Separated by a 16-kilometre road and nestled along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake between the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, the villages of Harrop and Procter seem to epitomize idyllic rural life. To a visitor looking at the heritage buildings dotting Procter's six streets, nothing appears to have changed in half a century.

Yet from inside the old schoolhouse, which now houses a community cooperative, bakeshop, eco-friendly gift shop, massage studio and hair salon, Ramona Faust has a different view. “These are towns of transformation,” explains Faust, general manager of the Harrop-Procter Community Cooperative. “We keep reinventing ourselves.”

The gold rush, pioneer farmers, railway and hydroelectricity transformed the region over the past century, often in a cycle of booms and busts. But the biggest change came when these twin towns of some 600 residents took control of their surrounding forests.

“The Harrop-Procter Community Forest is our backyard,” says Faust. “It does not get more personal than that.”

Under the leadership of the Harrop-Procter Watershed Protection Society (HPWPS) and Silva Forest Foundation, the community developed a plan for an 11,000-hectare Community Forest Pilot Project that was approved by the B.C. Ministry of Forests in 1999. It was the first community forest with an ecosystem-based plan and a value-added strategy to boost local economic benefits.

HPWPS's business arm, the Harrop-Procter Community Cooperative, has spent more than a million dollars on contracts, creating local jobs for road builders, foresters, loggers, consultants and youth. In 2003, VanCity Capital and Ecotrust Capital jointly approved a loan for up to $200,000 to help the cooperative gear up its value-added operations.

It is trying to expand its line of wood products that includes siding, decking, panelling and flooring. The cooperative is also exploring opportunities for ecotourism and non-timber botanical forest products.

The Forest Stewardship Council has certified the community forest according to its stringent standards of social and environmental responsibility. Harrop-Procter has become a model sustainable forest, nationally and internationally, and is further evidence that the conservation economy is growing in Southeastern British Columbia. Local residents have made presentations on their community forest in India, France and Russia. In 2004, Harrop-Procter won a Canadian Environmental Award from the Canadian Geographic Society.

The accolades came after decades of protest and hard work.

For 25 years, citizens of Harrop and Procter fought a very “personal” battle, as Faust describes it, against the provincial government and logging companies who wanted to log their watershed, jeopardizing the communities' only source of freshwater. Ignored by bureaucrats, enraged but pro-active residents formed a watershed protection committee, which was eventually incorporated as HPWPS in 1996. Still, the communities felt stonewalled in forestry consultations and were sceptical about government promises of new community resource boards.

"We didn't have a choice,” Faust recalls. “The government wouldn't let us participate in forestry planning in a meaningful way. We felt we had to take responsibility for the forest ourselves.”

That opportunity came in 1997 with the announcement of the provincial government's Community Forest Pilot Projects. Although their proposal was ranked top of 27, conflict remained. The government wanted Harrop-Procter to cut three times as much timber as their ecosystem-based plan proposed. The communities refused and have stuck to their plan. The communities are determined to keep their forest tenure and to balance their commitments to environmental protection.

"Canadians tend to sit back," says HPWPS president David Miller. “You have to stand up, take initiative and take ownership of the things that matter to you.”