July 23, 2012
This has become Watt's most popular and widely viewed photo to date. It was taken on a foggy February day in a haunting clearcut near the Avatar Grove. It has since been printed in multiple books, magazines, and museums and was recently awarded second place in the International Conservation Photography Awards 'Natural Environment at Risk' category. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
"If we have laws that recognize and protect Heritage Buildings that are 100 years old, why don’t we have laws that recognize and protect our 1,000 year old Heritage Trees?," Watt told mongabay.com in a recent interview, nothing that, "Old-growth forests provide clean air and water for both people and salmon; they help mitigate climate change by storing twice the amount atmospheric carbon that second-growth plantations do; they are pillars of a multi-billion dollar tourism industry; and are important to many First Nations cultures. They're what make BC, BC—a place of wild beauty with the finest remaining intact ancient temperate rainforests on Earth."
This is a night photo of 'Canada's Gnarliest Tree' in the Avatar Grove. Watts says: 'Some friends and I thought it would be neat to go for a hike and photograph in the dark with lights. It was quite the surreal experience!' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
"The vast majority of forested lands in southern BC are now second-growth, including about 80 percent of the productive forest lands on BC's southern coast. A full transition into only logging second-growth forests is inevitable when the last of the unprotected old-growth forests are logged out. For the sake of future generations, we need to make the full transition into a second-growth, value-added forest industry now, BEFORE we eliminate the remaining unprotected old-growth forests," says Watt.
On Vancouver Island, where AFA and Watt, are stationed, 75 percent of old-growth forests have been lost. In addition, says Watt, "90 percent of the valley bottoms where the biggest trees grow and richest biodiversity resides" have been logged.
Not everything worth saving is gone though—not by a long shot. In 2009, Watt stumbled on Avatar Grove.
An "enchanting place," Watt explains, the grove is "filled with giant, alien-shaped red cedars—some with tree trunks wider than 14 feet—as well a rare, old-growth Douglas-fir tree. It’s also home to 'Canada's Gnarliest Tree', a red cedar with a 10 foot wide burl on its side."
Shortly after its discovery, Watt found out the grove was slated to be logged. Two years of campaigning later, and the AFA won the battle to save the astounding trees. Watt says they couldn't have done it without the help of Port Renfrew, a nearby local community that was built on logging, but is now embracing 'big tree tourism.'
"Port Renfrew is making a name for itself as the 'Big Trees Capital of Canada' and people are traveling from all around to see the record-sized trees," says Watt.
Next up, though, is the larger battle to save old-growth forests across British Columbia. Watt, who describes himself as a 'big tree hunter', travels far and wide to take photos both of ancient trees and the logging that destroys them to raise awareness of what is happening beyond society's watch.
Watt says: 'I snapped this candid photo of a German tourist who had flown across the world just to see the giant spruce trees of the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park. His amazement and wonder while arriving at of the first big stands of trees was beautiful.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Watt goes on to say that while he finds documenting such destruction "painful," he uses that emotion to propel him to action, instead of ambivalence.
"I sometimes compare it to being a doctor in a war zone. You could sit and panic about all the chaos and bloodshed going on around you and not help a single soul. Or, you could collect yourself, make a plan and use the abilities and knowledge you have to try and help as many people as possible. In my case it's simply ecosystems instead of people, but every one of us depends on a healthy planet for our very survival so I guess in the end it’s one and the same."
In a July 2012 interview, T.J. Watt discusses the importance of British Columbia's old-growth forests, the wild species they shelter, and the broad effort, including his eye-opening photography, to save them from felling.
INTERVIEW WITH T.J. WATT
Watt says: 'A cool, wintery view of the Gordon River Valley. An area home to cougars, wolves, bear, elk, salmon, giant trees, and more.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Mongabay: Will you give us some background on the struggle to save forests on Vancouver Island?
T.J. Watt: The quest to protect Vancouver Island’s ancient forests has involved large scale public protests for three decades now. Few other issues can rally as many people into the streets in British Columbia (BC) than this one. Thousands of people have showed up at rallies in Victoria for ancient forests in recent years and over 12,000 people showed up for the protests in Clayoquot Sound near the town of Tofino through the summer of 1993, with almost 900 people being arrested for non-violently blockading the logging trucks.
Mongabay: Why are ancient forests and big trees important?
T.J. Watt: British Columbia is home to the biggest trees in Canada. These centuries-old giants can grow as wide as living rooms and as tall as downtown skyscrapers and the ancient forests are home to many endangered species. Old-growth forests provide clean air and water for both people and salmon; they help mitigate climate change by storing twice the amount atmospheric carbon that second-growth plantations do; they are pillars of a multi-billion dollar tourism industry; and are important to many First Nations cultures. They're what make BC, BC—a place of wild beauty with the finest remaining intact ancient temperate rainforests on Earth.
Mongabay: What other species are found in Vancouver Island’s ancient forests?
A mother black bear stands upon a stump in the unprotected Upper Walbran Valley on southern Vancouver Island. Black bears typically spend their winters hibernating in the hollow trunks of old-growth red cedar trees to stay dry. Old-growth logging is now targeting many of the last stands of these giant trees. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
T.J. Watt: Vancouver Island's forests are home to many large and charismatic creatures such as wolves, bears, Roosevelt elk, and black-tailed deer. The island also has a significant population of cougars, though you are unlikely to ever see one. In the canopy of old-growth forests nests the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that cannot grip the tiny second-growth branches with its webbed feet and therefore must nest on the wide mossy limbs that only old-growth trees have. Long-eared bats and the Vaux's swift, a swallow-like bird, also live in hollow old-growth trees. Black-tailed deer that live at the higher elevations where there is a lot of snow spend the winter in old-growth forests where they find food and shelter. There was also a distinct subspecies of wolverine once living on Vancouver Island but is now thought to be recently extinct due to development pressures. You might find the odd Sasquatch or lost hippy too!
Mongabay: Do you believe there should be a total ban on old growth logging on Vancouver Island? What about in the rest of British Columbia?
T.J. Watt: Most of the old-growth forests in southern BC have now been logged, so we're saying that we must protect what little is left and ensure the industry sustainably logs second-growth forests instead, which are now the vast majority of forests down here. 75 percent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forests have already been logged including 90 percent of the valley bottoms where the biggest trees grow and richest biodiversity resides, an even higher fraction has been lost on the southern mainland coast and interior. The rest of the industrialized world is logging second, third, and fourth-growth forests, and we must do the same here while ensuring that we process and value-add the second-growth logs in BC to create more jobs in our own communities.
Mongabay: What is a 'Provincial Heritage Trees Designation'?
T.J. Watt: The Ancient Forest Alliance has called for the creation of the Provincial Heritage Tree Designation that would identify and immediately protect the 100 largest and oldest specimens of each of BC's tree species. Currently there is no provincial legislation that specifically protects the largest or oldest specimens of BC's world-renowned old-growth trees. If we have laws that recognize and protect Heritage Buildings that are 100 years old, why don’t we have laws that recognize and protect our 1,000 year old Heritage Trees? But most importantly we need new laws that protect our last old-growth forest ecosystems—while big trees are great, it’s the ecosystems that fundamentally matter.
Mongabay: Your organization is also devoted to sustainable forestry jobs. How do we balance conservation with forestry?
Watt says: 'Seen here is the striking contrast between an old-growth forest (left) and second-growth forest (right). Old-growth forests have gaps in their canopies which lets more light in to the forest floor creating a much more luxuriant understory while second-growth forests tend to have a closed canopy and shade much of the light for other plants. You can clearly see why it's more than a tree issue here. It's an ecosystem at stake.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
T.J. Watt: The vast majority of forested lands in southern BC are now second-growth, including about 80percent of the productive forest lands on BC's southern coast. A full transition into only logging second-growth forests is inevitable when the last of the unprotected old-growth forests are logged out. For the sake of future generations, we need to make the full transition into a second-growth, value-added forest industry now, BEFORE we eliminate the remaining unprotected old-growth forests. By logging second-growth stands at a slower, more sustainable rate of cut, and manufacturing more wood products here in BC —rather than increasing the export of raw logs to foreign mills—we can protect old-growth forests and sustain and create forestry jobs at the same time.
Mongabay: What is your vision of sustainable forestry?
T.J. Watt: It's a vision where we can see jobs, communities, and ecosystems flourish simultaneously. The coastal forest industry's 20-year decline at its root has been driven by resource depletion as the largest ancient trees in the valley bottoms and lower slopes have been largely logged-off. This has resulted in diminishing returns as the remaining trees get smaller, lower in value and more expensive to reach high up mountainsides and far away in valley headwaters.
The resulting loss of tens of thousands of rural jobs has also been paralleled by the increasing collapse of BC's old-growth ecosystems, with plummeting salmon, steelhead, black-tailed deer, cougar, mountain caribou, marbled murrelet and spotted owl populations.
A sustainable forest policy will be based on logging second-growth forests, while protecting our old-growth forests; entail a reduced rate of cut so that coastal logging rotations are at least over 250 years, not 60 years as they are now; involve selection logging on the coast instead of clearcutting; will involve ecosystem-system based management where sufficient amounts of each forest type are placed off-limits to logging to ensure that the ecosystem can viably support all native species including having adequate riparian buffer zones to protect streams and fish; and will accommodate First Nations cultural and environmental interests and land-use/conservation plans.
An old-growth clearcut just outside the boundaries of the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about Avatar Grove? How did you find this place?
T.J. Watt: The Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew is an enchanting place. It's the most accessible stand of monumental old-growth forest still found in a wilderness setting on southern Vancouver Island. It's filled with giant, alien-shaped redcedars—some with tree trunks wider than 14 feet—as well a rare, old-growth Douglas-fir trees. It’s also home to "Canada's Gnarliest Tree", a redcedar with a 10 foot wide burl on its side! A friend and I discovered the grove in late 2009 while out looking for big trees in the Gordon River Valley on southern Vancouver Island. Shortly after that it was flagged for logging. Thus began the Ancient Forest Alliance’s 2-year campaign to save it!
Mongabay: When was the Grove saved?
T.J. Watt: Just this past February the 59 hectare grove was declared legally off limits to logging through what is called an Old-Growth Management Area. This was achieved through a combination of relentless public pressure and media coverage as well as by partnering with the local Chamber of Commerce who recognized that having the trees standing would fuel the local tourism economy. The partnership with local businesses with a stake in protecting nature is a model for conservation that could and should be applied elsewhere in BC’s ancient forest movement. Our next project for the area is to build a boardwalk through the giant trees which will help protect the ecological integrity of the forest and enhance visitor access and safety.
Mongabay: What has it meant to local people?
An alien-shaped old-growth red cedar nicknamed 'Canada's Gnarliest Tree' in the now-protected Avatar Grove. Watt says: 'This shot became the face of our organization's successful bid to protect the area and the tree has likely become the most photographed in BC's woods during the past decade.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Mongabay: What is big tree tourism?
T.J. Watt: Port Renfrew is making a name for itself as the "Big Trees Capital of Canada" and people are traveling from all around to see the record-sized trees. Aside from the Avatar Grove, nearby you also have the world’s tallest Douglas-fir tree, the Red Creek Fir, as well as Canada’s biggest spruce tree, the San Juan Spruce. A few hours drive to the north, you also have Canada’s largest tree, the Cheewhat Giant. For a town like Port Renfrew with a long history of logging, this type of tourism provides a transition away from a resource-based economy to one based on old-growth protection and recreation. Bottom line—the trees are worth much more standing up than lying down.
A hollow red cedar stump cut in the late 2000s in the Gordon River Valley on southern Vancouver Island. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Mongabay: To many people trees may seem like static objects and therefore uninteresting to photograph. What made you want to photograph trees?
T.J. Watt: I'm simply fascinated by big trees and the allure of trying to find them hidden amongst the rugged coastal landscapes of BC. I love the wild style they exude, the blends of earthy colors, their twisting branches and patterns of bark, and the unique location that each happened to start growing at so long ago. Every tree is a different character that holds a powerful yet gentle presence after living a life of hundreds or even thousands of years. Standing quietly beside something that’s been alive for so long always helps to put into perspective the trivialities and silly stresses of your own life as well. It's the best medicine for a busy world.
Mongabay: How do you think photos of vanished places, such as yours of clear-cuts, help instill environmental awareness?
The Red Creek Fir is the world's largest Douglas-fir tree. Stretching more than 242ft (73.8m) tall with a trunk diametre of 13' 9" (4.2m), it is thought to be over 1000 years old. It grows in the San Juan Valley near the town of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, just 2.5 hours from the capital city of Victoria. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Mongabay: Do you find it difficult, emotionally, to photograph stumps of once giant trees?
T.J. Watt: It's definitely disheartening and painful to see an incredible intact area turn into an unrecognizable sea of stumps and slash. There's a complexity, a tapestry of connectivity formed in these ancient forests over the hundreds or thousands of years of evolution that is somehow so instantaneously lost. From that frustration and sadness though, you need to learn to take your emotion and convert it into something useful. Funnel it into action that can hopefully stop the same thing from happening again elsewhere. I sometimes compare it to being a doctor in a war zone. You could sit and panic about all the chaos and bloodshed going on around you and not help a single soul. Or, you could collect yourself, make a plan and use the abilities and knowledge you have to try and help as many people as possible. In my case it's simply ecosystems instead of people, but every one of us depends on a healthy planet for our very survival so I guess in the end it’s one and the same.
More photos by Watt:
Watt says: 'Here I stood in on my own photo to provide perspective to the piles of waste wood left behind in a typical clearcut.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Watt says: 'This photo is a tribute to the great old-growth Coastal Douglas-fir forests that once covered most of eastern Vancouver Island. Now ranked as the 4th most endangered ecosystem in all of Canada, it is home to many rare plant and animal species. Having the chance to watch the sunset behind this beautiful giant tree while sitting in a bed of ferns was pure magic.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Watt says: 'In this image, deep scars can be seen on a steep hillside after logs have been hauled out of a clearcut along the McLaughlin Ridge near Port Alberni. Biologists have classified the area as critical habitat for wintering deer as well as nesting Queen Charlotte goshawks but logging company Island Timberlands still holds plans to log further along the ridge.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Watt says: 'The Big Tree Trail on Meares Island in Clayoquot Sound, BC is a big tree heaven! A wooden boardwalk winds though dozens of mammoth sized red cedars and lush temperate rainforest that still stands today due to efforts in the 80s and 90s by the public and First Nations to halt logging.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Ken Wu, the Ancient Forest Alliance's executive director, sits perched on a 14ft wide red cedar stump in the unprotected Upper Walbran Valley on Vancouver Island. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
With 90percent of Vancouver Island's valley bottom old-growth forests logged, companies are continually moving further up hillsides to get the last of what remains of the original forest ecosystems. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Sun-shining through a crack in an ancient red cedar in Goldstream Provincial Park. Watt says: 'Some days you are just in the right place at the right time. This was one of those days.' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
This was a giant, 15ft wide red cedar stump that we discovered in the summer of 2011 cut down in the Klanawa Valley not far from the West Coast Trail. BC's last giants still fall victim to the saw due to the lack of a provincial old-growth policy that would see these endangered forests protected. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
An aerial view taken over a recent clearcut located within the last 4percent of valley bottom old-growth that remains on southern Vancouver Island. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
A bald eagle soars over the slopes of the unprotected Upper Walbran Valley on the way to find fish in the river. To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Watt says: 'A clear warning sign to travel with caution while on logging roads in BC!' To view larger-resolution and more photos by Watt: Utopia Photo. Photo by: T.J. Watt.
Experts: sustainable logging in rainforests impossible
(07/19/2012) Industrial logging in primary tropical forests that is both sustainable and profitable is impossible, argues a new study in Bioscience, which finds that the ecology of tropical hardwoods makes logging with truly sustainable practices not only impractical, but completely unprofitable. Given this, the researchers recommend industrial logging subsidies be dropped from the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. The study, which adds to the growing debate about the role of logging in tropical forests, counters recent research making the case that well-managed logging in old-growth rainforests could provide a "middle way" between conservation and outright conversion of forests to monocultures or pasture.
Industrial logging leaves a poor legacy in Borneo's rainforests
(07/17/2012) For most people "Borneo" conjures up an image of a wild and distant land of rainforests, exotic beasts, and nomadic tribes. But that place increasingly exists only in one's imagination, for the forests of world's third largest island have been rapidly and relentlessly logged, burned, and bulldozed in recent decades, leaving only a sliver of its once magnificent forests intact. Flying over Sabah, a Malaysian state that covers about 10 percent of Borneo, the damage is clear. Oil palm plantations have metastasized across the landscape. Where forest remains, it is usually degraded. Rivers flow brown with mud.
IKEA logging old-growth forest for low-price furniture in Russia
(05/30/2012) A new campaign is targeting IKEA, the world's biggest furniture retailer, for logging old-growth forests in the Karelia region of Russia. An alliance of groups, headed by the Swedish NGO Protect the Forest, allege that IKEA's subsidiary, Swedwood, is clearcutting thousands of hectares of old and biodiverse forests. But, Swedwood's 300,000 hectare concession is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), generally considered the world's strongest forestry certifier.
Can loggers be conservationists?
(05/10/2012) Last year researchers took the first ever publicly-released video of an African golden cat (Profelis aurata) in a Gabon rainforest. This beautiful, but elusive, feline was filmed sitting docilely for the camera and chasing a bat. The least-known of Africa's wild cat species, the African golden cat has been difficult to study because it makes its home deep in the Congo rainforest. However, researchers didn't capture the cat on video in an untrammeled, pristine forest, but in a well-managed logging concession by Precious Woods Inc., where scientist's cameras also photographed gorillas, elephants, leopards, and duikers.
Alaskan fishermen tell government to focus on salmon, not logging
(03/12/2012) Alaskan fishermen and tour operators visited Washington D.C. last week to urge the federal government to shift the focus from logging to conservation in the Tongass rainforest. Local Alaskans along with NGOs Trout Unlimited, Alaska Program, and Sitka Conservation Society, made the case that conservation, including the restoration of fish habitat, was a far better strategy for the local economy and jobs than logging. The Tongass rainforest is currently the subject of a controversial logging proposal by the government for the indigenous-owned company, Sealaska.
U.S. legislation threatens oldest, tallest trees in Tongass rainforest
(02/27/2012) Up to 17 percent of the tallest old-growth trees in the Tongass temperate rainforest could be cut under new U.S. legislation, according to a report by Audubon Alaska. The report argues that the legislation under consideration (S 730 and HR 1408) would resurrect the banned practice of "high-grading," which allows loggers to select the largest, most-ancient trees across the forest for cutting despite their ecological importance. The legislation is a part of a controversial 65,000 acre logging concession in Tongass to Sealaska Corporation, which is owned by 20,000 members of Native communities, from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes.
NASA satellite image shows extent of logging in Pacific Northwest
(02/22/2012) New satellite and space radar images by NASA shows the decline of forests in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Washington and Oregon. Lost to development, agriculture, and large-scale logging, the maps apart of the National Biomass and Carbon Dataset (NBCD) show the patchy, fragmented nature of the forests in the two U.S. states.
Green groups: government moving too slowly on protecting Canada's Great Bear rainforest
(02/08/2012) Three environmental groups have submitted a letter to British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, to ask the government to speed up the process of implementing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, which is meant to ensure 70 percent of old-growth forest is maintained.
Big trees, like the old-growth forests they inhabit, are declining globally
(01/26/2012) Already on the decline worldwide, big trees face a dire future due to habitat fragmentation, selective harvesting by loggers, exotic invaders, and the effects of climate change, warns an article published this week in New Scientist magazine. Reviewing research from forests around the world, William F. Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, provides evidence of decline among the world's 'biggest and most magnificent' trees and details the range of threats they face. He says their demise will have substantial impacts on biodiversity and forest ecology, while worsening climate change.
Logging of primary rainforests not ecologically sustainable, argue scientists
(01/25/2012) Tropical countries may face a risk of 'peak timber' as continued logging of rainforests exceeds the capacity of forests to regenerate timber stocks and substantially increases the risk of outright clearing for agricultural and industrial plantations, argues a trio of scientists writing in the journal Biological Conservation. The implications for climate, biodiversity, and local economies are substantial.