Student defenders of Fairy Creek

They arrived at night.

In early September 2021, three UBC students left their car at the side of the road and started up the path deep into the forest. Overhead, the stars shimmered in the West Coast sky.

They presented their bags to the RCMP officers blocking their way. The police searched them to make sure they were not transporting any contraband such as crowbars, construction equipment or anything the officers deemed as threatening. Their bright flashlights cut through the dark night, but they only found food and personal supplies on the travellers.

After the students passed the police checkpoint, they began to see what they had travelled to protect.

They were at Fairy Creek. They were there for the trees.

‘All my life I’ve been searching for trees such as these’

The presence of the forest at Fairy Creek is hard to put into words. Some of these trees have been alive longer than the English language. Underneath the soil, the trees are communicating through a complex system involving their roots and fungi. They are sharing resources — nurturing each other. They are communicating about potential threats in the forest. They might even be talking about us.

This is the world the protesters at Fairy Creek are trying to protect: a world of ecological value. These towering forests have been stewarded by the Pacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations for as long as history can recall.

It is also a world of great economic value to Teal Jones, the forestry company that owns the rights to log Fairy Creek and other neighbouring old-growth forests. The license to log these trees, Tree Farm License 46, was purchased by Teal Jones in 2004 and covers 70,000 hectares of land including first- and second-growth forests. Twenty-seven per cent of the 200,000 hectares of forest logged in BC each year is from old-growth forests.

But defining what old growth is has proven to be a difficult task. The BC government, forestry industry and conservationists all have different conflicting perspectives on what ‘old growth’ really means.

The provincial government defines coastal old growth as any tree over 250 years old. The trees referred to as old growth at Fairy Creek are often first-growth trees, meaning that they belong to a forest that has never been logged. Not all the trees in Fairy Creek are over 250 years old.

The provincial government has provided a two-year halt to logging in Fairy Creek in June 2021 at the request of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht First Nations. However, protesters have remained in the watershed due to disagreement around what exact areas of Fairy Creek this halt includes and concern about Teal Jones’ logging in nearby areas.

Indigenous governance and messaging have been divided when it comes to old-growth logging in Fairy Creek. Not all Indigenous leaders agree on allowing protestors onto their land. The elected leadership of the Pacheedaht First Nation has repeatedly asked protesters to leave the Fairy Creek watershed.

Despite the pushback from elected Indigenous governments, the Fairy Creek blockade has a profound Indigenous presence and leadership. Some leaders in the local Indigenous communities — like 82-year-old Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones — have been vocal in their support for the protests and extending invitations for protesters to stay on Pacheedaht territory.

Beyond the trees’ economic or ecological value, they are rare. An independent report found that only three to eight per cent of BC’s original old-growth forest remains. Once these forests are gone, they will not be back for hundreds, if not thousands, of years — or they may never return.

The scarcity of these forests and the immediate threat of logging has drawn protesters from all over to take a stand at Fairy Creek. These include people from all different ages, backgrounds and identities, but all have the same motive: defend one of the last unprotected old-growth forests on Vancouver Island.

Forrest Berman-Hatch

“The forest breathes.”

Forrest Berman-Hatch described sitting in an old-growth forest in the rain. The canopy of leaves and branches high above effectively dissipated the downpour. Only a faint mist whispered down. Everything you can see and walk on is alive. It is all held together by “a profound stillness in the air.”

Berman-Hatch, a fourth-year anthropology and political science student, was one of the students who arrived at Fairy Creek that late night in September. But Fairy Creek wasn’t his first exposure to old-growth logging protests — he has been involved in environmental activism for most of his life.

“I’ve been interested in trees a lot longer than I’ve been a UBC student,” Berman-Hatch said. “I think it all comes back to growing up on a rural island community.”

Berman-Hatch grew up on Cortes Island – a small island in the northern part of the Salish Sea. His parents met at the “War in the Woods” (also known as the Clayoquot protests) which were largely successful in preventing old-growth logging in the Clayoquot biosphere near Tofino. He was named after the old-growth forests his parents worked to protect.

“I came to the understanding at a pretty young age that all this was under threat, and I felt it should be defended,” he said when talking about old-growth forests.

In November 2020, a poster caught the attention of Berman-Hatch. The poster was raising awareness about a patch of old-growth forest on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, near Port Renfrew that was slated to be logged by the forestry company Teal Jones. That same month, Berman-Hatch travelled from Cortes Island to Fairy Creek to investigate. Most of BC had yet to hear about the conflict at Fairy Creek.

When he reached the blockade, Berman-Hatch remembers thinking cynically. “I hope that’s gonna make a difference, somehow.”

There was only a meagre party of 10 people. The lack in numbers was only further emphasized by the vast expanse of trees.

But that small party was merely the beginning. By the following summer, when Berman-Hatch would return, Fairy Creek would be a major news story not only in BC but internationally. The number of protesters grew with the media coverage, and more and more UBC students would make their way to Fairy Creek.

Sarah Nolin

“The scale of how people were spread out was unfathomable,” Sarah Nolin said, thinking about the scene she encountered at Fairy Creek when she arrived in July 2021.

Nolin, a fourth-year history major, described a very different scene from the one Berman-Hatch encountered the fall before. There were almost a hundred protesters spread out in different areas of the forest. Their goal was the same: stop the active logging at Fairy Creek without the use of violence.

Instead of having a defined leadership structure, the Fairy Creek blockade is brought together by a strong sense of community and collaboration — which gave Nolin the opportunity to assist the protest in different roles.

For three days in early July, Nolin mostly acted as an unofficial liaison between police and protestors at Fairy Creek. She also volunteered to be an ‘arrestable,’ meaning she would put herself in anti-logging devices or other situations that might lead to her arrest.

“It’s such a problematic industry … I saw so much fault in it while I was doing the job,” she said. “It’s not disputable that we need lumber as a resource right now. So, tree planting to me is the necessary evil to have that resource.”

— Sarah Nolin

But Nolin hasn’t always been directly protesting the logging industry. She spent the summers of 2018 to 2020 replanting trees from logging operations. It was hard, physical work day after day in clear-cuts and other areas where there had once been forests thriving with interconnected life. Overall, she planted roughly a quarter of a million trees.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of trees she planted, Nolin feels conflicted about her work.

“It’s such a problematic industry … I saw so much fault in it while I was doing the job,” she said. “It’s not disputable that we need lumber as a resource right now. So, tree planting to me is the necessary evil to have that resource.”

Nolin pointed to the excessive waste of tree planting operations, the use of pesticides and other chemicals, as well as the resulting monoculture as having devastating consequences for the environment. Monoculture is the cultivation of a singular crop in an area.

“Tree planting can never get back the [old-growth] ecosystems,” said Nolin. “Protecting old growth is so much more important than planting new trees.”

Dr. Suzanne Simard

At the forefront of forestry research is UBC professor Dr. Suzanne Simard. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of Finding the Mother Tree and a micro-celebrity after being portrayed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and upcoming movie, and was even mentioned in the hit show Ted Lasso.

Despite the public attention, her office in the UBC Forest Science Centre is like that of any other professor — overflowing with binders, books and papers. A picture in her office window shows Simard in a forest, laden with shovels and other forestry equipment. Judging by her radiant smile, this is Simard in her element.

Simard has been to Fairy Creek, as well as countless other forests in BC, and is familiar with its particular importance as an ecosystem.

“It’s one of the last untouched, intact watersheds in southern Vancouver Island,” Simard said. She elaborated that there are other old-growth watersheds in BC, but Fairy Creek is particularly important because it is not protected.

Simard doesn’t talk in terms of trees or plants — she talks about societies. The research Simard and other leading forestry experts have conducted over the last few decades has shown that trees communicate with each other and share resources through a complex system of roots and symbiotic fungi.

Simard’s research has fundamentally changed how the world views forestry. Trees are no longer just sticks in the ground. “They live in communities. They have relationships with one another,” she said. “It’s like your human relationships. If you’re not around other people, you don’t know them, so then you don’t even think about them.”

The way to get connected to the environment around you is a simple process, according to Simard — just spend more time in the forest.

It is easy to forget that Pacific Spirit Park, only minutes away from campus, is a thriving ecosystem with salmon-bearing streams, beaver dams, flying squirrels, frogs and other forest life. There is even a small selection of old-growth trees along Wreck Beach.

Some students may have gone most of their lives without being around forests. Others feel so compelled by this connection to nature that they travel to Fairy Creek and other forests to defend these few remaining old-growth trees. Simard is proud of the students that feel compelled to stand up for the trees.

“​​They’re extremely courageous,” Simard said. “They’ve done us all a huge favour by bringing the public spotlight on the importance of these forests.”

Mia Gregg

Twenty feet up in the air, Mia Gregg settled into the wooden perch. The platform was narrow — just barely enough room for her body. Rain sprinkled down on her sporadically throughout the day. All she had to do now was wait. She knew the police would come eventually.

['auto'] Courtesy Forrest Berman-Hatch

On the hillside behind her, the forest was stripped by clearcutting, a reminder of why she was putting herself in the way of RCMP and loggers.

Gregg, a second-year forestry student, went to Fairy Creek with Berman-Hatch and another UBC student in early September 2021. Gregg ended up spending most of her time at Fairy Creek suspended in the air on a device called a tripod — a makeshift tree fort constructed with logs to delay loggers and police.

“The idea was to make structures that are unsafe and that the police would think are too unsafe to try and take them apart. And that’s kind of crazy, but people are desperate, and this is just what they’re having to do to stop the loggers,” Gregg said.

Gregg wasn’t alone in her tripod; her friend was attached below her in another device called a sleeping dragon, a contraption that traps protesters’ arms in a metal or cement structure.

Gregg watched the RCMP make their way slowly down the logging road towards her. Their progress was delayed by other devices blocking their way — some manned — while others were as simple as rocks or logs pushed onto the road.

When the RCMP finally reached Gregg, she watched in distress as they used electrical saws to remove her friend from the sleeping dragon below her.

After that, she was alone and surrounded by police. About a dozen RCMP officers gathered around her tripod. They watched her teeter precariously on her device while they drank Tim Hortons. One of the RCMP officers on the ground looked up at her and made a motion of the tripod tipping over with his arm.

['auto'] Courtesy Forrest Berman-Hatch

The absurdity of the situation was not lost on her. “It’s ridiculous, you feel ridiculous, the whole time you’re there. It’s like, why do we have to be here? Why do they have to be here?” Gregg said.

Gregg was shaken. Seeing the police forcefully remove her friend from the base of her tripod made her concerned for the safety of her already unstable structure. She had already spent the better part of the day on the tripod with barely any sleep or food. A police drone buzzing constantly overhead only increased her discomfort.

Ultimately, an RCMP officer scaled up the tripod using ropes and harnesses. When he got to the top, he chided her for being in this situation.

“‘This is unsafe,’” Gregg remembers the RCMP officer saying. “‘I have kids. Don’t you have parents who care about you? You can come down and it will all be okay.’”

“They really play with your mind — and not in a good way,” she added.

In RCMP update 78 from August 19, they stressed their concern for protester safety in these devices and warned that media portrayal of their actions is not always the full picture. “Despite claims of inhumane treatment, our officers have taken many precautions to ensure that all protesters are removed from these devices as slowly and safely as possible,” the RCMP wrote.

After spending 12 hours on the structure, Gregg was worried about how unsafe the tripod had become and surrendered herself to the RCMP. She was arrested as soon as she reached the ground.

“I felt so much regret. When I climbed down, I felt so terrible about myself because I really wanted to stay up there.” Gregg had a hard time finishing the conversation. The emotional toll of the event was visible.

Gregg’s parents were upset that she had been arrested but understood she put herself in that position for a cause she believed in. Both Gregg’s mother and grandmother were arrested earlier this summer protesting with the group Extinction Rebellion.

The charge for an arrest at Fairy Creek is criminal contempt of court since it disobeys the BC court-ordered injunction. The sentencing for contempt of court in the case of Fairy Creek is most likely a couple of days in jail, community service or a fine.

“It’s definitely something that’s on my mind, but we really don’t know what kind of sentencing it will be for me,” Gregg said.

Returning to school after getting arrested at Fairy Creek comes with its own set of challenges. Gregg even had to write a midterm during one of her preliminary hearings.

Gregg stays up to date with the news of Fairy Creek on social media. Now that she’s settled back at UBC and awaiting sentencing for her arrest, the coverage of Fairy Creek feels different than before.

“It’s pretty disheartening to see that even with all the people who’ve been arrested, all the people who stood against [old-growth logging], it’s still happening there now,” she said.

Ian Daniels

The finance student with Texas license plates was — maybe predictably — met with skepticism when he arrived at Fairy Creek alone. But Ian Daniels felt compelled to go to Fairy Creek after seeing social media posts of police clashing with protesters. The Fairy Creek community’s skepticism quickly subsided and Daniels found a place for himself working as a cook in one of the camps.

Daniels was not just protesting for the trees. The Fairy Creek blockade gave him an opportunity to protest against colonialism, systemic racism, capitalism and police brutality.

As a finance student, Daniels couldn’t help but consider the economic motivations at play in the lumber industry.

“It must be worth a ton of money for [Teal Jones] to want to put up this much of a fight,” Daniels said — but the social issues are more pressing to him. “How much can these trees really be worth? Are they really worth a thousand arrests and so many injuries?”

The RCMP has now spent $8.9 million enforcing the Fairy Creek injunction. The cost of Fairy Creek is much higher than just the RCMP price tag — it also includes the political cost of images of protesters being pepper-sprayed and dragged away by police. BC Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thomson refused to extend a court injunction against protesters, citing that the “depreciation” of the court’s reputation was more significant than the economic threat to Teal Jones. In response, the RCMP said they were proud of their actions at Fairy Creek as they were upholding the court order.

Daniels did not volunteer to be arrested; he is not a Canadian citizen and is worried an arrest may affect his future in Canada. Instead, he made his home in the kitchen where he cooked whatever groceries volunteers donated.

He was more interested in supporting the people he met at Fairy Creek and highlighting their work.

“What I gave is a small part compared to what other people are doing,” he said.

Lia Schulz

“I think back about it so fondly,” said Lia Schulz, reminiscing about her time at the old-growth forest blockades this past summer. Her beaming smile faltered as she continued speaking. “And yet, I wish there wouldn’t have been a need for us to be there and camp out and blockade, because Fairy Creek should have been protected and Caycuse should have been protected.”

['auto'] Courtesy Lia Schulz

Schulz is fourth-year human geography and master of management student. She was still taking classes this past summer, but remote learning allowed her to spend almost every weekend at the Fairy Creek blockade where she worked as a liaison between protesters and police.

Schulz met Simard when she was up at Fairy Creek this summer. For many people up there who knew of Simard, her presence was validating of their efforts. “It was just really inspiring. She was lovely. She had so much to share,” Schulz said.

Seeing Simard meeting with Fairy Creek defender and Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones was a hopeful moment for Schulz.

“This is what the future must look like — scientists working with Indigenous and traditional knowledge keepers together to find the best way to manage these rare ecosystems,” Schulz said.

As committed as she was to the Fairy Creek blockade, Schulz was still a UBC student and summer could not last forever. Schulz drove straight from Fairy Creek to move into her UBC dorm where she is now a residence advisor. The transition from dealing with police conflict and camping in the woods back to the routine of classes has been hard — but the change of pace has been calming after an intense summer.

Back at UBC, Schulz has continued to combine her education and activism. She has given presentations on old-growth logging to the UBC Climate Hub and individual classes, showcasing what she describes as her “activist research.”

“I get that you might be scared. I get that maybe it’s not the most important thing to you right now. But you can always come to me and so many other people to get answers, or to find resources,” Schulz said. “Ignoring it is the worst thing.”

The Fairy Creek Schulz sees in the media is different from the experiences she had this summer. “It’s so complex, but often gets represented as a binary conflict in mainstream media with narratives like ‘the loggers vs the protesters,’” she said.

The real blame — Schulz believes — lies with the BC NDP government for failing to uphold its campaign promise of protecting old-growth forests.

Spreading the roots

Throughout provincial old-growth deferrals and injunctions expiring and being re-applied, one thing has remained constant in Fairy Creek — the trees keep falling. Logging has continued throughout the protests and police action. The protestors at Fairy Creek measure victory in days you can keep trees from being felled.

Although many of these protesters are willing to put their bodies in harm’s way to stop old-growth logging, no one interviewed by The Ubyssey is anti-logging as a whole.

“Pretty much everyone up there [at Fairy Creek] and I certainly understand that we live in a civilization where there’s a certain amount of logging that’s necessary,” Berman-Hatch said. Back on his home of Cortes Island, Berman-Hatch has friends who make a living as loggers. He believes the logging industry needs to be reformed to exclude old-growth lumber and practice more sustainable methods.

Simard continues to research best practices for sustainable logging with other UBC faculty. She is starting to see an uptake of her more environmentally conscious understanding of logging, but there is still a long way to go.

“After completely going to de facto clear-cutting across the entire province, we lost our creativity. We lost the ability to see that there are other ways,” Simard said. “It’s just heartbreaking that people can’t see through the bottom line — through the short-term economic gain for these huge losses ecologically, huge losses to us as people down the road.”

The UBC students who participated in the Fairy Creek blockade are now back in class, running for buses, cramming for exams and logging onto Zoom calls. Even though Vancouver may seem a long way from Fairy Creek, the students who spent time up at the blockade are still impacted by what they experienced this summer, for better or worse.

The Fairy Creek blockade is now the largest act of civil disobedience in BC history. Over 1,100 people have been arrested, with many BIPOC participants saying they were disproportionately targeted. Despite the continued police action, winter setting in and the provincial announcement of plans to partially defer old-growth logging — the Fairy Creek blockade still shows no sign of easing. If anything, for these UBC activists at least, absence only makes the heart grow fonder. Many have expressed their plans or interest in going back to the blockade.

“Fairy Creek to me is the fight of our generation,” Schulz said. “Fifty years from now I want to be able to say I did everything I could.”

Forrest Berman-Hatch has contributed to The Ubyssey’s features section.