Monday, June 7, 2010

Fallers' risky decision 20 years ago continues to pay off for all

Dave Luoma (left) and Don Zapp were fallers who disobeyed a company order to cut down trees on a site that later became a provincial park. They recently returned to the grove, where a plaque heralding their effort was unveiled. Photo by Ann Greene.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 7, 2010


The three-man crew spent the morning felling trees, as they had done for years and as their fathers had done before them.

Felling is not a job for the sentimental, or the fearful, as the cuts and gravity that transform timber into logs can just as easily crush a man to a bloody pulp.

On a May day 20 years ago, a trio of axemen went about their business bringing down tress on Vancouver Island, turning nature’s bounty into profits for their employer and paycheques for themselves.

They were midway through the workday when they came upon a stand of prime timber — towering red cedars and majestic Douglas firs, as well as spruce, balsam, hemlock and cottonwood.

The ground was level and free of underbrush. A thick canopy overhead filtered the sunlight. Paths blazed by foraging Roosevelt elk paths crisscrossed the area. Nearby, the chill waters of White River flowed past.

The setting was spectacular, even for men who spent every workday in the woods.

“It looked pretty nice,” said Don Zapp, “so we put our saws down.”

“You’ve got to see it to believe it,” said Dave Luoma. “It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time.”

Joined by Dave Morrison, the union chairman at the Kelsey Bay division of MacMillan Bloedel, the three decided they simply could not destroy so beautiful a site.

They took a stand to preserve a stand of old-growth trees.

They knew their impromptu decision might come with repercussions. They had earned seniority and contributed to a pension plan in a dangerous job. One of them had recently married.

“It was kind of a big risk,” Mr. Zapp said. “We had a lot of years to lose.”

He had entered the woods in 1972, following in the caulk-boot steps of his father, Tony. Four years earlier, Mr. Luoma had also followed his father, Reino, into the forests of Quadra Island as a gyppo logger.

Fallers like the independence of being off in the woods on their own, making decisions as to how best bring down trees without getting brained.

That spirit contributed to a stubbornness when they stumbled on an Eden in the middle of a cut.

As it turned out, the men were not punished for their extraordinary refusal.

Mr. Zapp and Mr. Luoma recently returned to the stand, where they posed against giant firs, flesh Lilliputians leaning against bark Gullivers. They had similarly posed two decades earlier for Lumber Worker, the union newspaper.

The two fallers were joined by about 40 others from the village of Sayward, about 340 kilometres north of Victoria. They wore rain slickers and held a picnic under a tarp. Colourful drawings by some of the 48 children enrolled in Sayward elementary and junior secondary school hung from another tarp like Tibetan prayer flags.

The event was the dedication of a sign telling the creation story of what is now White River Provincial Park, a 68-hectare patch of pristine wilderness that some call “the Cathedral Grove of the North Island.”

The sign was covered by a pair of grey Stanfields serving as a drape for the unveiling. Resting below was a hard hat and a pair of caulk boots, the protective tools of the faller’s trade.

The park was created five years after the loggers refused to do their job, protecting an elk and bear habitat, as well as a river filled with coho, steelhead, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.

After the sign was unveiled, Mr. Zapp, 60, and Mr. Luoma, 62, shook hands. (Mr. Morrison was unable to attend.)

The ceremony was filmed by Renee Poisson, a Courtenay filmmaker. She is at work on a documentary about the creation of the park and the culture of fallers. Her producer is Sy Pederson, a 63-year-old retired faller and the former local president

“All my uncles and my father were fallers,” he said. “A dangerous job, being a faller.”

In his own time in the woods, he unwittingly headbutted his share of the dead branches known as widow makers.

“They go out and face dangerous conditions. Felling trees most days, dodging trees some days. Trees are felled and bucked and you’re producing something of value.”

Because loggers are also hunters and fishermen, he said, the trio knew what was especially worth protecting. Their fellow fallers and their union, IWA-Canada, backed their decision and the company did not log the grove, leaving a gem for the rest of us.

The documentary is not the first movie to have been filmed in the park. Hollywood came north to film “The Scarlet Letter,” a Demi Moore vehicle about which can be said it had better scenery than reviews. Artifacts from the film set are still evident at the park, including a wide boardwalk for horse-drawn carriages.

Mr. Pederson is raising funds to complete the documentary. Something of a jokester, he has a vision for the premiere. He wants moviegoers to enter the theatre by walking along a trail of loggers’ longjohns, replacing the red carpet with a grey one.

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