Cathedral Grove
British Columbia

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Cathedral Grove, British Columbia

  Our Big Tree Heritage   Ancient Forest Extermination  
  Linking Two Biospheres   Habitat Desecration  

Our Big Tree Heritage

Cathedral Grove is a rare and endangered remnant of an ancient Douglas fir ecosystem on Vancouver Island in British Columbia (BC), Canada. The biggest trees in the Grove are about 800 years old and measure 75 m (250 ft) in height and 9 m (29 ft) in circumference. They are the survivors of a forest fire that ravaged the area some 350 years ago and the even more devastating invasion by Europeans who colonized Vancouver Island from 1849. Although spiritual in meaning, "Cathedral Grove" is a name embedded in a romantic and Eurocentric attitude toward BC nature that does not adequately acknowledge the stewardship of the indigenous peoples, First Nations, who cared for this biological treasure over 1000s of years and preserved it as a big tree heritage for all human beings (right).


Dutch children visiting Cathedral Grove
Photo: Eugeni Piepenbroek


Bark stripped cedar, Cathedral Grove, 2004.
Photo: Richard Boyce

The ancient red cedar (Thuja plicata) specimen that survives in Cathedral Grove (right) represents a critical species to First Nations. In her book "Cedar, Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians," Hilary Stewart describes how the indigenous way of life is dependent on big cedar trees:

"For 1000s of years these people developed the tools and technologies to fell the giant cedars that grew in profusion. They used the rot resistant wood for graceful dugout canoes to travel the coastal waters, massive post and beam houses in which to live, steambent boxes for storage, monumental carved poles to declare their lineage and dramatic dance masks to evoke the spirit world. Every part of the cedar had a use. The versatile inner bark they wove into intricately patterned mats and baskets, plied into rope and processed to make the soft, warm, yet water repellent clothing so well suited to the raincoast. Tough but flexible withes made lashing and heavy duty rope. The roots they wove into watertight baskets embellished with strong designs. For all these gifts, the Northwest Coast peoples held the cedar and its spirit in high regard, believing deeply in its healing and spiritual powers. Respectfully, they addressed the cedar as Long Life Maker, Life Giver and Healing Woman."


Aboriginal Heritage Trees Indigenous peoples have modified trees in BC as part of their traditional use of the forest. Not far from the giant Douglas firs in the heart of Cathedral Grove are unprotected archaeological artifacts. These "culturally modified trees" are red cedars that have had their bark stripped off for aboriginal and ceremonial purposes (left). They are unique signposts of indigenous occupation and provide evidence of Aboriginal Title and Rights: some have been dated back to 1137 AD. Yet such trees have no legal protection due to an ineffectual "smoke screen" Heritage Conservation Act.

Ancient cedar, Cathedral Grove.
Photo: Carol Ann Fuegi


Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.
University of British Columbia


Totem Poles and Cedar Trees First Nations culture as expressed in monumental cedar carvings is celebrated worldwide. The Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver is renowned for its outstanding collection (left). Such recognition has not slowed the relentless destruction of the forests by the logging industry which followed the invasion by Europeans. Not only did it result in the desecration of "totem" trees, but also in great suffering by indigenous communities. "Before colonization, First Nations were self governing, self sustaining nations, with legal, administrative and diplomatic systems that owned and managed their lands and resource. Relationship patterns changed dramatically, however, when a colonial European infrastructure was established and settlement by Europeans and Americans was promoted" Union of BC Indian Chiefs.


Ancient cedar tree, Cathedral Grove, 2005.
Photo: Phil Carson

Cathedral Grove, Muir Woods.
Marin County, California


Big Trees as Cathedrals of Nature Groves of ancient trees are today rare everywhere in the world. Visiting one is an inspiring experience. Cathedral Grove (left) is a treasure of wild forest biodiversity that compares in value to European cathedrals. Arboreal groves resemble Gothic cathedrals with their ribbed upward striving vaults, naves, transepts and choirs. Chartres Cathedral (below) illustrates the sylvan origins of Gothic architecture. The site was first inhabited by an ancient oak grove where Druids held their ceremonies. In the fourth century a Christian church was erected here which remained until the cathedral construction began in 1194. Celebrated as the epitome of the Gothic era, the site is no older than the magnificent big tree groves in BC today at risk of extermination.

Gothic pillars and naves.
Chartres Cathedral

Ancient tree stands in North America, such as the redwoods in Muir Woods (right), are ecosystems dominated by gigantic trees of an age far predating colonization by Europeans. The big trees in Cathedral Grove belong to a rare forest remnant of the Douglas fir habitat that has been decimated by industrial logging. No scientific evidence exists that such forests, once destroyed, can readily regrow. The trees of Cathedral Grove form a multiple treetop canopy similar to the ceiling of a cathedral (below).


Douglas firs, Cathedral Grove.
Photo: Eric Ruendal


"Cathedral Grove," 2005.
Painting by Diane Rae

Beams of light filter down from the canopy of Cathedral Grove (left), giving an impression of being inside the nave of a church. About her painting (above), Diane Rae says "The similarity between the interior of Chartres Cathedral and an old growth forest is revealed by the great stature of rounded form which reaches upward towards the light, spilling into filtered patterns throughout the damp space and inspiring a sense of awe at the enfolding grandeur of the scene"


Not many of the ancient redwood groves in California were saved from the ravages of the logging industry. It was only due to the dedicated effort by conservationists that some of the big trees are still standing today to remind people of the magnificent rainforest habitat which not long ago covered the west coast of North America.

Right: Old postcard of a couple sitting on the massive gnarled base of the "Cathedral Tree" in the Big Trees Grove at Felton, Santa Cruz County, California, 1903. Now part of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Left: Old postcard of a person peaking out from a hollow in the 326 ft high redwood called "Mother Tree" in the Big Trees Grove at Big Basin Park, Santa Cruz County. Founded in 1902, this is California's oldest state park.


Trees as Individuals In Europe monumental and exceptional trees are fully protected as natural heritage, or nature monuments and numerous websites are dedicated to big trees which are in many instances given names. Yet most of these trees are no more than 500 years old and rarely reach over 800 years. By contrast, in BC the age of ancient trees may be much greater, up to 2000 years in some cases, yet they have no protection from the industrial onslaught.

Ancient Douglas fir tree, Cathedral Grove.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia


Douglas fir tree, Cathedral Grove.

Friends of Cathedral Grove (FROG) Due to ineffectual park management, the grassroots group was formed to protect the nearly extirpated Douglas fir ecosystem of Cathedral Grove (left). "Amongst the worst of the numerous ecological tragedies that have been wreaked on this diverse forest over the past 150 years has been the near total extermination of primaeval Douglas fir. Now more than 97 percent of this once magnificent forest is gone, and to add insult to injury, the industry has cut its way through the subsequent forest profile down to the 30 year old pecker poles which one sees everywhere being shipped south, across the border so Americans can run them through their mills" Ingmar Lee.


Big Trees as Objects of Science The big tree expert and biologist Al Carder published his second book on giant trees in 2005 (right). He states that the 800 year old Douglas firs in Cathedral Grove do not even qualify as "big trees" compared to what he saw as a youth on the BC mainland. Born in 1912 in Vancouver, Carder remembers the Fraser Valley — where today an urban metropolis sprawls — when many of the spectacular ancient groves of Douglas fir were still standing, some with awesome trees well over 122 m (400 ft) tall. He explains that because these mammoths were too large to be easily felled, transported and milled, they were usually left intact. This changed when industrial technology advanced in the 1940s, following WW2. Carder makes the point that if native trees of such enormous size seem unimaginable to people today, it is because our sense of their scale has diminished: The Man Who Loved Trees.


Al Carder, "Giant Trees," 2005.
Photo: Daryl Stone


Cary Fir, Lynn Valley, Vancouver, 1895.
Photo: City of Vancouver


Big Trees as Trophies The Douglas fir is a virile species known for its genetic gigantism. It grows so tall, with a natural resistance to fire, drought, disease and insects, that it is the world's leading big tree species. BC's tallest known big tree was a 417 ft (127 m) "Cary Fir," named after George Cary who was said to have cut it down in 1895 in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver (left). Its stump diameter was 25 ft (8 m), its circumference was 77 ft (23 m), and its bark thickness was 16 in (41 cm) at the base. The tree in the photo may also be the Kerrisdale Tree, a giant fir cut down in 1896 by Hastings Mill for lumber. For a discussion of these trees, see: Todd Carney: A Fir Tree of the Mind and John Parminter: A Tale of a Tree (1996)


Big Trees Destroyed Cathedral Grove is one of the few easily accessible places on the Northwest Coast where one can get a sense of the magnificence of the natural heritage and irreplaceable biodiversity that has been so ruthlessly ransacked for commercial profit with no concern for future generations. According to Kathryn Molloy of the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter: "Cathedral Grove is still standing today because extraordinary citizens have been speaking up to protect it for almost a century. Everyone from loggers and corporate bosses to environmentalists has recognized Cathedral Grove as a special gem." Yet the biological integrity of the famous big tree stand continues to be assaulted both by the logging industry (a current example being the helicopter logging of Cathedral Canyon), and by the BC government which has attempted twice to construct a huge parking lot and commercialize the nature venue.


Cathedral Grove. (Click to enlarge)
Vancouver Island, BC


Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus).
Painting by Barry Kent MacKay

Fallen totem, Nootka Trail, 3 July 2007.
Photo: Tim Gage


From Sacred Symbol to Industrial Stumpage Big trees typically grow in rich valley bottoms most of which have been ravaged by industrial logging. Species which depend on old growth habitat, such as the Marbled Murrelet (left) are facing extinction along with the ancient tree veterans themselves. The unethical plundering of the last big trees in BC indicates the desperation of the wood products industry to squeeze out the last drops of lucre.

Ancient forest, Cathedral Grove.
Photo: Robert Berdan

The aboriginal culture that depends on the old growth forests is also being degraded by the loss of the ancient trees. A totem pole fallen on the Nootka Trail in Nuuchahnulth Territory (left) testifies to enduring indigenous values, ecological knowledge and traditional philosophy that are embedded in the rainforest. To obliterate this forest treasure by industrial logging is barbaric.


Ancient Douglas fir ecosystem and awe inspiring big trees, Cathedral Grove.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada


Left and right: Archival photos show the old wagon road through Cathedral Grove c. 1910, at about the same time that it was described:

"The road for about seventy miles is almost straight and through a virgin forest of Douglas fir. The trees are from 200 to 300 ft in height, straight as a lance and most symmetrical in shape, with no branches for the first 100 or 150 ft. The tops are like a huge plume of very dark green foliage. So graceful, so perfectly symmetrical are they that it is difficult to realize their great size.

The road winds about the shore of the lake and in and about a grove of magnificent fir trees. The trees are from 35 ft in height; all have the symmetry and beauty of the smaller firs and the grandeur of their gigantic size. We are all silent, awed by this most impressive spectacle . . . these trees are from 600 to 700 years old, and I feel their beauty and majesty as I did that of old St. Paul's — God made them" Edward Buxton, 1907


A Chronology of Cathedral Grove The first formal call for the protection of Cathedral Grove was by botanist James Robert Anderson (1841 – 1930), son of the Scottish fur trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson (1814 – 1884), and grandson of the renowned Edinburgh botanist James Anderson (1739 – 1808). J. R. Anderson was one of the first generation Europeans to be born in the colonial territories of BC. Thus he was a first hand witness to the rapid extermination of the native Douglas fir forests by the logging industry. In 1911, as secretary of the newly formed BC Natural History Society, Anderson wrote a resolution on preserving Cathedral Grove (below) supported by the Vancouver Island Development League.


"The supplies of wood appear inexhaustible in their natural state, but this is not the case. We have a grand heritage in our noble forests. It would be wise now before it is too late, to prevent destruction of the pristine beauty.

We intend to use every effort to induce the authorities to make such provisions. It is also to insure ourselves those who follow have at least a remnant of our grand forests.

With in easy reach by wagon road and soon by rail are the magnificent primeval forests that surround Cameron Lake. It is a representative specimen of our forests wealth which includes streams and mountains within five to 10 square miles.

From atop Mt Arrowsmith there is a panoramic view of the north and south ranges, including the Alberni Valley, Barclay Sound, the straits of Georgia and the mainland."

James Robert Anderson, 1911


Dutch visitors, Cathedral Grove, 2007.
Photo: P. v. A.


"Seven Wonders of Canada," 2007.
CBC webpage

Above: In 2007 Cathedral Grove was short listed for a national contest called "Seven Wonders of Canada." Big trees are an icon of BC, where some of the tallest, thickest and oldest specimens in the world existed until recently. "Beste grote boom" (best big tree) says a Dutch visitor admiring a tall tree in Cathedral Grove (left). This healthy, still growing 76 m (250 ft) high Douglas fir is a formidable witness to history, already 300 years old when Columbus reached America in 1492. At her base lies a prostrate tree who collapsed during a powerful West Coast storm in 1997.

"Take a look at us. Behold the wonder of our landscapes; from the old growth forest of Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, dominated by trees hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of years old . . . " Excerpt from the speech given by Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, on the occasion of Canada Day on 1 July 2005.


Weyerhaeuser old growth massacre, 24 August 2001.
Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, BC

Habitat Desecration Nothing has changed since the respected environmental journalist Stephen Hume summed up his disgust over the ongoing ruination of Cathedral Grove's endangered ecosystem in 2005: "Less than 0.5 per cent of this primeval forest type, characterized by giant firs, hemlocks and cedars, survives across the Georgia Basin landscape it once dominated. In other words, more than 99.5 percent has been extirpated by loggers, developers, road builders, housing contractors, shopping malls and, of course, parking lots. . . " Just Leave the Trees Alone.


Big Trees Destroyed Left: Paul George, founder of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and author of the book "Big Trees Not Big Stumps" (2005), stands beside the huge stump of an ancient Douglas fir cut down by Weyerhaeuser in 2000. The greedy American tree destruction company purposely desecrated Cathedral Grove with its logging roads and cutblocks (below).

Stump of a big tree killed by Weyerhaeuser.
Photo: Cathedral Grove, 2000


Old growth Douglas fir logs for sale, 2009.
Island Timber Frame Company, Vancouver Island


Ancient Forest Extermination The government of BC persists with its lowly greenwashing politics: on the one hand it advertises internationally its natural heritage of ancient cedar tree giants, while on the other hand it encourages the extermination of these vanishing trees by facilitating corporate cronies in their forest plunder. Island Timber Frame, one of many similar companies, openly flogs itself as "the best source of Douglas fir, red and yellow cedar and other prime lumber in North America" and shamelessly pictures old growth corpses (left). Such unethical commerce must be rejected: academics studying the Northwest Coast must place their results in the activist service of preventing the loss of big trees, rather than aiding and smokescreening government and big business with phoney scholarship profundities that help greenwashing.


BC's vanishing big trees are worth far more to the longterm economy while standingthan they are as chips, lumber and pulp. In the introduction to his guidebook "Big Trees" (right), Randy Stoltman wrote that humans can only make headway towards solving the ongoing conflict between conservation and industrial resource extraction by having a personal connection with ancient forests. Stoltman encouraged people to visit the big trees and he led the environmental fight to save several ancient groves. In 1986 he founded the "Register of Big Trees" which was later taken over by the government and logging industry. After the premature 1994 death of Stoltman in a mountain hiking accident, many photos of the big trees and maps of their location were lost and the big tree project was more or less abandoned.

"Cheewhat Cedar," Carmanah Walbran Park.
Photo: Bryon Fry


"Big Trees," bookcover.
Photo. Randy Stoltman, 1988

Canada's largest tree is the "Cheewat Cedar" on Vancouver Island (left), which measures 18.34 m (60.2 ft) in circumference and 55.5 m (182 ft) in height. It is almost beyond belief that this enormous matriarch, a western red cedar with an estimated age of 2,000 years, is as old as Christianity. Not far from her is the tallest known Sitka spruce in the world, the "Carmanah Giant." Not discovered by Europeans until 1988, this monumental tree is 95 m (312 ft) tall. Shockingly, this forest habitat, so close to Victoria, continues to be ravaged and converted to plantations.


"Big Betty," an ancient Douglas fir, 2003.
Photo: Ingmar Lee

According to Ingmar Lee, who reported and named "Big Betty," she does not feature the deeply corrugated bark typical of ancient Douglas firs. His theory is that because the gigantic tree is located on the edge of a rocky canyon, she grew very slowly and therefore did not develop the normal bark splits found in fast growing trees. He believes that given the enormous size of "Big Betty," she must be extremely old, possibly well over a thousand years.

Another one of the last giant firs which not long ago covered most of southwestern BC is the "Red Creek Fir" (right). Located in an active logging area on Vancouver Island, the big tree was reported in 1976. It towered at 97.6 m (320 ft) before losing its top in a storm. Today, at 73 m (241 ft), it is still the largest known Douglas fir in the world.


An exceptional record breaking Douglas fir tree was discovered in 2003 (left) in the unprotected Upper Walbran Forest of Vancouver Island which today is being massacred by heli-logging. This rare survivor of industrial logging is called "Big Betty" in honour of Betty Krawczyk, the forest activist who was arrested in 2003 for blockading a nearby logging road and jailed for ten months.

"Red Creek Fir," Port Renfrew.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia


Big spruce, Carmanah Walbran Park, 2008.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Inspired by his love of big trees, the leader of the German Green Party of Lower Saxony Stefan Wenzel appealed to BC's forest minister to reduce the rate of deforestation in the province: "There is no way around the sustainable use of our forests and our biological habitats, not in British Columbia, not in Germany, and not in any other part of the world. It is time to choose a new path, to search for a compromise in order to save our most irreplaceable biological habitats. I therefore hope that the last remnants of the ancient wild forests of BC, the incompariable heritage of humankind, will be preserved" Part of Our Soul.


The big trees of Cathedral Grove have become a symbol of the urgent need for global legislation to make the logging of ancient trees and forests an illegal act. Canada's hypocrisy is exposed by the fact that it donates to an international fund dedicated to saving the Amazonian rainforest yet continues to eradicate its own vanishing rainforest and cowtow to the wood products industry.

"Heaven's Tree," Carmanah Walbran Park.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia


Children playing among the ancient trees.
Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

Canada's blatant endorsement of the destruction of the last stands of BC's vanishing giant trees is like Japan's advertising of blue whale killing to spur its economy or South Africa's promotion of trophy hunting by using a rhino corpse. It is shocking that Canada — supposedly a leading western nation — openly condones ancient forest extermination. We must reject this destructive, industry serving path and instead follow wise First Nations leaders such as Guujaaw, a totem pole carver and the president of the Council of the Haida Nation, who initiated a 1000 year stewardship plan for the cedar trees of Haida Gwaii, and who submitted a petition to the UN to stop industrial clearcutting.


The government's contrived commercial sales motto "Super, natural BC means big business" was presented to the world at the Torino Olympics in 2006 on behalf of BC Wood, an international lobby group for wood products. Due to the forest industry's inordinate economic power in Canada, the battle to stop the extermination of the last giant trees has been all but lost. Co-opted local governments also aid logging corporations in their unethical timber trade and even offer incentives to demolish the vulnerable big tree survivors.

Child and ancient cedar, Cathedral Grove, 2006.
Photo: Christine Kovacs


Visitors to the endangered ancient Douglas fir forest ecosystem, Cathedral Grove, 2009.
MacMillan Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada