Today I wanted to touch on a subject which is very close to my heart. Old growth forests and the value of a tree left standing vs. a tree cut down. This is also the subject of a great book I am currently reading: Big Lonely Doug: the Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees by Harley Rusted. Highly recommended, this book is one part environmental call to action and one part historical account of the forestry industry in B.C.
About 5 and a half years ago, when I was first living on Vancouver Island and studying for my Master’s Degree, I was taken to a place I’d never heard of before – Avatar Grove.
Little did I know, this piece of newly protected Old Growth Forest would become one of my favourite places in the entire world. That warm day in early July, I hiked through the most awe inspiring trees I had ever witnessed. Bigger, taller, more majestic than anything I had ever seen in the Okanagan (where I grew up) – these trees left me with a lasting sense of kinship between myself, a human, and nature. They made me feel that nature was so much bigger than us all, and that so many lessons could be learned by just standing amongst something which had been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. I knew this was a special place and I would return time and time again, sharing it with as many other people as I could. There is truly nothing more humbling than walking among these giant trees…
A few months later, and I would return to Avatar Grove again with my classmates while doing a project on community tourism for Port Renfrew, the closest town to Avatar. Our professor took us into the trees and lectured to us in what I can only describe as one of the most inspiring classrooms ever… evidenced in these photos from the trip.
What I’ve learned about Avatar Grove since I’ve started reading Big Lonely Doug is that protection for this grove of trees was only secured a few year’s prior to my visit, through the hardwork and activism of the Ancient Forest Alliance. The group discovered the trees, which were in the process of being flagged for cutting, and knew they had found the perfect stand of old growth to protect for tourism and conservation. The selling feature was the fact that Avatar Grove was so accessible when compared to other tracts of old growth forest… it was only a few hours’ drive from Victoria on mostly paved roads, and situated only 15 minutes from Port Renfrew with a handful of services for visitors.
Avatar Grove was named after the James Cameron film Avatar, which came out at around the same time. The environmental messaging in the film, it’s huge box office success, and the catchiness of the name helped garner media attention and secure the protection of Avatar Grove from logging. The value of the old trees left standing was evidently acknowledged by the government – but their safety came at a price. The protection of the 60 hectares around Avatar Grove was only agreed to by the logging company in exchange for logging rights to other old growth forest parcels, some with trees over 250 years old.
The next visit I made to the grove was with my Mom and Grandma in Spring 2014, and they were just as inspired as I was by these massive trees. It was great to share this place with two of my role models and it shouldn’t surprise me one bit they would show the same admiration I did when I first visited.
In the years after I first visited Avatar Grove, I often thought about an idea for a tourism business where I would take visitors on day trips from Victoria in a Tesla electric car to witness Avatar Grove for themselves. I wanted to call this company something along the lines of ‘zero impact tours‘ and still believe there is a viable business opportunity for something of that nature. In fact, there is a company offering a day tour passing through Avatar Grove in Teslas – Tesla Tours. I’m hoping to connect with the owner of Tesla Tours at the IMPACT Sustainable Tourism conference I am attending in Victoria in January!
I returned to the Port Renfrew area again in the summer of 2015 and this time set out to find the world’s largest Douglas Fir and Canada’s largest Spruce tree, which are both in the same area just a little more difficult to access. I have to say, finding these trees was such an adventure and they did not disappoint at all!
The namesake of the book ‘Big Lonely Doug’ is the final great tree I have to visit – and I intend on making it happen as soon as I can. Big Lonely Doug was saved from the same fate as all of his neighbouring trees by a logger who realized this was a tree worth saving. He is only 4 meters shorter than the largest Douglas Fir in the world, but the fact he stands alone in the middle of a clear cut is a shocking contrast and one which reminds us how vulnerable these last great trees are.
I wanted to share one of my favourite takeaways from the book so far (I’ve only read 194 out of its 276 pages). It has to do with fears that Lonely Doug will eventually fall and succumb to a great wind storm, something I remember fearing when I first learned his story a few years ago. Without any trees around him to serve as a buffer, it would be easy to assume he will make an easy target for the next great wind.
However, in examining the trees around Big Lonely Doug, it was discovered that he was the only tree of his age (estimated at 1,000 years old), with the other dozen or so next oldest trees all of about 500 years in age, and finally the majority of the trees in his area only 100 years old. Historical evidence from early explorers to the area (and also the local Indigenous histories) talk about a storm in 1906 which levelled the forests and their trees, snapping them off at the trunk. Somehow, Big Lonely Doug survived that storm. When the sun rose the morning after, he would have been the only giant standing among ruins. Not only did he survive that 1906 storm, but it is proposed that he survived another storm about 500 years ago as well, explaining why there are no other trees between 500-1000 years old. I find this a striking symbol for the power of nature to overcome.
“…amid the ruin, one tree had survived.” – Harley Rustad
I will finish this post with a point of consideration – it challenges us to think about the bigger picture, and the long term instead of the short. It took 1,000 years for Big Lonely Doug to grow to his current size, it could have taken mere hours with a chainsaw to bring him to the ground. He was estimated to hold about $60,000 worth of usable lumber value. But how can we put a price on his impact for the next 1,000 years? How many people, young and old, will be inspired by his presence whether in person or in image, to act a little bit more responsibly, or to pick up a book on forestry or ecology or to think before they act and consider the larger picture?
Because, when you stand amongst the giants of Avatar Grove or next to Big Lonely Doug – it is a startling and undeniable reminder that we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves, we are all sharing this planet we call home.
What is the legacy we want to leave for our children and grandchildren – a legacy of taking until we run out of resources to take, or one where value is seen as more than just a dollar figure?
Go visit the great trees in your area or make a trip out of it, I highly recommend it.