A bridge to nowhere: British Columbia’s capitalist nature and the Carmanah Walbran War in the Woods (1988-1994)




Davey, James

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From 1988 to 1994, the Carmanah and Walbran valleys on southern Vancouver Island emerged from obscurity to inspire international newspaper headlines, ecotage, and election platforms, and figure in British Columbia’s Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE), the genesis of the current provincial land-use status quo. With Canada’s tallest tree, first marbled murrelet nest, and proximity to Victoria, the area’s old-growth forests became the site of a touchstone conflict in BC’s War in the Woods (ca. 1980-1995), one which resulted in Carmanah and the Upper Walbran and Lower Walbran becoming designated as Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park in 1995. The Central Walbran remains open to logging, which as recently as 2016 has incited backwoods blockades not dissimilar to those from July and August 1991, the climax of my narrative. This thesis explores how and why the Walbran land-use resolution disappointed Victoria-based environmentalists, Cowichan Lake forest workers, the Nuu-chah-nulth, and the nation-state of Qwa-Ba-Diwa, and why the fate of the watershed remains subject to debate. Analyzing the roots of BC’s wood “exploitation axis” helps contextualize why Carmanah Walbran campaigns in Cowichan Lake and Victoria failed to produce satisfactory outcomes despite significant compromises from provincial governments after much deliberation. In short, dissidence failed to engender land-use consensus because forest capitalism and its co-constitutive partner, colonialism, have since the nineteenth century crafted policy based on a conception of the world rooted in forestry-based development, a durable ontological construct against which other imaginaries of nature have had to compete. The Tree Farm Licence system brought the International Woodworkers of America into a Gomperist bargain with companies and the state after World War II, and contributed to decades of overharvesting, overoptimistic regrowth projections, and corporatization which culminated in falldown and forest community crisis before environmentalists began to shape the public discourse regarding nature in the late 1980s. A fundamental inability to produce a satisfactory vision of sustainable forestry and a narrow state narrow response—wilderness parks—to broad, diverse environmentalist demands allowed nature to remain envisioned as a store of raw material for industrial forestry. This thesis additionally seeks to problematize environmentalists’ “wilderness” narratives to elaborate how green knowledge production can act as discursive violence. Our “natures” are more than workplaces, sites for recreation, or pristine ecosystems. They are environments within which to find and make meaning. Or perhaps more accurately, nature is a symbol with which to construct narratives; narratives which, in Carmanah Walbran, often left little room for work in the woods. Environmentalists’ depictions of unpeopled nature advanced their wilderness-preservation cause at the expense of marginalizing Nuu-chah-nulth land claims, loggers’ paycheques, and ecocentric worldviews based on holistic conceptions of interconnectedness and/or radical dissent against the forest industrial complex. In short, the Carmanah Walbran War in the Woods added 16,365 hectares of new parkland, contributed (along with log exports) to the 2001 closure of the Youbou mill, the last at Cowichan Lake, and ensured that an isolated gravel road still ends at a bridge to nowhere.



War in the Woods, Carmanah, Walbran, environmentalism, IWA, capitalism, nature, British Columbia, forestry, direct action, civil disobedience, colonialism, Nuu-chah-nulth, Qwa-Ba-Diwa, Kaxi:ks