Swell Folks: Tom Balfour and Central Westcoast Forest Society
Ucluelet-based Central Westcoast Forest Society (CWFS) was founded in 1995 by loggers, First Nations, biologists and forestry professionals who recognized the need to address the loss of habitat in order to preserve our wild fish stocks. As partners in our Fish for the Future Fund, we are proud to support CWFS’ efforts in salmon habitat restoration. We recently caught up with Tom Balfour of CWFS to hear more about how they put real boots on the ground (and in streams) in order to protect and build salmon habitat up and down the coast.
Tom Balfour portrait by Jeremy Koreski
How did you first get involved with CWFS?
I actually came from more of a mining background, doing mineral exploration. I did that for a number of years…I was even working in Tranquil Creek—where CWFS is currently working—doing some prospecting for Imperial Metals. The geologist I was working under also had my current job here, and when she moved on she recommended me for the job. My education was always more in biology and working with fish over the years. I’ve been here five or six years now. And I’m also back in grad school for fish biology.
It’s been quite the roller coaster lately, eh?
Yeah, it’s definitely been interesting. Most of our funding was kind of secured…next year will be interesting in terms of finding money for our work.
Is CWFS staying busy right now?
While we certainly had to adjust how we do things, we did stay fairly busy this spring. A few projects we had to cancel or postpone but it’s getting busy now.
I didn’t know you contracted out for other organizations. Tell us about what kind of work you do.
In addition to fish habitat restoration, which is primarily grant and donation funded, we do traditional environmental consulting work too. We are currently working with Tla-o-qui-aht on the environmental monitoring for Kennedy Hill Highway 4 project, as well as the Tofino M.U.P. extension. We’ve done a number of culvert replacements for the Ministry of Transportation, with one planned for Shuhum creek this summer. We also work with DFO on a variety of research and monitoring contracts. But the deal is, any revenue generated for that type of work is all put back towards the fish habitat restoration project.
That’s amazing. You have a history of working with loggers and First Nations and a whole host of partners in the community. That cooperation is a unique thing in the environmental space.
We have an interesting background and a different model than a lot of environmental NGOs. The ability to collaborate with a wide variety partners on all sides of the spectrum has been a big part of CWFS’s longevity.
What is CWFS’ origin story?
Around ‘93-94, [commercial] fishing was collapsing. The War in the Woods stuff was ramping up. There was a different vibe in the communities around here. there’s the changes in the Forest Practices Code. We were recognizing that forestry was having all these problems, and there were implications for fish.
There was a lot of activism going around, including big sweeping policy changes. It was amazing for protecting forests but, at the same time, the changes put a whole lot of people out of work. Tofino and Ucluelet were almost 100% fishing and logging towns. There were no multimillion-dollar hotels. But things were really good here at that time: lots of money, lots of families. It was all going out the window with forestry having these challenges. A lot of habitat was getting destroyed: landslides, riparian problems, etc. Then the people behind CWFS realized ‘hey, we can put these guys back to work while also doing good work.’
There was a huge pot of provincial money—Forest Renewal BC—tons and tons of money for changing the rules on logging habitat and restoration. That’s sort of how CWFS got its start, with a focus on conservation and community employment. It’s always been about working with all of our members of our west coast communities, putting our people back to work in a meaningful way.
Installing engineered wood structures in Tranquil Creek. Large wood is a critical part of salmon habitat. By introducing large wood back into the system we can create habitat while the forest recovers and natural wood recruitment can restart. Photo by Lyndsay Henwood
People who aren’t from the coast often don’t realize just how important logging and fishing was in building the coast, but also just how badly we managed it in the early days.
Most of these forests had already been destroyed. This place gets marketed as untouched, but everything was logged in all these rivers valleys. So then we change the policy and we protect the salmon, but at CWFS we felt like we had to do something to just not just protect it but fix it. We didn’t want it to be political either. It was more like “who wants to help?”, instead of pointing fingers. 27 years or so later and here we are.
How many people do you have working for CWFS?
We currently have 11 full-time, and a lot of project-dependant crew with a lot of things going on right now.
A lot of NGOs and enviro orgs rarely put “boots on the ground”, but CWFS loves to get their hands dirty fixing culverts and habitat. What are some projects are working on now?
The big project this year is continuing to our Tranquil Creek restoration. The habitat has suffered the same suite of problems seen all over the coast: you take out the old growth and you have a lot of landslides in sensitive areas. Not a lot of wood in the streams. Lots of sediment. We are going to do quite a bit of tree planting. We want a holistic approach to the watershed. Not just working in the creek. You can’t you can go in and build a model of perfect fish habitat, but then you get a winter storm and it will just all disappear. Our work is designed to kick-start those habitat-forming processes that would normally happen naturally pre-disturbance.
Long time CWFS partner, Gibsons Brothers Contracting moving large wood around the Tranquil restoration site. Photo: Lyndsay Henwood
Central Westcoast Forest Society By The Numbers
Since the organization began in 1995, CWFS has completed:
GARBAGE REMOVED: 21,931 kg
IN RIPARIAN RESTORATION: 100.48 ha
ROAD DEACTIVATED: 249 km
TREES PLANTED: 46,614
OF STREAMS RESTORED: 85.43 km
WILDLIFE STUDIES: 13
SHRUBS/HERBS PLANTED: 2,411
CLEAN SPAWNING GRAVEL ADDED: 578 cubic meters
Tofino Resort + Marina and The Fish For The Future Fund does their part to help Central Westcoast Forest Society with logistical support (boats + fuel) into Tranquil Creek Watershed for restoration efforts. Learn more here.
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