A pod of orca travelling in Johnstone Strait swims toward shore, coming breathtakingly close to the water’s edge before they turn aside. The whales then languorously sweep through the shallow waters, rubbing themselves on small, smooth pebbles that make the beaches in Robson Bight on the north end of Vancouver Island a critical habitat.
Video images of their visits have been captured by cetologist Paul Spong, who has studied the threatened population of northern resident orca since 1972.
Dr. Spong is sounding the alarm about logging plans in Schmidt Creek, just around the corner from these beaches, which he fears will disrupt the whales’ unique and age-old traditions.
He’s watched the orca line up to take turns to rub themselves on the slopes, “kind of like aircraft lining up on a runway.” Scientists don’t know exactly why these whales rub, but it’s a distinctive behaviour of the northern resident orca and there are only a few beaches that offer the right conditions. “We think rubbing is a lot of fun for them, a bit like visiting a massage parlour,” he explained.
The B.C. government has issued logging permits for 221 hectares of old-growth forest in the area, with the blessing of the local Indigenous community, the Nanwakolas Council.
Dallas Smith is a veteran of B.C.’s “war in the woods.” He skipped school almost 30 years ago to join a roadblock to stop logging in the Tsitika Valley, in the traditional territories of the Tlowitsis First Nation. After that introduction to activism, Mr. Smith, son of the Tlowitsis chief, went on to play an instrumental role in securing the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Today, Mr. Smith is the elected head of the Nanwakolas Council – representing a coalition of Indigenous communities whose territories include a significant portion of the Great Bear Rainforest. His council was given logging rights in Schmidt Creek, adjacent to the Tsitika watershed, as part of the economic component of the rainforest protection deal.
The Great Bear Rainforest spans 6.4 million hectares of the coast from the north of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle. The agreement signed in 2016, after twenty years of negotiation, promises to protect 85 per cent of the region’s old-growth forests, but it also provides Indigenous communities access to economic development.
“We fought for twenty years for the opportunity to sustainably harvest some of those areas,” Mr. Smith noted.
The Nanwakolas sold their timber rights, so they don’t have a direct stake in the logging plans. But they are a part of this battle, which will test the fledgling NDP government. The NDP has long struggled with the balance between jobs and the environment − this case will also measure the party’s resolve to respect Indigenous self-governance.
Three organizations − Sierra Club BC, Wilderness Committee and Ancient Forest Alliance − have asked for logging to be delayed on the steep banks of Schmidt Creek, saying the risk of landslides may harm the rubbing beaches and will certainly destroy one of the last nearly intact old-growth watersheds on Vancouver Island. They want to see further study on those risks before the chainsaws are fired up.
Doug Donaldson, the NDP Minister of Forests, has declined to step in the way of the logging plans. In an interview, he said he is open to any new information and that he welcomes the debate. “I appreciate those pressures, because it’s people standing up for stewardship of the land.” But he puts large stock in the Nanwakolas’s approval.
Mr. Donaldson visited Schmidt Creek in late March and said he is confident that the logging plan achieves the right balance between conservation and resource development.
The Schmidt Creek watershed includes 460 hectares of protected areas that are supposed to ensure suitable nesting areas for an endangered seabird, the Marbled Murrelet.
But Jens Wieting, forest campaigner for Sierra Club BC, said the government hasn’t provided any evidence that it has studied the potential impact on threatened species.
Mr. Wieting said the pace of Vancouver Island old-growth logging hasn’t changed since the NDP took power last summer. “It’s true that the previous government is responsible for taking us to the brink of the end of old-growth,” he said. “But without immediate action to change the trajectory, it will be the current government ultimately responsible for the loss of the web of life that depends on these rare ancient rain forests.”
However, there is a chance the direction could change. Schmidt Creek happens to lie within the traditional territory that is the personal responsibility of Mr. Smith’s family. Faced with these concerns, he plans to send his own conservation stewards to take a closer look at the beaches in the coming week.
“We want to get out there and get our eyes on it, and if this is a rubbing beach at risk, we will further the discussion.”