Last week, the Friends of Clayoquot Sound organized a successful event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Clayoquot protests where 800 people were charged with civil disobedience for trying to stop industrial-scale logging in one of the last, large intact rainforests in the world. The event profiled well-known environmental leaders who played a part in those protests, including Elizabeth May, Tzeporah Berman, Joe Martin, Karen Mahon, and Valerie Langer.

Clayoquot Sound is considered ground-zero for a generation of environmentalists, and for better or worse actions here created the blueprint for the Great Bear Rainforest, the Boreal Agreement, and many other environmental initiatives to follow. For this reason, understanding the economic legacy of the Clayoquot battles is paramount to informed debate about how best to manage Canada’s natural and rural resources.

In May, prior to the celebration, a small economically-oriented group, including the Mayor of Tofino, the Chair and President of the Tofino Chamber of Commerce, and the Chair and President of the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance, met to discuss the legacy of the Clayoquot story and its economic lessons for the rest of Vancouver Island. As an outcome of the meeting, the group agreed to further research, aimed at really understanding the economic legacy of Clayoquot.

Last week, Mayor of Ucluelet, Bill Irving, drew a rather stark picture as quoted in a Vancouver Sun story by Kim Nursall, claiming that “rather than being a world-class example of forestry, eco-system management and building up a significant knowledge base of the interaction of the economy and the environment, there has been almost nothing”, further lamenting the loss in economic activity. At the Commemoration event, ex-BC Environment Minister John Cashore confirmed his Cabinet’s fear about the economic ramifications of the Clayoquot decisions, where government predicted that the impact would involve a loss of 1000 jobs and over $45 million less for GDP annually.

However, closer examination of the economic impact of the Clayoquot protests paints a more interesting picture than reported. From 1991 to 2011, Statistics Canada data shows that despite the loss of harvest of 700,000 cubic metres per year, total regional employment figures and average incomes for both Tofino and Ucluelet remained surprisingly steady and comparable to other areas over a 20-year period. This data also shows that after an initial fall, employment in the forestry sector in Clayoquot followed trends across coastal forestry. Further, as a result the change ultimately enabled the Nuu Chah Nulth Nations to purchase the Clayoquot forest tenures and to establish a Nation owned/operated forest management company. While Iisaak Forest Resources has yet to fully capitalize on the opportunity represented by this tenure, it does provide the Nations access to harvest 100,000 cubic metres per year which are being managed according to the best ecosystem-based management rules in the world.

Examining the economic legacy of Clayoquot is critical for Canadians to have good conversations about the costs and values associated with landscape conservation. While some environmentalists want to see the rest of Clayoquot’s forests protected in perpetuity, other people who lost their jobs or were displaced can only see the negative. However, the legacy of Clayoquot resides on a deeper level. Clayoquot, at first pass, showcases the economic capacity of a region to rapidly move from a natural resources liquidation model to a more humble, imperfect, but successful and economically diverse approach.

Daniel Arbour is Chair of the Canadian Model Forest Network and a Project Manager with Ecotrust Canada. He helped deliver the Clayoquot Forest Communities Program over its seven-year tenure and is currently investigating the potential for a Vancouver Island Model Forest.

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Further media coverage on the Clayoquot protest 20th anniversary includes:

Vancouver Sun – Stephen Hume

Globe and Mail – David Tindall

Globe and Mail – Konrad Yakabuski

The Tyee – Dionne Bunsha