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General News · 1st September 2012
Alexis Stoymenoff
There’s a reason why outsiders who visit Cortes Island often find it a difficult place to leave. It’s not just the lush wooded landscapes, pristine coastlines, rare species and towering, ancient trees. Those things are a huge part of what makes Cortes so special, but what really draws people to this place is its deep sense of community, and the collective acknowledgement that there’s a spiritual connection between the people, the land, the water and the forest.

Last weekend’s Forest Fest was a perfect demonstration of that connection. Lovingly described by organizers as a “protestival”, the event was a cross-generational journey into the world of forest activism—complete with music, educational workshops, forest walks and community organizing. The activities were varied but focused on a common goal, and almost everyone who came left with a greater understanding of what’s happening on Cortes…and what will likely come next.

The first time I visited Cortes Island, it was to research and produce a series of articles for the Vancouver Observer about efforts to save the forests from Island Timberlands’ industrial logging plans. Having worked in forestry as a treeplanter and mountain pine beetle surveyor, I had some insight into the industry, its complexity and its important place in BC’s economy. But on Cortes, I saw both the motivation and the potential to develop a new model of sustainable forestry very different than what I had experienced before. It’s a model that the rest of the province could learn a lot from.

Bruce Ellingsen explained this model in detail during his informative session at Forest Fest. Speaking to the crowd in the morning sun, standing on a beautiful stage constructed by the festival’s incredibly hardworking team of volunteers, Bruce described his vision for the Cortes Community Forest Co-operative. He showed that it was possible for a localized and ecosystem-based forestry approach to benefit the ecosystem, workers and the community.

Later, the Wilderness Committee’s Torrance Coste led an engaging discussion about the different possibilities for conservation—from protecting areas in parks to private fundraising and establishing land trusts. A heart-warming sing-along with Shivon Robinsong demonstrated the importance of music and singing in activism and revolutionary movements. A blessing earlier in the morning from Klahoose First Nation elder Norman Harry demonstrated the cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities with common goals. And inspiring speeches and discussions led by well-known activists like Tzeporah Berman, Zoe Blunt and Rex Weyler helped fuel the fire that brought us all together to fight for the island’s precious trees.

In the evening, music floated over the tree-covered hills. A lineup of talented musicians and DJs made for a great celebration, with lots of barefoot dancing under the stars. While the music and celebration was important, everyone acknowledged that we were there for the forest, not for a party.

A tremendous amount of care had been put into the preparation and creation of the camp on Kelly Mountain, on private land generously donated to the cause by Bhaskar Krag. While the site was a perfect spot for a music festival, it was set up with another function in mind. Moving forward, the area will be used as a long-term protest camp for off-island supporters to stay if/when they’re needed for non-violent direct action. The beautifully adorned kitchen tent run by Yoshi and Lovena kept everyone happy and well-fed all weekend long. Even the outhouses were unique, and handcrafted from locally-sourced wood.

One of the things that really struck me at Forest Fest was the sharing of values and knowledge between different generations. There were veterans of the island’s conservation movement who had been through this fight before, and there was also a network of young energetic activists from both on and off-island who had their own experiences and insights to share. Perhaps most inspiring were the Cortes youth, who have grown up with these amazing ancient trees in their backyards, and who were some of the most well-spoken of all the attendees when it came to describing their intentions and what the forests mean to the island’s ecosystems and community. These children have learned about what’s at risk, they’ve created artwork to raise funds, they’ve spoken out and want to be on the front lines when it comes to standing up to Island Timberlands.

By the end of the weekend, it became very clear that many people on Cortes are prepared to take the next step in order to stop the company’s logging operations. Some community members will be stepping up and risking arrest when it comes time to form a blockade. Others will be the ones bringing hot coffee and cookies to show their support on a cold morning. There’s room for many different perspectives and levels of involvement, and there’s also a willingness to connect with others in the community who may not agree with the strategies of civil disobedience.

If Island Timberlands intends to keep their promise and begin logging Cortes this fall, they had better be prepared for the wall of opposition they will face from residents and off-island allies. Of course, this is nothing new. When MacMillan Bloedel came to Cortes in the nineties, community opposition caused the island to be categorized as “socially inoperable”. Last weekend, the message being sent from Forest Fest to Island Timberlands was loud and clear: Cortes Island is still—and will always be—socially inoperable.

Alexis Stoymenoff is a communications assistant at the Wilderness Committee in Vancouver, and was formerly a reporter with the Vancouver Observer.