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Commerce, Conservation Battle for the Pristine Charlotte Isles

October 18, 1987|JEFF BRADLEY | Associated Press

QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS, Canada — Bald eagles perch like sentinels on tall, gray snags to survey a domain of rain-drenched forests and tidal inlets.

North America's largest black bears and delicate Sitka deer wander through the tomb-like woods below on a lush green carpet of rare mosses and liverworts.

Shaped like a pointed finger in the Pacific just south of the Alaskan Panhandle, Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia boast an ecosystem so unusual that scientists compare their importance to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, where an astounded Charles Darwin discovered unknown species in the 1850s.

A 12-year campaign to have the lower part of the islands, known as South Moresby, declared a Canadian national park reserve finally succeeded in July when terms were agreed between the federal government and the province of British Columbia.

But in a classic confrontation between conservation and commerce, the decision to create a 346,000-acre wilderness park has embittered many islanders, especially a logging industry active here since the turn of the century.

100 Jobs Threatened, Loggers Say

Loggers say that turning South Moresby into a park could cost the province $30 million annually in lumber production and eliminate 100 jobs.

Guests at the Sandspit Inn, next to the islands' airport, are greeted by a circular that declares: "This land is for all the people."

The native people include 1,500 Haida Indians, who in a bid for native rights support the park as a vehicle for pressing a land claim to an archipelago inhabited by their ancestors for 7,000 years.

English Capt. George Dixon named the mountainous islands after his ship, the Queen Charlotte, during a visit in 1787. But the Indians, whose ranks were decimated by European-introduced smallpox and measles, refer to them as Haida Gwaii, or homeland.

"We were never vanquished and never signed any treaties," said Haida elder Tom Green. "It's all sacred land to us."

On Anthony Island, at the southern tip of the proposed 75-mile-long reserve, a collection of Haida totem poles at Ninstints Village was declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization a World Heritage Cultural Site in 1981, the only one in North America.

To dramatize their desire to manage the islands, Haida braves paddled home last summer from Vancouver in a 50-foot oceangoing canoe carved in the traditional way from a single cedar log.

"What's at stake is our survival as a nation, and we can't survive in a land of stumps," Haida President Miles Richardson said.

He says the Indians don't oppose logging in principle--the Haida have been loggers for decades--but they seek economic controls, including regulation of offshore waters, where oil exploration is contemplated. As for wildlife, Richardson said, "I don't even know where the Galapagos are."

Environmentalists fought for the national park as a place where centuries-old stands of red and yellow cedar, spruce and hemlock could remain untouched.

They say that evolution, and a possible reprieve from the last Ice Age, gave the islands dozens of unique forms of plant and animal life. Those include the dusky shrew, the yellow-bellied pine marten, the hairy woodpecker and different kinds of stickleback fish in nearly every lake.

"We want to save it with the same resolve and enthusiasm as the Egyptians have saved their pyramids and the Indians have saved the Taj Mahal," federal Environment Minister Tom McMillan said.

Loggers dispute both the exotic claims and the potential for tourism on a group of 150 islands 60 miles from the mainland, which are buffeted by gales and deluged with rain 200 days a year.

Harvey Hurd, manager of Western Forest Products Ltd., says that depicting South Moresby as a virgin habitat teeming with wildlife and endangered by the harvesting of lumber is "all a myth."

He said that lumbermen working in the woods year after year see no difference between the Queen Charlottes and any other forested region of the British Columbia coast. Most of the few roads on the islands were built by loggers.

"We don't log the eagles," Hurd said.

Hurd argues that the islands' fragile economy would collapse without a forest industry to support most of its 6,000 people. Regular ferry service to the mainland only began in 1980.

"There is a place in our society, in our world, for saving special things, special places and truly unique plants or wildlife," Hurd told a wilderness panel that studied the problem. "But it has to coexist with what puts bread on the table."

In normal operations, logs are loaded onto barges headed for Vancouver, and the slopes are replanted in a 70-year growth cycle.

Missing the Point

But paleobotanist Rolf Mathewes of Vancouver's Simon Fraser University said the loggers are missing the point by citing their good record in maintaining second-growth forests.

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