Gina Thomas Opinion Falling Boundaries
In Conversation with Gina Thomas
Coastal Guardian Watchman
Tlowitsis Nation, British Columbia
Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas stands on a cedar stump at a Western Forest Products cutblock near Rooney Lake, Vancouver Island. (Photo: Serena Renner)
Can you tell me a bit about your forestry background?
Currently I live in Campbell River on Northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia. My forestry journey began in Merritt, located in the interior of British Columbia, where I attended the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and received my diploma in Natural Resource Technology. Following this, I attended the University of British Columbia and studied for my degree in Forest Resources Management and a certificate in Environmental Stewardship from the Vancouver Island University.
In terms of work experience: I have worked for Western Forest Products doing silviculture on Vancouver Island, Whistler, Powell River, and Harrison Hot Springs for a time period of roughly four years. Succeeding that, I traded my caulk boots for business suits and worked for the First Nations Forestry Council for the next four years. The past six years I have been working as a Guardian Watchmen for the Tlowitsis First Nation on Northern Vancouver Island in the Tlowitsis traditional territory. In between times I have previously done contract forestry, as well as archaeology work.
I understand you’re not working for the logging companies anymore?
No, I am no longer working for logging companies. I found through experience that the mandates of these companies are not representative of my personal beliefs in how forests should be managed. In school the curriculum teaches about all these amazing ways that forests can be managed and how to best grow and the flora and fauna within; working with the logging companies, I found no opportunities to use this knowledge. The job description in essence of a logging company is to cut down as many trees as fast as possible, and then try to keep up with the replanting.
Simply looking at the Old Growth Management Areas (OGMA’s) that have been set aside, they probably have the worst quality of cedar out there. To add to it, a staggering number of our class five and six streams have been severely damaged which only has chain reaction effects to our natural hydrological systems in which fish populations depend upon. I can confidently say that ‘forestry’ as it is being conducted right now is one of the largest contributors to the decline in salmon populations, right alongside over-fishing.
Many of the landslides that are happening in forests are not natural, they are triggered by road building activities and large tracts of deforested land open to rainfall and other types of erosion inducing weather. Trees are essential in controlling how water reaches the forest floor; we are interrupting this process on a massive scale and are only starting to see the impacts of this.
Forest companies claim often that the only way they can make a profit is by cutting down old growth; the main problem being there isn’t much of it left on the land base, so how do they plan to make money without it? Do we keep cutting the old growth until we can only see trees of that size in photos?
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Old growth cedar, northern Vancouver Island 2018 (harvested 2019)
Timber at high elevation areas is being cut faster than ever before, and yet we have no idea how this will affect future forest growth and water movement throughout watersheds. Trees at higher elevations take significantly longer to grow than trees at lower elevations. On Northern Vancouver Island, logging companies are cutting down forty-year-old Hemlock stands; they claim that to make this financially viable they must cut one-hundred-hectare openings rather than the forty-hectare openings that were already the maximum size under FRPA. These cut blocks are creating vast unnatural openings. II have been hearing recently that logging companies local to my area are having a hard time regenerating Western redcedar (thuja plicata) because it is getting too dry for the species south of Campbell River. For decades Western redcedar was planted everywhere in high quantities because it was doing well in the timber trading industry. We need to plant trees that will help the surrounding environment flourish; not let the markets dictate what to plant. The standard rotation age was roughly eighty years, but with the unknown effects of climate change this could easily change. On Vancouver Island in tree plantations, trees are planted in such high densities that it takes decades just for gaps to initially open in the canopy. These dark dense forests typically have no understory, no green on the forest floor, with skinny trees planted in sterile rows. Animals will find no sustenance in these forests and will struggle further to find food.
Logging has been occurring in my traditional territory for over a century, and there are clear remnants and debris left behind. Near many of the log dumps, it is not possible to moor a boat without running the risk of losing an anchor to the cable left behind on the ocean floor. The beaches are inundated with logging debris such as logs, stumps, and cable which makes access difficult. In Canada, forestry companies are able to achieve types of certification that ‘show’ the company’s due diligence for protecting the environment while logging. The program which gives this certification is called the Forest and Range Evaluation Program (FREP). FREP monitors sites that have been logged to assess the impacts of forest and range activities; the guiding eleven values from the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA) are as follows: biodiversity, cultural heritage, fish/riparian, forage and associated plant communities, recreation, resource features, soils, timber, visual quality, water and wildlife. In my current career I deal mostly with fish/riparian, cultural heritage, water and wildlife values. Recently under FREP values, random audits have found that as much as 50% of our cultural heritage sites have been damaged due to logging practices. Historically at least 60% of the archaeological sites in our traditional territory have been damaged/destroyed.
In terms of visual quality, a quick trip up Johnstone Strait from Kelsey Bay in Sayward on a boat to Port McNeil will show you that current legislation is not working. In the province of British Columbia the planting regime only uses seeds that are deemed ‘suitable’ and thus deciding which trees are acceptable in form and growth. This limitation is minimizing the genetic diversity of the landscape. The trees may be optimal for providing the end product of timber, although have yet to be tested in the increasing pressures of changing climate and pathogen optimal conditions. It is heartbreaking for me to drive by plantations on Northern Vancouver Island and realize that most other people who drive by have no idea that they aren’t looking at a healthy, thriving forest.
What are you doing now in relation to the forests?
I have worked in partnership with my band, Tlowitsis Nation, off and on for nearly twenty years doing archaeological impact assessments, and now the past six years as a Tlowitsis Guardian Watchmen. I previously spent four years with Western Forest Products conducting silviculture surveys, and have also independently worked on various research projects, and done engineering work for Strategic Environmental Services.
What do the Guardian Watchmen do?
The Guardian Watchmen do a plethora of many different environmental monitoring strategies. We monitor plankton, water quality (salt and fresh), salmon health/populations, kelp surveys, eelgrass surveys, grizzly bear observation, whale and other marine mammal observation, eDNA (environmental DNA) surveys, estuary surveys, as well as crab and prawn surveys. We patrol the waterways of our traditional territory and learn a great deal from the handful of locals who live on the land. Our crew is trained in first aid and search and rescue, as well as incident responses such as oil spills, which if encountered we record and report. We do constant monitoring of known archaeological sites and record newly discovered ones. We have been trained to identify bear dens, and to conduct Large Cultural Cedar (LCC) surveys. The guardians conduct pre- and post- harvest surveys on logging blocks through the territory, and monitor commercial openings such as salmon, crab, prawns, urchins, kelp, and sea cucumbers. We do not hold any enforcement capabilities, although we are often the first to observe any issues on the landscape or water, and use tools such as cameras, drones, tablets, GPS, as well as other technology to record these events and collect samples when necessary.
Can you explain “large cultural cedar”?
In response to the large amount of cedar being logged here on the coat, First Nations communities developed a way to better defend the existing cedars. A cedar tree, red or yellow, in its mature form and vigour from an old growth forest is something to behold. Measuring in with a diameter of at least one meter, trees of this size have been used by First Nations people for hundreds of years, if not thousands. It has been used in house construction, transportation such as canoes, clothing, art, ceremonial objects, and everyday tools. These large cultural cedars take hundreds of years to grow to a usable size and have many qualities that make them ideal for these uses.
The ideal cedar would have few knots and/or small knots, with a straight bole and minimum taper (curving) to its trunk. Trees of quality are not easy to find, and with the added pressure from logging companies, near impossible. New protocol that has been created and signed now holds logging companies accountable to protect and leave a certain percentage of old growth cedar. The trees that have the appropriate size and quality of form that qualify for this protection from this protocol are named “Large Cultural Cedar”.
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Campbell River Logging Co. Operation, Menzies Bay. Logs To Be Hauled - Item F-08877 1935, photographer Walter Forrest Montgomery, courtesy of British Columbia Archives
What are your views on human relationship to the land?
My perspective has always been that we, humankind, are one with the land. With the way things are currently going, we are going to suffer the same harm which we are causing to the planet. Logging, as example, is necessary and must be done, but cannot continue at the mechanized rate in which it is occurring. Ancient forests are beautiful, spiritual, and take thousands of years to develop; all of which can be destroyed in mere hours. Ecosystems as whole function units, the water, the fauna and flora, are all under so much human induced pressure that I truly fear for the future.
I know that I have been blessed with the experience of walking in the few remaining old growth forests, an experience I will cherish as they have now been cut down. There is something hard to describe about the magical and spiritual feeling that is tied to beings thousands of years old. The First Nations people that historically stewarded this land did not cut down trees unless the tree was absolutely needed. Bark, kindling and planks were harvested from live or downed trees but still appropriately provided what was needed.
As metaphors go, the connection that salmon have to our old growth forests is one in the same as us. Salmon used to migrate through rivers completely surrounded by forest. Currently today you are lucky if you see thin feathers of old growth along rivers. Forest cover provides heat protection, insects and other organisms for fish to eat, riverbed stability, and so many other important factors that support the salmon lifecycle. Bears have also evolved a relationship with the salmon life cycle so that they can catch fish, eat the fish, and leave the carcasses in the forest. The decay of these carcasses provides necessary nutrients for plants and fungi. Now that there are no fish, the bears are hungry, and the forests are not receiving essential nutrients. These are all, no pun intended, downstream effects from removing that crucial old growth forest cover. All these players are interconnected. As we are just beginning to learn, all the trees in the forest are physically interconnected through mycorrhizal (fungal) relationships. When looking at a tall tree, keep in mind that 75% of that tree’s mass is underground and keeps the tree standing upright. Historically our ancestors used natural indicators to tell what was going on with our local environment, whether it be on land or water, or just simply the change of season. I fear we are losing touch with that connection to the land and water.
Much has been written about the decline of the great forests, both here in British Columbia and around the world. Do you have any comment on the impacts on Indigenous culture?
My comment is simply that our way of life has been taken from us. Nature was our home, grocery store, pharmacy, our inspiration for art and ceremony. Our people have and always will be tied to these lands. When First Nations people were gathered and forced onto reserves, it broke that special connection we have to the land, and also broke much of the spirit that our people had. Initially the argument was that this was for our own good, but evidently all these efforts did was severely harm us. I have the unique perspective of seeing both the brokenness of our people, as well as of the land. It is well past time to heal both the lands and the people, so that one day both might prosper again.
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Kilgard. Wee Mcgregor Saw - Item D-04163 1910, photographer unknown, courtesy of British Columbia Archives
While much environmental news comes from a scientific perspective, we are now seeing writing around the psychological (some may say emotional) impacts of biodiversity loss using terms like eco-anxiety and solastalgia. Do you have anything to say about the old-growth forest from this perspective?
I agree with this perspective but have some different thoughts to offer. When immersed in a healthy forest/environment you feel peaceful, you can feel the ‘life force’ of the organisms around you. It’s something that turns up a lot in popular culture, people can feel the pull of forests and find activities that occur in them. I think that people enjoy being surrounded by living things as opposed to radio waves, but often don’t consciously acknowledge it. I went into forestry because I am passionate about making things grow and understanding what plants need to thrive. Old growth forests are majestic, one-of-a-kind pieces of art that can never be recreated the same, no tree is ever alike. I hope that those individuals that suffer from eco-anxiety and/or solastalgia do not have to watch the logging trucks driving down the highways with old growth trees in their bunks. There has to be a better way.
I come from a settler background with four generations, to date, working in the BC forest industry. I am keenly aware of the values our culture brought with us around resource extraction, capitalism and racism, values which arguably have brought us to this environmental precipice. Do you have any thoughts on reconciliation and its relationship to a shift in the way settler culture views the natural world?
I think that reconciliation and its relationship on how we treat the natural world still needs to overcome many challenges. One of the largest will be working with government agencies which manage our resources in a very colonial and disconnected manner. The natural world cannot be managed in neat little boxes, with statistical analysis being the primary decision maker. The problem with managing resources today is that we never have enough information; nature is completely interconnected and to understand any singular component we must first look at the bigger picture with a more holistic approach. Those who manage resources should be people who are directly impacted by the outcome of those resources, otherwise it seems too easy to forget the consequence of our actions on our environment.
Timed samples are an example of something that only gives you a snapshot of what is happening. They are an excellent way of looking at singular components of the environment but fail to fully encompass the larger picture in which chronological chain reactions are occurring.
When settlers originally came here, they believed the land to be empty and viewed the bountiful resources as being ‘wasted’ as they were not being extracted en masse. In Europe, we know that the industrial revolution devastated the natural ecosystems and polluted the air and water ways. These ‘newly’ discovered resources were viewed with great potential to the new settlers. Joseph Trutch was a main actor in crowding First Nations peoples onto small pieces of land (reserves) – and the land where these Nations were relocated to was not often ideal as it was land the immigrants would not want either.
In the past hundred years that settlers were immigrating here to British Columbia, they took most of the land that was previously occupied by First Nations communities. At the same time this was happening, First Nations populations were being decimated by diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and the ongoing genocide brought upon these communities by residential schools. First Nations communities, with the odd exception, had not expected this at all, and had originally believed that the settlers were looking to share the plentiful lands and resources. The surviving communities in which I have just mentioned have spent the past century watching the natural world they thrived in be systematically harvested and exploited. The goal of residential schools was to assimilate our people to be the same as European settlers, although never to be on equal footing with them. The attempts to disconnect First Nations from our languages, ceremonial practices and our traditional lands were severe and caused irreparable damage. However, they did not succeed with assimilation, and now we are in a time of limbo where many communities do not know how to exist in this colonial world, and it’s not possible for them to go back to their traditional way of life. The repercussions and aftershock is still highly visible in First Nations communities through substance abuse and addiction, severe mental health issues, and poverty. The horrible aftermath impacts on communities having children stripped away from their families, completely removed from their cultures and everything they knew are still being felt and can only mend with time.
Something that must happen before reconciliation actually works is this understanding of what actually transpired, the after effects of both sides, and acceptance that the hurt will only heal with time. Colonial perspectives will never and cannot ever understand First Nations communities wants and needs. There must be some wiggle room in terms of perspectives, seeing and understanding both sides is what is needed to truly begin reconciling.
All this talk about reconciliation must be followed by real action to protect the natural world, if it is meant sincerely. The ‘precipice’ is a perfect term for where we are at; we can come together and work towards a healthier future, or we can simply let things go and spiral into disaster.
A thought I often use to describe this ‘disaster’ would be that maybe one day we’ll all be eating jellyfish. In the Salish Sea, off the coastal shores of Vancouver Island fish species have been so depleted that the ecosystem is quickly filling with jellyfish. The further collapse of fish stocks may only leave jellyfish left being a major food stock, which I think we can all agree, would be a disaster indeed.
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Active logging, northern Vancouver Island 2018
If you found yourself in control of forest management policy, with the power to implement new rules and regulations with immediate effect, what would be the most important?
Wood is an excellent renewable building product; arguably much better than the other materials we currently use in most wide scale construction. We simply need to go back to a more sustainable way of extraction. Mechanized extraction of our resources has caused nothing but harm, with greed blinding any good sense. My top changes to forest management policy would be to do away with forest tenures. One of the few recent tenure changes was the development of the Community Forest Agreements and First Nations Woodlands. Of my twenty years involved in forestry I have been hearing about tenure reform, and yet companies have changed names, merged, and even obtained certifications just to get tenure. Where was the reform to prevent this monopolization? Certification gave companies more market share because they claim to log sustainably, but I challenge this with every fiber of my being. Giving certification to large companies is not the solution whatever so ever, it’s equivalent to putting a band-aid on a mortal wound. Certification can look great on paper but has never changed the status-quo.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I see bumper stickers all the time on the Island that say, “Forestry Feeds My Family”. If we want this statement to remain true, then serious changes on how business is conducted must happen within the industry. Most of the public has unfortunately never seen old growth forest outside of parks, and their children probably never will either. Resource extraction should be brought back fully to the communities which are directly affected or live at the source. No more board of directions that do not live in these communities yet make all the decisions that impact these community livelihoods. Having this external system puts all the money out of the community's hands, into administration pockets, and our livelihoods, lands and waters pay the price. Instead of talking about creating added value, we need to begin doing something about it. Creating added value products locally, instead of cutting down a dime a dozen trees and shipping them overseas where their value will never equate to the strife that the whole process creates. Tokenization of jobs must stop. The profits from our natural resource extraction in this province are rarely seen or enjoyed by those communities in which the resources were taken from.