The historic logging boomtown of Port Renfrew is redefining its relationship with old trees.
Nestled on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, the town’s livelihood and identity grew out of logging old-growth forests for most of the 20th century. Mechanization of the logging industry in the 1980s led to significant job loss, which forced the town to find new ways to thrive.
The community of less than 300 residents now relies on tourist dollars attracted partly by the allure of its remaining tall trees.
“We’re calling ourselves ‘a tall tree town’ now because I think it works,” said Rose Betsworth, president of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber forged a new partnership with the Ancient Forest Alliance in 2009 after the Victoria based environmental group discovered an old-growth forest 15 minutes north of Port Renfrew.
Together they are pushing for full legislative protection of the 40 hectares of ancient forest, which the alliance named Avatar Grove in reference to the blockbuster movie with the conservationist tilt.
“We’re edging very close to protection status for Avatar Grove,” said Betsworth. “And if that happens it means all these other old growth have a chance. We want to showcase Port Renfrew and our old growth.”
A joint fundraiser between the chamber and the AFA raised more than $6,000 for a new tourist centre in Port Renfrew scheduled to open in May.
“We’re a tourist community. We rely on tourist dollars,” Betsworth said. “We’ve forgotten about the logging part of it now.”
The value of old wood
Old-growth forests, with towering trees typically 250 to a 1,000 years old, provide homes for unique ecosystems.
Worth more than $100,000 per log in the 1990s, old-growth trees fueled profits for British Columbia’s forest industry.
The industry continues to target old, large trees because they tend to be stronger than younger, smaller trees.
The coastal old-growth forests of B.C. absorb large amounts of water. That enables them to resist pests and forest fires and to grow up to 70 metres high. Their slow growth produces tighter growth rings and a higher quality of wood less susceptible to warping.
Dan Kuzman, a longtime resident of Port Renfrew, said that these old durable trees are important in the manufacturing of wood products.
“Normally you wouldn’t see an old-growth tree made into two-by-fours and two-by-sixes,” Kuzman said. “It would be large beams or good plywood…Window sills, door jams, that kind of stuff. It’s all old-growth.”
Specialty items such as guitars and marine lumber are often by-products of the ancient giants, said Kuzman.
Preservation of some of the old forests is important, he said, but he questioned to what extent.
“I don’t see why you can’t keep some of them,” Kuzman said. “But saving them for the sake of saving them is not enough.
“Having the province, or the people of the province, not being able to benefit from [old-growth] from the economic part of it is probably wrong, more wrong than taking it from the people who are looking at it.”
The value of old forests
Mark Haddock, an attorney with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said that B.C. has predominantly valued old-growth forests for their economic value.
“We’ve tended to view it historically just as a resource for lumber extraction, not really seeing the connections between the sorts of ecosystems that are represented by those forests and the animals that depend on them,” he said.
Species such as Roosevelt elk and northern spotted owls rely on the mix of new, old and decaying trees found in old-growth forests for food and shelter. The logging of B.C.’s pristine forests endangers these species as clear cutting continues.
Keeping old forests intact also does more to mitigate climate change than planting new trees. More carbon can be stored in the soil of an undisturbed ancient forest.
“I think the conservation biology is pretty sound,” Haddock said. “I think it makes a pretty persuasive case to me as a British Columbian that there’s real merit in protecting old-growth forests. Now that we are aware of these ecological values, how do we act?”
Current provincial protection for old growth forests is a matter of discretion by the government, Haddock said.
“There are rules that can and do protect old-growth,” Haddock said. “It’s just that the amount of old-growth, that is protected is not stated in any mandatory way. It’s a discretionary decision by the government.”
The discovery of Avatar Grove by TJ Watt, cofounder of the alliance, and the subsequent barrage of media coverage triggered a public outcry to protect the remaining old-growth forests on the south of Vancouver Island.
Former Vancouver Island MP Keith Martin recently called for the creation of a national park reserve that would encompass the southern portion of the island and include Avatar Grove, which is only 25 per cent protected.
Companies continue to log giant cedars a kilometre away from the grove, Watt said, questioning how long the logging of old-growth forests can last.
“If they don’t have a plan and it’s not considered, what are they gonna do in a couple decades when they finish it?” he said.
“It’s not if, it’s when.”