'It looks like Armageddon': The destruction of B.C. pine forests
VANCOUVER - Debbie Atha had a dream that went like this: Gregarious woman approaching 30 quits her well-paying pharmaceutical sales job in England to move to the B.C. Interior to invest her time and money building a dude ranch.
"I had an early midlife crisis," she allows. "I wanted to do something special."
And why not? The province had billed itself as Super Natural, the Best Place on Earth, a land where the government is officially committed to doubling tourism revenues by 2015.
All goes well until loggers show up in force to salvage log the beetle-killed lodgepole pine forests around her ranch.
With the timber goes much of Atha's hard-earned trail system, and perhaps the very survival of her business, Free Rein Guest Ranch.
"Come to our province and ride through unspoiled boundless Crown land," she says of the message that sold her. "That's just not cutting it right now. It looks like Armageddon out there. These clearcuts are huge, as far as the eye can see."
Owners of other guest ranches in the Chilcotin and Cariboo share her concerns.
To the south, near Green Lake, is Siwash Lake Ranch, where owners Allyson Rogers and Roy Grinder have so far managed to maintain their trails and viewscapes due to keeping constant pressure on the logging companies.
"I've been fighting them for four years, being very proactive," Rogers said. "In the area close by, the logging going on is appalling. It's non-stop logging trucks. You have to go after it, doggedly. You can't give them a moment's rest."
The Wilderness Tourism Association, with $1.6 billion in annual revenues in B.C., is concerned about rampant salvage logging running roughshod over ecotourism.
"The situation is a free-forall," asserted association president Brian Gunn. "There's no control. There's no restriction. They have complete freedom to do what they want, when they want and nobody else has much say in that."
At a conference on naturebased tourism in Kamloops in November, he said, there was "widespread concern" about the logging industry's efforts to communicate with and accommodate the interests of other users of Crown land.
"It concerns tourism operators, ranchers, trappers, fishing resorts, people who own homes in the backcountry."
The association is putting together a "Crown land plan" aimed initially at seeking a meeting between stakeholders such as tourism operators and ranchers and the timber licensees in the Cariboo/Chilcotin region.
If that doesn't yield results, the association may have to pressure the B.C. government for legislation to protect all users of Crown land, he said.
"They want to be treated as good neighbours, with respect for their businesses, but they're not," Gunn said.
Among the issues Gunn wants addressed:
. Logging during tourist season, including early in the morning, so guests don't awake to the sound of chainsaws.
. Concentration of clearcutting.
. Protection of scenic and wilderness values.
. Buffers around trails or upfront creation of new trails to replace those required to be logged.
. Quick reseeding and cleanup post-logging.
. Protection of human and animal health from chemical spraying.
MOVING TO CANADA
Atha, who grew up living at an English riding school, flew from her home in Leeds in 2003 to a Colorado guest ranch as a tourist, returning the next year to learn the ropes and eventually operate her own guest ranch.
"I'm an only child. My parents weren't impressed whatsoever. I had a good career, a nice home and life, but there was something missing. I just wasn't happy, that was the bottom line."
In 2006, she purchased a 115-hectare ranch with a pond near Bridge Lake in the Cariboo, east of 100 Mile House. She thought it would be a good location; the area's reputation for fishing would complement the horseback riding.
She moved to Canada in April 2007 and accepted her first guests in August of that year. She's since built a 6,000-squarefoot lodge and amassed a collection of 18 riding horses with help from her parents, who followed her from England.
There was some bug kill in the area when Atha arrived, but she says conditions have become noticeably worse in the past two years.
"It's just gone absolutely crazy. We've lost 60 per cent of the total [riding trail] area to logging. Now I am starting to panic. We're getting to the point where I can't sustain the business if there's too much more. We've lost so much of our tenured trail system."
Free Rein Guest Ranch has a commercial tenure to operate on about 20,000 hectares of Crown land that is also up for grabs to salvage loggers.
"The first I know is when I see ribbons go up," she explains. "I panic, and usually call forestry [the ministry], but until the licence is issued there is nothing they can tell me. And apparently it's a free-for-all. Any licensee can go anywhere ... and walk around the forest and tie ribbons and then apply for a licence.
"All the rules have gone out the window and nobody really knows what's happening. I'm surrounded. You can't ride a horse across these clearcuts because the debris is three feet deep. It looks like World War Three, complete annihilation of everything with the odd aspen here and there or a sorry-looking spruce or fir."
Licensees are required to develop forest stewardship plans and to meet with other stakeholders to try to address their concerns, but ultimately they have the final say in where they log - a problem identified by the Forest Practices Board, a government watchdog agency.
It takes time and effort to create a new trail, and Atha says she can't afford to do it unless she has a guarantee it won't be clearcut. The extent of logging also forces her to take guests on active logging roads.
"I don't have a single ride where I don't ride across logging. It's not ideal, but it's a damned sight safer than riding through trees where they're falling," she says.
"My clients are complaining like hell. One lawyer from England, I took him up on one of my favourite spots that I hadn't been to since it was logged. He couldn't believe it. He was crying. He said, 'I just didn't know this was allowed.'" Atha emphasizes she is not "anti-logging by a long shot," only anti-logging that takes place "at the expense of everybody else."
She adds that companies naturally prefer to harvest forests closest to the mills, putting them into greater conflict with other users of the landscape.
It became so bad in 2009 that she sent out a letter to various logging companies in the region explaining her increasingly untenable situation and inability to keep up with the rapid changes to the landscape on which her business depends.
"I wanted them to work with me on a longer-term plan so I wasn't constantly putting out fires," she says. "I put a lot of effort into relationship building with the licensees."
The response was "positive and empathetic" and led to various meetings, she says, but "the bottom line is that they're going to do what they're going to do one way or another.
"They have carte blanche right now. It's really harsh because I've said to these guys a number of times, 'Here I am calling you bitching again' and I don't want to be that girl. That's not who I am. I'm not negative."
Atha had praise for one forest professional - Ken Freed of Kentree Enterprises Ltd. - for going the extra distance to respect her concerns.
"If all the logging outfits followed this guy's example, there would be no conflict because he cleaned up, retained the aspen and spruce, and kept my trails accessible and ready to use for the start of my season."
Freed worked for the B.C. Forests Ministry as a timber officer in the 100 Mile House Forest District for 18 years before going into private consulting in 1999.
He works with smaller companies who share his commitment to log in the "fairest and most equitable" way to other users of Crown land.
His client in Atha's case, Rod Dillman Contracting, wanted to remove the dead pine from two cutblocks measuring 12 hectares and 14.2 hectares.
To ensure her trails weren't "crushed down and wiped out," Freed came up with a plan that included commitments to leave trees around the trails, limit the number of sites where heavy machinery would cross the trails, and remove limbs and other debris afterwards.
"I personally went out there and it took me four hours, walking the trails and cleaned them off by hand."
Asked what he thinks of other operators in the region, including those who have cut Atha's trails, he laughs and says: "I don't like doing it any other way. I don't work for the major licensees in this district; does that answer your question?"
He explained it is important to take other concerns seriously and implement real measures instead of "just patting them on the head and saying, 'Have a nice day.' It just makes good common sense. We're a small-town community, so we do what we can."
With more players trying to meet the provincial goal of taking as much beetle-killed wood as possible, he says, the "frustration comes in" when people suddenly notice flagging tape and cutblocks all around with no time to plan for them.
Is there a free-for-all on Crown land in salvage logging? "Some would suggest that it is," Freed says. "Whoever identifies a patch of wood first, and puts flags around it, that becomes their wood and away they go."
Just to the north, in Quesnel, independent logger David Jorgenson selectively harvests beetle-killed pine while leaving other species standing - a rare breed in the rush to clearcut as much timber as possible.
When The Sun reached him, he had a contract at Ten Mile Lake Provincial Park north of Quesnel.
"You'll never get rich selective logging," he says, noting the need for smaller special equipment to reduce the impact on the land. "You need the proper mindset to work your ass off every day for nothing."
But he says the province could make it easier by giving selective loggers a better break, say, by lowering or eliminating stumpage rates for those having the least impact on the land.
"There is a value to a forest. To the degree you degrade that value, you pay for it."
Jorgenson argues that selective logging is the best way to reduce the greenhouses gases emitted by forests, because it allows the green trees and understorey that absorb carbon dioxide to remain standing while removing the dead pine that would rot and generate gas to produce lumber.
"It's a win-win, but that option is never presented because people don't log that way."
As for Atha, looking back on the dream that brought her to Canada, she says: "The irony is, it's been everything and more. My thoughts when I was on that plane, I was telling myself, 'I'm about to embark on a journey that will not only rattle me to my roots physically, but it will challenge me spiritually, emotionally, mentally, the whole nine yards.
"That's what I wanted. I'm still smiling and happy and I wouldn't be anywhere else. I love this province, this community, my guests, my horses. I'm not hating life or anything."
A five-part series on the lingering effect of the mountain pine beetle infestation and the strategies used to fight the pest and salvage as much wood as possible.
Friday: Pine beetles, salvage logging and the environment
Saturday: Inside a 'dead' forest
Monday: Flooding and the effect on ranchers
TODAY: The bite of salvage logging on ecotourism
Wednesday: The struggling forests industry