Sour note - The Orca

Sour note

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Many of the old-growth trees felled on Vancouver Island have been made into acoustic guitars.

The sounds of protest echoing from the forests in Fairy Creek, and the sounds of outrage over a viral photo of a massive fallen old growth tree, actually have another sound in common: The sweet sound of music made on acoustic guitars.

The old growth trees in both examples are a major source of the world’s acoustic guitar wood.

From the forests on Vancouver Island to the hands of some hipster warbling a Jack Johnson song around a campfire, the use of B.C.’s ancient spruce and cedar has been an item of major public debate the last few weeks.

Most recently, there was widespread outrage at a massive Sitka spruce tree photographed on the back of a logging truck in the mid-Island. The photo went viral due to the sheer enormity of the tree – seven feet in diameter – leading to widespread anger that a majestic giant of the forest had been felled prior to new provincial rules that would have fined a forest company for cutting down such an extraordinarily large specimen.

CHEK News reporter Dean Stoltz was the first to track the ancient spruce from its origin, cut on the Island in mid-2020, to a small family-run mill in Port Alberni that had purchased the log sight-unseen in an auction.

The company, Acoustic Woods Ltd., planned to turn the giant into roughly 3,000 guitar soundboards.

It’s a somewhat similar story at Fairy Creek, near Port Renfrew, where more than 130 protesters have been arrested trying to block logging company Teal-Jones from accessing a stand of old-growth forests.

Teal-Jones, and its Tonewood Division, is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads.

The grandson of the company’s founder runs a speciality mill in Lumby where “music wood,” as it’s called, is turned into guitar kits, including the guitar head and wood that companies can purchase to assemble their own guitars.

It turns out, the tight grain of Island old-growth spruce and cedar can be dried without cracking and makes for great “resonate woods” useful for all sorts of musical instruments, including violins and pianos.

Teal-Jones isn’t sure how much of the planned Fairy Creek cut will end up as guitars – the rest of the hemlock and balsa wood will be milled for decking, fencing, roofing and other purposes. But at least some of the highest-value old growth will end up being earmarked for music.

There is irony in all of this.

There’s likely several protesters at Fairy Creek right now, as well as other environmental activists, holding acoustic guitars made from the very trees they demand not to be felled.

It’s easy for the forestry community to paint them as hypocrites – though in reality, we are all guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to decrying the harm caused to the environment, and then consuming the very products that worsen those harms.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the journey of a B.C. tree to a guitar is exactly the kind of “value-added” forestry the previous B.C. Liberal government and current B.C. NDP government often tout as key to the sustainability of the sector.

Teal-Jones isn’t shipping raw old growth logs overseas. It’s milling them here into products that are sold around the world, including speciality markets like timber used in Japanese housing.

All of this makes for a complicated debate around forestry and old-growth logging. It’s not an easy file, balancing the demand of products produced, the jobs and companies at stake and the protection of ancient trees that once lost, are likely gone forever.

Premier John Horgan is set to deliver a new vision document for the sector next month. It’s unlikely to make everyone happy, or be music to anyone’s ears.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.