An Old Growth Battlefield

Can we save our ancient matriarchs?

A moss-covered boardwalk led us through a rainforest of immense trees and wild growth in the Walbran Valley west of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Bright green moss and fungi clung to fallen trees and logs. Huckleberry and thimbleberry bushes sprouted. Delicate sword ferns carpeted the forest floor. I half expected a Jurassic Park-esque velociraptor to charge through the undergrowth.

Photo by TJ Watt
A hiker checks out the incredible candelabra-top of the Emerald Giant tree, an old-growth western red cedar growing in the endangered Central Walbran Valley on southern Vancouver Island.

I was following T.J. Watt, a renowned big-tree hunter. Also a photographer and founding member of the Ancient Forest Alliance, he has documented many of the largest trees in southern Vancouver Island and has a passion for protecting them. “We’re almost there,” he said.

Soon, Watt stopped and pointed to an immense redcedar, more than five metres across at its base. “This is the Castle Giant. It’s about a thousand years old and one of the largest trees in Canada,” he said.


It took my breath away. What wisdom it must have, I thought, for it was already ancient when Columbus set sail. Way up,
immense spires branched out. We had passed a lot of big cedars, but nothing like this one.

Pointing to orange tapes attached to nearby trees, Watt explained, “These were placed by a timber company that plans to log here. This is the finest grove of old-growth cedars in the country, and must not be felled.”

Only the rat-a-tat of a pileated woodpecker responded, perhaps appropriately, for the Walbran Valley is on the verge of becoming the next battleground in the fight to preserve old-growth forests.


Technically, an old-growth forest is defined as structurally complex, at least 150 years old and without human alteration. In addition to live, big trees, three additional components are necessary: a multi-layered canopy, snags (vertical dead trees) and logs (horizontal dead trees). Together, they support an incredible profusion of life, which is far richer and more complex than what is found in younger forests.

Particularly fascinating are the perched, or canopy, gardens, which are unique to old trees because large branches are needed, and it takes moss and soil more than a century to develop on them. These canopies are havens for birds and wildlife and a boon to the tree itself. The marbled murrelet, an endangered species, spends most of its time on the sea but makes its nest in canopy gardens. The northern spotted owl can live only in old-growth forest and in the U.S. has become synonymous with these forests. Lobaria, the most common lichen in the ancient forest, grows in the canopy where it performs the vital task of converting gaseous nitrogen to the nitrate useable by plants. As the lichen falls to the forest floor, it decomposes and enriches the soil with nitrogen.

Fallen logs act as nurseries for new life. As a log decays, its spongy wood absorbs water, which it supplies to mosses, ferns, bushes and young trees that grow along the top of the log, looking like a wild Mohawk haircut. As these plants thrive and grow larger, the log slowly decays from under, leaving the new plants supported on an intricate arch of roots, which can form bizarre artistic patterns.

It is a profound miracle that simple molecules like nitrogen, water and carbon dioxide are drawn from the soil and air and combine to create these living organisms called trees, which, drawing energy from the sun, grow over centuries to become a vastly complex and beautiful old-growth forest.

First Nations people value big trees, especially the cedar, which they call the Tree of Life because its bark and wood are used to make a wide variety of items, including baskets, boxes, hats, mats, fishing nets, waterproof clothing and more. Mammoth cedars, in particular, are revered because they are used for totem poles, post-and-beam bighouses and large ocean-going canoes. First Nations have sustainably harvested trees and cedar bark for thousands of years.

Photo by TJ Watt
A climber hangs suspended alongside Big Lonely Doug, Canada’s second-largest Douglas fir tree. The tree grows in an old-growth clear cut near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island.

I travelled to Cathedral Grove, west of Parksville, one of the most glorious and accessible stands of old, monumental trees on Vancouver Island. I wandered amongst gigantic Douglas-firs that soared skyward like turrets and flying buttresses. Shafts of golden light angled down to the dusky forest floor like sunbeams through high stained-glass windows. The shadowy forest was rich with sword ferns, moss-covered logs and witch’s hair dangling from branches. I felt a spirituality; a deep closeness with nature.

Dave Forman, a British Columbia park ranger, who has worked in MacMillan Provincial Park (which contains Cathedral Grove) for more than a decade, joined me. He explained how the abundant moisture and gentle climate on the Pacific coast, especially along the western side of Vancouver Island, creates one of the grandest rainforests in the world.

In 1944, the forester H.R. MacMillan (of the MacMillan Bloedell conglomerate) donated this land to the province. Since then Cathedral Grove, recognized as one of the most beautiful spots in Canada, has become a major tourist attraction, drawing approximately half-amillion visitors annually.

Many of the Douglas-firs are over 800 years in age, and the largest reach 75 metres in height and nine metres in circumference. Other big trees are western redcedar and western hemlock.

“My favourite season is winter,” said Forman. “It is easier to see animals like black bears, deer, cougars and my favourite, Roosevelt elk.” Cathedral Grove is also home to several types of woodpeckers, owls, insects, reptiles and amphibians.

Our talk turned sombre when Forman explained there are three natural threats to Cathedral Grove: wind storms, forest fires and root disease.

Far more worrisome are the activities of humans, with logging being the main concern. Logging has come right to the boundary of MacMillan Provincial Park, removing the natural wind barrier. “Another threat is global warming,” continued Forman. “It will dry out this area, which will place stress on the cedars and hemlocks.” Furthermore, the park’s small size and accessibility has left it vulnerable to impacts from high visitor use.

To learn more, I headed to Port Renfrew. Turning south at Lake Cowichan on the Pacific Marine Circle Route, I entered a 45-kilometre stretch of enormous industrial logging, scarred clear-cuts with seas of stumps and piles of waste wood went on for kilometre after kilometre. I was awestruck by the gargantuan, almost incomprehensible, size of the lumbering operation. Even steep hillsides were razed.

Trucks stacked high with huge logs thundered past regularly, and I crossed one-lane bridges with caution. That lumbering is a major industry in British Columbia was abundantly clear. Loggers covet big trees, which, because of their size and fine grain, are far more valuable than second-growth trees. On Vancouver Island, about 90 percent of mammoth old-growth trees have been logged, and the felling continues.

The next day, everything changed as T.J. Watt led me to Avatar Grove, which he first discovered in 2009. A boardwalk and trail now meanders past giant trees and across a forest floor covered with fallen logs, ferns and salal. Enormous cedars towered over us and made the forest dusky. Watt plucked a piece of wood from a decaying log and squeezed it. As water oozed between his fingers he said, “These logs hold water even in a drought.” He pointed to a small black centipede, the first in a long line of decomposers that uses digestive bacteria to break down a tree’s cellulose structure. “I love this grove because it has the most fascinating life, all the way from the huge to the microscopic.”

Then I gasped at a huge cedar, known as Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. Several large knobs, caused by a cancer-like growth of burls, distend and distort its trunk. Yet it is healthy, and, in a strangely grotesque manner, sensuous and beautiful. Avatar Grove almost fell to a lumber company’s chainsaws, but the locals and the Ancient Forest Alliance fought valiantly. They saved the grove, which has become one of Port Renfrew’s main tourist attractions.

I clambered up the tree and nestled on a burl. I felt a primal force, sensing the tree’s vast knowledge, accumulated during a lifetime spanning scores of human generations. Trees like this are national treasures, I thought. As if in confirmation, I heard a passing visitor say, “This is the most splendid forest I’ve ever seen!”

“Come,” said Watt, climbing into his four-wheel-drive van, “Let’s take a tour.” We bumped northwest into an immense logging area along a maze of washboard roads through a landscape that looked like a First World War no-man’s-land, with scarred clear-cuts, seas of stumps, quarries and piles of waste wood.

He stopped beside the largest stump I had ever seen. “This cedar was over a thousand years old, and it wasn’t the only giant felled here recently,” said Watt, pointing to other nearby stumps. Trees are so vulnerable, I thought. Rooted, they can’t escape the machinations of humans and “progress.” But shouldn’t the mightiest, noblest ones, which form only a tiny and diminishing fraction of the forest, be honoured and protected?

In 2011, the former Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, Pat Bell, responded to a report by the Forest Practices Board, stating that old-growth trees need more protection, and assigning the province’s Chief Forester to make appropriate recommendations. Five years later, nothing has happened. The public is awakening and is starting to protest. An old-growth battle is in the making with the Walbran Valley and Castle Grove at the epicentre.

Jon Cash is a member of the recently formed Friends of Carmanah Walbran, whose members were involved in the “War in the Woods” at Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s. “We’ve come out of retirement,” said Cash, “to save the Walbran.” The Ancient Forest Alliance, Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club are also working to preserve the Walbran. A Witness Camp was erected and new and improved trails are making the area more accessible. Two people were arrested in recent blockades.

Photo by TJ Watt
A man stands atop the stump of a centuries-old red cedar in an old-growth clear-cut found in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew.

Ken Wu of the Ancient Forest Alliance is looking for peaceful solutions, and said, “our goal is to save old-growth forests while also helping move B.C.’s lumber industry toward economic sustainability.”

Dan Hager, the president of the Chamber of Commerce has watched tourism take off since Port Renfrew labelled itself as the Tall Tree Capital of Canada. “Simple logic,” he explained. “It’s more economically valuable to preserve grand old trees than cut them down.”

Recently, the BC Chamber of Commerce, the largest business-advocacy organization in the province, agreed, voting almost unanimously to accept Port Renfrew’s motion calling for protection for old-growth forests.

Defying logic, several forestry companies that log old-growth trees have been certified as conducting sustainable forestry (according to Canadian Standards Association protocol Z809). The CSA has failed to explain how old-growth trees and their unique habitat, once cut, can be replaced.

Later, I followed a dirt road to the San Juan Spruce, one of Port Renfrew’s other star attractions. My jaw dropped when I saw the 63-metre-high, giant spruce; it surpassed magnificence. Over her 1,000 years of existence, soil created on branches weave a rich tapestry of hanging gardens of sword ferns, huckleberries and deep green moss, which, in turn, give form to more life. Innumerable birds, insects and even small animals call her home.

The giant spruce appeared primordial and wise, a queen of the forest. I placed both hands against the gnarly, moss-covered trunk. Closing my eyes, I felt a spiritual energy, a connection. It was a humbling reminder of nature’s majesty. “If this ancient matriarch could only speak,” I thought, “what tales she could tell.”

Next day, I visited Big Lonely Doug, the second-largest Douglas-fir in the country, and certainly the most dramatic. Spared by loggers, it soars like a skyscraper, making a striking visual statement as it stands alone in a clear-cut of large stumps. Leaning against its vast girth, Watt quietly said, “Not long ago, this area was just as majestic and spiritual as Avatar Grove.”

How sad, I mused, for trees are social beings. Scientists have shown that they communicate and share resources with each other through their intertwined roots and associated mycorrhizal fungal systems. Big Lonely Doug must be in enormous shock, having lost all his neighbours, including a number of his own progeny, in one brief roar of chainsaws.

A few weeks later, I returned to the Walbran Valley and sat under the towering, moss-encrusted limbs of the Castle Giant. I thought about how this grand tree and others like it are symbolic of our nation, and the aspirations and spirit of the Canadian people. Hopefully we will have the collective will to preserve them.

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