was at peace with the idea the Kitlope would never change.

"It's full of mysteries — and it's overwhelming," Cashore said when asked his impression of the valley.

"Just listen to the voices of the Kitlope," the Haisla elders told him around the campfire.

"I've heard the voices," said Cashore. "I've heard."

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