‘Wild Lands’ really was a voice in the wilderness in 1909

Too bad we’ll never know the real identity of "Wild Lands," as he signed himself in a lengthy letter to the Cowichan Leader in 1909. He’d written to suggest that British Columbia should institute a Forest Department in place of the existing free-forall as was the case of timber licensing in those days.

The editor thought his proposal "would help to maintain [B.C.] as the finest fir and pine producing country in the world". More than a century later, with all the benefits of hindsight, let’s see what Wild Lands had to say…

After identifying himself as a former civil servant in Britain’s "Indian Forest Department," he thought he might "do something towards showing to what extent such a department might be applied to this country," particularly as B.C. had "enormous forests still untouched; we have simply to preserve and not to reconstruct nature…

"How great will be the heritage of our children if, in view of the immense destruction elsewhere, we can by judicious management keep our forest area in full bearing, and how easily this may be done!" Curiously, he viewed most forested lands as being unfit for anything other than animal habitat. His answer to reducing the loss to forest fires was to create fire-breaks; not those spontaneously cleared by firefighting crews, but done on a large-scale, systematic basis by creating alternating blocks of standing trees during the logging process.

He then somewhat contradicts himself by championing selective logging as opposed to clear-cutting: "When the lumbermen have cut out and utilized the sound, full-sized trees then is the time for the forest department to step in and close the section until the undersized growth has had time to mature… This closure at the proper time must be insisted upon because the timberman having cut out all the good trees, will be strongly tempted before he sets up his mill elsewhere to make what use he can of undersized trees and portions of the damaged ones…"

Clearly, Wild Lands is out of sync with today’s avowed industry philosophy of extracting all salvageable wood and of value-added. As for the waste treetops and branches, they had to be disposed of, he wrote, as they impeded new growth and were a fire hazard. He didn’t specify how he thought this should be done but slash burning would seem a logical surmise.

Then he touched upon an aspect of commercial logging that is a nerve-point for many today: "I cannot understand the advisability of allowing logs to be exported from any part of Canada to the United States. Why should not our lumberman be properly protected and allowed to saw up the logs themselves? If it pays as well to sell logs as to saw them up, then I think that an export duty should be put upon them sufficiently high to keep the sawing in our hands, and by that means give employment to a much larger number of hands.

"It is a very great pity that so much timber is used up in the shape of pulp for paper making. [He’s certainly out of line with modern philosophy here. Bear in mind that he was writing of a time of primarily first-growth forest.-TW) The man who can invent an equally cheap and less wasteful source for paper-making would truly be a benefactor to mankind." Rather than those lands already logged being converted to pasturage, he suggested that they be allowed to return to forest thus "forming a continual source of revenue" to the Crown.

For B.C., "the extermination of [publicly-owned] forests to any large extent…would be productive of lamentable consequences. Our watersheds are very steep, and when the soil becomes hardbaked by long exposure to the summer sun, the rain, unable to penetrate, would rush down into the rivers and cause floods to which our present inundations are by comparison trifling.

"These consequences may appear far off, but if anyone will look into the yearly increase of our lumber output and the rapidity with which foreign forests are disappearing, he must readily perceive that the demands to be made upon our timber supply in the near future will be sufficiently great to cause serious uneasiness as to its permanence unless we act as other countries have long ago found it necessary to do.

"By proper management we shall not decrease our output – we shall simply render it permanent, while as competition lessens through foreign inability to meet demands, we shall be able greatly to enhance our prices..". That said, he thought cedar was doomed to near-extinction because logging upset its environmental balance, and that most second-growth was inferior because it produced more knots.

Deforestation, he warned, would mean decreased rainfall and deplenished watersheds (sound familiar?) and, ultimately, "not a sound to replace the ring of the woodsman’s axe save perhaps the clink of the miner’s hammer".

He thought that the decline of some great civilizations could be linked to the destruction of their forests. What do you think? Was Wild Lands on target in 1909 with his ideas as to how logging should be practised in B.C.? Was he Cassandra or heretic or a bit of both?


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