Photos Raise Alarm Over Old-Growth Logging in British Columbia

Photographer TJ Watt hopes his before-and-after images will spur people to action.

TJ Watt stands next to a tree
Before and After: Photographer TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance stands next to an old-growth tree in B.C.

TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance

There are few sights as magnificent as an ancient tree. The towering cedars, firs, and spruces of Canada's Pacific Northwest can reach diameters of up to 20 feet as they grow over hundreds of years. Some are a thousand years old. They provide wildlife habitats, sustain immense biodiversity that's still being discovered, and store up to three times more carbon than younger forests. 

The old-growth forests of British Columbia remain the world's largest intact stand of temperate rainforest, but they are under threat from logging. Despite the provincial government's promises to protect old-growth forests, an area equivalent of 10,000 football fields is razed every year on Vancouver Island alone. This is a devastating loss that TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance tells Treehugger makes no sense whatsoever.

Watt is a photographer from Victoria, B.C., who has spent countless hours bushwhacking through forests and driving the logging roads of Vancouver Island to capture images that convey both the sheer grandeur of these trees and the unfortunate destruction they face. A recent series of before-and-after shots – depicting Watts standing next to massive trees that are later reduced to stumps – has captivated and alarmed viewers around the world. Indeed, it's what brought Watt to Treehugger's attention and started our conversation. 

There are few sights as heartbreaking as the death of an ancient tree. When asked why he thinks these pictures have resonated so deeply, Watt said, "It's not like it's a black-and-white photo from 1880. This is full color, 2021. You can't feign ignorance about what we're doing anymore. It's just wrong." He points out that it will be the year 3020 before we see anything like it again, and yet logging companies keep decimating them with the government's permission.

double headed cedar
A gorgeous pair of cedars destroyed. TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance

Watt hunts for these endangered behemoth trees by using online mapping tools that show where there are pending or approved cutting operations and by spending time in the bush, looking for flagging tape. It's an ongoing challenge. "There's no public information saying where five-year logging plans are, but we're looking for the exact same thing [as the logging companies] – the biggest and best trees, those grand old growth forests – except that I'm looking with the goal of preserving them, and they're looking with the goal of cutting them down."

Old-growth trees are desirable for their sheer size (logging companies get more wood for less work) and the tight growth rings that make for beautiful clear wood. But this ancient wood often ends up being used for purposes that wood from second-growth forests could do just as well, minus the environmental damage. "There are ways to manage second-growth forests to gain characteristics that old-growth forests have," Watt explained. To start, "let them grow longer. There are also new engineered wood products that mimic the quality and characteristics of old wood without having to use old wood.

The "race against time" theme comes up several times in the conversation with Watt. He expresses deep frustration with the B.C. government's failure to protect these forests. "All the latest science is saying we don't have time to spare. We need to enact immediate deferrals in most at-risk areas so that we don't lose most of these precious places." Delays should be avoided because the logging industry "sees the writing on the wall" and is racing to cut down the best logs as fast as it can. 

Ancient old-growth tree cut down
TJ Watt stands next to another ancient tree, tragically logged. TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance

Watt laments how the government portrays logging, lumping productivity classes together. "What's rare today and highly endangered are the productive old-growth forests with big trees." These are different from low-productivity old-growth forests, where the trees "look like little broccolis on the coast," stunted by exposure to wind or growing in inaccessible boggy or rocky places, and therefore not commercially valuable. Watt made a curious analogy:

"Combining the two is like mixing Monopoly money with regular money and claiming you're a millionaire. The government often uses this to say there's still more than enough old-growth forest to go around, or they talk about the percentage of what remains, but they're neglecting to address [the differences between productive and non-productive old-growth forests]."

A recent report called "BC's Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity" found that only 3% of the province is suitable for growing big trees. Of that tiny sliver, 97.3% has been logged; only 2.7% remains untouched.

Watt isn't opposed to logging. He realizes we need wood for all sorts of products, but it shouldn't come from endangered old-growth forests anymore. "We need to move to a more value-based industry, not volume-based. We can do more with what we cut and gain forestry jobs. Right now we're loading raw unprocessed logs onto barges and shipping them to China, Japan, and the US for processing, then buying them back. There could be more training and jobs programs created to mill that wood here. Mills here can be retooled to process second-growth wood." He wants to see the government supporting First Nations communities in the shift away from old-growth logging: 

"To achieve large-scale old-growth forest protection across BC, the provincial government must commit significant funding for sustainable economic development in First Nations communities as an alternative to old-growth logging, while formally supporting Indigenous land-use plans and protected areas such as Tribal Parks."

He hopes his photography will inspire other citizens to take action, too. "Humans are visual creatures and I find photography to be the most effective way to communicate what the science and facts are telling us, but in an instantaneous and often more emotionally compelling way." Many people have reached out to Watt to say they've become environmental activists for the first time after seeing the before-and-after shots. 

"It is gut-wrenching to go back to these places I love," Watt said, "but photography allows me to convert that anger and frustration into something constructive." He urges viewers to take five minutes to get in touch with politicians and let them know what's on their mind. "We hear from people in politics that the more noise we make, the more support it gives them on the inside to move this along. The B.C. Green Party gets ten times more emails on the issue of old-growth than any other topic in the province. It gives them ammunition when going up against the forestry minister." 

If you're unsure of what to say, the Ancient Forest Alliance has plenty of resources on its website, including talking points for calling politicians' offices. There's a petition asking the government to implement an Old-Growth Strategy that would address many of the issues Watt discusses.

He ends the conversation with a reminder of people's ability to make a difference. "All of our success comes from people's belief that they can effect change." Just because we're up against a multi-billion dollar industry with tons of lobbyists that want to keep the status quo in place doesn't mean we can't be successful. Really, when you think about it, we have no choice but to keep going. We must be the forest's voice.

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