Watt and volunteers carrying second-growth cedar planks. Photo provided.
Near the bustling coastal community of Port Renfrew, B.C. lives a venerable old-growth forest called Avatar Grove. This October, the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) completed construction of a Preservation Pathway, or forest boardwalk, to showcase the grove's biodiverse and expansive majesty. Three summers of the boardwalk’s construction included the help of over 100 volunteers, donations from the general public, and support from local businesses. The Sitka Society for Conservation (SSC) raised around $4000 for the project.
The Ancient Forest Alliance is an organization founded in 2010 that works to protect old-growth forests and encourage sustainable forestry in British Columbia. Sitka teamed up with the AFA through our non-profit organization (SSC) which collects at least one percent of all Sitka sales to be allocated to focused environmental initiatives. Sitka’s donation to the boardwalk was used to purchase materials like locally milled and responsibly selected second-growth cedar.
“It’s inspiring to see how [many] local citizens and businesses care about the environment around us,” says AFA Co-Founder, Campaigner and Photographer TJ Watt, “it’s our natural heritage that makes B.C. so valuable.“
Avatar Grove’s boardwalk was installed above a progressively popular dirt trail in order to minimize impact on the environment. The Preservation Pathway stretches about three feet wide, lifting visitors up off the ground in order to protect the roots of big trees and plants dwelling in floor’s undergrowth. It also increases human safety by offering easier access to the naturally rugged display. Watt says the pathway is “a great educational tool” for people to learn about endangered old-growth forests.
Old-growth forests house some of the largest trees in B.C. and feature intricately diverse wildlife habitats. They grow at low to high production rates, evident in their lush foliage and massive trunk diameters. These forests support climate stability, endangered species, clean water, wild salmon, and Indigenous culture. Old-growth forests also absorb more carbon than younger forests, suggested in a widely cited study published by a science journal in 2014.
“Old-growth forests store two to three times more atmospheric carbon than the second-growth tree plantations they're being replaced with. The logging industry still wrongly insists that we should be cutting old-growth and planting young trees to absorb carbon more quickly,” says Watt.
“Newly-planted trees are only trying to re-sequester the carbon that was lost when you logged the old-growth. It's like giving away your million dollar savings on the promise of well paying job. You're much better off just keeping the money in the bank.”
Satellite images from AFA indicate that 75 percent of productive-old growth forests have already been logged on Vancouver Island, including 90 percent of valley bottoms where the most largest trees grow. “It’s a pretty dire situation,” says Watt.
Before and after satellite images provided by Scott and the AFA.
The B.C. government reports that 18 percent of B.C.’s 25 million hectares of old-growth forests are protected from logging, and that 37 percent of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island crown land are protected. Meanwhile, the AFA states that “the B.C. government’s old-growth statistics are highly misleading, intended to make it seem like a large fraction of old growth still remain and are protected.”
Watt explains factors impacting government statistics include the counting of low-productivity forests, which are classified as old-growth but not commercially valuable as high-productivity forests like Avatar Grove, and the government’s discounting of private land which used to be regulated as crown land.
In the early nineties, multiple interest groups called on the government to protect old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. The government reports that about 12 percent of the island's land base was protected by the resulting plan that is still in place over 20 years later. The AFA maintains that the 1994 Vancouver Island Land Use Plan only protected about six percent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forests in parks and “did not factor in climate change and. . . did not include any significant ecological science nor First Nations input.”
Part of the AFA’s goal is to invite the B.C. government to revamp protection strategies. The Liberal government is under increasing pressure to amend the “outdated” plan, as reported by the AFA.
TJ Watt stumbled upon Avatar Grove in December 2009 and brought the AFA Executive Director Ken Wu to the area in early 2010. Within the two month window, the area had been surveyed for logging, and Wu and Watt launched a campaign to save Avatar Grove almost instantly. By 2012, 60 hectares of Avatar Grove became an old-growth management area that is protected from logging. Watt says it was “sheer luck” that he’d come across the area in time to save the old-growth forest.
Protecting the area took non-stop campaigning, including sending letters to the government, working with local politicians, and getting thousands of people hiking the trails. The largest contribution to the grove’s protection came from the AFA collaborating with local businesses and the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce. Watt proposed ecotourism as a huge economic driver for the community which traditionally depends on resource extraction.
“Small towns that are historically built on resource extraction to sustain their economies need a way to go into the future,” says Watt, “Port Renfrew has shown that ecotourism, especially around big trees, can be huge.”
“We’re hoping it’s a role model for other communities."
Volunteers building around in the Lower Grove area. Photo provided.
However, Watt is careful to encourage balance rather than polarity in terms of forest protection. He says that maintaining the forestry industry is also important, but that logging should be sustainably executed. “There’s always a better way,” he says.
For example, the government might encourage foresters to employ selective logging techniques that protect endangered areas, as well as create incentives for local mills and manufacturers to make products from B.C. trees versus “loading them onto trucks, driving through town, and dumping them in the ocean to be sent [overseas],” says Watt.
Until then, the AFA continues to offer conservation education and involvement—inviting you to experience an ancient forest in Avatar Grove is just one of the organization’s many projects supporting the overall goal to gain provincial protection of old-growth forests across B.C.
Watt says, “rather than wait until the world is a perfect utopia, we have to celebrate little victories along the way and work within existing frameworks the best we can.”
Volunteers and Watt showing off their carpentry skills. Photo provided.
Due to recent extensive storms, part of the boardwalk has been compromised and the official completion launch is pushed until Spring 2017. The AFA needs you! You can volunteer with or learn more about the Ancient Forest Alliance by visiting: www.ancientforestalliance.org