Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Avatar Grove - Part 2. Logging? What logging?

Shayn  McAskin at the Avatar Grove. 
Photo Tom Jaugelis.

After we finished inspecting the bizarre red cedar known as the 'knotty tree', most of us assumed that our job at the Avatar Grove was done for the day, and so we started our slow descent back to the logging road.

But Shayn McAskin, the Environmental Technology student of our group, was not moving. Instead, he was focusing his attention uphill. He was looking for something in the dense vegetation. There, he said after a moment, pointing to a grayish patch in the trees about 200 meters above our heads. I’m going to check that cliff to see what it's made of. You guys go ahead, I won't be long. What are you looking for? I asked. Limestone karst, he answered. I shrugged. Did we really need to embark on a nerdy geological expedition so late in the day and in this lousy weather?

Searching for limestone

But then Shayn explained. Limestone karst is potentially critical for our purpose of protecting the Avatar Grove, because logging companies are usually not permitted to clearcut a forest which lies on a limestone bedrock. Limestone reacts to water and so it weathers away very quickly once it's exposed. This can result in catastrophic soil erosion which may prevent the forest from ever growing back. It recently happened near Campbell River in an area called the Tahsish River Valley. After the forest was clearcut 10 years ago, the soil gradually washed away, and last July a wild fire turned the entire zone into a moonscape. That area is wasted, Shayn said, it will take hundreds of years for the forest to reclaim it. He added: I recently checked a geological map which indicates that a limestone karst deposit could be located right under our feet, so I hope we can find evidence of it.

Moonscape caused by limestone erosion, Tahsish River Valley.  
Photo Carol Ramsey, Canwest News Service.

After a few minutes, our little group reached the cliff. It was made of granite, not limestone. But around us, there were several yellowish boulders which Shayn immediately identified as limestone and he proceeded to take pictures of them as evidence. Well that’s cool, you've found the limestone, it's game over for the logging company, eh? I asked in excitement. I wish it were that simple, he said. Yes, there's definitely limestone here but it could have been brought down by the glacier. We'll have to establish that the bedrock itself is made of limestone. We may have to go to the top of that hill, he pointed out with his extended arm, and inspect the cutblock that’s already been harvested up there, maybe the bedrock is exposed enough for us to see the limestone. And so off we went. But the vegetation was getting increasingly dense as we climbed, and time was running out. The forest was resisting our intrusion. After an hour or so of hardcore bushwhacking, we finally spotted a more accessible area that we could use as a pathway to the top of the hill. We noted its location and planned to return in a couple weekends to continue our inspection.

'Local kids just fooling around'

Back in Port Renfrew, we stopped at a local coffee shop to warm ourselves a little. On its wall, there was an anonymous home-made leaflet which stated “Avatar Grove = Ecofraud”. The leaflet claimed that the grove had no environmental value, that many other sections of rainforest in the region were far more worthy of salvation, and that environmentalist Ken Wu (the guy who had initially brought the Avatar Grove into the media spotlight) had done nothing in the past to stop logging in the region. The leaflet then descended into profanity and personal attacks against Wu which I cannot reprint here and called upon local residents to “save your money” by not supporting Wu’s group.

What caught my attention about this pretty incoherent rant on the wall was not so much what was written in it, but rather over it – a hand-written inscription which had probably been added by someone else than its anonymous author and which read: “No Cutting Permit even Applied for, Save Avatar From?” The implication here was that there was no identifiable logging threat against the Avatar Grove and that environmentalists had therefore manufactured a nonexistent crisis. That same opinion was voiced by a local old man who went by the name of Lonesome Dave and was sitting at a table in the coffee shop. Those environmentalists are roaming around looking for causes and they have found one at the Avatar Grove, he commented. But the problem, he added, is that there is absolutely nothing happening here, this is a typical case of a Mouse that Roared.

I told him about the flagging tape which I had seen all over the Grove, and I pointed out that people don’t usually flag an area of old growth forest without a purpose. But Lonesome Dave responded: How do you even know that a logging company did that? The tape may have been placed by hiking enthusiasts opening a new trail, or local kids just fooling around. A few yards of tape don’t prove anything, he concluded.

But the flagging tape that I had seen up there had clearly been placed in a deliberate fashion, so I did not buy old Dave’s 'random act' theory. Later, Shayn explained to me that whoever did that had followed to the letter the guidelines provided by the BC Ministry of Forests, such as axe blazes exactly 10 cm wide by 30 cm long, delimitation of riparian zones, etc. Definitely a professional job, he concluded. Which left me scratching my head over why the locals would be in such denial about a rather self-evident act.

Cutting permit

So, logging or no logging? Back home, I decided to get to the bottom of it and I called the logging company which owns the tree farming license around Port Renfrew. Yes our people recently flagged and surveyed the Avatar Grove, John Pichugin, Manager of Engineering at Teal-Jones, told me. So are you planning to log it? I asked. We are looking at it, but at this point I cannot tell you if we're going to harvest or not, he responded. Have you applied for a cutting permit with the Ministry of Forests? No we have not. Do you know if and when you plan to apply? No I do not. So does it mean that the area is safe for now, say at least until the end of 2010? No I cannot tell you that.

Clearly, I was not getting anywhere with that line of questioning. So I tried something else. Are you aware that there is a possibility of limestone karst deposits in this area? Silence. I almost heard the gulp on the other side. Then after a brief moment, he responded: Personally I am not aware of that, but karst is definitely something that in general we have to take into account in our logging operations. How do you go about performing karst studies? I asked. We have engineers trained to look for karst, it's a very formal process. Have studies begun yet at this specific site? I don't know, I cannot say. Okay then, I asked, is there someone else in your company that would be able to answer that for me?

 Potential limestone karst bedrock at Avatar Grove (in orange). Source: FORREX

At that point, John Pichugin changed his tactic. I need to be careful about the information that I release to the public, he said, so I need to know more about who you are and what are your motivations. After I finished telling him all he cared to know about me, he proceeded to lecture me. We want to engage the public, he said, but we are also running a business. Society has determined that logging needs to take place here. As a society, we all benefit from a high standard of living. Where do we get the tax dollars to pay for our hospital beds? Did you know that 40,000 hectares of old growth forest are protected in the area surrounding our tree farming license? etc.

I swiftly got him back on topic. How do I stay informed about future logging developments at the Avatar Grove? I asked. Well, you can call me, he said. That’s it? Just call you? Do you mean to say that there are no processes in place to keep the public informed? No, was the flat answer. Teal-Jones already went through the Forest Stewardship process in 2006. Back then, the public had an opportunity to voice any concerns. At this stage of the game, we are no longer required to consult with the public. Look, he said, we just follow the legislation here. Perhaps you want to take this up with the government.

So I did. I called Vivian Thomas, the media spokesperson for the BC Ministry of Forests. But before I did that, I took some time to study the documentation posted on the Teal-Jones website regarding the 2006 Forest Stewardship Plan that they signed with the Ministry. And I stumbled upon a map which indicated that, back then, some portions of the Avatar Grove had been marked as “draft old growth forest management areas”.

Old growth forest management areas

Vivian Thomas confirmed to me that cutting permits are granted by the Ministry to the logging company without any input from the public. Essentially, the Forest Stewardship Plan is a blanket agreement for an entire tree farm license, which includes a 60-day public comment period. After that, implementation details take place behind closed doors. In particular, there is no process to keep the public informed about this or that specific cutting permit.

What about old growth forest management areas? I asked. Oh, those areas have been set aside for protection, they cannot be logged, she said. But, I interjected, some sections of the Avatar Grove were marked in the 2006 Forest Stewardship Plan as “draft old growth forest management areas”. How, then, can that particular grove even be considered for logging? “Draft” sometimes means that one area can be subsequently substituted for another, she explained. So for example, for each area that will receive actual protection, you may decide to have 3 or more areas marked as “draft” in the initial Plan, allowing for flexibility when you get to the actual cutting stage. Maybe that’s what’s happening in this specific circumstance, she ventured.

But doesn't that change everything? I asked. It could mean that when people got an opportunity to comment on the Forest Stewardship Plan back in 2006, they did not really know what they were commenting upon. For example, someone may have agreed to the Plan based on the assumption that the Avatar Grove would be untouched. Also, if this is true, then the map gives the false impression that more forest is being protected than there really is. I understand the need for some amount of flexibility, I added. But if an area initially marked as protected is later being considered for logging through a cutting permit application, shouldn't the public be involved in the decision-making process involved in such a sweeping change to the initial Plan?

I’m going to have to get back to you on that one, Vivian responded.

Unanswered questions

Obviously with my two lonesome phone calls and casual research, I've barely scratched the surface in this matter. But already, I have harvested an unexpected amount of rats. Let’s summarize:
  • Shayn McAskin has discovered a geological map which uses Ministry of Forests data to locate a potential limestone karst bedrock right under the Avatar Grove. A superficial survey of the area confirmed the presence of limestone rocks. When I addressed that concern with a representative of the logging company, he did not confirm nor deny.
  • When asked about the recent flagging at the Avatar Grove, the company representative acknowledged that indeed his company did that, but he did not confirm or deny that the area has indeed been slated for logging.
  • Maps provided by the logging company indicate that some sections of the Avatar Grove have been marked as “draft old growth forest management areas”, an appellation which, according to a representative of the Ministry of Forests, provides full protection to those particular sections.
  • When asked whether a logging company should be allowed to clearcut a “draft old growth forest management area” without any further public consultation, the Ministry of Forests representative requested a time out, so she could consult with her hierarchy on what response to provide.
Many unanswered questions here! I am no expert, just an average joe doe from the public asking dumb questions to smart people, but my instinct tells me that well organized environmental groups bent on saving this area of old growth forest - and a few others while they're at it - may potentially have some very good cards to play.

Obviously, to be continued.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Avatar Grove - Part 1. What's with the name?

Avatar Grove, British Columbia. Photo TJ Watt.

One morning this past winter, environmental activist Ken Wu went for a hike in an exceptional tract of old growth forest which he and photographer TJ Watt had recently discovered near Port Renfrew, off the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. That patch of untouched forest, made of approximately one hundred giant red cedar and douglas fir trees, is deep into logging territory, and so Ken had always known that it was under the theoretical threat of being cut to the ground.

When he arrived on that day, a nasty surprise awaited him. The area was covered in flagging tape and many of the giant trees were marked with pink and blue spray paint. That patch of forest had been thoroughly surveyed by someone. It was a recent job, since only a few weeks back the area was still in its pre-industrial virgin state with no visible signs of human disturbance whatsoever.

When Victoria-based social and environmental activist Zoe Blunt heard about that situation, she activated her group, the Forest Action Network. It was decided to map the area using GPS, investigate who owned the tree farm license for that zone, communicate with local communities and First Nations, and invite volunteers to come and discover this exceptional swath of old growth forest, which Ken and TJ had renamed "Avatar Grove".

When I first heard that name, I cringed. Avatar Grove? A catchy name, no doubt. But what happens when the hysteria around James Cameron's movie recedes? Shouldn't such an exceptional part of our natural heritage stand on its own feet rather than rely on Hollywood's hype du jour? Then, I reasoned that time appears to be running out for this particular patch of old growth forest and so, I guess - whatever works to save it from the feller bunchers. I decided to go and see the Grove for myself, and so I joined one of Zoe Blunt's volunteer expeditions.

As we left the logging road to enter the forest on a recent rainy Sunday, it struck me right away that this place stood out of the ordinary. No trail. We had to use a small creek bed to enter the zone. The first 50 meters were almost vertical, so I had to cling to whatever branches and tree roots were available to hoist myself clumsily into the grove. After a few minutes of being slapped in the face by low-lying branches and swallowing spider webs, I finally managed to reach a somewhat flatter section where I was able to stand up straight. A quick inspection of myself revealed that I was soaked in rainwater from head to toe. This forest didn't waste any time in whipping me into shape, I thought, a little annoyed.

My senses quickly adjusted to my new environment. The grove I was standing in was exceptional indeed. A completely untouched old-growth temperate rainforest. Massive 500 year-old giants surrounded by many smaller trees in various stages of growth, some of them not much older than myself, others starting to pile up the centuries. The light was dimmed by the dense canopy. The rain, which was coming down pretty hard on the road, only reached us here as a light powdery mist. I was immediately intoxicated by the primal smell of the wet forest. The floor was made of an inextricable chaos of fallen trunks, ferns, branches, moss, mushrooms and lichens, with baby hemlocks growing out of the flanks of their dead ancestors and striving to reach the sky some day. It was a delicate balance of the very large and the very small, a diverse society drawing its collective strength from the multiple relations of its various dead and living members - an ecosystem, in a word.

The pink flagging tape which I had been told about was indeed prevalent and stood out like a sore thumb in this world of brown and green. Every 50 meters or so, a new flag or spray of paint emerged out of the vegetation to construct an elaborate network of signals which were gibberish to us, but no doubt perfectly legible to a trained professional eye. Our mood, looking at all this flagging tape, was that of wild game which hear hunters approaching in the distance and sense the imminent danger, but cannot comprehend quite yet what's about to hit them.

 Blue spray on a red cedar, Avatar Grove. Photo TJ Watt.

Our group of eight hikers was here to find a specific tree in the forest, a bizarrely deformed red cedar nicknamed "the knotty tree" which we needed to geolocate using the GPS device that one of us was carrying. That tree, I was told, had grown some enormous lumps around its base - or burls in technical terms - as a result of a non-lethal bacterial infection. Allegedly, this was Canada's largest "burly" tree, and as such it needed to be mapped with precision to increase its future chances of being preserved.

As we looked for our freak-of-a-tree, we rode the forest's three-dimensional maze, climbing over, crawling under, and walking along fallen trunks suspended in mid air. I silently thanked the sky for this rainy day. The forest is no doubt magnificent under good weather, but it fully reveals itself only in the rain. I sat on a fallen tree for a few moments, and suddenly I realized with amazement what I was sitting on. A forest within the forest. On the dead trunk, an army of small fern-like plants were springing from a carpet of lichen and struggling for existence, reproducing in small scale the battle of giants taking place over our heads. Each plant had captured a drop of rain in its bizarrely curled stem, and that drop was shining like a gem with an almost unnatural bright translucid yellow color which I initially mistook for tree sap. Yet as soon as I picked one of those drops with my finger, it immediately lost its color and turned back into what it was - rainwater.

At my feet, another miniature ecosystem was asserting its right to existence. This one was mostly made of delicate two to three-inch long bright orange plants which I couldn't decide whether they looked more like mushrooms or flowers. I thought that if I touched one of them, it would suddenly retract, but I did not dare to try. Hmm. It appears that I am allowing myself to be penetrated by the Avatareness of this place, I noted with embarrassment. While I was lost in the contemplation of this small world at my feet, one of my travel companions passed in front of me. Because of the position of the fallen trees, she had no choice but to walk through the field of orange mushroomy flowers (or were they flowery mushrooms?) in which my mind was so deeply immersed. She tiptoed very carefully through them, and at one point I heard her mutter to the attention of the forest "I am sorry". Sorry for stepping on some flowers? Okay... Obviously, I was not the only one going native at the Avatar Grove.

Then, on a gentle slope, we finally found it: our knotty tree. And what a tree it was. It looked like nothing I had seen before, and like everything at the same time, since one could read all kinds of faces, shapes and objects in its bizarre intricate knots. It was both grotesquely ugly, and absolutely sublime in its beauty. I was bewildered. What to make of it!?

The knotty tree, Avatar Grove. Photo TJ Watt.

Shayn, an Environmental Technology student at Camosun College who was operating the GPS device, went to work to obtain the knotty tree's coordinates. No luck. Only one satellite was above our heads, and the signal was too weak. Too much cloud cover and natural obstacles. We're going to need a stronger GPS unit, he concluded, one that carries a larger antenna. I'll borrow one from my school and bring it along next weekend.

For my part, I didn't worry too much about satellites and geo-coordinates. I was simply enjoying the moment and the place, in the weird company of the knotted tree. What's in a name? I thought. Whatever people decide to attach to it, I guess. This place is so beyond its 'Avatar Grove' name. For one thing, it's real. And so are the forces threatening it. It's a more subtle world, too, than the digital one being projected in our cities' multiplexes. You actually had to work a little, you had to pay attention, before its ineffable beauty would set itself in motion. But if the name helps people relate to the place, if it's actually going to facilitate their entry as external witnesses and allies into its delicate eco-society, well then hell yes, Avatar Grove it is. Because one thing that this place shares in full with its virtual counterpart, is that it is worth fighting for.

Next: Avatar Grove Part 2. Logging? What logging?