Giant tree hunting and old-growth forest conservation in Vancouver Island

Temperate rainforests are magical ecosystems. In them trees grow tall, big, massive. It is not a coincidence that the tallest trees found on Earth are found in temperate rainforests, from the Coast Redwoods in California, to Eucalyptus regnans in Tasmania, to Red Cedars and Coast Douglas Fir in Western Canada.  Big and tall trees, however, means also big, tall money. When European pioneers arrived in Eastern North America they found forests with huge trees, but it only took a few decades to get rid of ancient giants. In the Pacific Northwest, some patches of old-growth forest remain but they’ve never been more ecologically – and economically – valuable and more in danger.

One cannot say to have seen North America without visiting the scenic Pacific West Coast. A few years ago, I traveled through the Canadian Rocky Mountains and ended up in Vancouver. That was a fantastic road trip. But my schedule was tight and I had to renounce to go to Vancouver Island. The desire to travel through this island was stuck in my mind, until this year, when I decided to spend my vacations there. I rented a small campervan, the best option for being flexible and for deciding spontaneously where to go depending on weather forecast and the rain pattern. After all, I was going to a ‘rainforest’, so I packed well my rain gear.

Temperate rainforests are quite rare and occur only in a few regions around the world. They are distributed in a few coastal regions and are characterized by abundant annual precipitation (more than 1500 mm). Temperatures are mitigated by the ocean. Winters are mild with rare frost events. Tree species are well adapted to high moisture conditions, with very rich and diverse understory and seedlings that are able to germinate under shade and gap openings. Rich in biodiversity and fast growing, old-growth temperate rainforests are the perfect machine to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and therefore key for mitigating climate change. For carbon uptake, size matters. Studies demonstrated that, on average, an old-growth forest stores 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare more compared to a 60-year-old plantation or secondary forest. Old-growth forest also have complex soil structures, where carbon is stocked in large quantities. Old-growth forests accumulate carbon for centuries; much of this carbon, even the one contained in the soil, will move back to the atmosphere if these forests are disturbed. Their preservation in the long term is also key for the provision of other ecosystem services, such as habitat, tourism, water supply, and so on. In this climate crisis, old-growth forests are among our best allies. See this paper showing that old-growth forests are a major carbon sink (but see also this one discussing that the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks are found in young forests).

On the left and upper right panels, one of the few remaining old-growth grooves in Vancouver Island. Lower right panel: old stump surrounded by secondary forest. Photo: M.Mina

Almost half of coastal rainforests in North America are found in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and most of them where the capital city, Victoria, is located: Vancouver Island. The island is situated in the Pacific Northwest, off the southwest coast of mainland British Columbia, just a short ferry ride from Vancouver. It has been inhabited for millennia by First Nations, who still reside in the island and live maintaining ancient traditions, most of them in interactions with the forest. In Vancouver Island, everything is about forestry. Or, to better saying, everything is about logging. The island was initially explored in the 18th century for the fur trade, and the main infrastructure were built thanks to logging activities. Outside Victoria, the economic engine of the island is the forestry industry. In the 20th century, ancient forests were being cut at such a fast pace that during the 1990s there was the so called “war in the woods”: a large mobilization by environmentalists and locals managed to halt-clear cutting in some areas, which now are mostly parks.

The small town of Chemainus with its famous murals, most of them representing the history of the Island and logging activities. Photos: M.Mina.


I drove through the middle of the island, and what I saw shocked me deeply. Mountain slopes were fully cleared, with large shaved patches of terrain, stumps here and there surrounded by ancient forest stands. I am not totally against clear cutting. I think they can be a viable and cheap option to manage some secondary forests, timber plantations, short-rotation forests and to easily extract wood for pulp and paper plantations (e.g., in converted agricultural areas). However, I believe that clear cutting 800-years old trees should be left as a memory of the past. And I am not saying that because I am a tree hugger. I have a forestry and silviculture background, knowing that sometimes a well-managed forest has nothing to envy to a non-managed one and that through human intervention we can build more resistant and resilience forests to future challenges. I still believe so. We now have developed different and alternative silvicultural systems that allow us to gain economic benefits from timber and at the same time maintain forest cover, habitat, biodiversity and other important properties and services. In several European countries, forestry is generally shifting towards partial harvesting, continuous-cover forestry and uneven-aged forest management, systems in which economic interests are balanced with aesthetic and environmental benefits (the situation is obviously more complex to deserve several blog posts, but it is not the case of today). In Eastern Canada, for example in Quebec where I currently work, clear-cut was recognized as the main cause of the rapid degrade of the province’s boreal forests. A famous documentary in the late 1990s denounced that (see the video of the documentary L’Erreur boréale; in French). The Forest Act by the Québec Ministry of Forests, initiated a major shift in forest management, introducing stricter rules for forest clearings in public land. In private forests, large (>4 hectares) clear-cuts are generally discouraged, as land owners are obliged to purchase expensive permits.

In British Columbia, however, large clear-cuts are still allowed. And logging of old-growth forests is still permitted. Although clear-cutting in public lands slowly decreased since the 1990s, in Vancouver Island logging companies are taking 10.000 hectares of old growth each year. The BC Government says that 55 percent of about 500.000 hectares of old-growth forests are protected. But there is a problem: this number represents a mere 20% of the original extension of the island old-growth forests, which spanned through more than 5 Million hectares. If the logging pace will not slow down, in a few decades there will be little patches of old-growth forests remaining in the island.

Before and after. Original total old-growth forests in the island was 5.5 million ha, hectares. What is remaining now is 360.000 ha. Source: Ancient Forest Alliance


It is estimated that nowadays only 10 per cent of the original biggest trees remain on the island. One of them has become famous as a protagonist of a book. It’s a 70-metre Douglas fir, with 13-metre circumference and nicknamed Big Lonely Doug, as it sits solo on the valley floor, spared by loggers during a clear cut in 2012. The valley has now become the destination of adventurous tourists and conservationists. A few kilometers ride from Port Renfrew, B.C., a pitted road heads towards a stunning grove of old-growth forest: Avatar Grove. Here giant Douglas firs and especially Western Red Cedars stand proud of their age. Here you can also find Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. I reached the area during a crisp but sunny morning. It was a joy to visit the grove, it was almost a private tour, no other tourists were around. After a few bumpy kilometers on the logging road and a short hike, I finally reached Big Lonely Doug, who is listed as the second biggest Douglas fir in Canada. I have visited the Giant Sequoias in California and seen other big trees, but nothing has impressed me the most as seeing such a giant standing alone in a shaved ground. It was magical but at the same time sad and melancholic (cover photo).

A few kilometres from Avatar Grove and Canada’s Gnarled tree, large clear cuttings start opening up. Photo: M.Mina

Forests are complex systems, but alternative to clear cut exist such as partial harvesting, group selection, single tree removals, and more. Harvesting a forest does not necessarily imply cutting down every single tree i from a selected area. Obviously, with such methods extraction costs are more costly, but they could allow maintaining timber revenue while at the same time keep forest cover and other ecosystem services from forest stands. Just these days (Nov 2019), BC’s Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said that “old-growth forests have significant economic, social and cultural values” and that “We are committed to developing a new thoughtful and measured approach to managing this resource for the benefit of all British Columbians”. Its seems that B.C. government is seeking public input on old growth forest management. Something is moving and most likely the B.C. government looks to reform forestry laws by 2020. Is not too late to save what remains of the last Canadian old-growth temperate rainforests, but this can be done only by transitioning to a truly sustainable forest management.

Big Lonely Doug. When you are at the base of the stem, you realize how seriously big it is. Photo: M.Mina


More information, stunning pictures and videos on Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests can be found in the website of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a non-profit organization working to protect BC’s endangered old-growth forests and to ensure a sustainable, value-added, second-growth forest industry. At the site of Big Lonely Doug I had the pleasure to meet and speak with one of the activists of the organization. Here below a video about their activities in the island

Sources and further reading:

How restoring old-growth forest in Washington state could help fight climate change. Seattle Times. Sept. 23, 2019.

The last great tree: a majestic relic of Canada’s vanishing rainforest. The Guardian. Mar. 5th, 2019.

The old-growth logging showdown. The Narwhal. Sept 1st, 2019.

A chance to save B.C.’s last ancient forests. Times Colonist. Jul 18th, 2019

Mackey, B., S. Cadman, N. Rogers, and S. Hugh. 2017. Assessing the risk to the conservation status of temperate rainforest from exposure to mining, commercial logging, and climate change: A Tasmanian case study. Biological Conservation 215:19-29.

Luyssaert, S., E. D. Schulze, A. Börner, A. Knohl, D. Hessenmöller, B. E. Law, P. Ciais, and J. Grace. 2008. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature 455:213-215.

Pugh, T. A. M., M. Lindeskog, B. Smith, B. Poulter, A. Arneth, V. Haverd, and L. Calle. 2019. Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics. PNAS 116:4382-4387.

A recent video reportage from Radio Canada Info [in French]

Ancient Forest Alliance website

TJ Watt, Conservation Photographer

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