Saving Giants with the Ancient Forest Alliance

Written by Ned Morgan.

They had almost given up hope when they stumbled over the enormous trees. Activist Ken Wu and photographer TJ Watt were on a mission in western Vancouver Island’s Gordon River Valley to document old-growth, and so far had found mostly clearcuts. But as they closed in on the logging town of Port Renfrew they discovered a lonely stand of giant red cedar and Douglas fir not far from the main road.


Avatar Grove. Photo by Darryl Augustine.


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Wu and Watt – co-founders of the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) – later dubbed the area ‘Avatar Grove’ to help bring attention to the unprotected trees. After an intensive two-year public awareness campaign led by the AFA, the BC government in 2012 declared the Grove an Old-Growth Management area.



Although Darryl Augustine‘s widescreen film profile of the AFA (above) focuses on this win, it also confronts the devastating losses to one of Earth’s mightiest conifer forests. Without miring itself in defeatism, the film tackles the issue of the countless millennium-old coastal colossi struck down over the last century – and the survivors that remain under threat. We spoke recently to the Ontario-born, Vancouver-based filmmaker about his work.


Ken Wu (l) and TJ Watt in Avatar Grove, near Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. They’ve dubbed this western red cedar ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree.’ Photo by Darryl Augustine.


Mountain Life: How did your collaboration with the AFA come about?

Darryl Augustine: I was on a flight from Vancouver to Berlin this past summer and I sat beside a group of German tourists who were looking at photos of big trees on their laptop from a tour they just did on Vancouver Island. I recognized almost all of the trees in their photos because I had filmed a small project for the AFA in 2011. It really hit me at that moment how important the work that organizations like the AFA are doing – and how far people were travelling to see these forests.

Working and chatting with anyone from the AFA you can sense the emphasis on positivity and sharing the beauty of places that are possible to save. At the same time they’re rallying together with groups of forestry workers to help promote sustainable logging practices* – and that’s good news for workers in BC in the long run.


Ken Wu (l) and TJ Watt measure ‘Big Lonely Doug’, probably the second-largest Douglas fir in Canada. It stands in the midst of a clearcut. Photo by Darryl Augustine.


ML: Was it a challenge shooting with a RED camera in rugged terrain and low light?

DA: For interviews, I almost always have a collapsible reflector/diffusion frame to bounce a more neutral colour into faces because otherwise people end up with a greenish skin tone in the forest – it also helps as an eye-light. I did run into some issues with low light in the forest, but using the RED camera, the raw image can be corrected so much … so even though it’s a heavier camera than a DSLR, it’s worth the fight to carry it all in the backpack. Whenever I can I’ll use faster Canon stills lenses so I can open up to f1.4 when it gets too dark for the zoom.


Augustine and his RED. Photo by TJ Watt.


ML: How do you view the future of BC’s old-growth?

DA: The number of people visiting these groves near Port Renfrew, even in fall when I was filming, is quite remarkable. You’re meeting people from all over the world. You realize that people are connecting with these places and momentum is still growing. Especially in the Avatar Grove, it’s a treat to see people enjoying what was still under threat of being logged in 2011. That said, the positive is balanced with the sober reality that there are still logging trucks carrying out big trees further up that same road towards Big Lonely Doug.


Augustine shooting Big Lonely Doug. Photo by TJ Watt.


We have so many places like this in BC – though many are easy to access, you still get the experience of being out in the wild. I guess it’s similar to the reason that people are leaving ski resorts to hit the backcountry … you have to work a bit harder to get there, you feel a bit more vulnerable, but it helps you appreciate what you’re seeing – your connection to these 1000-year-old trees. And that’s why international tourists come here – they realize how rare what we have left is. Hopefully the BC public and government will catch on to this and protect what’s left.


TJ Watt faces Big Lonely Doug. Photo by Darryl Augustine.

You can sign the AFA’s Ancient Forest Petition here. Or, donate to the AFA here.

Positive Media recently filmed a Production Talk with Darryl Augustine.

*Mountain Life print editions use Forest Stewardship Council certified paper.