As I walked the trails on Cortes Island in British Columbia this summer, beady eyes watched me from the puddles. Sometimes, when I put my foot down, three or four red-legged frogs would leap up and splay in all directions. Now that it is winter, the puddles of summer have expanded into sheets of water. I imagine that the frogs are dozing there, in the slow moving water beneath the canopy of giant trees.
Cortes is very lucky to have forests like this because they are rare and quickly disappearing. Red legged frogs are rare too. They are provincially listed and declining in numbers. On Cortes Island, those rare forests are about to be logged, and the little frogs may be facing their last winter.
Island Timberlands, a privately owned logging company, owns the forest. They plan to start logging any day. They would have started already, except for a band of islanders who created a blockade on the road. As I write this, they are standing guard over the entrance to the forest, willing to risk arrest for the trees.
Cortes Island is not the only place where a community is in a faceoff with IT. People in Port Alberni oppose IT's industrial logging of McLaughlin Ridge and Cameron Valley Firebreak. In Roberts Creek, it's Day Road Forest and in Powell River, its Stillwater Bluffs. IT's logging of the magnificent Cathedral Grove has sparked years of protest and controversy. If IT sells these controversial lands to another timber company, it will probably be for a price that ensures ecosystems, species and jobs still leave B.C.
The province of B.C. is responsible for this broken system. The B.C. Liberals repealed the Forest Land Reserve Act in 2002, and replaced it with the highly flexible, industry-friendly Private Managed Forest Land Act in 2004. Nearly a decade later, we can see the result of this market-based approach.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, forests are being logged at more than twice the rate that forest auditors say can be sustained; trees are logged at younger and younger ages; more trees get exported as raw logs; and tens of thousands of hectares are being readied for conversion to residential development. Island Timberlands will liquidate all of its Douglas fir forests within 25 years, mostly for export as raw logs. Threatened and endangered species can't stop the logging: there is no provincial legislation that requires their protection. Tough luck, frogs.
As taxpayers, we should expect the province to protect the lands of B.C. for uses that benefit the citizens of B.C. - especially when the forest companies like Island Timberlands pay such low property tax rates on private land. On Cortes Island, I paid about $62 in taxes in 2011 for each of my 20 inland acres. Island Timberlands paid between $5 and $6 for each of its inland acres near Squirrel Cove. What does the province require from timber companies in exchange for this 90-per-cent reduced tax rate? Sustainable forestry jobs that can support a small community over time? Nope. Value-added manufacturing jobs for the province? Sorry, no. Intact ecosystems for the tourist industry (about $4 million in direct wages for our island)? Again, no.
How, in the face of all this, do we stand up for ourselves, for the forest, and even for the frogs?
Perhaps our best leverage at this point is our voices as voters. If we want healthy forests and our community values that depend on them, then we all need to write to the B.C. provincial government and tell them that it isn't fair for corporations to benefit from low property tax rates and then manage their land with no benefit to B.C.
Tell them that destroying ecosystems and exporting raw logs is not a reasonable trade-off for low tax rates. We need regulations that protect jobs and ecosystems, including protection for the habitat of declining species like the red legged frog. While you are at it, ask that funds be allocated for places like Cortes Island. Cortes residents seek a mix of park land and ecosystem-based logging that will support the local economy. Other communities have different needs. Roberts Creek, for example, seeks expansion of the Mount Elphinstone Provincial Park.
If enough people raise their voices, we could act as the stewards the forests need. This holiday season, you and I could give a lasting gift to the trees, and the frogs and countless other animals and plants that are sustained by them.
As for me, I've seen the magic of old forests and I want my grandchildren to see it - and yours as well. So I'm going to push the province for a fair approach to private forest lands and support those blockaders on Cortes Island.
After all, I've got those beady little eyes watching me.
Carrie Saxifrage is a writer with a background in law. She lived on Cortes Island for 15 years and will return to the island when her son graduates from high school.