Community Hero: Merve Wilkinson

An interview by Heather Rock (Dogwood Initiative volunteer) on November 15, 2005 with Merve Wilkinson, the 92 year old formermanager of Wildwood, a sustainably managed forest on Vancouver Island. The property is nowowned by The Land Conservancy so the work that Merve started can continue. In2001, Merve was inducted into both the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. He has also been given the BC Citizen of theYear Award.

 HR: Whatdoes being a community hero mean to you?

 MW:  A “community hero” puts time towards culturalbenefits and towards things that benefit the community as a whole. This personcan support something that is worthwhile and can also say “no” when they don’tsupport something. It is someone who, whatever their position or level, findssomething worth while and works their best at it.

 HR: Whatare you currently working on?

 MW: Atpresent time my main focus is sustainable forestry. Sustainable means that youdon’t destroy the forest in order to harvest trees. As part of this I am involvedwith university classes, First Nations and foresters from abroad.

 HR: How didyou get involved in Forest Management?

 MG: Ibecame involved in forest management when I bought property in 1938. I beganlooking at alternative harvest methods because I did not believe that clearcutting was essential.

 HR: Howhave your alternative logging practices resulted economically?

 MW: Theland has produced 1.5 times the timber thaninitially estimated at time of purchase. It also has 110% volume than estimatedin 1938.

 HR: Howhave your forest operations affected your community and their environment?

 MW:Provided a home and environment for one family and foster children. Good livingstandard for one family. Harvesting has provided part time work from twelvecuts. The wood harvested has provided material for houses, musical instruments,and furniture. More employment has been generated form this land because ratherthan one cut, there have been twelve selection cuts. Harvesting provides notonly raw material for the district but indirect “spin off benefits” such aslabour for housing construction.

 Thesustainable operations affect the environment in that many other uses of theforest are possible. I encourage visitors. Bird lovers find it very lovely to walk through. Today there are twoswans, a heron and ducks out on the lake. The lake is not part of my land butthe shoreline is. The natural shoreline provides more habitats than on otherend of lake. As a result there are more birds and fish.

 There was aschool group from Malasapina that came mushroom picking. There was a group 30years ago from California that ran an experiment for aboutten years measuring growth rates. I agreed not to cut certain trees for theirmeasurements. This kind of work is not only valuable to our own community butto the world, being a part of something that is making a continuouscontribution to knowledge.

 HR: What groupsdo you work with? 

 MW: I workwith the Ecoforestry Institute and The LandConservancy so that they will be able to take over the land and continuesustainable logging operations.

 HR: Whatare some of the biggest challenges that you have encountered?

 MW: Thebiggest challenge was adverse governments, industry and labour (Industrial, Woodand Allied Workers of Canada [IWA]). Rather than seeing myoperations as an advantage they were viewed as the enemy. It was not acceptedto save trees to cut later. I was laughed at, ignored and threatened but I wasnot dislodged. But that is in the past. Now Fist Nations groups and The WorldWildlife Fund have identified Wildwood as a special place. Throughout itshistory Wildwood has been a host to a range of people from all over the worldwho are interested in forestry. A field day for a community forest conferenceresulted in a visit from ninety-one foresters from forty-seven countries (everyforested country in the world) including students and foresters from  Russia, Scandinavia, France, Jordan, Libya, China and Japan.

 It is awonderful knowledge exchange, visitors share success stories. I make changes tothe system here from what I learn from them. What is done in Europe often applies here. Thisinformation is available to us as a nation and to our government but it notalways used. Just because someone walks over a bluff does not mean that youshould too! We have decided to make our own mistakes rather than learn fromothers. A mistake in forestry can mean two hundred years of desert. Look atwhat the Romans did to Africa. In Libya the forest is starting to come backbut this means poor living standards for a time.

 HR: Whatare some examples of things you have learned from other countries?

 MW: I havelearned that you can never cut your best tree. It is for seed. If it died youwould take it out because it would be a waste of valuable timber. On the otherhand if it is a very good habitat tree for bird life and insects you would haveto make a decision to cut or to leave it. These things are necessary for nature’sbalance. In one tree we counted the number of birds and there were eightspecies nesting in one year, it was an apartment building you could say. Thereeven an owl and since he hunted at night he was not a threat to the other birdsbut when he came out during daytime he raised a commotion.

 Anotherlesson is do not cut your tallest tree. Trees want to be the tallest. If youkeep the tallest tree other trees grow to be tall as the tallest tree. Retainingthe tallest keeps the others from getting shorter. This is a practice that wedo not follow in North America.  I was in Newfoundland five year ago and I learned thatthe trees used to be 125-150 feet high and 2ft in diameter. Now, none of thetrees are higher than 45ft and 10 inches in diameter, except for the relics.This occurred over four generations. It will take four maybe eight to get theheight back. You do not get back these things as fast as you lose them.

 It is alsoimportant to avoid monocultures. Stands must be mixed. I learned this fromforesters from Europe. Here the dollar making perspective dictates otherwise and monoculturesare the norm.

 HR: What isyour biggest achievement?

 MW: Mybiggest achievement is to have influenced methods and to have been influenced.I have influenced foresters from Nepal, Malaysia, China and Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Cuba. Americans have copied methods usedhere in Oregon, Washington and California. Equador’s forests have recently received a citation from United Nationsfor having made an improvement. I believe it is the effort of students that Ihad at the first ecoforestry school held at Wildwood. Juan and Dale wereEquadorian students who went back and got involved with ecoforestry in Equadorand they have kept me posted. It is great to see that your ideas are helpingthem to go back to their communities and make a difference.

 Anothergreat achievement is the wonderful lifestyle I have for myself. I would notwant to trade with anyone. Movie stars or anything. I have a wonderfullifestyle with thousands of friends. I can travel to forty-five or fiftycountries and knock on their door for a visit. That is far more valuable than amillion bucks. A million bucks is alright, you can buy happiness, booze, drugsand sex but you can not buy contentment. Contentment is knowing that you haveworked hard and done something good and knowing that you have so many friends.If you have good and loyal friends you have a very valuable lifestyle that youcan’t get from money. If you are rich, people will do what you want, but theydo not do it because they want to. When I was twenty-one I decided I was goingto be myself and do what I wanted, wealthy or not.

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