Reflections: tree fallers share regrets and wisdom

Written By Jeff Davies

If an old tree falls in the forest, does it cry?

Those who say there’s no middle ground to be found in B.C.’s endless succession of Wars-in-the-Woods may want to listen to the words of a few old loggers. 

“I’ve always had a reverence for the woods. Lots of loggers do,” says Ernie Sellentin, a veteran faller from Texada Island who now does habitat restoration. The loggers he worked with, “didn’t really want to clearcut everything. They want to restore everything.”

Then there’s Jim Pine; now an organic farmer on the Saanich Peninsula. He spent 15 years working on logging crews at Port Renfrew on southern Vancouver Island. Today, at 71, Pine is a member of Elders for Ancient Forests and he supports the protests at Fairy Creek not far from where he once worked: “We are down to fighting over the crumbs that are left of these magnificent 1,000-year-old forests, and it’s just tragic.”

Or consider Joe Saysell. A retired faller, as well as a fishing guide, he’s spent a lifetime in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. He’s felled thousands of trees. He remembers the sound when the huge, old cedars went down: “I describe that as crying. The tree is actually crying as it goes down and when it hits the ground. A 12-foot wide tree, 150-feet long, when that hits the ground it feels like the whole earth is going to split in half. And it just feels to me horrible.  Here’s a tree 2,000 years old and in three hours I’ve killed that tree.”

Western red cedar in Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. [Photo Shutterstock]

This, at a time when the divisions on the ground seem as deep as ever. More than 1,100 people have been arrested for trying to halt the logging of old growth at Fairy Creek. Celebrities, scholars and academics have offered their support. The United Steelworkers, the voice of forest workers in B.C., has denounced as “extremists” those who try to halt logging operations.

The different sides, citing separate studies, argue over just how much old growth remains: is it three per cent as environmentalists and independent scientists say – or 30 per cent as the Council of Forest Industries says? The B.C. government committed to adopting all the recommendations of the independent old growth review and recently announced 1.7 million hectares of the 2.6 million hectares of most “at-risk” old growth has been temporarily deferred via negotiations with First Nations.

Not just “loggers versus tree huggers”

Meanwhile, a handful of industry veterans are speaking out. They may not like the tactics of the protestors who block logging roads, chain themselves to machinery, or halt traffic in the city. But they can understand why people oppose the way logging has been conducted on the B.C. coast. It’s not always loggers versus tree huggers.

Now 73, Saysell is an activist, lending his voice and his knowledge to the cause of conserving salmon and steelhead stocks.

“A 12-foot wide tree, 150-feet long, when that hits the ground it feels like the whole earth is going to split in half,” says Joe Saysell. [Photo Jeff Davies]

From his patio near the banks of the Cowichan River, Saysell reflects on the changes he’s observed since he began working in the woods in 1965. He’s clad in faded flannel, green on red. On his head he wears a ballcap with the logo of Ecotrust Canada. And in his voice, there’s a weary tone.

“There were a few of us who were really concerned about the old growth, what we’re leaving, especially around rivers and creeks, you know, but the companies weren’t too interested in that,” Saysell says. “We were always told by the companies that, don’t worry, you know, it’s all sustainable, because we’re replanting, and then once it’s replanted it’ll be left till it’s at least 100 to 200 years old. So then it’ll basically come back to old growth.

“We were always told by the companies that, don’t worry, you know, it’s all sustainable, because we’re replanting.”

Joe Saysell

“Well, the way they’re logging second growth, we’re never going to have old growth in certain areas because they don’t allow the trees long enough to get to be old,” says Saysell. “Because they’re logging now. They’re cutting it down to 40-year-old trees.”

It’s a lush early summer day. Saysell relaxes in a lawn chair under spreading cedar and fir trees. The Cowichan babbles in the background. He leads me through the tall grass to the riverbank. It’s an idyllic location for one who has river water running through his veins. But there’s something missing; we see no aquatic insects hatching and no fish rising.  And even after a cool, wet spring and late arrival of summer, the Cowichan is only knee deep in the riffle that runs by Saysell’s property – a stretch that had been prime spawning ground for salmon and steelhead.

No insects, no fish

“Look at these gravel bars. They were never here,” Saysell says. “Down there. We had ample water, enough that you could actually run a motorboat in here. And look, do you see the insects? None. Zero. So something is happening to the insects and I blame it on the up and down to the river as much as anything else. “ 

“Here’s a tree, 2,000 years old, and in three hours, I’ve killed that tree,” recalls Joe Saysell. [Photo Jeff Davies]

Saysell calls the forest a “blotter” that holds moisture and prevents rapid runoff, siltation, and gravel buildup on the riverbed.  Old growth, he says, is the secret to rearing salmon.  The province needs to buy old growth in the headwaters to preserve it, or just leave the second growth to become old growth. He’s hopeful the B.C. government’s move last year to defer logging on 2.6 million hectares of old growth will be a step in the right direction.

This veteran logger, guide and conservationist is conflicted about the protests over old growth logging at Fairy Creek. He hasn’t joined the protestors. For some, he says, the blockades and demonstrations are nothing more than a fad or a party.  But, “you know there are certain ones that are really dedicated people and really care.” 

No-one would say Saysell doesn’t care about the fate of the coastal forests and waters. Just talk to Bill Routley, the former Youbou millworker, union local president, and New Democrat MLA for Cowichan Valley. An old friend of Saysell’s, Routley says Saysell was a good logger who knows how to cut a tree to reduce waste.  

The two men find common ground on many issues, agreeing the forest has been over-logged. Routley is less enthusiastic about preserving large swaths of old growth in parks – “museums” he calls them. But he supports Saysell’s call to reduce the rate of harvest of second growth timber and to log in a more environmentally friendly way so there’s less waste.

“We manage for volume, not value … we should be logging and harvesting for long-term value.”

Bill Routley

In fact, Routley says, when he was with the International Woodworkers of America, the union argued for better logging practices, doing more spacing, pruning and thinning, and letting trees grow longer so they produce more value.

“It’s really sad that the voices of forest workers and their families weren’t listened to,” Routley says. “One of the things I discovered is that B.C. forests are managed for volume. And that is a big thing right now, VOLUME in big letters. We manage for volume, not value. That is a problem, and forest workers, loggers would agree that we should be logging and harvesting for long-term value.”

Routley would like to see the B.C. government set up a crown corporation to own and manage the forest in the interest of long-term value and sustainability. Sure, that may be a revolutionary idea, but, “the reason it’s revolutionary is I’ve seen a train wreck that’s happened, right? I was there while it was going on. And it was really hard, because year-after-year we’d (draft) policies saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop the over-cutting of forests.’”

Shift to selective logging needed

Ernie Sellentin, meanwhile, takes a firmer political line. He’s run provincially for the BC Green Party and he supports the Fairy Creek protestors: “More power to them.” He even donated money and took them propane. He wants to preserve the remaining coastal old growth, end clearcutting of the second growth, require forest companies to gradually shift to selective logging, and halt log exports.

“I’ve destroyed an awful lot of ground. And I’ll never make up for what I’ve destroyed,” says Ernie Sellentin. [Photo Jeff Davies]

Sellentin began falling back in 1973: “My dad broke me in as a faller. I was only 22. I was probably one of the youngest fallers on the coast.” He left industrial logging in the mid-90s because of nagging injuries; early in his career he broke a vertebra in his neck but didn’t even take the day off. He finally left the industry after a chiropractor warned him that, if he didn’t, he’d lose the use of his hands. He began working as a contractor on habitat restoration.

Now 70, he now heads his own company, Sellentin’s Habitat Restoration and Invasive Species Consulting. He’s still a hands-on guy, not someone to sit in an office offering advice.  He’s a wiry man with a muscular build and a greying ponytail. We meet at a job site at Royal Bay in Colwood, on the edge of Victoria. Sellentin’s company has a contract with GableCraft Homes, the company building a subdivision with thousands of homes in what was once a gravel pit stretching for more than a kilometre along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It would be tempting to call Sellentin a landscaper, but that’s not a term he uses. He still has his coastal faller’s certificate; he’s still falling trees. He owns a small sawmill back on Texada where he grew up. But he has also studied the causes and effects of climate change, and earned a degree in environmental science from Royal Roads University in the late 90s.

”If I could stand up most of those trees I would.”

Ernie Sellentin

Today, Sellentin is reflective when he speaks of the trees he’s cut down: “If I could stand up most of those trees I would, you know.” He remembers cutting old growth on mountains around Kyuquot, on northern Vancouver Island. There were old spruce trees 10 to 12 feet across the butt. “And what happened was we clearcut that. Then the harbour was no good anymore, because the wind whistled right through there. We took 200 feet off the top of the planet… I’ve destroyed an awful lot of ground. And I’ll never make up for what I’ve destroyed.”

Building, salvaging, planting

Sellentin tours the Royal Bay subdivision job site, sometimes by foot and sometimes in a small rough terrain vehicle. In a stand of second growth, he points to a huge old stump covered in moss, likely logged a century ago. Still visible are the notches cut in the bark to hold the springboards where loggers stood to chop or saw a tree.       

“Quite often when we go through here to build a trail, we salvage what we can. There’s not much we can salvage here, but if there’s a fern, I pick them up, put them off to the side, and then when we’ve finished the trail, they put them back in. You’ll see we had a little nursery right by the Porta Potty there.”

He and his eight employees plant native species, such as garry oak and arbutus, and get rid of invasive species, such as Himalayan blackberry, Scotch broom, thistle, and knapweed. There’s plenty of digging, pulling and transplanting, as well as trail-building. He’s certified to use herbicides – “I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool green” – but he only uses spot application and says we shouldn’t be broadcasting them on crops.  

Ernie Sellentin says building thousands of homes and planting native species in a former gravel pit may not look like progress, but it is. [Photo Jeff Davies]

Sellentin stands at the edge of what was the huge gravel pit and looks down on the grassy slopes below and the subdivision taking shape. Is this real progress?  Perhaps having thousands more people come to Victoria may not seem like progress, he says. “(But) I think it’s a good use of what this land was. I mean you could have turned it all back into a park. But then where are people going to live? There were no trees here. There was nothing but gravel and sand and industrial (uses) and invasive weeds.”

“Protect the land”

Meanwhile, Bruce Dumont ponders similar questions as we meet over a coffee at Mill Bay. Another retired faller, he partnered with Sellentin for years on coastal logging operations, working from Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii.  Trained as a safety professional and tradesman, Dumont is the former president of the Metis Nation of BC. He currently works at an addiction rehab centre.

Dumont grew up in Alberta, the son of a contract logger. He traces his family’s lineage back to Gabriel Dumont, the prominent Metis leader from Saskatchewan and ally of Louis Riel. The Dumonts moved to Golden, B.C., in 1959, then later to Vancouver Island, where both Bruce Dumont and his father worked as fallers.

“My views are always to protect the land, being an indigenous Cree Metis person, living off the land,” Dumont says.  “My dad was a hunter/trapper/logger and my mother made us all moccasins and gauntlets and vests, moosehide, utilizing what you need, not taking more than you need. We lived on wild meat all the time I grew up. We didn’t have any plumbing or electricity until 1958. You lived off the land.”

“They do have to change. We’re running low on timber, especially old growth.”

Bruce Dumont

Dumont says the logging industry provided a good income and a good life for him and his family. “But they do have to change. We’re running low on timber, especially old growth. I think they have to look at the overall picture and log what they need. We over-logged.”  

When the recorder is off, Dumont uses stronger language. He says big companies like MacMillan Bloedel plundered the forest: “That’s what they did in Haida Gwaii and different places. What did they leave behind in Haida Gwaii? Was there a legacy other than putting people to work? What did they leave in the community? You go up there, nothing has changed.”

Jim Pine, meanwhile, says it was the waste of valuable timber that helped to drive him out of the forest industry, where he worked for 15 years setting chokers to haul logs and scaling them to grade their quality and volume. “I’ve always abhorred waste,” he tells me in a telephone interview. “My mom lived through the Depression and I could just never handle the waste. So all the time I was logging there always was a lot of waste and that always bothered me.”

“We are down to fighting over the crumbs that are left of these magnificent 1,000-year-old forests, and it’s just tragic.”

Jim Pine

One of the things Pine kept hearing over and over was that loggers were cutting the over-mature, decadent forests, “and we were getting some value out of them before they became worthless, and the best thing we could do was replace them with these vibrant young second growth forests.”

But Pine says he had an epiphany when he was building a log home and went to a lumber yard in Sooke to buy lumber. As a log scaler, he was trained to grade wood, but was appalled by the poor quality products in the lumber yard: “warped and twisted and cracked.”

Later, during a visit to a mill, he spoke to a quality control officer and described what he had seen. “And, you now, just like right out of the movies, he kind of looked around to see if anybody was listening, and he said, ‘We have to hide the second growth. If there’s more than 10 per cent in a lumber order, the international buyers won’t take it.’“

Harvested too soon

Pine researched the issue and found that the more mature wood there is in a tree, the greater its density, and the higher its quality and value. His conclusion: “If we’re betting our future on second growth, and it has a high ratio of juvenile-to-mature wood, we’re in trouble.”

“There’s nothing wrong with second growth as long as we allow it to grow 150 to 200 years.”

Jim Pine

He says the coastal second growth should be allowed to reach maturity before it’s harvested. “There’s nothing wrong with second growth as long as we allow it to grow 150 to 200 years.”

Joe Saysell agrees. He says not only is the second growth being harvested too soon, but companies have to cut more trees to get the same yield, and the impact on the environment is greater. “The trees we fell, their branches were bigger than the goddamn logs they’re logging now. So to get the equivalent amount of fibre on a truck of small stuff, you’ve got to cover at least 10 to 15 times the size of an area. Say they needed 15 loads, you’ve got to wipe out acres and acres and acres of land of small trees to get the same amount.”

Joe Saysell says the branches of the trees he used to fell were bigger than the trees logged today. [Photo Jeff Davies]

As he sits by the river reflecting on his life in the woods, Saysell has plenty of advice for the B.C. government. Preserve more old growth in the headwaters. Log the second growth on a longer rotation. Bring private, managed forest lands under the same rules and regulations as Crown lands. 

He’s not worried about the pushback from the corporations. He compares them to a farmer who harvests carrots when they’re an inch long. “You’ve got to go row after row after row to get enough for one meal. It’s exactly the same with logging. Why are we doing that? They’re not really logging companies anymore. They’re business companies. They really are all about the money. Nothing else.”