Before one can even begin to discuss sustainable forestry on Haida Gwaii, the islands off the coast of British Columbia that used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, one has to discuss the extraordinary history of the Haida themselves, their relationship with the islands and with the trees. I visited the islands recently as a guest of The Rainforest Alliance, to see their sustainable forestry operations, learned that the story of the Haida and their forestry is far more interesting and complicated than I realized.

Around 1850 there were thirty thousand Haida living on the islands, and they were among the richest and most successful peoples on the West Coast. They lived on fish and the products of the forest, worked iron recovered from shipwrecks and travelled up and down the coast in their giant canoes. They developed a rich cultural life and great art, the most famous being their carved poles. The poles were carved from the giant cedar trees, which also provided bark that was woven into fabrics.

The Haida don’t look at trees, plants or animals as simply things to harvest, or think of themselves as something different- they are all part of the land. One of their leaders, now known as Guujaaw, wrote:

In the olden days, the cedar tree was carefully chosen for use. The man embraced the tree, honouring the life that was to be taken; for he knew each tree, each plant, each animal, is a living spirit, like ourselves.

Giant cedars were taken apart and reassembled to house and home the people of the islands. From beautifully carved cedar utensils, they ate their food. In the cedar, they portrayed their identity; while visions and stories sprang to life. On the cedar, they travelled and hunted and battled. With the chips, they warmed their back. Yes, all the wood was accounted for. Cedar was very much a part of life.

In 1863 an English ship dumped a sailor sick with smallpox on the island. It and other diseases like tuberculosis spread through the Haida and killed almost all of them; a 1913 census found exactly 597 of them left.

The remoteness of the Queen Charlottes protected them from widespread logging until the mechanization of the industry post- world war II, when the big companies moved in. It didn’t take them long to take the best and the tallest; 70 percent of the best forest is now gone. According to Ian Gill in his book All that we say is ours, in the mid-seventies loggers were doing clear cuts between 3,000 and 4,000 hectares (7,500- 10,000 acres) per year, twelve times the size of New York’s Central Park. They would start at the water and just move in, chopping down everything, giant old growth trees of every species, leaving nothing but stumps.

In the early eighties, the environmental movement found the Queen Charlotte Islands and the fight over logging Lyell Island and South Moresby. A young David Suzuki asked a young Guujaaw what was so wrong with logging, which provided jobs and money; he responded “If they cut the trees down, we will still be here. But then we won’t be Haida anymore. We’ll just be like anyone else.”

Over the next thirty years, the environmental battles just got bigger and louder, and the Haida spent a great deal of time in court. The Council of the Haida Nation was formed to promote their interests. To make a long story short, victories in the courts of public opinion and the supreme courts of Canada and British Columbia started coming fast and furious, and in December, 2009 the Haida people and the Province of British Columbia signed the Kunst’aa guu-Kunst’aayah Reconciliation Protocol, in which theyagreed to disagree about who owned the islands, but would “seek a more productive relationship and hereby choose a more respectful approach to coexistence by way of land and natural resource management on Haida Gwaii through shared decision-making and ultimately, a Reconciliation Agreement.”

The Haida set up their own forestry company, TAAN Forest, and ended up controlling more than half of the lumber rights on the newly renamed Haida Gwaii, or land of the people. Their mandate was to “Meet or Exceed all BC forestry/environmental laws through the Haida Gwaii Land Use Order” and “Exceed “normal” Ecosystem Based Management principles,” focusing on sustainability, community, safety and employment. They also “Maintain Forest Stewardship Council standards.”

But the FSC standard has nothing on that Land Use Order. It also includes:

  • Cultural Objectives for cedar stewardship areas, cultural feature identification, Haida traditional heritage and forest features, culturally modified trees, monumental cedar and yew;
  • Aquatic habitats including type 1 and 2 fish habitat, active fluvial units, upland streams and sensitive watershed;
  • Forested swamps, cultural plants and old forest eco-systems, ecological communities representation, red and blue listed ecological communities
  • Black Bear dens, as well as habitat for Marbled Murrelet, Northern Goshawk, Great Blue Heron and Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

After subtracting the forest reserves only 20% of the land base is open to logging. Whenever TAAN wants to log, it has to do a terrain assessment that notes every culturally modified tree. It has to set aside the big monumental ones for ceremonial purposes. It has to locate every yew tree, every devils club or fairy slipper plant. Every stream, bear den, riparian zone. If they find a goshawk nest, they have to set aside a 200 hectare zone around it. They spend $ 4 million a year on expenses, and lose months of time for field assessment.

Only then they can start building their roads and taking out timber. It’s a tough way to make a living in the woods. But every tree is a splinter of Haida culture embodying not only their ancient history and lifestyle, but the more recent struggles to stop massive clearcutting, create forest reserves and parks, regain control of the islands, achieve recognition as a people and a surprising degree of political control and independence.

It is clear that trees on Haida Gwaii are much more than just lumber to chop down and sell; they are part of the people’s lives. As Guujaaw noted, without them, they are not Haida.