International bestselling author Peter Wohlleben (left) talks with Kwiakah First Nation band manager Frank Voelker as they look out over the Kwiakah’s territory – and the large swaths of clearcut forests on the mountainsides of it – as they approach the dock at the mouth of the Phillips River. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror

Kwiakah First Nation to be featured in German documentary

‘We’ve been foresting in Germany for hundreds of years … learn from our mistakes’

The second smallest First Nation in all of B.C. – the 22-member Kwiakah First Nation – and its goal of encouraging responsible forestry practices on its land will be featured in an upcoming German documentary on internationally-renowned and New York Times bestselling author Peter Wohlleben.

Wohlleben has authored numerous books on forest management and ecology, developing a passion for forests back in the early 1980s and working as a professional ranger and forester since his graduation from forestry school in 1987.

His 2015 book, Das geheime Leben der Bäume:Was sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren – die Entdeckung einer verborgenen Welt (The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World) would go on to have an English translation published the following year in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation and make its way onto the New York Times Bestseller list later that year.

And when director Jörg Adolph and producer Friedrich Oetker of Constantin Film approached him to make a documentary of he and his work, he jumped aboard.

As part of the film – the only segment from outside of Europe – Wohlleben and the film crew arrived in Campbell River last week to take the trip over to the mouth of the Phillips River and meet with Kwiakah Chief Steven Dick and band manager Frank Voelker, who also invited local foresters and other stakeholders along for a frank and open, two-day discussion on how to better manage the land.

How does a small First Nation on the B.C. coast get involved with a German forester’s documentary, you may ask?

Well, about a year and a half ago, Voelker, having become familiar with Wohlleben’s writing, contacted Wohlleben with the story of the Kwiakah’s struggles in protecting their land. Voelker says the Kwiakah’s territory was incorrectly lumped into the Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order when it came into effect in 2016, which actually caused the band to lose some of the protection their forests had before that agreement was signed.

They went from having about 70 per cent of their forested area protected to just over 55 per cent, he says.

“We are very happy that the Great Bear Rainforest is being protected,” Voelker says, “but we’re not part of the Great Bear Rainforest, geographically.

“And we’re not against forestry at all. We just want to see it done responsibly and respectfully. For too long, it’s been done totally wrong here and now the whole area is sick. We need to figure out a way to continue doing forestry while helping the land recover from decades of harm.”

Thankfully, Voelker says, Wohlleben was receptive to the idea of coming over to have a look at what was happening and share his thoughts on ecologically-healthy ways of harvesting timber.

Voelker thought it could be a chance to get some attention for their struggle – or at least get the word out about what they’re trying to do.

As for Wohlleben’s goals in visiting and highlighting the Kwiakah in the film, he says he’s just happy to share his perspective, and if it makes some kind of difference, that’s great.

“We’ve been foresting in Germany for hundreds of years, so it would be good for others to learn from our mistakes,” he says with a laugh. “But this is just an exchange of opinions. I’m not the inventor of the best forestry practices or anything – for sure not, I’ve made lots of mistakes, too – but I’m really happy to meet with people from the local forestry industry and discuss things. We have good things happening here and we have good things happening in Germany, so the best would be for us to take the best here and the best there and learn together. It would make me happy to maybe just take one little step closer to all of us being better.”

His work and advocacy focuses on how to manage forests as holistic ecosystems, rather than as resources to be harvested.

“A tree is seen as raw material,” Wohlleben says, “but I think in the next decade we will see that fall and it would be smart start looking at changing our strategy.”

Wohlleben says he does a lot of work with Non-Governmental Organizations that work in protecting forests, he founded a nature academy where he makes seminars and courses alongside scientists and researchers, and through his years of work he has become an advocate for selective logging rather than clearcutting.

“It makes no sense to cut everything down at once,” Wohlleben says, adding that while it seems like it wouldn’t be economically-viable to harvest only certain trees from a forest, it actually works out to be more cost effective in the long run. “When you calculate, honestly, what it costs to replant and wait 80 or 100 years for a clearcut to regrow, it’s not possible to make your money back when you calculate interest,” Wohlleben says.

Instead of putting manpower into reforestation efforts that take 80 years before they can be re-harvested, Wohlleben says, it would be much more economically efficient to put that same manpower into only taking the most valuable trees from a section of land, and come back with more frequency, thereby letting nature itself manage the forest’s growth and productivity.

As for the timeline on the film’s production, Wohlleben says even though they’ve been working on it for more than a year and a half already, there is still much to do and many people to speak with, so they’re not sure when they will have all of the footage they need, let alone when the film will be released.

But Voelker promises he’ll make sure people know.

“At the very least, it will be nice to let people know we’re over here – I don’t think many people even know we exist – and that we are willing to fight for our rights,” he says.


The Kwiakah First Nation is looking for solutions for protecting their land at the end of Phillips Arm from traditional foretstry methods and are looking for alternatives. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror

Independent forester Len Apedaile, who has been working with the small 22-person Kwiakah First Nation, looks over band manager Frank Voelker’s shoulder as he speaks with international bestselling author Peter Wohlleben about historic forestry practices in Phillips Arm. The three were there accompanied by a German documentary film crew looking at forestry practices and challenges around the world. See story on page 6. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror

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