By Carole Pearson
A few miles outside Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island is a 10-hectare site where some of the last remaining old growth forest on the island can be found. Much of the surrounding Gordon River Valley has already been logged. The enormous stumps left behind are testament to the size of some of the giant trees already taken.
This particular grove of trees was discovered in December 2009 by photographer and environmentalist TJ Watt. It happened after of a day of hiking, specifically looking for old growth forest. Watt spotted the tell-tale forked tops of old growth cedars on a hillside and moved in for a closer look. “As soon as we stepped into the forest we knew we had found something exceptional,” he recalls.
Watt has actively campaigned for the protection of BC's old growth forests for many years.
“We've lost 96 percent of the valley bottom old-growth on southern Vancouver Island so to find an area like this within the remaining four percent and have it be so close to town and a paved road was just unbelievable,” says Watt.
Within weeks, Watt and other prominent local activists created the Ancient Forest Alliance, a group that has since grown to more than 8000 members. Ken Wu, the group’s campaign director, is no newcomer to the old growth forest issue, either. Both Watt and Wu were formerly involved with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee's Victoria office.
It was Wu's idea to dub this site “Avatar Grove”. It was partly to capitalize on the popularity of the James Cameron film but Wu sees a much deeper connection. “If you’ve seen the film, you can see it’s about protecting old growth forest,“ he insists and claims the scenes with giant ferns and big trees resemble BC’s old growth forests.
Despite the uniqueness of Avatar Grove, it appears this rare patch of old growth forest is in jeopardy. When Watt returned to the site two months later, he found the area had been flagged for logging and road development.
A Surrey, B.C., logging company, Teal Jones, has permission to harvest trees on 60,000 hectares in the Gordon River valley. The AFA launched a campaign to urge the public to send letters and sign petitions, asking the BC Ministry of Forests to make Avatar Grove and the surrounding 90 hectares off-limits to logging. The campaign has achieved some positive results. Forests Minister Pat Bell announced in February that he is considering protection for Avatar Grove and is also looking at developing new legal tools to protect other exceptional ancient trees and old-growth stands in BC.
“The Avatar Grove presents the finest opportunity for the public to easily access world class old-growth forest in a wilderness setting on flat gentle terrain,” says Watt. “It contains dozens of giant alien-shaped red cedars, some measuring up to 13 feet across, as well as rare old-growth Douglas fir and is already becoming the Cathedral Grove of Port Renfrew.”
Cathedral Grove, located on the highway near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, attracts one million visitors a year, says Watt. The road is regularly the site of traffic jams as buses, cars, and campers pull over to park. Trails allow visitors to wander through this preserved old growth forest and marvel at the circumference and height of these forest giants. Avatar Grove, he says, has the potential to attract just as many tourists to Port Renfrew and stimulate the local economy.
To counter complaints that protecting old growth forest will cost forest industry jobs, Wu says, “The total transition to second growth trees is inevitable. Why not do it now, instead of waiting until all the unprotected old-growth forest is gone?”
Logging Avatar Grove, Wu explains, would provide a few months’ work for half a dozen people. On the other hand, preserving the space as a tourist attraction would create a sustainable source of income for Port Renfrew indefinitely.
One of Watt's photos of the Gordon River area recently won first prize in a Outdoor Photography Canada magazine competition. http://www.ancientforestalliance.org/news-item.php?ID=186
To view photos of Avatar Grove, including the “gnarliest” tree in the world and for further information on the Ancient Forest Alliance campaign, go to www.ancientforestalliance.org