Guest column: What is a forest? How does it live? How does it die?

In the Cowichan Valley, we are surrounded by something infinitely more valuable than gold

By Icel Dobell

There is an extraordinary phenomenon occurring in North Cowichan and the world because of COVID-19. The unanticipated implications for our forests are an advocate’s dream come true. In this time of isolation, uncertainty, grieving and fear, people are returning to the place where we have always sought solace — nature. In the cities, residents gravitate to their urban parks; here in North Cowichan, we are surrounded by the Six Mountains Community Forest.

People of all ages fill the trails as never before and the sound of children laughing echoes like songbirds through the forests. It gives reason to hope — as long as young people have their eyes open. And this is the caveat, for it is the young — people younger than me and others over 55 — for whom the future most heavily hangs in the balance.

Just as our lives have been paused, so, too, there is a brief pause of logging of our Six Mountains to allow the community to decide the future of our 5,000 hectare forests.

The future of B.C.’s most endangered landscape — known to forest ecologists as the coastal Douglas fir biogeoclimatic zone — hangs in the balance.

Enlightened change begins with knowledge. Before we exercise our moral right and duty to advocate for the highest use of our forests, we must first understand what a forest is — not a tree plantation, not an industrial tree lot — and how it lives, how it dies.

In October 2018, a grassroots movement of citizens came together to advocate for the protection of our local forests from further logging until public consultation determined their highest value. For 18 months, many people have been publishing forest facts. After a year and a half, you might think that everyone who reads the Citizen knows the issues. How wrong you would be.

A few months ago, council listened to the public, took time to consider, and voted for pause and public consultation, deep and broad. Before information about COVID-19 went viral in the world, Lees and Associates, hired to lead the way, was beginning to interview people identified as stakeholders. On March 10, representing Where Do We Stand, I was one of them.

The consultant posed a series of questions, ending with: what is your vision for the future of the forests?

I said I dreamed of a real pause, not a few months, (logging decisions may be made in September), but one to three years. Long enough for the story of the Six Mountains Forest to reach the whole Valley — before more irreparable damage is done — long enough for better research about forests and climate change, long enough for people to explore the forests and learn about the ecology and complex issues.

I said we needed time to consider the role of the forests in the face of a growing population. I said it’s wrong to make decisions until people understand the full importance of the forests, (not just the standing trees, but everything from the wildlife to toad stools to living stumps and the unseen world of mycorrhizal root networks). I suggested it’s premature to ask citizens what their vision of the forest is until people have had time to inform themselves and understand the ecology of the forests and all the issues that have arisen these past 18 months.

During this time, Where Do We Stand has served as a meeting place for members of our community to ask for a pause of logging and consultation. Fifteen hundred signatures, 900 comments, organized public meetings, documented forest issues, (and no, no one chained themselves to a tree), filled council meetings, made a little film that reached 14,000 people.

But it wasn’t enough. We didn’t reach enough younger people.

When we talk with this demographic, most admit they don’t know much about the forests; they say they don’t read local papers and don’t have time to get involved in politics and public consultation. They are grateful to those old people — this would be us over 55 — who are advocating for them.

As for the Lees interview, in the end, I said if council makes logging decisions in September — if we go too fast — mistakes and decisions will be made that we will regret. What’s needed is a real pause. (I didn’t say we need a miracle — I don’t think I did, even though I was thinking it, but I was not thinking of a pandemic — and believe me, I’m not saying COVID-19 is a good thing.)

The day after the interview, a Scandinavian leader, in response to COVID-19 emerging, said in these times of ecological crisis, we have been given a reason to pause to consider where we are heading, what we are leaving for future generations. Spontaneously, leaders around the world were saying the same.

If I were to write a manifesto on behalf of the forests who can’t write for themselves, this would be the moment and it would be for one group of people — young parents and young could-be-parents. It would say: “You will have to face your children, like my generation has had to face yours, and you’ll have to answer their questions about what you did to protect their future world — including their lifeline: the forests.

“In this time of pause, you — as the demographic least at risk from COVID-19 — have the opportunity to appreciate the forests and all they represent. Now, is your opportunity to educate yourselves. The best way to do it, as you walk through the forests, is to be inquisitive and observe. Arm yourselves with in-depth questions — the type children might ask: how do tall trees stand with such small roots? How do they withstand huge winds and lack of water? Who protects, feeds and teaches the children trees? Do they have mothers? Why did we cut down their mothers? Why are there trees? Where do they go when they die?

“As an adult, you might ask other questions, also: What are root connections and what about invasive species? What is the real fire hazard — mature trees or low brush like fields of Scotch broom? What are the different ways of valuing forests?”

There is wisdom and power in personal observation, curiosity, intuition, contemplation.

Experts can help guide one’s journey. Start with Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk, How Trees Talk To Each Other, viewed by more than four million people (https://bit.ly/3bdf0Ea). Then visit (wheredowestand.ca) to watch videos from the Secrets of the Six Mountains public meeting where forest experts from around the province presented to our Valley and 700 citizens who spontaneously showed up. Watch the video that started the movement. Send in your questions and observations. Forest experts, from biologists to foresters, are available for more information through WDWS.

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the spinning wheel of the human race. Nature has a platform to speak for itself and is doing so most eloquently: the canals of Venice are blue; fish previously invisible are manifestly there. The skies over India and other cities that were brown now sparkle azure.

When we are imprisoned within physical confinement, what we value, what actually matters may surpass everything we had previously thought most important. We have largely taken nature for granted.

Because of COVID many eyes are opening and we are realizing what we have been blind to, what we are on the verge of losing.

It’s not too late to change.

In the Cowichan Valley, we are surrounded by something infinitely more valuable than gold — forested mountains wrapping around bays and narrows. We are blessed to live in the embrace of what most people now yearn for: nature in abundance. Now we must act to protect it, for today and the future.

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