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

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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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