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.