The common adage—a picture is worth a thousand words—comes instantly to mind when viewing T.J. Watt’s unforgettable photos of lost trees.
For years, Watt has been photographing the beauty of Vancouver Island’s ancient temperate rainforests, and documenting their loss to clearcut logging. The photographer and environmental activist recently helped co-found the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA), a group devoted to saving the island’s and British Columbia’s (BC) last old-growth while working with the logging industry to adopt sustainable practices.
This February the organization succeeded in saving Avatar Grove—which was only discovered in 2009—from being clearcut. The grove—a rare stand of massive and ancient trees named after the popular eco science-fiction movie—has become a popular tourist destination, providing a new economic incentive for communities to protect rather than cut Canada’s last great forests.
“If we have laws that recognize and protect Heritage Buildings that are 100 years old, why don’t we have laws that recognize and protect our 1,000 year old Heritage Trees?,” Watt told mongabay.com in a recent interview.
He also noted, “Old-growth forests provide clean air and water for both people and salmon; they help mitigate climate change by storing twice the amount atmospheric carbon that second-growth plantations do; they are pillars of a multi-billion dollar tourism industry; and are important to many First Nations cultures. They’re what make BC, BC—a place of wild beauty with the finest remaining intact ancient temperate rainforests on Earth.”
Watt’s organization, the AFA, wants the logging industry in British Columbia to switch from clear-cutting old-growth forests to logging only in secondary forests with more sustainable regulations.
“The vast majority of forested lands in southern BC are now second-growth, including about 80 percent of the productive forest lands on BC’s southern coast. A full transition into only logging second-growth forests is inevitable when the last of the unprotected old-growth forests are logged out. For the sake of future generations, we need to make the full transition into a second-growth, value-added forest industry now, before we eliminate the remaining unprotected old-growth forests,” says Watt.
The AFA wants the logging industry in British Columbia to switch from clear-cutting old-growth forests to logging only in secondary forests with more sustainable regulations.
On Vancouver Island, where AFA and Watt, are stationed, 75 percent of old-growth forests have been lost.
In addition, says Watt, “90 percent of the valley bottoms where the biggest trees grow and richest biodiversity resides” have been logged.
Not everything worth saving is gone though—not by a long shot. In 2009, Watt stumbled on Avatar Grove.
An “enchanting place,” according to Watt, the grove is “filled with giant, alien-shaped red cedars—some with tree trunks wider than 14 feet—as well a rare, old-growth Douglas-fir tree. It’s also home to ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree,’ a red cedar with a 10 foot wide burl on its side.”
Shortly after its discovery, Watt found out the grove was slated to be logged. Two years of campaigning later, and the AFA won the battle to save the astounding trees. Watt says they couldn’t have done it without the help of Port Renfrew, a nearby local community that was built on logging, but is now embracing “big tree tourism.”
“Port Renfrew is making a name for itself as the ‘Big Trees Capital of Canada’ and people are traveling from all around to see the record-sized trees,” says Watt.
Next up, though, is the larger battle to save old-growth forests across British Columbia. Watt, who describes himself as a “big tree hunter,” travels far and wide to take photos both of ancient trees and the logging that destroys them to raise awareness of what’s happening beyond society’s watch.
“Many folks are also somehow under the impression that old-growth logging ended years ago when it’s still happening on a large scale! By sharing powerful photos of the giant stumps and sprawling old-growth clearcuts it thrusts this backwards practice into the local and global spotlight,” Watt explains.
Watt goes on to say that while he finds documenting such destruction “painful,” he uses that emotion to propel him to action, instead of ambivalence.
“I sometimes compare it to being a doctor in a war zone. You could sit and panic about all the chaos and bloodshed going on around you and not help a single soul. Or, you could collect yourself, make a plan and use the abilities and knowledge you have to try and help as many people as possible. In my case it’s simply ecosystems instead of people, but every one of us depends on a healthy planet for our very survival so I guess in the end it’s one and the same.”
In a July 2012 interview, T.J. Watt discusses the importance of British Columbia’s old-growth forests, the wild species they shelter, and the broad effort, including his eye-opening photography, to save them from felling.
Mongabay: Will you give us some background on the struggle to save forests on Vancouver Island?
T.J. Watt: The quest to protect Vancouver Island’s ancient forests has involved large scale public protests for three decades now. Few other issues can rally as many people into the streets in British Columbia (BC) than this one. Thousands of people have showed up at rallies in Victoria for ancient forests in recent years and over 12,000 people showed up for the protests in Clayoquot Sound near the town of Tofino through the summer of 1993, with almost 900 people being arrested for non-violently blockading the logging trucks.
Mongabay: Why are ancient forests and big trees important?
T.J. Watt: British Columbia is home to the biggest trees in Canada. These centuries-old giants can grow as wide as living rooms and as tall as downtown skyscrapers and the ancient forests are home to many endangered species.
Old-growth forests provide clean air and water for both people and salmon; they help mitigate climate change by storing twice the amount atmospheric carbon that second-growth plantations do; they are pillars of a multi-billion dollar tourism industry; and are important to many First Nations cultures. They’re what make BC, BC—a place of wild beauty with the finest remaining intact ancient temperate rainforests on Earth.
Mongabay: What other species are found in Vancouver Island’s ancient forests?
T.J. Watt: Vancouver Island’s forests are home to many large and charismatic creatures such as wolves, bears, Roosevelt elk, and black-tailed deer. The island also has a significant population of cougars, though you are unlikely to ever see one. In the canopy of old-growth forests nests the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that cannot grip the tiny second-growth branches with its webbed feet and therefore must nest on the wide mossy limbs that only old-growth trees have. Long-eared bats and the Vaux’s swift, a swallow-like bird, also live in hollow old-growth trees. Black-tailed deer that live at the higher elevations where there is a lot of snow spend the winter in old-growth forests where they find food and shelter. There was also a distinct subspecies of wolverine once living on Vancouver Island but is now thought to be recently extinct due to development pressures. You might find the odd Sasquatch or lost hippy too!
Mongabay: Do you believe there should be a total ban on old growth logging on Vancouver Island? What about in the rest of British Columbia?
T.J. Watt: Most of the old-growth forests in southern BC have now been logged, so we’re saying that we must protect what little is left and ensure the industry sustainably logs second-growth forests instead, which are now the vast majority of forests down here. 75 percent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forests have already been logged including 90 percent of the valley bottoms where the biggest trees grow and richest biodiversity resides, an even higher fraction has been lost on the southern mainland coast and interior.
The rest of the industrialized world is logging second, third, and fourth-growth forests, and we must do the same here while ensuring that we process and value-add the second-growth logs in BC to create more jobs in our own communities.
Mongabay: What is a “Provincial Heritage Trees Designation?”
T.J. Watt: The Ancient Forest Alliance has called for the creation of the Provincial Heritage Tree Designation that would identify and immediately protect the 100 largest and oldest specimens of each of BC’s tree species. Currently there is no provincial legislation that specifically protects the largest or oldest specimens of BC’s world-renowned old-growth trees.
If we have laws that recognize and protect Heritage Buildings that are 100 years old, why don’t we have laws that recognize and protect our 1,000 year old Heritage Trees? But most importantly we need new laws that protect our last old-growth forest ecosystems—while big trees are great, it’s the ecosystems that fundamentally matter.
Mongabay: Your organization is also devoted to sustainable forestry jobs. How do we balance conservation with forestry?
T.J. Watt: The vast majority of forested lands in southern BC are now second-growth, including about 80 percent of the productive forest lands on BC’s southern coast. A full transition into only logging second-growth forests is inevitable when the last of the unprotected old-growth forests are logged out.
For the sake of future generations, we need to make the full transition into a second-growth, value-added forest industry now, before we eliminate the remaining unprotected old-growth forests. By logging second-growth stands at a slower, more sustainable rate of cut, and manufacturing more wood products here in BC —rather than increasing the export of raw logs to foreign mills—we can protect old-growth forests and sustain and create forestry jobs at the same time.
Mongabay: What is your vision of sustainable forestry?
T.J. Watt:It’s a vision where we can see jobs, communities, and ecosystems flourish simultaneously. The coastal forest industry’s 20-year decline at its root has been driven by resource depletion as the largest ancient trees in the valley bottoms and lower slopes have been largely logged-off. This has resulted in diminishing returns as the remaining trees get smaller, lower in value and more expensive to reach high up mountainsides and far away in valley headwaters.
The resulting loss of tens of thousands of rural jobs has also been paralleled by the increasing collapse of BC’s old-growth ecosystems, with plummeting salmon, steelhead, black-tailed deer, cougar, mountain caribou, marbled murrelet and spotted owl populations.
A sustainable forest policy will be based on logging second-growth forests, while protecting our old-growth forests; entail a reduced rate of cut so that coastal logging rotations are at least over 250 years, not 60 years as they are now; involve selection logging on the coast instead of clearcutting; will involve ecosystem-system based management where sufficient amounts of each forest type are placed off-limits to logging to ensure that the ecosystem can viably support all native species including having adequate riparian buffer zones to protect streams and fish; and will accommodate First Nations cultural and environmental interests and land-use/conservation plans.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about Avatar Grove? How did you find this place?
T.J. Watt: The Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew is an enchanting place. It’s the most accessible stand of monumental old-growth forest still found in a wilderness setting on southern Vancouver Island. It’s filled with giant, alien-shaped redcedars—some with tree trunks wider than 14 feet—as well a rare, old-growth Douglas-fir trees. It’s also home to “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree”, a redcedar with a 10 foot wide burl on its side! A friend and I discovered the grove in late 2009 while out looking for big trees in the Gordon River Valley on southern Vancouver Island. Shortly after that it was flagged for logging. Thus began the Ancient Forest Alliance’s 2-year campaign to save it!
Mongabay: When was the Grove saved?
T.J. Watt: Just this past February the 59 hectare grove was declared legally off limits to logging through what is called an Old-Growth Management Area. This was achieved through a combination of relentless public pressure and media coverage as well as by partnering with the local Chamber of Commerce who recognized that having the trees standing would fuel the local tourism economy. The partnership with local businesses with a stake in protecting nature is a model for conservation that could and should be applied elsewhere in BC’s ancient forest movement. Our next project for the area is to build a boardwalk through the giant trees which will help protect the ecological integrity of the
forest and enhance visitor access and safety.
Mongabay: What has it meant to local people?
T.J. Watt: The protection of the Avatar Grove means there is a long-term, sustainable eco-tourism destination for the town of Port Renfrew, which will funnel millions of dollars into the local economy over the coming years. The alternative was a short-term logging operation that would have provided a few weeks employment to a handful of people—and the loss of the greatest natural asset near the town. Had the Avatar Grove been logged, Port Renfrew wouldn’t have had another chance like this for another 500 years.
Mongabay: What is big tree tourism?
T.J. Watt: Port Renfrew is making a name for itself as the “Big Trees Capital of Canada” and people are traveling from all around to see the record-sized trees. Aside from the Avatar Grove, nearby you also have the world’s tallest Douglas-fir tree, the Red Creek Fir, as well as Canada’s biggest spruce tree, the San Juan Spruce. A few hours drive to the north, you also have Canada’s largest tree, the Cheewhat Giant. For a town like Port Renfrew with a long history of logging, this type of tourism provides a transition away from a resource-based economy to one based on old-growth protection and recreation. Bottom line—the trees are worth much more standing up than lying down.
Mongabay: To many people trees may seem like static objects and therefore uninteresting to photograph. What made you want to photograph trees?
T.J. Watt: I’m simply fascinated by big trees and the allure of trying to find them hidden amongst the rugged coastal landscapes of BC. I love the wild style they exude, the blends of earthy colors, their twisting branches and patterns of bark, and the unique location that each happened to start growing at so long ago. Every tree is a different character that holds a powerful yet gentle presence after living a life of hundreds or even thousands of years. Standing quietly beside something that’s been alive for so long always helps to put into perspective the trivialities and silly stresses of your own life as well. It’s the best medicine for a busy world.
Mongabay:How do you think photos of vanished places, such as yours of clear-cuts, help instill environmental awareness?
T.J. Watt: Nearly all the logging of BC’s ancient forests now takes place in remote valleys away from the public eye. There’s virtually no one other than myself dedicating substantial time to drive the back roads and hike the clearcuts in the hopes of documenting what’s happening. Many folks are also somehow under the impression that old-growth logging ended years ago when it’s still happening on a large scale! By sharing powerful photos of the giant stumps and sprawling old-growth clearcuts it thrusts this backwards practice into the local and global spotlight. Through online photo galleries, Google Earth, social media and high-profile news articles, the citizens of Canada and the world over are able to see what’s truly happening in our forests and find out how they can help save them.
Mongabay:Do you find it difficult, emotionally, to photograph stumps of once giant trees?
T.J. Watt: It’s definitely disheartening and painful to see an incredible intact area turn into an unrecognizable sea of stumps and slash. There’s a complexity, a tapestry of connectivity formed in these ancient forests over the hundreds or thousands of years of evolution that is somehow so instantaneously lost. From that frustration and sadness though, you need to learn to take your emotion and convert it into something useful. Funnel it into action that can hopefully stop the same thing from happening again elsewhere. I sometimes compare it to being a doctor in a war zone. You could sit and panic about all the chaos and bloodshed going on around you and not help a single soul. Or, you could collect yourself, make a plan and use the abilities and knowledge you have to try and help as many people as possible. In my case it’s simply ecosystems instead of people, but every one of us depends on a healthy planet for our very survival so I guess in the end it’s one and the same.
Adapted from “Saving ‘Avatar Grove’: the battle to preserve old-growth forests in British Columbia” by Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com.
Mongabay.com provides news, information and analysis on environmental issues, with a special focus on tropical rainforests. The website features more than 70,000 photos and has a section about forests for children, available in nearly forty languages.
Editor: Alexandra Grace
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