Paul George is co-founder of the Western Canada Wilderness
Committee, a not-for-profit organization that has been at the forefront of wilderness protection efforts in BC for a quarter of a century. The Wilderness Committee has played a pivotal role in protecting such household-name wilderness areas as the Carmanah Valley, Stein
Valley, Sooke Hills, Burke Mountain, Gwaii Haanas (South
Moresby) and Clayoquot Sound.
Three years in the making, Paul George’s new book Big Trees Not Big Stumps and accompanying DVD is a compilation of over 560 photos, cartoons, videos, never-released video footage and behind the scenes stories.
by Paul George
Western Canada Wilderness Committee is rooted in three different origin myths. The one I’ve most often told is that WCWC germinated in a brainstorming session around a campfire one magical summer night in 1977. Thom Henley, Richard Krieger and I were camped on a beach in Windy Bay on Lyell Island in the heart of the South Moresby wilderness area on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). That campfire conversation was the genesis of not only WCWC, but also a remarkable nature-based outdoor education program called Rediscovery, and lots of new tactics for the campaign to save South Moresby.
The second origin myth, which has been retold almost as often, is that WCWC was created because of the US Sierra Club’s refusal to publish a Canadian version of its annual wilderness wall calendar. Determined to see a Canadian product on people’s walls, my friend Richard Krieger, a wilderness photographer, and I started our own non-profit society to make it happen.
The third story, never told before, is that after visiting the headquarters of Greenpeace in Vancouver in 1980, it dawned on Richard Krieger and me that we, too, could start and run our own creative organization focused on wilderness preservation. It looked like it would be a lot of fun.
All three stories have some elements of truth and on August 7, 1980, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee was born.
Richard Krieger backs my wildest dream
The whole thing began one fateful day in 1976 when my neighbour Richard Krieger unexpectedly stopped by my house to see me. We were working together as volunteers on a parks committee of the local Neighbourhood Improvement Programme (NIP), a federal/provincial/municipal project that was infusing $1 million dollars into our working-class Victoria neighbourhood. We were plotting ways we could create more parks by strategically closing some streets in our over-roaded urban jungle.
I was working in the kitchen in my usual messy fashion, with piles of paper spread out all around, sorting through information about the Queen Charlotte Islands. I’d started studying this archipelago, the most biologically unique in all of Canada, while writing a Grade 11 biology correspondence course for the BC Ministry of Education, a task I had just completed. When Richard asked what I was doing, I divulged my dream of helping to save a spectacular wilderness – called South Moresby – in the southern part of the island chain. Local residents had been campaigning to protect South Moresby for the last two years. I wanted to explore it; moreover, I wanted to write a definitive coffee table book that would help save it from being logged. I even had the book’s name picked out: South Moresby – The Galapagos of the North. I planned to pattern it after the famous US Sierra Club/ Ballantine book series that was so successful, both artistically and politically, in saving wilderness areas in the US.
It was my big fantasy.
After hearing my story, Richard offhandedly said, “Let’s do it!”
“Sure,” I replied, carrying on in jest. “It’ll be the adventure of a lifetime.” Then, clicking back into reality, I said, “But you know I have no money.” Richard, a few years younger than me, had a dry, impish sort of humour and I couldn’t tell if he was pulling my leg. He was entertaining, smart and well-meaning. I got along really well with him, but sometimes I just didn’t recognize his boundaries for practical jokes and impulsive, offbeat behaviour.
“I’ll finance it!” replied Richard. He wasn’t kidding! He even paid me a $300/month stipend to help support my wife at that time and my three teenaged kids while I was away. This was the start of the journey that, inextricably and inevitably, led to the founding of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. But it wasn’t as simple as that. Richard and I agreed that we couldn’t do the book project by ourselves. We had to work with the local environmental group, the Islands Protection Committee. After all, this local citizen group was already campaigning to save South Moresby.
I immediately wrote to them and suggested we meet. It took a long time to get a reply, but finally a date was arranged. Richard and I strategized on how we should approach them and decided that, for the first meeting, I should go alone to broach the idea of the book. I flew to Sandspit, paid for by Richard, and hitchhiked up to Masset to meet with the IPC directors at Dan Bowditch’s house. Dan was the head of BC Hydro on the Charlottes and one of the key directors of IPC.
First meeting with the Islands Protection Committee
At this first meeting with the IPC directors, I met Guujaaw (known then as Gary Edenshaw, before he was given his Haida name), who years later became the president of the council of the Haida Nation. He was in his early 20s and one of the few really active Haida on IPC. Thom Henley (nicknamed Huck when a kid because of his love of huckleberries) was also at the meeting. Huck, an American adventurer who had done a lot of solo kayaking on the west coast, had come to the Charlottes to kayak and ended up staying. Guujaaw and Huck had co-authored the South Moresby Wilderness Proposal that IPC championed. The proposal consisted of a map on which they’d drawn an infamous horizontal line just below the Tangil Peninsula with the statement, “No logging below here.”
About 10 or so other IPC directors were also in Dan’s living room. Dan introduced me to everyone. Contrary to rumours, Guujaaw did not refuse to shake my hand, but he did ask me whether or not I was a police agent. Of course, I denied such a ridiculous notion and then gave them a short version of my life history. I heard later that I dispelled his and other IPC directors’ suspicions of me with my genuine zeal for wilderness preservation and my knowledge about biology.
Guujaaw and I hit it off right from the start. I respected his ideas and blunt style of discourse. While everyone at IPC was interested in what I had to say, most were quite standoffish. IPC was a tight-knit island in-group. They had their own plans and I was an outsider.
The IPC directors didn’t make a decision. They simply put me off, asking me to return with more details at a later date about our proposal for the South Moresby expeditions and book. I assured them that we would not embark on the project without their approval. A day later, I flew back to Victoria to tell Richard the news.
IPC says no to our book project
Richard and I worked hard on our proposal. For our second try, we decided to go up as a delegation of three. My friend Mark Horne, a smart, well-spoken, young law student, came along for support. “This will impress them,” I thought. In early spring of 1977, we returned to Haida Gwaii and got our second hearing at an IPC board meeting at Dan’s home in Masset. This time we had a detailed proposal. We even had a name for ourselves: The Galapagos of the North Book Collaborators.
After hearing us out, the IPC directors reserved their decision saying they had to talk it over. Mark immediately went back to Victoria. Richard and I stuck around waiting to hear the decision. Late the next day, Dan Bowditch broke the bad news to us. IPC would be doing its own book; therefore, it wouldn’t be able to assist us, or be part of our efforts. Richard and I re-affirmed our decision that we couldn’t do it alone, so that was the end of our dream. The proposed expeditions and book would not happen.
Richard was deeply disappointed and left for home the next day. I was depressed too, but tried not to show it. What would I do with my life? I had come to count on this project. Feeling sorry for me, two of the IPC directors, Lark Clark and Jack Latrell, offered to let me stay in their cabin on Kumdis Island in Masset Inlet for a few days. “It’s a great place to get away from it all.” They also suggested that I come the following weekend to the first All Island Symposium where South Moresby would be a big topic of discussion. As I paddled off in their small canoe with my backpack, outfitted with a crude map on how to get to their cabin, I told them I’d stay a whole week and would not attend the symposium. “I need the solitude,” I said.
After staying three days, I had full-blown cabin fever. I had never been alone for so long. My day hikes into the incredible wilderness inspired only one small revelation: I discovered purposelessness was not for me. On day three, the weather rapidly began to deteriorate and the winds picked up. I figured I might be stuck there for days if the storm brewing up was a big one. “It’s time to go home to Victoria and my family,” I said to myself. I quickly packed and closed up the cabin. In less than a half-hour’s time, I was paddling back to Port Clements. I arrived in the late afternoon at the exact moment when Lark and Jack were leaving to go to the symposium at Skidegate Museum. There was room for one more in the van, so I hopped in. They said that I could probably stay that night on the floor in Skidegate in Joe Tulip’s bachelor house. Huck and Guujaaw would be staying there too.
About 150 people attended the symposium. IPC was right: South Moresby was the big topic. Amongst the many who gave speeches that day was Guujaaw. He got sort of tongue-tied, stumbled over words and didn’t say much. I learned later that day that it was Guujaaw’s first big public speech. One of the Haida elders told Guujaaw afterwards that it was a good one because “It gave everyone there a chance to think about what you might have said.”
Preliminary government report gives the South Moresby Wilderness Proposal a big thumbs down
Near the end of the symposium, Ric Careless, who then worked for the BC government’s Environment and Land Use Committee Secretariat (ELUCS) and was attending the symposium as an “observer” for the government, unexpectedly gave a progress report on the secretariat’s unfinished study of the South Moresby Wilderness Proposal. During the previous two years, Ric had visited the Charlottes and gone to several IPC directors’ meetings like the one I had attended at Dan Bowditch’s house.
The IPC directors were sure that Ric supported their proposal, but circumstances had changed. The Dave Barrett NDP government that initiated the ELUCS study in 1974 had been voted out of government in late 1975. Now the Bill Bennett Socreds – members of the Social Credit Party – were in and their sympathies lay with the big logging companies.
Careless authoritatively informed the symposium audience that ELUCS had concluded that Rayonier, the big logging company that held Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 24 (accounting for 99 percent of the logging in South Moresby), was not a problem. It was the small-scale, independent “gypo” hand loggers who were causing problems and the BC Forest Service was going to handle that. It was obvious to me that the South Moresby Wilderness Proposal was dead.
The book dream is revived
Numbed, alone and discouraged, I left immediately at the end of the symposium. I didn’t have the heart to wait around to speak with anyone from IPC. In the pouring rain, I walked slowly back from the museum along the highway to Joe Tulip’s house in Skidegate Village. It was time to fly home.
Halfway there, Huck caught up to me. He said, “Paul, things have changed. We’re going to need your help, all the help we can get!” I didn’t ask him if they needed to have the other directors’ approval to make that decision. I knew Huck wouldn’t make such a statement unless the other leaders in IPC, especially Guujaaw, had already agreed. Huck promised to go on one of our expeditions. He – we – talked excitedly about what needed to be done. What an emotional roller coaster ride of changing fate! Now full of enthusiasm, I returned home and told Richard the good news.
The above is excerpted from chapter one of Big Trees Not Big Stumps.
Join Paul George and the Wilderness Committee for a party and book launch Wednesday, September 20, 7-10pm, Roundhouse Community Centre. Advance tickets $15 each or 2/$25. Includes a $10 credit toward a signed copy of the book. Contact 604-683-8220 or www.wildernesscommittee.org.
Limited tickets at door: $20 each or 2/$30.