Gina Thomas Opinion Falling Boundaries
In Conversation with Gina Thomas
Coastal Guardian Watchman
Tlowitsis Nation, British Columbia
Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas stands on a cedar stump at a Western Forest Products cutblock near Rooney Lake, Vancouver Island. (Photo: Serena Renner)
Can you tell me a bit about your forestry background?
Currently I live in Campbell River on Northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia. My forestry journey began in Merritt where I attended the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and received my diploma in Natural Resource Technology. Following this, I attended the University of British Columbia and studied for my degree in Forest Resources Management and a certificate in Environmental Stewardship from the Vancouver Island University.
I worked for Western Forest Products for four years conducting silviculture surveys, then traded my caulk boots for business suits and worked for the First Nations Forestry Council for the next four years. I have worked independently on various research projects and done engineering work for Strategic Environmental Services.
For the past six years I have been working as a Guardian Watchman for the Tlowitsis First Nation on Northern Vancouver Island in their traditional territory.
What do the Guardian Watchmen do?
The Guardian Watchmen are involved in many different environmental monitoring strategies. We monitor plankton, water quality, salmon health/populations, grizzly bear, whale and other marine mammals, and conduct surveys of eDNA (environmental DNA), estuary, kelp, eelgrass, crab and prawn. We patrol the waterways of our traditional territory and learn from locals who live on the land. Our crew is trained in first aid and search and rescue, as well as incident responses such as oil spills. We monitor known archaeological sites and record newly discovered ones. We have been trained to identify bear dens, and to conduct Large Cultural Cedar (LCC) surveys. The Guardians conduct pre- and post- harvest surveys on logging blocks through the territory, and monitor commercial openings such as salmon, crab, prawns, urchins, kelp, and sea cucumbers. We do not hold any enforcement capabilities, although we are often the first to observe any issues on the landscape or water, and use tools such as cameras, drones, tablets, GPS, and other technologies to record these events and collect samples when necessary.
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Old growth cedar, northern Vancouver Island 2018 (harvested 2019)
Why are you not working for the logging companies anymore?
I found through experience that the mandates of these companies are not representative of how I think forests should be managed. Current school curriculums offer amazing ways to manage the forest, yet within the logging companies I found no opportunity to use this knowledge. In reality it seems the mandate of a logging company is to cut down as many trees as fast as possible, and then try to keep up with the replanting. We have no idea how this will affect future forest growth and the watersheds.
In the province of British Columbia, only trees deemed ‘suitable’ are replanted, minimizing the genetic diversity of the landscape. In addition, they have yet to be tested by the increasing pressures of a changing climate and ever more optimal conditions for pathogens. We need to plant trees that will help the environment flourish; not let the markets dictate what to plant.
Trees are replanted in such high densities that it takes decades for gaps to open in the canopy and these dark dense forests typically have no understory, no green on the forest floor, with skinny trees planted in sterile rows. Animals struggle to find food. It is heartbreaking for me to drive by plantations on Northern Vancouver Island.
A staggering number of our streams have been severely damaged with drastic effects on the hydrological systems which fish populations depend upon. I can confidently say that ‘forestry’ as it is being conducted right now is one of the largest contributors to the decline in salmon populations, right alongside overfishing.
In my traditional territory logging has been going on for over a century, the land now damaged and inundated with logging debris. In Canada, forestry companies are able to receive certifications that confirm protection of the environment while logging, yet audits have found that as much as 50% of our cultural heritage sites and at least 60% of the archaeological sites have been damaged or destroyed.
Can you explain “large cultural cedar”?
In response to the large amount of cedar already logged, First Nations communities developed a way to defend what is left. Newly agreed protocols now hold logging companies accountable to protect and leave a certain percentage of old growth cedar. The trees that have the appropriate size and quality that qualify for this protection are named “Large Cultural Cedar” (LCC). The ideal cedar would have few and/or small knots, with a straight bole and minimum taper to its trunk and a diameter of at least one meter. Trees of this quality are not easy to find now.
Such trees have been used by First Nations people for millennia in construction, transportation, clothing, art, ceremonial objects, and everyday tools.
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Campbell River Logging Co. Operation, Menzies Bay. Logs To Be Hauled - Item F-08877 1935, photographer Walter Forrest Montgomery, courtesy of British Columbia Archives
What are your views on human relationship to the land?
My perspective has always been that we, humankind, are one with the land. With the way things are currently going, we are going to suffer similar harms as those we are inflicting on the planet. Logging, for example, is necessary and must be done, but cannot continue at the current mechanized rate. Ancient forests are beautiful, spiritual, and take thousands of years to develop; yet can be destroyed in hours. Ecosystems as whole functioning units: the water, the fauna and flora, are all under so much human induced pressure that I truly fear for the future.
I know that I have been blessed to walk in old growth forests. It’s an experience I will cherish as most have now been cut. There is something hard to describe about the magical, spiritual feelings tied to beings thousands of years old. The First Nations people that historically stewarded this land did not cut down trees unless the tree was absolutely needed, even then taking only what was needed.
The connection that salmon have to our old growth forests is similar to our connection. Salmon used to migrate through rivers completely surrounded by forest. Today you are lucky if you see thin margins of old growth along rivers. For rivers and streams, the forest cover provides heat protection, insects and other organisms for fish to eat, riverbed stability, and so many other important factors that support the salmon lifecycle. Bears have also evolved a relationship with the salmon life cycle catching and eating the fish and leave the carcasses in the forest. The decay of these carcasses provides necessary nutrients for plants and fungi. Now that there are no fish the bears are hungry, and the forests are not receiving essential nutrients. These are all, no pun intended, downstream effects of removing that crucial old growth forest cover. All are interconnected.
In addition, as we are just beginning to learn, all the trees in the forest are physically interconnected through mycorrhizal (fungal) relationships.
When looking at a tall tree, keep in mind that 75% of that tree’s mass is underground and keeps the tree standing upright. Historically our ancestors used natural indicators to tell what was going on with our local environment, whether it be on land or water, or just simply the change of season. I fear we are losing touch with that connection to the land and water.
Much has been written about the decline of the great forests, both here in British Columbia and around the world. Do you have any comment on the impacts on Indigenous culture?
Simply, our way of life has been taken from us. Nature was our home, grocery store, pharmacy, and inspiration for art and ceremony. Our people have and always will be tied to these lands. When First Nations people were gathered and forced onto reserves, it broke the connection we have to the land, and also much of our spirit. Initially the argument was that this was for our own good, but evidently all these efforts did was severely harm us.
I have the unique perspective of seeing the brokenness of both our people and the land. It is well past time to heal both, so that one day they might prosper again.
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Kilgard. Wee Mcgregor Saw - Item D-04163 1910, photographer unknown, courtesy of British Columbia Archives
While much environmental news comes from a scientific perspective, we are now seeing writing around the psychological (some may say emotional) impacts of biodiversity loss using terms like eco-anxiety and solastalgia. Do you have anything to say about the old-growth forest from this perspective?
I agree with this perspective but have some different thoughts to offer. When immersed in a healthy forest or environment you experience peace through the ‘life force’ of the organisms around you. I think people enjoy being surrounded by living things as opposed to man-made, but often don’t consciously acknowledge it. I went into forestry because I am passionate about making things grow and understanding what plants need to thrive. Old growth forests are majestic, one-of-a-kind places that can never be recreated. I hope that those individuals that suffer from eco-anxiety and/or solastalgia do not have to watch the logging trucks driving down the highways with old growth trees in their bunks. There has to be a better way.
I come from a settler background with four generations, to date, working in the BC forest industry. I am keenly aware of the values our culture brought with us around resource extraction, capitalism and racism, values which arguably have brought us to this environmental precipice. Do you have any thoughts on reconciliation and its relationship to a shift in the way settler culture views the natural world?
I think that reconciliation and its relationship on how we treat the natural world still has many challenges. One of the largest will be working with government agencies which still manage our resources in a disconnected, colonial manner. The natural world cannot be managed within neat little boxes with statistical analysis being the primary decision maker. The problem with managing resources today is that we never have enough information; nature is completely interconnected and to understand any singular component we must first look at the bigger picture with a holistic approach. Those who manage resources should be people who are directly impacted by their removal, otherwise it seems too easy to forget the consequences of our actions.
As settlers were immigrating to British Columbia, they took most of the land occupied by First Nations communities and viewed the ‘newly’ discovered resources as being ‘wasted’ if not being extracted for use. In Europe, we know that the industrial revolution devastated the natural ecosystems and polluted the air and water ways. Joseph Trutch was a major player in crowding First Nations peoples onto small pieces of land (reserves) – and this land was not often ideal. It was typically land the immigrants did not want either.
At the same time First Nations populations were decimated by diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, and the genocide resulting from the residential school system. The goal of residential schools was to assimilate our people into European culture, although never to be on equal footing with them. The attempts to disconnect First Nations from our languages, ceremonial practices and traditional lands were severe and caused irreparable damage. However, they did not succeed with assimilation, and now we are in a time of limbo where many communities do not know how to exist in this colonial world, and it’s not possible for them to go back to their traditional way of life. The repercussions and aftershocks are still highly visible in First Nations communities with substance abuse and addiction, severe mental health issues, and poverty. The horrible impacts on communities after having children ripped away from their families, completely removed from their cultures and everything they knew, are still being felt and can only mend with time.
First Nations communities, with the odd exception, had not expected this, and had originally believed that the settlers were looking to share the plentiful lands and resources. The surviving communities have spent the past century watching the natural world in which they thrived be systematically exploited.
An understanding of what actually transpired, on both sides, is what is needed to truly begin reconciling. Colonial perspectives will never understand First Nations communities wants and needs.
All this talk about reconciliation must be followed by real action to protect the natural world, if it is meant sincerely. The ‘precipice’ is a perfect term for where we are at; we can come together and work towards a healthier future, or we can simply let things go and spiral into disaster.
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Active logging, northern Vancouver Island 2018
If you found yourself in control of forest management policy, with the power to implement new rules and regulations with immediate effect, what would be the most important?
Wood is an excellent renewable building product; arguably much better than the other materials we currently use in most construction. We simply need to go back to a more sustainable way of extraction. Mechanized extraction has caused nothing but harm, with greed blinding any good sense.
My top changes to forest management policy would be to do away with forest tenures; the only positive change has been the development of Community Forest Agreements and First Nations Woodlands. Of my twenty years involved in forestry I have been hearing about tenure reform, and yet companies have changed names, merged, and even obtained certifications just to get tenure. Where was the reform to prevent this monopolization? Certification gave companies more market share because they claim to log sustainably, but I challenge this with every fibre of my being. Giving certification to large companies is not the solution, it’s equivalent to putting a band-aid on a mortal wound. Certification can look great on paper but has never changed the status-quo.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I see bumper stickers all the time on Vancouver Island that say, “Forestry Feeds My Family”. If we want this statement to remain true, then serious changes must happen within the industry. Most of the public have unfortunately never seen old growth forests outside of parks, and their children probably never will either. Control of resource extraction should be brought back to the communities which are directly affected. No more executives that do not live in these communities making all the decisions that impact them. Having this external system takes all the money out of the community's hands, into administrative pockets, and our livelihoods, lands and waters pay the price. Instead of talking about creating added value, we need to begin doing something about it. Creating added value products locally, instead of cutting down trees and shipping them overseas where their value will never equate to the damage that the whole process creates. Tokenization of jobs must stop. The profits from the extraction of natural resources are rarely seen by those communities from which they were taken.