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British Columbia locals save ancient forest remnant from destruction, Canada, 2004-2006
Cathedral Grove is one of the last remaining remnants of an ancient Douglas fir ecosystem in MacMillan Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Many of the trees are over 800 years old, reaching up to 250 feet in height.
In addition to being a major tourist attraction, Cathedral Grove has been used for over 1000 years for Aboriginal cultural practices and traditions. Unfortunately, over the last century, despite community opposition, most of the forest was destroyed for economic development. Although the Douglas firs and Red Cedars are an important aspect of Aboriginal culture, they are not protected under any Canadian legal institution. Of the ancient forest that once stood, only 3% remains.
On February 9, 2004, loggers and British Columbia Parks Management (under the government of Premier Gordon Campbell) discussed logging to make way for a 150-car parking lot in Cathedral Grove. Building the parking lot would threaten a large portion of what remained of the forest, destroying trees and animal habitats.
Many British Columbia locals have dedicated their lives to opposing the British Columbia government’s destruction of Cathedral Grove. One such group is the Friends of Cathedral Grove (FROG), which began at that time to prepare for a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign.
FROG with supporters immediately set up a 24-hour camp in order to watch over the area until they could fully organize an action to stop the parking lot construction. They chose as their central tactic the tree-sit: volunteers would live on platforms high in the trees in such a way that, if the trees were cut down, the volunteers would fall and be injured or killed. This method had previously been used in British Columbian defense of trees and deterred the cutting for at least some time.
For over a month FROG and their supporters gathered building materials, and constructed platforms that could be hoisted into the trees and lived on for weeks at a time. Workshops were held on how to build platforms and climb trees. Banner making workshops were also held. Due to their previous know-how, FROG members were well versed in tree-sitting protests, and were able to ensure the safety of each person willing to dedicate their time to the protection of Cathedral Grove. On March 24, 2004, protesters began fastening platforms to the trees (up to 150 feet high), and settling in the Grove to oppose the parking lot.
It was almost impossible for police to make arrests, as the campaign boasted the tallest platforms in the world at the time. The government, however, still would not cede to their demands.
If they were going to change Premier Campbell’s mind, they had to get others on their side, an effort that proved difficult. During the first few months some people would come into their camp at night with paintball guns, yelling at them to get down. The tree-sitters did not gain the support of international environmental organizations, which was disappointing. They did manage to win over many locals with their banners which were hung among the trees at heights where cars driving down the highway could see.
Getting more support was critical for those who were living among the branches of the trees. Not only did they rely on outside support to raise awareness for their cause, but also to donate food and supplies.
FROG added the tactic of creating a new trail through Cathedral Grove in order to have it declared a wilderness institution, which would be possible if 100 people passed through the trail. Activist-led tours also took place in the Grove beginning at the base camp – Procyon Lotor – and winding through the forest. Those that would take part in the tours were encouraged to write letters to the Campbell government in order to voice their opposition of the parking lot.
In June 2004, the group expanded their tree-sit and occupied the giant Douglas fir at the Weyerhauser gate where Campbell had planned to provide access to the parking lot. Because of their new, and more public location, the group started gaining more support from locals who could see them more visibly.
In November 2004 FROG submitted a formal proposal to Environment minister Bill Barisoff to halt construction due to the cultural importance of the Grove. Although it was endorsed by Hupacasath Chief Judith Sayers, and Qualicum Chief Kim Recalma, Barisoff ignored the proposal, and the Campbell government continued with its plans.
However, the project could still not move forward with people in the trees. As support began to grow more letters of opposition were sent to the government and Environment Ministers. Premier Campbell tried to spin new proposals seemingly providing support for the Grove in order to trick the protesters out of the tree-sit, but this did not work.
By November 2005 the protest to stop the parking lot grew to include hundreds of local and international supporters, and the tree-sit had eight permanent platforms. Activists had been tree-sitting for over a year.
The government then issued a press release stating that those in opposition of the lot could come to voice their concerns at a city hall meeting, an invitation that protesters had been seeking for over a year). British Columbia parks representative, Chris Kissinger, chaired the meeting and almost refused to hear comments from the opposition. The inconsiderate nature of the meeting only fueled the fire, and protesters remained firm in their position to tree-sit as long as possible.
In late 2005 the Campbell government filed a court injunction to remove protesters from the site where they had intended to build the lot, but Justice Quijano refused, stating that the government had other means available to remove the protesters.
In order to put a backup system in place, activists had been securing traverse networks throughout the forest, usually unseen from the ground, so if the logging companies decided to start cutting they would need to climb each tree first to make sure there was no rope securing it. The process would take significantly longer than cutting a tree, and would hold even if the tree-sitters were forcibly brought down.
Those who had been tree-sitting for nearly two years were getting tired. It looked as if the government was not going to back down, and activists were getting desperate for support. FROG announced to the government, logging companies, and the public that the traverse system was in place, adding a second line of defense.
The stalemate continued until April 5, 2006, when the B.C. Environment Minister announced that the government was halting plans for the parking lot. The two-year tree-sit -- the second longest in British Columbia history -- was over. The activists, First Nations and others working together, succeeded in saving the remainder of their ancient forest, Cathedral Grove.