Sooke's Evergreen Mall Trees Appeared Healthy Once On Ground

Sooke's 150 year old ex-landmark trees appear healthy in
this photo taken by Yari Nielsen, RFT

Sooke council had a special meeting December 8th at which it was decided that the two 150 year old Douglas-fir trees in the centre of town had to come down. About a week later all that remained at the Evergreen Mall site was tree dust, a heavy smell of pitch, and a giant hole in the sky.

The following was posted on the Sooke District website shortly before the trees were removed:

District staff and BC Hydro are working together to remove the two large fir trees in front of Evergreen Mall. The trees, one of which has most notably been decorated with Christmas lights in recent years, will be removed in the week of December 13.

The trees are in need of removal for a combination of reasons. The south side of the “Christmas Tree” will be limbed by BC Hydro in early 2011 to ensure the security of the 3 phase electrical lines installed in 2010. The resultant limbing, combined with the installation of works for recent development on the adjacent property, will cause further decline in the already compromised “Christmas Tree” and adjacent fir tree.

To address the removal, BC Hydro will reduce the tree heights and District contractors will remove the remainder, grind the stumps and clean up the debris. Tree removal will coincide with final landscaping required at the mall as part of the Development Permit issued for the construction of Shopper’s Drug Mart. For more information contact Laura Byrne at lbyrne@sooke.ca.

Considering the heritage value of the trees in question, were these reasons sufficient to take them down? Nowhere in the above notice does it say that the trees were unhealthy or dangerous, and what other reasons would justify removal?

It may be that no one in power was willing to make any compromises to save these majestic giants. They were under appreciated by decision makers, and in the way of developers and "progress". Before any kind of community discussion could be arranged, the trees were gone.

Half way up the trunk - still showing healthy wood, Yari Nielsen

The removal has created some controversy with people weighing in on whether the trees should have been removed or not. Some of the information on the decision to remove them focuses on their apparent ill health. Al Fontes, the district’s manager of operations, was quoted in the Mirror as stating that an assessment “found the trees are dying.”

So were the trees dying? And if they were healthy, what was the real reason the two landmark Douglas-fir trees were removed in such haste, or at all?

Yari Nielsen, of Sooke, was asking questions, too. He is a Registered Forest Technologist, and a certified wildlife/danger tree assessor. Mr. Nielsen wandered up to the town center to check things out, and take a few photographs, on the day the trees came down.

His photographs make it fairly clear that the two trees were healthy. And if that is not enough, that was Mr. Nielsen's professional assessment as well. As he wrote in a letter to the editor at the Sooke News Mirror newspaper, "Not only are both stems completely sound at the base, but half way up as well. I saw no signs of disease (conks or fungus), and the roots appeared to be sound."

More healthy wood, Yari Nielsen
Perhaps this insult to Sooke's natural history will be the impetus for adopting a tree protection bylaw to protect significant trees that are still standing. Heritage Tree Designation could be conferred upon trees that are outstanding in character, size, age, and/or of unusual scientific or historical interest. The two Douglas-fir that were removed recently would have qualified for heritage status on a few counts given this definition.

A tree protection bylaw would engender civic pride and interest in Sooke's trees, and promote their protection. Victoria (as well as many other municipalities in the CRD) has an extensive collection of over 300 inventoried Heritage trees, groups, and areas that are protected from "unnecessary harm or removal".

We should seriously consider saving what makes Sooke's natural and cultural landscape unique and worth visiting. If logging built this town and province, then we should be showing more respect for what got us here - our big trees.


Make 2011 The Year B.C. Stopped Logging Ancient Forests

What will happen when our ancient forests are gone? Considering that we are inevitably headed in that direction, government and industry must have a plan. Right? Wrong. They are winging it, and extracting maximum profit before the party is over. Then what?

They don't care, because the individuals that are perpetrating the continued pillaging of public resources will be long gone by the time fate deals its hand. With comfortable pensions, and fat bank accounts such folks will do just fine... except for that nagging feeling that they did something horribly wrong.

They can be stopped by citizens rightfully claiming what belongs to them - the natural resources of this province. Improved environmental stewardship must be placed high on the political agenda, for what we do to the earth we do to ourselves.

Please consider writing letters, phoning elected officials, and supporting non-profits working on our behalf to save what is left of our beleaguered forests. Let's make 2011 The Year B.C. Stopped Logging Ancient Forests.

Lower Avatar Grove, Port Renfrew (this ancient forest is surveyed for logging)


Seasons Greetings

Dark Side of the Horse Comics, by Samson
Seasons Greetings from Vancouver Island Big Trees.

We look forward to a new year of working to increase public awareness of the amazing wealth of trees on Vancouver Island, as well as the numerous threats to their continued survival.

It is our hope that throughout 2011 this blog will engender a sense of appreciation in readers for the contributions trees make to our lives. Ecological services amount to trillions of dollars per year alone, and include things like water filtration and soil retention. Trees, especially in ancient forests, provide habitat for thousands of organisms. Look around your home - how many things are made of wood?

VIBT encourages everyone to go outdoors and to witness the trees in their actual setting, preferably at different times of the year. The big trees are a major feature of the land and add a beauty that is unique to this area. Being in the forest with mossy thousand year old giants rising up all around is an experience that many will tell you is akin to a visit to a cathedral.

It is nature's cathedral, and it needs our help to protect it from further desecration.


One Year Anniversary Of Discovery Of Port Renfrew's Stunning Avatar Grove

Marked tree in Upper Avatar Grove preparing for logging
Media Release - Ancient Forest Alliance
Port Renfrew, BC – To mark the one year anniversary since the discovery of the spectacular but endangered Avatar Grove (see the stunning photo gallery here: http://www.ancientforestalliance.org/photos.php?gID=6 ) the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce is repeating its request to the provincial government to protect the Grove while the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) is planning to organize monthly public hikes to the Grove until it is saved.
“Since the name ‘Avatar Grove’ was first uttered, we have seen tourist numbers increase and that means exposure for Port Renfrew and tourist dollars spent” states Rosie Betsworth, president of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce. “To save our beautiful old-growth forests and to stimulate tourism in our community is a win-win for us all.”
The 50 hectare stand of lush old-growth temperate rainforest on public (Crown) lands near Port Renfrew has become a major attraction due to the ease of access to its giant, alien shaped redcedars - including “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree” with a massive,12ft diameter burl - and enormous Douglas firs. (For directions visit: http://www.ancientforestalliance.org/directions-avatar-grove.php ). The Grove exists just 5 minutes past the end of a paved road on relatively gentle terrain, only a 15 minute drive from Port Renfrew. This contrasts to most other old-growth stands that are found in remote areas and on steep slopes which require travel along rough logging roads for considerable distances.
“The BC government could immediately protect the Avatar Grove from logging through a new Land Use Order, and later, through a legislated provincial conservancy. It’s the holiday season and everyone is looking for the perfect gift. Saving the Avatar Grove would be the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – for tourism, recreation, wildlife, and for future generations of Canadians,” says TJ Watt, the AFA campaigner who found the Avatar Grove a year ago.
The Avatar Grove was found in December 2009 by AFA Watt and a friend exploring scattered patches of lowland old-growth forest in the Gordon River Valley on southern Vancouver Island.
“Near the end of our trip we were getting quite discouraged after finding mostly clear-cuts with giant stumps and second-growth tree plantations,” reflects Watt, “but about 15 minutes before Port Renfrew some massive trees appeared alongside the road and we could see the forked tops of the old-growth redcedars. As soon as we started hiking, we spotted one giant cedar about 10 feet wide at its base, then another, and it just continued. It baffled me that such a spectacular forest is still standing so close to town, on low flat terrain, yet hasn’t been logged. Right away, I knew it had the potential to be the Cathedral Grove of Port Renfrew.”
 Two months later in February, 2010, Watt and Ken Wu, campaign director of the newly-formed Ancient Forest Alliance, found falling boundary and road location flagging tape throughout the Grove. “I was so eager to share the magnificence of this forest but as we entered we were shocked to find fresh spray paint on all the largest trees and flagging tape around the Grove marked ‘falling boundary’. The timing was uncanny” recalls Watt.
Since then, the fight to protect this eco-treasure has become Canada’s fastest growing ancient forest campaign, featured in scores of provincial and national news stories. The AFA has taken hundreds of people to the Grove, while thousands more have visited on their own.
 “No matter what time of year, nearly each time I visit the Avatar Grove there’s a line-up of cars. Being only a 2.5 hour drive from Victoria, literally every day people from all walks of life are visiting the Avatar Grove, including families with kids, young couples, older folks, solo hikers, nature groups, tourists, students. You name it, they’ve made a point to see the spectacular, endangered temperate rainforest that BC has to offer. Sadly, despite losing so much of these rare areas already, ongoing old-growth logging means we stand to lose much of what remains,” notes Watt.
The movement to save the Avatar Grove has also garnered political support at all levels. Federal, provincial and regional political representatives in the Juan de Fuca area have all joined the call for its protection, including federal Liberal MP Keith Martin, provincial NDP MLA John Horgan, and Regional Director Mike Hicks, who notes the Avatar Grove would make an excellent side visit for those traveling along the newly completed Pacific Marine Circle Route.
The Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce and the Sooke Regional Tourism Association have also requested that the BC government protect the Avatar Grove, recognizing the economic significance of eco-tourism in their communities.
Yet, despite virtually unanimous support, the BC government has not stepped up to the plate to ensure that the area is spared from logging by the Surrey-based Teal-Jones Group.
“The response we’ve received so far from Premier Gordon Campbell and Minister Pat Bell is that 24% of the Avatar Grove is within an Old-Growth Management Area which will not be logged, so ‘don’t worry,’” says Watt. “What they fail to mention is that virtually all of the biggest and best trees on the most accessible terrain where everyone hikes are not protected. If the Avatar Grove falls, Port Renfrew and the region won’t get another chance like this for another thousand years.”

The Ancient Forest Alliance is calling on the BC government to protect our endangered old-growth forests, ensure the sustainable logging of second-growth forests, end the export of raw logs, and assist in the retooling and development of sawmills and value-added facilities to handle second-growth logs.


Wassailing The Trees On Winter Solstice

Trajectory of the sun on Winter Solstice
Today was the winter solstice, or Yule, as it was known before Christianity and Capitalism co-opted it. Now it is all about presents and an approximate birthday, but it used to be about our connection to, and appreciation of, nature.

Yule was a celebration of the end of the dark half of the year and the beginning of the light half. Trees figured prominently in this celebration. People would do what was known as 'wassailing' the trees, because back then we knew the true value of trees and forests. It had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with living in harmony, and survival.

Big leaf maple waiting for the sun
So like a good pagan I went for a bike ride today, and wassailed the trees. I toasted them with clear cold water, thanked them for their sacrifice, and drank to their continued good health.

We are fortunate to live in such an abundant land here on Vancouver Island. I am taking time today to be grateful for this bounty, and to celebrate the return of the sun and the gifts it bestows. Gifts like the biggest trees on the planet.


Sooke Core To Lose Landmark Big Trees

These landmark Douglas-fir trees will be coming down soon.
They are shown here being decorated with Xmas lights last year.
Talk about getting a lump of coal in your Xmas stocking. I found out yesterday in the Sooke News Mirror, the once-a-week newspaper, that two of the town's landmark trees will be coming down soon. Evergreen Mall will soon be Evergreenless Mall, just as Cedar Grove Shopping Mall just down the street became Cedar Groveless Mall a couple of years back.

I have always thought it was a wonderful tip of the hat to the past to have two large natural trees in the middle of town. A nod to the history of the 10, 000 year old forest that existed here, and to the 150 years it has taken us to use it up.

These towering Douglas-fir have been green beacons for decades. While not huge, these trees are significant landmarks to the area, town, and people. I am confident careful consideration was taken in deciding to bring them down.

Big trees on Vancouver Island break most people's notions of big - they are truly super-sized. Often such trees are not compatible with urban areas, as nice as it is to have them around. Limbs and whole trees can fall harming people and property during wind storms. And trees, like us, eventually fall prey to a variety of health issues with age making them more dangerous.

Detail showing little men in a big tree
It is reported that the two classic conifers gracing Sooke's town centre are of ill health, even though they are probably not much older than about 150 years. Douglas-fir are long-lived trees that can survive for up to ten centuries. It looks like these trees won't be seeing that kind of history.

So farewell to the green beacons that I gaze upon every day from home. I have taken comfort in their steadfast nature, and have been amazed that against all odds they lasted this long right in the middle of town. Let us not forget that at one time giants stood here.


Giant Sooke River Snag

Giant Douglas-fir snag in Sooke represents an ancient forest that no longer exists
This is one of my favourite local big trees, a Douglas-fir snag of epic proportions. It is kind of a shame that it is only the bottom 12 metres, as this must have been a massive specimen before it was snapped off in a wind storm some time in the past.

Still, it remains impressive even with the little that is left. There are not many trees, snags or still living, of this size left in the town of Sooke. And as development rapidly changes the face of this formerly rural town, more big trees are coming down.

Sooke does not have a tree protection bylaw like some of its neighbours in the Western Communities. Esquimalt's tree protection bylaw for example, recognizes that "it is in the public interest to provide for the protection and preservation of trees, the regulation of their cutting and removal, and their replacement". That is some kind of forward thinking for a variety of reasons. Big tree tourism is one of them, and one that this blog promotes.

Big tree tourists may be amazed to find that the mossy, furrowed, fire-scared bark of the Douglas-fir above is almost a foot thick at the base. Small fires over the hundreds of years this old timer lived would not have threatened its asbestos-like covering. Its canopy would have been far, far above the flames beyond reach. Imagine the entire Sooke area covered in these monumental fire-resistant giants.

Development in Sooke and south Vancouver Island, combined with intensive industrial logging have decimated the ancient forest. While it is almost extinct, it is nice to know that there are still some ancient holdouts scattered throughout the area waiting to be found. The tree above, residing in an area where development is closing in on all sides, is one of them.

Visit This Tree
I am not sure how far along the Sooke River the official Sunriver Nature Trail extends. Following the trail you will not see any signage indicating you have left the park, so I figure it is alright. However, as far as I know the trail may extend into private property. Either way please hike respectfully. Stay on the designated trail, don't leave anything behind, and try to leave the area in better shape than you found it. Enjoy the trees.

View Sooke River Douglas-fir Snag in a larger map


Weekend Rains Wash Tree Debris Into Sooke River Estuary

Although everything is calm on the Sooke River estuary today, the weekend was a different story. A record rainfall flooded the Victoria region with a deluge that put many local roads under water. Another winter day in the rain forest.

When we get these strong winter storms the Sooke River becomes Mr. Hyde to the drought seasons calm, well-mannered Dr. Jekyll. Water levels rise quickly in a big storm, and erosion muddies the normally clear water. And as the river crashes down through the forest covered hills it washes out all kinds of debris that eventually ends up in the estuary and harbour.

On the weekend the soupy water was moving fast and carrying everything from silt to single trees. Severe winter storms such as the one we had on the weekend are an exciting time to be in the rain forest, if you don't have to drive Highway 14.

All is calm today, but the new wildlife trees are evidence of the high waters
It is always fun to see the new tree debris added to the estuary. Some will wash away with the next high tide, and other large debris may be around for years or decades. However long they stay, they will add diversity to the estuary. The trees thrive with life, although not their own.

The estuary wildlife trees host an abundance of life, the most obvious of which are the birds. Eagles frequently use their favourite trees to perch on or to eat a meal of duck or sea gull. Cormorants sit on logs facing the sun with wings spread wide. Gulls like to captain logs as they float around with the currents and tides.

River otters are also regular users of wildlife trees for playing on, slumping across and sleeping in a sunbeam, or for holding a crunchy crab lunch.

Eagles hanging out on a Western red-cedar wildlife tree in the Sooke River estuary
 It is amazing to see the power of the river to deposit huge trees into Sooke Harbour during winter storms. During dry summers it might be hard to float a small branch down the meager trickle. In winter it turns into a white foam raging torrent.

The trees that the high water brings continue to add to the diversity of the coastal rain forest. In addition to the structure that they add, nutrients that the salmon brought into the forest from the sea are now being returned to the sea.


Mapping Significant Arbutus of Vancouver Island

Detail of Arbutus in Roche Cove Park, Sooke

This map augments a post I did on one of British Columbia's most beautiful and unique native trees - the Arbutus. The interactive map highlights some of the significant Arbutus on Vancouver Island, mostly in the Victoria and S. Island area where the peeling bark evergreen trees are most common.

View Victoria and S. Island Big Arbutus in a larger map

Click on the tree icons for more information.

Some of the Arbutus noted are street trees in urban areas, while others can be found in more natural and remote settings. All are amazing trees surviving in a harsh, coastal environment. Often living on rocks in marginal soil not far from the ocean, these tough trees withstand constant pounding from water and wind storms. When a calmer summer arrives, Arbutus are denied water for extended lengths of time during these droughts.

Big Arbutus and Douglas-fir, Roche Cove Park, Sooke
Click on photo for larger image.
You can use the map above to learn more about Arbutus. You can use the tree icons, or zoom in to view more detailed maps. Try using 'Street View' by pulling the little person icon (on the top left) down to the street you would like to view. It will give you a view of the street as if you are driving a car.

This is a very interesting, low carbon method to see some of the urban trees without leaving your own home. A good rainy day winter activity.

Do you have a favourite  Arbutus on Vancouver Island? Please leave a comment below letting us know where it is.


Arbutus - Canada's Only Native Broad-leafed Evergreen Tree

B.C.'s largest circumference (7.8 meters) Arbutus, Dockyards CFB, Esquimalt
Arbutus, or Pacific Madrone, are magnificent trees that grow along the west coast. In British Columbia, Arbutus (Arbutus menzeisii) is found in the dry southeast regions of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and bits of the lower mainland. They are very distinctive trees that frequently grace artists renderings of the area, clinging to the rocks and standing up to gale force winds.

Arbutus are found as far south as Mexico, giving this tree one of the longest north-south ranges of any North American tree. It is Canada's only native broad-leafed evergreen tree, and usually resides not farther than 8 km from the pounding waves of the Pacific ocean.

Arbutus in Roche Cove Regional Park, Sooke
These unique and striking trees live in quickly drained, shallow, nutrient-poor soils on rocky outcrops. In these locations trunks commonly split into several main branches close to the ground, creating massive canopies of red, orange and chartreuse coloured twisted branches. Arbutus are sun loving trees.
Huge canopy of Arbutus in Roche Cove Regional Park, Sooke
Arbutus are also found in dry, open forests in deeper soils, where they grow a single tall trunk before branching farther up to make a compact crown. Arbutus are commonly found with other drought-tolerant trees such as Douglas-fir and Garry oak.

Largest (398 AFA points) known, and tallest (35.54 m), Arbutus in B.C., Thetis Island

Arbutus are not known for sustaining damage in wind storms. This is partly because their wood is dense and strong. Heavy wet snow, on the other hand, can break their branches.

Arbutus flowers and leaves, Shaun Hubbard photo
Arbutus leaves are oval shaped and have a leathery texture. The tree sport bunches of small, bell-shaped white flowers that bring a fragrant essence to the forest at the water's edge every spring. Their red berry is edible, and birds such as waxwings and robins dine on them.

Arbutus bark has a variety of appearances depending on its age
Arbutus does not drop all its leaves in the fall, although the trees reddish bark peels off revealing the smooth, new green bark underneath.

These are tough trees that weather summer drought conditions well, and prefer very dry to moderately dry soils.

If they are damaged by fire they are able to sprout fresh growth from the trunk, giving them an advantage over fire damaged conifers. Fire is not much of a threat these days, though, but forms of fungus are. Many of B.C.'s Arbutus are suffering from different forms of fungus, including root rot, which is damaging and killing a number of trees. Scientists believe this is due to stresses put on Arbutus by unusually dry winters. Habitat loss is also a threat.

On south Vancouver Island just about any coastal area will feature notable Arbutus. Regional parks are good places to see these amazing trees. Witty's Lagoon Regional Park in Metchosin features some very large Arbutus. Beach Trail, which starts next to the Nature Center, takes the hiker past one of the largest and oldest Arbutus in the area.

Giant Arbutus at Witty's Lagoon Regional Park
Other places to view Arbutus are Roche Cove, and East Sooke Regional Parks. Victoria has many large urban Arbutus. Also in the Victoria area, the Saanich Peninsula has many notable Arbutus.

Enjoy the many opportunities Vancouver Island has for viewing Canada's only native broad-leafed evergreen tree. Some of the best Arbutus habitat (and individual specimens) in B.C. can be found here.


BC Ministry of Forests and Range Research Branch Disbanded After 80 Years of Service

Pipestone Inlet near Ucluelet, from BC Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands
Barbara Hawkins is a professor in the University of Victoria Centre for Forest Biology and a registered professional forester. She has been involved in forest research in B.C., New Zealand and Thailand for 25 years. The following is an article she published in Victoria's Times Colonist newspaper November 26, 2010:

Unnoted last week amid the political confusion, British Columbians lost a venerable institution. After a proud, 80-year history, the research branch of the Ministry of Forests and Range was disbanded. It is ironic, in the government's self-declared Year of Science, that it should dismantle such an internationally respected scientific institution.

B.C. is a world leader in many areas of forest research. Our excellent reforestation record, forest genetics program, long-term growth and yield experiments, forest growth models and ecologically based biogeoclimatic classification system were founded on sound science and are the envy of many countries.

The research was conducted collaboratively by provincial, federal, university, industrial and community institutions. Scientists from each of these institutions have distinct priorities and capabilities, and one cannot replace the other. University and industry scientists cannot provide the continuity and long-term commitment needed for some types of forest research.
The loss of a united, cohesive research branch is a loss to us all.

At a time when the need for forest research is pressing, the government's lack of support is baffling. In the past two years, the Forest Investment Account forest science program has been cut, eliminating competitive funding for forest researchers in all institutions, and the research branch suffered layoffs of approximately 25 per cent of its staff. Last week, the final blow was to disperse the remaining staff in the research branch to four separate ministries.

Climate change is already having dramatic impacts on our forests, with more likely to come and the forest industry is in an obvious state of change. B.C. needs to position itself to maintain healthy, productive forests providing sustainable ecosystems and raw materials for a diversified forest industry. This can only be achieved through sound basic and applied research and monitoring built on long-term vision.
No rationale has been given for the drastic changes within the Ministry of Forests and Range. Doubtless, government ministries, like trees, are improved by judicious pruning. A tree cut off at its roots, however, does not bear fruit.


Snow In The Coastal Forest

View from Willis Point, Carolyn Rowins
Winter is a dangerous time for coastal trees and forests. Snow, ice, and wind can combine forces with devastating effect. Powerful winter storms are nature's tree trimmers and fallers. They also create havoc for those of us living under the trees.

In Vancouver Island's recent snowfall many residents were without power for up to a day. The snow came with record cold temperatures for November, so a day without power would be uncomfortable for the unprepared.

Last year there was not a flake of snow at sea level in Sooke, but the year before that there was snow on the ground for several weeks in a row. Winter is unpredictable along the coast.

Trees heavy with snow at Cobble Hill, Christina D.
When coastal snowfalls happen they tend to be of the heavy, wet variety. Sometimes the weight of snow causes trees to lose their tops or a few branches. When conditions are right trees wobble under the load and fall down. Often they take power lines with them.

Having the power go out can be an inconvenience, but it almost seems worth it to see the forest altered and transformed. Snow covered individual trees stand out from the common background of forest. All is quiet and muffled. It is a rare treat.

Ultimately, damaged, injured or toppled trees end up creating more diversity in the forest environment as other living things take advantage of storm damaged trees for food and habitat. Winter can be a beautiful and powerful agent of change in the forest.


Giving Thanks For The Trees

Giving thanks for the big trees in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

Any time is a good time to stop and acknowledge the true value of our trees and forests. Beyond beautiful, they provide habitat and services to support a profusion of life, including humans. Old growth trees and forests provide more value standing than cut down. They freely give day in and day out. Let's be thankful for the trees.

photo from: oakvilleandbeyond.com


The Chipko Movement: Hugging And Saving India's Trees Since 1730

Villagers surround tree to protect it from the axe
"We have arisen, we are awake
No longer will thieves rule our destiny
It is our home, our forests
No longer will the others decide for us"

- Chipko protest chant 

The Himalayan region of northern India is a stunning land rich in natural resources. A wide diversity of forests cover regions from flat, low plains to the tree line in alpine areas of the highest mountain range in the world. This is also the land of the original tree huggers, the brave women of the Chipko Movement.

In India, as here in B.C., the forests have been under assault for a long time. The Chipko Movement is a decades old initiative of the people to address the serious problems of deforestation and corporate control. Chipko means 'to stick' or 'to hug' in Hindi.

Although the first recorded use of tree hugging to protect forests in India was in 1730, the movement took its modern form in the 1970's. At that time the state of Uttarakhand was experiencing heavy logging pressure from outside corporations after new roads made previously remote forests accessible. 

The people that lived in, or near the forests were suffering the consequences of the greedy industrial practices. The women, who were closest to the forest resources, suffered the most when they began to disappear.

Villagers had to walk farther to gather fire wood and fodder for their livestock. Water sources were drying up affecting availability of water for drinking and irrigation. Erosion on deforested areas during the monsoon was scaring the land and creating devastating floods. 

All the profit from the deforestation was taken away, rather than benefiting the local economy. The people were increasingly dissatisfied with commercial logging and government forest policy.

Artwork by Notnarayan
1973 saw the first confrontation over the looming ecological disaster. Tired of inaction on the part of the government, the women of the Chipko Movement decided to protest the destruction of their forest directly. 100 activists banged drums and shouted slogans where the logging activity was taking place. The loggers retreated, and eventually their contract was canceled and given to the villagers.

More protests took place in different areas. Where the people were threatened and ignored the protesters embraced the trees to protect them from being cut. They would often maintain their vigils for days at a time before the loggers retreated.

When news of the growing movement reached the state capital a commission was called which eventually ruled in favour of the Chipko activists and the people most affected by the environmental collapse. For them it was an issue of life or death.

In 1980 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government banned the cutting of trees in the Himalayan regions for 15 years to allow forests to recover.

The Chipko Movement is still going strong as a major socio-ecological movement, and has served as a model for similar groups across the world. The movement has been successful in returning forests to community control for the sustainable benefit of local communities. 

Fortunately they did not have to sacrifice their lives for the trees as did the 363 slain tree huggers in the original 1730 Chipko protest.


Ella Beach: Big Trees On The Edge

Big trees on the edge along the coast near Sooke
Vancouver Island has 3,500 kilometers of coastline, and along much of that you will find trees. These trees are at the edge living a very precarious existence. This is where the sea meets the land, and the water meets the wood. It is a wild and ever changing battlefield, and ultimately the land and trees give way to the persistence of the wind and waves. Sooke's west-facing Ella beach is a great place to see the interaction of land and sea, and witness how big trees cope in this dangerous zone.

Looking up at a downed Sitka spruce waiting to slide into the ocean
Wind, rain, and waves all slam into land here, constantly shaping the trees while eroding the land around them. On the night of December 15, 2006 a mega-storm hit the south coast. Hurricane force winds of 158 km/hour were recorded at Race Rocks, not far from here. The storm knocked down thousands of trees along the coast that night, and many ended up in the ocean becoming drift logs.

Eventually the tree in the distance will join others on the beach
Many of the biggest trees along Ella beach are Sitka spruce. These trees are not found further than about 80 km from the ocean, and have adapted to the salt spray near the surf. It is believed that not only do these trees tolerate salty or brackish conditions, but actually benefit from the various minerals found in ocean spray and salty soil.

Sitka spruce often have shallow root systems as many begin life on top of downed trees or 'nurse logs'. This makes them susceptible to blow down later in life. Sitka spruce can live for up to 800 years, but it is unlikely that those growing in exposed, easily eroded areas will make it that far. The oldest trees I saw along Ella beach are probably half that age.

Big Sitka spruce along Ella beach in a low bank, sheltered setting
There are also big Douglas-fir along the coast here. Many of them are also being swept into the ocean. Some will end up on the beach somewhere in the area. Others may make a major crossing on ocean currents and wash up on beaches on the Hawaiian Islands. Historically such logs making the crossing from North America were sought after by the Hawaiians for building canoes.

This Douglas-fir holds on against all odds
The terrain along this stretch of coastline varies from walk-on beach at the Ella Road access, to towering sheer cliffs closer to town. Hiking here you can see the graphic results of the ocean/land interface as everything is eventually eroded away.

This Douglas-fir, anchored by roots growing into the cliff, hangs suspended in the air
This ever changing, dynamic zone where the ocean meets the land constantly provides interesting surprises. Ella beach in Sooke is an excellent place to view big trees on the edge - a perilous spot where the ocean always wins.

Getting There

View Ella Beach in a larger map


Avatar Grove - Accessible Ancient Forest Marked For Logging

Baird Creek Bridge and Avatar Grove  (see truck on right)
As I approached the Baird Creek bridge 20 minutes north of Port Renfrew on the Gordon River Main logging road, I realized I had been here before. A few years ago I stopped, took pictures, and sat on the bridge for a while. I admired the view of the canyon below, as well as the tops of huge trees and candelabra Western red-cedar poking out of the forest canopy. But unlike a recent trip, back then I didn't take a few steps off the road and enter the forest. But back then it wasn't called Avatar Grove.

Shady, moist forest floor and big trees everywhere

Take those few steps off dusty Gordon River Main and you step into a different realm. From civilization, gravel and harsh sunlight you descend into a wild, moist, lush, shady forest. A forest that grows some of the biggest trees on Earth, and contains the most biomass of any forest anywhere. This is Avatar Grove.

Members of the Ancient Rainforest Alliance (AFA) stepped off the logging road in December of 2009, and when they did they found massive old growth trees. They were looking at a forest that has survived over 100 years of industrial logging in the Port Renfrew area.

Recognizing its value as a standing forest, they named it Avatar Grove after James Cameron's movie and began to push for protection. But they found more. The AFA team also discovered that the area was surveyed and flagged for logging.

A survey blaze on a small tree in Upper Avatar Grove
I thought I had better take a look before it was gone, and mounted a fall field trip to Port Renfrew on a glorious, crisp, sunny day.

Mushroom and moss

At the grove, as soon as I was through the thick barrier of bush growing alongside the road I stepped out under a shady canopy far above. The ground was moist and spongy and my feet sunk into the thick layer of debris. Everything was covered in moss, which can hold 1000 times its own weight in moisture. Once logged such areas all but dry out in the harsh direct sunlight.

In Lower Avatar Grove the ground is sloped gently down to the Gordon River. A rough trail has been flagged out, but there are also many logging survey flags so one must exercise caution. I forged ahead, excited to finally be checking out this wonder so close to home.

After my eyes adjusted to the shade I began to see giant trees spread around the forest below. All the tell-tale signs of old growth forest are here: a variety of ages of trees from seedlings to seniors, standing dead trees (or snags), large diameter woody debris (fallen giants), and a deep layer of decaying matter on the forest floor.

Large diameter woody debris is everywhere - downed logs can take centuries to decay
The rough path leads the big tree hunter to some spectacular individual behemoths. There are some very large Douglas-fir, but the real stars here are the amply aged and weathered Western red-cedars. They are big and gnarly, and unlike any cedars I have seen. Most of the largest cedars are festooned with burls and whorls that are unique in their twisted beauty.

Ancient Western red-cedar in Lower Avatar Grove
The big Douglas-firs are dark and ominous looking, and far above the twisted and broken tree-tops poke out of the canopy and catch the last light of the day.

Big Douglas-fir in Lower Avatar Grove

I lost the trail on the way back up to the road, but there is little undergrowth and many fallen logs to walk along. It is hard to get lost here as all you need to do is point yourself uphill and hike till you hit Gordon Main, which is what I successfully did.

Giant tree broken off at the top, but still tall enough to poke above the rest

Back on the dusty gravel it seemed hard to believe that I have drove right through the middle of this old growth forest several times over the years without ever knowing what treasures lurked just a meter off the road. I ran up into the upper grove for a few brief minutes and look forward to returning at a later date for a more extensive upper grove excursion.

Lower Grove - big moss covered trees everywhere

See Avatar Grove

Leave Victoria and take Hiway 14 to Sooke, check gas gauge, then continue to Port Renfrew.
At Port Renfrew turn RIGHT onto Deering Rd. Follow Deering Rd. until the T intersection, then turn LEFT (right is toward Lake Cowichan). Follow road until the bridge over the Gordon River. Cross the bridge and stay on Gordon River Main for about 1.5 km. Right after you cross over the single lane bridge at Baird Creek, pull off to the right and park. Trail access has been marked by AFA on both sides of the road. Visit gently - be respectful. Enjoy the trees.

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Save Avatar Grove

You would think that a bit of ancient forest on a well kept main logging road only 20 minutes from Port Renfrew would make someone in government think about preservation and tourism potential. Avatar Grove is on Crown land, so saving this valuable forest treasure would not entail purchasing land from a greedy logging/development company.

Please consider contacting elected officials to let them know preservation is the most logical thing to do with this increasingly rare piece of primeval forest, and the massive trees that thrive in it. Let them know that cutting thousand year old trees for pulp, paper, and deck lumber is greedy and unnecessary.


Mary Lake: Help Save Original Coastal Douglas Fir Forest

It is not often that people have a chance to help preserve a bit of the original Coastal Douglas Fir (CDF) ecosystem here on Vancouver Island. Mary Lake, in the rural and rugged Highlands district outside of Victoria, B.C., presents such an opportunity.

A group dedicated to preserving Mary Lake, and the surrounding 107 acres of undeveloped forest, are attempting to raise the money to purchase it. See more here, and consider lending them a hand in reaching their worthy goal of saving some of this beleaguered ecosystem.

The CDF ecosystem is tiny, the smallest eco-zone in B.C., yet it holds a greater variety of plant and animal life than any other ecosystem in the province. The zone is restricted to a small strip of southeast Vancouver Island, as well as parts of the Gulf Islands and bits along the coast on the mainland. On the island, this vanishing ecosystem runs through the rainshadow created by the Vancouver Island and Olympic ranges.

This dry strip along the east coastal plain, until fairly recently, contained some of the biggest trees in the world. The size and scope of the original forest was an irresistible economic gold mine to early European settlers. Today 99% of one of the world's most productive and massive forests is gone.

Even the 1% that remains is being exploited before it too disappears. Only about 5% of the CDF zone is protected in parks - the B.C. government's goals is 12%.

The government has known for a long time that the CDF forest is in peril. In 1999 the B.C. Ministry of Environment stated in its Ecosystem at Risk brochure that "nearly every type of old growth Douglas-fir forest on British Columbia's dry coastal plain is now rare or endangered".

Knowing this, the government gave the go-ahead earlier this year for logging to commence on District Lot 33 in Nanoose Bay. Lot 33, a 64 hectare plot in the CDF zone, contains huge old growth Douglas-fir and Western red-cedar. It has never been inventoried for its biological wealth, and is prime habitat for the Marbled murrelet and Spotted owl.

Industrial use, logging, and increasingly, residential development, threaten the dry coastal plain that lies next to Georgia Straight.

Indeed, it is residential development that threatens the Mary Lake forest in Highlands. But we currently have the opportunity to save this 107 acres of endangered forest. Please consider donating, and/or volunteering. Also, consider writing to our elected officials to tell them that you do not want to see Vancouver Island's CDF forest go extinct on their watch.

Where is Mary Lake? 

Mary Lake is in the district of Highlands off Millstream Road, a 20 minute drive northwest of Victoria, B.C. The land is currently private, and having not visited yet, I can not say what access is like. However, I did see somewhere online that said that there are area trails that locals have been using over the years. As always, be respectful when visiting the big trees.

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New On VIBT: Big Tree Art Button

Coastal Conifer, Gregg Koep
Yes, I am obsessed with trees - I can't even prepare a meal without being sidetracked by the allure and beauty of the coastal conifers. This piece almost made itself as I stood at the kitchen counter. The two dimensional sculpture is made from: Garbanzo beans, and dried kidney bean pods.

I posted 'Big Tree Art' back in January of this year. In the post I highlight some of my favourite big tree art, including examples of art works that my partner and I have done over the years. Doing art is a fun way of expressing our love of trees, and gives us something to do in between field trips. Coastal Conifer, shown above, is the most recent addition.

I have been adding to the original post as new art comes around, but the post remains buried in the archives, and somewhat inaccessible. Therefore, I decided to recreate the post as a button at the top of the VIBT page.

Check out the Big Tree Art button every once in a while to see if there have been any recent additions of artwork.

Do you have big tree art of your own that you would like to share? Send it to me and I will publish it here.

Let's celebrate, and pay homage to the contributions and beauty of trees through art.


The Harris Creek Sitka Spruce

The heavily buttressed trunk of the Harris Creek Spruce
 If you are driving the 255 km Pacific Marine Circle Tour on south Vancouver Island, a stop at the Harris Creek Sitka spruce is highly recommended. Rarely are monumental trees this accessible, unless you are in an urban area or park. This tree is in neither, and grows without official protection in the middle of the semi-wilderness between Port Renfrew and Duncan.

On the trail approaching the giant spruce

That the Harris Creek Spruce is still with us is somewhat amazing. The first harvesting of the forest (by Europeans) in the Port Renfrew area was in the Harris Creek watershed back in 1893.

Occasionally, however, it is the loggers themselves that lay down the saws and are unable to commit the dendrocide their jobs require. So mighty are the specimens, and so great the loggers respect, such trees acquire a special status and are spared.

Sign at roadside
Now such trees, or small groves, exist as islands in a sea of smaller second or third growth - often as the sole survivors of the ancient forest. The Harris Creek Spruce next to Harris Creek Main northeast of Port Renfrew is one such tree. It is an 82 meter tall giant that dwarfs everything around it. This tree is all fat flared trunk and twisted moss draped branches.

Sitka spruce show very little taper which adds to the huge volume of wood found in old specimens
Sitka spruce are uniquely adapted to the coastline. They will not be found further than about 80 km from the ocean, their preferred habitat. These trees can tolerate salt spray from the pounding waves, one of few trees that can. When away from the surf, Sitka spruce grow in the low lying river valleys that dissect the coastal hills and penetrate inland.

A fence has been built to protect the roots at the base of the tree
This amazing Sitka spruce is beautifully situated right next to Harris Creek. It is a short distance from the road along a flat, well-kept, wheelchair accessible trail. Sitka spruce are fast-growing trees - it is difficult to date this one is. Certainly its age can be measured in the hundreds of years. Sitka spruce can live to 800 years making them one of the oldest trees in the Pacific coastal forest.

It is possible the Harris Creek Spruce could still be around for your great-great-grandchildren to visit.

Harris Creek runs next to the giant spruce

Getting There

The Harris Creek Spruce is about 20 km north-east of Port Renfrew on the paved Harris Creek Main. It will be found on the right side of the road 8 km past Lizard Lake while heading toward Lake Cowichan, and is marked by a small sign. Set your tripometer and watch for the sign when you get close.

Note: there are no gas stations between Sooke and Cowichan, and no services at all between Port Renfrew and Cowichan/Duncan. Drive safely - be prepared for emergencies.

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