WHEN WE TALK ABOUT alternate economic uses of our old forests (as opposed to logging), the first thing that rolls off anybody’s tongue is tourism. This isn’t too surprising since accessible, complex low elevation temperate rainforests are extremely rare. With few exceptions, most of the low elevation rainforests we called “old growth” have long since been logged. Given the scarcity of old forests in BC, selling an old forest experience isn’t hard to do. Qualifying examples would be Cathedral Grove or Pacific Rim National Park. There are magnificent surf washed sandy beaches all over North America’s west coast but what sets the Pacific Rim apart from all the others is the magnificent old forest all along its shoreline.
Some years ago, I had lunch with some of BC’s best known wilderness tour operators. The topic of conversation was the value of an old forest to tourism. It didn’t take long for everyone to agree that if only one of the Discovery Islands—say Read Island—had been left unlogged, its value in terms of tourism would be difficult to calculate, but everyone concurred it would be in the tens of millions of dollars per year.
Imagine a 35-square-kilometre island with Cathedral-Grove-quality forests, but surrounded by BC’s highest mountains, indented with dozens of bays, dotted with B&B’s, resorts, restaurants, hiking and biking trails, and kayaking. In other words, a Tofino surrounded by calm seas, frequented by orcas, Humpback whales, all five species of salmon and a variety of cetaceans. A short boat ride to nearby Bute Inlet would allow visitors a chance to see grizzlies guided by Indigneous people. Why wouldn’t this be a world famous destination?
This same land mass managed for maximized tree growth with virtually no regard for any other values save fibre production could, at best, sustainably produce $3-5 million in revenue per year. Its enduring legacy would be sterile plantations, negligible biodiversity, compromised water quality, and a net global carbon emissions producer. It requires perpetual annual subsidies, both monetary and in terms of lost natural capital.
(Above) A wilderness tourism client paddles along the shore of Bute Inlet...
...after passing by logging on Stewart Island. Such circumstances limit the potential for development of other non-destructive uses of the forest in BC, such as adventure tourism.
Successive BC governments have consistently missed the opportunity to harness the incredible economic power old growth forests offer, choosing instead to manage for the short term economic benefits of clearcut logging.
Of course, an old forest has many values other than tourism. It would be right to say that the most important values of an old forest significantly outweigh those economic values our politicians love to endear themselves to. Consider the incredible carbon storage and sequestration of such a forest and the value of an undisturbed old forest as a study area for higher education and research. Then there is the wealth of biological diversity such forests harbour.
However, all of the aforesaid begs a better question: Just because it is there, does humanity have the right to use it up? Generally, we seem to think so. With trees and forests, it’s easy: we’ve been using them up for centuries. Sometimes they re-grow, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t we give up and raise sheep or goats. And increasingly, we’re using up our fresh water supplies. We do much the same with our oceans: we use them up and hope the next generation will find another way to make a living.
But let’s extrapolate the concept of using up nature’s abundance a step further. What if it became highly profitable to, for example, extract oxygen out of the air to make money? And what if it started to impact the percentage of oxygen available for mammals (read humankind)?
We use up fresh water, we use up our oceans, we use up our forests, why not oxygen out of the air? Any scientist could argue successfully that human life is as dependent on all of the aforesaid natural resources as it is to oxygen.
Perhaps it’s time that we started looking at forests in the same way we look at the air we breathe, or the water we drink. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean we have the right to use it up.
Why is it OK to obliterate the natural beauty of a forest and all the attending natural functions it performs for a few industrial jobs? Who says it’s OK?
Ralph Keller has operated Coast Mountain Expeditions in the Discovery Islands since 1988.
See the project’s survey of forest-based recreation resources on the Discovery Islands
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