10 Years of Tears: Ghosts in the Serene: Tree Poaching and Life in the Greenest City

Lettering by Pamela Rounis.

Lettering by Pamela Rounis.


It's our 10th anniversary this year and we're feeling a little weepy‒that’s why we’ve dusted off the archives to bring you highlights from our back issues over the last 10 years. Join us as we take a look back at 10 years of SAD Magazine, revisiting the memories and the people that made SAD what it is today. We're not crying, you’re crying.

It’s a scheme with a distinctly Italian Job ring: a small group of highly skilled, well-researched thieves, an arsenal of whiz-bang gadgets and gizmos, tens of thousands of dollars at stake, and naturally, the cover of darkness. It all adds up to a heist two years in the making that, in the end, sends a raft of untraceable luxury goods to market and hefty sums into unknown pockets.

But despite the film noir regalia, this is a tale without gold, without diamonds, without vaults, and (presumably) without Maggie Blye. Instead, this is the story of how a team of expert thieves made off, from our own back yard, with a different sort of treasure. This is the story of how an 800-year-old, two-and-a-half-meter wide red cedar— one of the oldest and largest of the ancient giants found in Vancouver Island’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park— was illegally harvested. Poached.

The scale of the crime is dizzying, and to be sure, it was no mean feat. The poachers (still unknown to authorities at the time of writing) began their work in 2010, cutting through approximately 80% of their enormous prize. Environment Canada, fearing that the compromised tree might fall unexpectedly and injure passers-by, was forced to knock it down themselves.

The plan was to make the most out of an upsetting situation. The tree would be left to lie in place, decompose, and return at least something of what was lost to the ecologically sensitive park. But the poachers had different plans. They spent the next two years periodically returning to the felled giant, removing it piece-by-piece. Finally, in May 2012, their work was complete. A broad stump remains, barely visible above Carmanah’s rich underbrush. It is an awkward void in the park’s dense canopy that points, in equal measure, to the tree’s own absence and the spectral figure of the vanished poacher.

In the media, the story has unfolded with an honest sense of bewilderment. Poaching, after all, is a term draped in a kind of sinister exoticism. It conjures images of ferocious, far-off prey; grey and black-market distribution networks that traverse cities, states, and hemispheres alike; ultra-luxury commodities, culinary delicacies, and snake-oil cures. In this light, to poach a tree would seem silly if not impossible. How does one truly poach something as apparently mundane as a cedar? Is an illegal harvest worthy of the mantle of poaching if the prey doesn’t give chase across the Serengeti? Incongruous language notwithstanding, tree poaching is hardly a rarity. A growing body of academic studies, legal battles, and even political bluster on the subject stands as a testament to its increasing prevalence and visibility. The Carmanah poaching in particular has become a bone of political contention for a number of community members. Many have attempted to link the incident to recent cuts to parks and environmental programs. Shortfalls in resources, so the argument goes, open exploitable gaps in the regulatory and enforcement system designed to protect our natural amenities from such injury. Nonetheless, the fact remains that even when shrouded in sweeping enforcement and surveillance practices, even when armoured by thousands of park rangers and naturalists, even when mourned publicly in news reports across the continent, there can be no perfect legal fortress capable of ensnaring all would-be poachers. Defensive measures are necessary, but such measures operate under the assumption that poaching is inevitable. The current system does not question what might have caused poaching in the first place. Put simply, our policy and defence mechanisms stop short of considering that poaching might be the symptom rather than the disease.

The Carmanah poaching incident, in particular, raises a broader and decidedly less tact question than “how do we stop poachers?” Instead, it compels us to ask why? Why here and why now? Michael Pendleton, a professor of Society and Justice at the University of Washington, has dedicated much of his career to such questions. He considers how social and political pressures call on us to think more broadly about poaching and dwell on the volumes it might speak to our relationship with the planet. For example, in a 2008 study of tree poaching in the Pacific Northwest, Pendleton sketches a finely detailed picture of the practice. Within the ranks of those who poach, he writes, there exist powerful hierarchies that regulate the boundaries of acceptability when it comes to the illegal harvest of lumber. The removal of trees outside of legally recognized logging areas is essentially standard practice. In Pendleton’s view, this practice even functions as an instrument of community building within the industry—a deliberate subversion of environmental regulations crafted by technocratic policymakers seen to be out of touch with local knowledge and histories.

In their study of illegal fishing in one Greek lake town, Sandra Bell, Kate Hapshire, and Stella Topalidou make a similar point. They write, “Fishermen claim their own environmental credentials by pointing to the fact that they live in peace with pelicans, which during winter feed on unwanted species and undersize fish from their nets.” This practice is based entirely outside of the officiated bureaucratic system.

But as with any community, there are outliers. And in the case of illegal tree harvesting, those outliers are almost always the poachers. These are the unaffiliated and somewhat invisible figures that, working alone and against the unspoken norms of the logging community, poach to turn a quick personal buck. In Pendleton’s Pacific Northwest study, the poachers even earn the unflattering title of “shake rats.” They are treated with scorn and derision by their more acceptable and often industrially affiliated counterparts, who merely push the boundaries of legality, but never ever break them.

As Pendleton puts it, “The logging community accommodates tree theft only when it contributes to community cohesion and stability.” This is where we can return to Carmanah. It would be inaccurate to simply translate Pendleton’s analysis of a specific community of loggers to the Pacific Northwest writ large. Not unlike Pendleton’s study participants, however, our regional community exhaustively organizes itself around our spectacular collective backyard and how best to interact with it. We are, after all, a “super natural province,” punctuated by the world’s “greenest cities,” and connected by an almost climate-defying infrastructural network. Where else can one traverse the boundary between sea and sky twice in an afternoon? Set alongside the urban aspirations of our province’s power centres, these natural amenities take on a curious cosmopolitan quality. The smell of cedar is as likely to be found in an old growth rainforest as in a boutique hair salon; the climbing vines that coil upward through the dense underbrush of ancient groves find their corollary in the vertical gardens and planted walls scattered throughout our downtown cores. We have a habit of turning natural luxury into urban luxury.

The value that we place on these luxuries and the system by which we harvest them acts as a kind of unspoken guidebook. This guidebook informally regulates our distance from and proximity to nature; establishing, for our engagements with ‘the natural,’ the boundaries of acceptability, the limits of propriety, and the rules of engagement.

Despite the fact that its spoils will undoubtedly be incorporated into our eco-cosmopolitanism in the form of high quality cedar shingles, the act of poaching violates said limits. Hence the national outcry over the felling. Our ritual mourning is less for the tree itself and more for the poachers’ eschewal of our bureaucratic system by which this tree would be legally harvested. Our “proper distance” from nature can accommodate, without much ethical friction, the consumption of cedar as a luxury commodity harvested via an established system. However, this distance simultaneously forbids the purveying of this commodity as direct consumption from forest to consumer.

Lettering by Pamela Rounis.

Lettering by Pamela Rounis.

Of course, it’s possible that the poachers who carried out this operation are simply small-time opportunists whose motivations fall short of such theorizations. But given our status as a city swaddled in luxurious cedar detailing, and given the fact that we chastise the improper harvesting of trees, we have license to think larger. We live in a superheated and resource-hungry housing market. We are surrounded by an explosion of green consumption and eco-luxury marketing. We continue to endorse a political structure that sacrifices common ownership of natural amenities at the altar of private sector ‘efficiencies.’ Might these have a hand in the Carmanah plot? Could it be that organizing our communities around a particular way of seeing, thinking, and being in nature (one that recoils at the very thought of poaching) is in fact what opens the door to poachers in the first place?

It’s a question that certainly doesn’t offer up the kind of heist-job drama furnished by a shady villain on the run from the law. But perhaps it provides a more disquieting and compelling conclusion: one that exposes our system for what it really is.

This piece was originally published in 2012’s issue 10: Vanimaux.
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