Tall Tree Capital

Spectacular Avatar Grove shows that environmentalism and tourism can work hand in hand.

By Grace Szucs

 Photo credit: TJ Watt

Photo credit: TJ Watt

Written for SOAR Halifax

In 2010, after many fruitless days spent seeking old-growth trees on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, BC, photographer T.J. Watt spots the gray spires of a long-dead cedar tree piercing the sky near the logging town of Port Renfrew. He and environmental activist Ken Wu hike into the woods one last time.

What they found is now known as Avatar Grove, a gnarled, ancient stand of Red Cedar and Douglas Fir where 90% of the old-growth trees have been logged. This chance discovery prompted Watt and Wu to form the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA). The AFA is a non-profit organization that aims to protect what little old-growth forest remains. Surprisingly, protecting the trees has also led to the revitalization of tourism in the small town.

“Done wisely, tourism can act as a sustainable economic driver in a town like Port Renfrew,” says Watt. “It also provides an economic alternative to logging some of BC’s last old-growth forests. It’s a win-win situation when the trees are left standing, small businesses are flourishing, and people have jobs.”

 Photo credit: TJ Watt

Photo credit: TJ Watt

The aim of the AFA is to document and protect old-growth forests in BC while supporting responsible forestry. Two years after its discovery, the AFA was able to get the province to designate Avatar Grove an old-growth management area, which protects it from further logging.

What began as an environmentalist organization has affected Port Renfrew’s tourism industry in the best way possible. The AFA built a boardwalk to Avatar Grove, including stairs, bridges and platforms around trees. This made the grove more accessible to visitors while preserving the ecological integrity of the area. Avatar Grove is now a huge tourist draw, bringing thousands of visitors to the area. Three years later, Port Renfrew is still bustling.

 Photo credit: TJ Watt

Photo credit: TJ Watt

“It’s soaring right now,” says Rosie Betsworth, a lodging business owner in Port Renfrew. She says that before the AFA was created, locals – many involved with the logging industry – thought of a tree as “just a tree.” Beyond that, the potential draw for tourists just wasn’t top of mind. “The AFA really brought it into perspective for everyone, and it’s been flourishing from there,” she says.

Although the town sits at the head of two famous hiking trails – the West Coast Trail and the Juan de Fuca Marine Coast Trail, Betsworth admits that tourism-boosting efforts had been faltering. Today, the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce is re-branding the town as the Tall Tree Capital of Canada./ITC Last year, Betsworth’s cabin business comprised 50% Americans and Europeans. The 2014 tourist season “knocked our socks off,” she says.

“Many businesses have also told us that visitorship has increased dramatically as people come to hike in and explore the region,” says Watt. “People also stay longer during those visits. This translates into increased tourism revenues. Some people who only had seasonal work before now have jobs year round.”

Betsworth thanks the continued actions of AFA and their advertising for getting people out to Port Renfrew. “The ads are a major part of it,” she says, “People see them and think: What’s happening? Let’s go up there.”

 Photo credit: TJ Watt

Photo credit: TJ Watt

The region is changing fast. The logging industry – a major part of the historic identity of Port Renfrew – has become an export business. It returns little to the local economy as the industry sends raw logs to China by ship for processing. They are then imported back to Canada as a value-added product. The practice snatches potential work from local mills, meaning the province of British Columbia receives the least amount of revenue for its own product. Tourism is bringing some of that lost income back home to Port Renfrew.

Right now, the economy of Port Renfrew is in a state of rapid change. Sit on any beach on the Juan de Fuca Straight, and you may notice darkened freighters carrying away logs, money and jobs within their steel hulls. But there are also bright, sparkling cruise ships out there, ferrying tourists from Victoria Harbour to Alaska and beyond. Perhaps this is where the future lies.