If there’s anyone on Cortes Island who understands the essential and enduring relationship between the small coastal community and its ancient forests, it’s Bruce Ellingsen. As a descendant of one of the island’s first non-Aboriginal settler families, he knows what it means to live off the land. And like many other Cortesians, his lifestyle has always been very closely tied to the local environment.

“I have been living on the island virtually all of my life, apart from university and some traveling in the 60s,” said Ellingsen.

“My living has been varied over the time I’ve lived here, from house-building to oyster farming and now back to sawmilling, as well as the fruit farm that we have on the property here.”

Ellingsen became particularly interested in Cortes forestry issues in the 1990s, when local residents and members of the Klahoose First Nation formed a blockade to stop MacMillan Bloedel from clear-cutting privately owned lands on the northern part of the island.

“There was a two-day blockade, and MacMillan Bloedel agreed to halt operations after some negotiations,” he explained.

The company came back years later to do some selective logging, but the sensitive areas were protected until MacMillan Bloedel was sold to foreign-owned forestry firm, Weyerhauser. The government mandated that Weyerhauser honour the previous owners’ commitment to work with the community, but that agreement disappeared when the land was later obtained by Island Timberlands.

“When we got into serious negotiations with MacMillan Bloedel, we realized we needed a legal entity to properly address that. We established the Cortes Ecoforestry Society as our legal representative body,” said Ellingsen.

The goal of the Cortes Ecoforestry Society is to promote “healthy forests and healthy communities”. The organization is comprised of local professionals in everything from logging to woodworking, and encourages forestry practices that protect island ecosystems while creating and sustaining local jobs. In a way, these ideas take after slower-paced methods from the turn of the century.

“The logging that was going on in the early part of the 1900s was done usually by smaller groups of people with less technologically advanced equipment, of course,” Ellingsen explained.

“Because it was small operations and using that type of equipment, the impact of it was expressed over a much longer period of time. It would be a matter of years before maybe a quarter section of any property would be logged,” he said.

When modern industrial logging came to Cortes Island, Ellingsen says it awakened a concern within the community that led to a longstanding internal debate about how to respond. Inspired and influenced by Herb Hammond—the so-called “father” of the ecosystem-based forestry approach—Cortes residents began to think about how to manage island forests in a way that would both sustain the environment and provide economic activity.

This “ecosystem-based” approach protects sensitive areas like watersheds, identifies zones suitable for harvesting, and logs on a slower, more sustainable cycle that ensures healthy growth.

Local timber, local economy

The log and timber industry has been a part of Cortes history since the earliest settlers came to the island. According to Ellingsen, most of the activity within today’s industry is associated with the milling process, which involves converting a tree into lumber. Ellingsen is one of three main mill owners on Cortes who handle wood from the island.