Thursday, September 12, 2019

Port Renfrew: Canada’s Tall Tree Capital

Port Renfrew public doc
Decades ago, when I first visited Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the town still thrived in its prime as a timber town. Most of its inhabitants were connected with the logging industry in some way. This coastal fishing and logging town is surrounded by Pacific temperate rainforest in the wettest zone of the province. The annual rainfall of the Coastal Western Hemlock Zone goes up to 4,500 mm. Moss covers trees in a thick green felt and hangs like long “green man” beards. A diverse mix of trees of every size and age create what painter Emily Carr called “perfectly ordered disorder designed with a helter-skelter magnificence.”

This is big tree country. Giant red cedars with multi-pronged crowns rise up thick and majestic.  Fibrous gray-silvery bark conceals a deep warm-coloured wood. Gnarly-barked Douglas-firs pierce the forest canopy like giant skyscrapers.  Straight Sitka spruce stand like columns of a cathedral. And tall hemlock too. Trees here can spread over three meters wide and grow a hundred metres tall.

Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew
The wet Pacific temperate rainforest holds the greatest biomass—both alive and dead—of any ecosystem on the planet, writes Harley Rustad, correspondent with The Walrus and author of “Big Lonely Doug.” This is because the cycle of life and death is slower in the Pacific northwest: a fallen cedar log will remain intact for a century, allowing biomass to accumulate.

While I appreciated the rainforest and lamented the active logging of old growth, my focus was on the coast. I’d brought my phycology class from Victoria to Botanical Beach to walk the low tide. There, on the very edge of a potted sandstone ledge, along the craggy intertidal shores, I was in search of another “tree”, the elusive sea palm (Postelsia palmaeformis), a brown macro-alga that was only visible at very low tide. We had to time our visit impeccably to find my elusive gem of the sea—which I happily did. Aside from the sea palm, hundreds of species of plants and animals inhabit the sandstone tide pools and rocky shoreline of the beach. First used by Dr. Josephine Tildon of the University of Minnesota in the late 1800s as a research station for students and researchers, the beach continues to draw tourists, scholars and locals to its beautiful sandstone-carved scenery.

Recent clearcut on Vancouver Island, BC
Fast forward to 2019. I am driving with my friend Anne up the West Coast Road (Highway 14) to Port Renfrew from Victoria. Our drive to Port Renfrew took two hours, which included mandatory great coffee stops such as Serious Coffee in Sooke and Shirley Delicious, a charming cafe in Shirley. This time, my focus was on the big trees. I’d hiked through Carmanah decades ago, shortly after it was made into a provincial park to protect the valuable old growth forest and giant trees. Since then, I’d left British Columbia and lived in Nova Scotia for a while, teaching and writing. Then I ended up in Toronto where I currently teach writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. This recent trip in 2019 was dedicated to my search of old growth forest wherever I could find it near Port Renfrew—before it was all logged away.

Western Redcedar stump in a clearcut
I’d heard of the recent actions by timber companies—such as Teal-Jones Group (Edinburgh Mountain); TimberWest; Interfor; BC Timber Sales (BCTS) in Schmidt Creek; Western Canadian Timber Products; Forest Products; West Fraser; and others—to log as much and as quickly as possible before new regulations came in, or simply to get it all before none was left. The term “extreme old-growth logging” was coined from the term “extreme fossil fuels” that emerged as oil, gas and coal industries push into areas that are harder to extract from: oilsands, fracking, Arctic drilling and ultra-deepwater oil which cause greater risks and more damage to the environment and the climate. Extreme old-growth logging applies to both expedient and aggressive logging that often abuses the BC Forest Practice Code and other legislation and guidelines, such as clearcutting old-growth too close to rivers and streams or coastlines, and cutting on steep inclines prone to erosion and landslides. This is quite simply an insane and greedy timber-grab with no consideration for the diverse life-filled and life-giving ecosystems of the unique ancient forests they are destroying.

Nina leans on an ancient cedar
Judith Lavoie of Focus on Victoria writes that Schmidt Creek has been a textbook case of BCTS ignoring local input, according to conservation organizations. The steep slopes of the Schmidt Creek valley are above the orca rubbing beaches at Robson Bight, leading to fears that the world-famous beaches will be degraded by sedimentation or landslides.

In addition to the Schmidt Creek logging, other recent controversies involving BC Timber Sales include its plans to log 109 hectares of old growth adjacent to Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, a proposal that provoked a public outcry and is now on hold to allow consultations with the operator of a nearby eco-lodge; clearcut logging in the Skagit Doughnut Hole, beside Manning Park, a decision that brought protests from the US and accusations that BC was breaking an international treaty; and clearcut logging in the Nahmint Valley, west of Port Alberni, where one of the biggest Douglas firs in Canada was felled, despite objections from conservation groups.

The BC Green Party wants a moratorium on old-growth logging on Vancouver Island, with development of sustainable forestry practices. Sonia Furstenau, Green Party House Leader, finds it disappointing that old-growth logging is continuing at the same rate as under the previous Liberal government. “While there seems to be an acknowledgement that the world and conditions have changed very quickly, the practices aren’t [changing],” she said.

Giant Douglas fir and cedars in Avatar Grove
When Anne and I reached Port Renfrew, I was unprepared for the overt shift in the community from a commercial fishing and logging town to one dedicated to eco-tourism and the preservation of old growth forests. No doubt, many in the community remain staunch pro-timber; but a new face had emerged. One dedicated to cherishing the old growth forests and tall trees. Port Renfrew has even branded itself as Canada’s tall tree capital. Their motto, which I saw in virtually all the hotels, cafes, restaurants and signage is: “Wild Renfrew: wilderness within reach.” Port Renfrew has long been a gateway for serious hikers of the Westcoast Trail from Tofino and the more recent Juan de Fuca Trail to the south. Port Renfrew promotes itself as a centre for outdoor recreation, wilderness seekers, and those who appreciate the unbridled magnificence of old growth forest.

Gnarly cedar, Avatar Grove
The Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce has joined environmentalists in arguing against the recent government plans to sell 109 hectares of old-growth forest in seven cutblocks that include two within 50 metres of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. Environmental groups (such as Ancient Forest Alliance) and forest ecologists have argued for a decade that the trees act as a buffer against climate change and the loss of endangered species. The chamber insisted that the trees are more valuable standing and that clearcutting will hurt tourism. They cited the example of Avatar Grove: “We know from the Avatar experience that old-growth forests attract tourists — not just locally but from all over the world…It’s a lot better than cutting them down, because you cut them down once, you run them through the sawmill, they build somebody’s deck and that’s it. But, if you leave them standing, people come over and over again to look.” Places I visited include the following:

Avatar Grove: Just a fifteen minute drive from Port Renfrew on fairly good dirt road lies Avatar Grove, a centuries old forest ecosystem of giant cedar, Douglas-fir, spruce and hemlock that was saved from logging through major efforts by activists such as the Ancient Forest Alliance and the discovery of giant trees worth protecting.

Big Lonely Doug, in clearcut near Port Renfrew
Big Lonely Doug: farther down the dirt road past some old growth in the middle of a clearcut stands a single giant Douglas-fir. “In 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin stood under one of the largest trees in Canada and said no. He wrapped green ribbon around the Douglas fir’s nearly 12-metre circumference and saved it from being cut down. After the forest around it was gone, and images of a single enormous tree left standing on its own in the middle of a clear-cut began to be circulated, the tree, located just outside Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, became a symbol for the dwindling old-growth forests in British Columbia,” writes Harley Rustad in the Globe and Mail.

Extensive root system, Avatar Grove

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Nina Munteanu Talks to Toronto Star About Climate Change

Nina Munteanu (photo by Richard Lautens)

The Toronto Star recently spoke to Nina Munteanu with two questions about climate change. These were included in a recent handbook published by the Star entitled “Undeniable: Canada’s Changing Climate—What We Can Do Now.” In it, The Star showed how the majority of Canadians place climate change as a top priority. In “Let’s Talk” The Star interviews computer scientist and head of UofT’s School of the Environment Steve Easterbrook. Questions involving local community action and the importance of hope.

In “Your Carbon Footprint” The Star showed how China and the US together produce over half of the entire greenhouse gases emitted annually by the top ten countries that include EU 28, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, and Iran. These ten countries currently emit seventy percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. China (11.912 Mt CO2) continues to lead in greenhouse gas emissions, being over twice the US, the next large emitter (6.371 Mt CO2).

However, when The Star looked at per capita greenhouse emissions, Canada jumped to the top rank at 21 tonnes per person annually, followed by the US (20 tonnes/person). By comparison, China, ranked the highest for total emissions measured only 8.73 tonnes per person annually and Bangladesh measured 1.1 tonnes/person.

“Most scientists agree that in the coming decades we need to limit our individual annual carbon footprint to 1-2 tons,” says The Star. This entails making personal changes to cut our carbon output. One example is driving less or converting to a hybrid or electric car. “Our behaviours, whether good or bad, are contagious,” says The Star. I agree. It is important to not only do what we can but to share with others and provide our reasons. Seth Wynes, a geographer at the University of British Columbia concurs: “It’s not just about what you do, it’s about setting an example for others.” Research suggests, for example that homeowners are more likely to install solar panels when someone else does it first in their neighbourhood. Wynes in 2017 co-authored a study that ranks the most effective lifestyle changes to curb an individual’s carbon footprint. 

In “Four Things You Can Do”, The Star suggests the following key initiatives:

  1. Eat less beef
  2. Live car-free or go hybrid / electric
  3. Invest in green infrastructure
  4. Reduce air travel

The Star also provided good advice on how to talk to children about our changing climate. They provide excellent examples of children empowering themselves by making a difference—instead of becoming depressed with what they are inheriting. In “Political Checkup” The Star discusses with experts how we can best interact with our political leaders to engage and ensure positive change. In “Faith and Community” The Star showcases examples of faith communities addressing our waste stream.

In “The ChangeMakers” The Star asked the same two questions of five Canadians who are making climate change a top priority. They included:

  • Franny Ladell Yakelashek: 12-year old environmental rights activist from Victoria, BC
  • Jocelyn Joe-Strack: Indigenous scientist and storyteller, Whitehorse, Yukon
  • Kathy Bardswick: director of the Institute for Clean Growth and Climate Change, Guelph, ON
  • Gordon McBean: climatologist and professor emeritus at Western University, London, ON
  • Nina Munteanu: ecologist, instructor at The University of Toronto and author of eco-fiction and climate fiction, Toronto, ON.

Q1: What is the one thing about climate change that keeps you up at night?

Nina: I worry that my son and his kids will end up experiencing one of my dystopias from one of my books. My son lives in Vancouver, and my main concern is that he and his kids won’t have the chance to live safely and enjoy a stable and beautiful planet because we have wrecked it for them. 

That leads me to the second thing that keeps me up at night, which is that nobody cares. Or that they are scared to care. We’re still going about our business like nothing is happening. 

That really frustrates me. I’m a scientist and we’ve been talking about this for a long time; for me it’s been decades. My frustration is that we are still debating climate change, and we should be acting on it.

Q2: What is the one thing Canadians can do to act on climate change?

Nina: I think it has to be three things. 

First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone. And that — taking direct action — will give us courage and hope.

Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities, they need you to push them to act on climate change. 

Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe, and you’ll find yourself more motivated.

For answers to these two questions by the other changemakers, please go to the Toronto Star’s “What You Can Do About Climate Change” site.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood. Nina's latest novel "A Diary in the Age of Water" will be released by Inanna Publications in 2020.