Environmental and economic struggles – Port Alberni’s contradictions

On a recent visit to a friend who lives in the old section of the British Colombia town of Port Alberni , we found ourselves in a region surrounded by stunning natural beauty and natural riches …but full of contradictions. We came face to face with the struggle between economic interests and the environment played out in microcosm in this town.

Logging, clear-cutting, pulp mills and fisheries are all part of the historic fabric of Port Alberni, a  post industrial town on the way to Vancouver Islands exquisite Pacific Rim National Park.

Port Alberni waterfront

Port Alberni waterfront

The streets are still wide avenues, built for bygone boom times of rich robber barons and lucky workers with decent union jobs.

PA Main street

The one remaining pulp mill employs only 250 workers these days (1/10 of it’s heyday) yet the forestry sector is still managing to strip the rain forests with monster machines, only with fewer and fewer workers to share at least some of the riches.PA paper mill

They don’t even process most of the logs into lumber any more but ship them raw to China, along with the jobs that used to go with them.

Ships loaded with raw logs for China

Ships loaded with raw logs for China

Located at the end of a Fjord leading to the Pacific the prettied up Port area can’t seem to decide how it’s going to reinvent itself…tourist attraction or resource extraction?

PA harbour sign
Looking around the Port itself is a study in the parts of this conundrum.  Looking out from the pier, the mountains reaching down to the water with their shades of blue and green, are breathtaking. Mount Arrowsmith still with patches of snow in July, is a majestic backdrop to the town

Mount Aerosmith

…but a closer inspection reveals the clear-cut sections on the deforested slopes of the port’s surrounding hills, the resulting landslide scars and the ships being loaded with raw logs.

Clearcut scars 2

The latest endeavor for some in  Port Alberni is the possible construction of a coal port for the export of raw coal also bound for the hungry power stations of China. It would truck the coal from the planned Raven Mine on the other side of the island, along the one mountain highway and down the streets of Port Alberni and on to ships – a dirty endeavor every step of the way.
Yet another contradiction for a struggling community trying to reinvent itself and survive. Many have a different vision for the town. There is a nascent arts community with hopes of transforming the old town into a haven for kinder, gentler pursuits and organic farmers and vineyards hoping to contribute to a new start .

PA Arts sign
Just outside town is the famous Cathedral Grove – a living monument of towering old growth forest, hundreds of years old but now reduced to a sliver to hide the clear-cut behind.

Cathedral Grove

Cathedral Grove

It’s a ‘Potemkin forest’ acting as a blind for the logging companies that destroy at will, ancient trees that should be part of the entire world’s heritage.

800 years- a living monument

800 years- a living monument

Our friend is heavily involved in community groups fighting the ‘coal-port’ and the Raven Mine too. She also heeds the calls that go out every time a bulldozer advances on another living monument in the old growth forests. It is a never ending vigilance however and the contradictions of this community in transition are never ending too.

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7 Responses to Environmental and economic struggles – Port Alberni’s contradictions

  1. Port Alberni looks like a lovely town – despite the dichotomy between industry and tourism – situated in some awesome nature.

  2. I grew up just to the east side of the island from Alberni, where the Raven mine is proposed, though now I live farther north on the island. During the present crisis of out of control consumerism that fuels environmental destruction and climate change, the current economic doctrine of like cancer. This post is a gentle reminder of the paradox of the times we live in, or the conundrum, as you put it… the beautiful Alberni valley with its proposed Coal terminal and it’s over dependence on log exports, with fewer and fewer sustainable jobs. Lets keep in our minds and spirit this weekends Climate Action march in New York . . . that concrete change will happen.

    Best regards – Bruce

    • Yes I wish I could have been in NYC for the demonstration this weekend. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a much stronger resistance to the terrible things we allow to happen to our world. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Gallivanta says:

    Port Alberni seems to have so much charm and natural beauty. I agree with your reply to Sheryl that so many places struggle with these same issues. Will we find a balance? Where is that balance?

  4. Cheryl Kryzaniwsky says:

    Fabulous photographs and an interesting account of Port Alberni and like many old industrial towns their hopes for a ‘future’

  5. Sheryl says:

    I really like pictures, and the balanced, sensitive, thoughtful way you discussed the changes that are affecting Port Albemi. It is is such a difficult issue. The communities in central Pennsylvania where I grew up, also have struggled as times have changed.

    • Thank you – it’s a struggle that has played out in so many places, over so many generations and makes you wonder if we’ll ever find the right balance. I’m really enjoying your blog and all the research you do to bring the history alive.

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