Vancouver was once home to the biggest trees in the world

Celia Brauer
17 min readOct 6, 2021

“Like many Canadian homes, my house is in the middle of an old clear-cut.”

Patrick Lane

Art Map “Vancouver in the 1850s.” Map from Bruce Macdonald’s book: “Vancouver, a Visual History.” Drawings by Celia Brauer are meant to bring the plants and animals that used to live here, and some that still do, back to life.

Imagine you are sitting in a living room in Vancouver, British Columbia, talking with friends about nature. You ask them, “where did the biggest trees in the world grow?” Somebody will likely answer, “The redwoods in California, of course!” And checking online, you would find a considerable measure of agreement.

But little would your friends know that if a circle were drawn around any average-size living room in Vancouver today, the diameter would probably be the same size as the trunk of an ancient conifer that grew close by before colonization. The tree would have been an integral part of a vast and remarkably rich old-growth forest that existed in the region for millennia before clear-cutting began in 1860.

Tracking the Spirit of Old Growth in your Living Room

The peninsula we now call Vancouver is part of a temperate rainforest zone stretching from northern British Columbia to Oregon. These ecosystems also grow in Norway, Chile, New Zealand and Tasmania. We believe half of the earth’s temperate rain forests have been logged, including most of those that once thrived in British Columbia. According to the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre which makes its home near Lynn Creek on the north shore of Burrard Inlet:

“The (local) temperate rainforest represents one of the earth’s most biologically productive ecosystems. The moderate temperature, mild climate and abundant rainfall create an environment that is ideal for growing big coniferous trees.

… British Columbia is home to 25 percent of the earth’s remaining coastal temperate rain forests. (They) grow in the coastal mountain range. Clouds form on the slopes that face the ocean and the resulting rainfall can produce massive trees. Other areas…include Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island… Temperate rainforests contain the world’s oldest trees: Douglas fir, western red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce.

The original temperate rainforest in Lynn Valley area was awe-inspiring. Ancient coniferous trees towered above the canyon. The trees were so huge that the base lived in one set of climactic conditions, the trunk in another, and the crown in the third. The straight and knot-free trees drew lumbermen and settlers to the North Shore. The first lumber mill began operating in 1863. After the canyon had been logged, land developers donated five hectares…to the District of North Vancouver. They hoped that the incredible scenery would entice people to buy real estate in Lynn Valley.”

What existed in Lynn Valley not long ago was the same all over the Lower Mainland area near Vancouver. Old-growth forest stretched around ocean inlets and the broad flood plain of the Fraser River. The Musqueam First Nation called the biggest salmon river in the world stal̕əw̓. All the land and water teemed with life. Monstrous trees were fed by winter rains and fertilized for millennia by carcasses of untold numbers of salmon who had migrated back to their home stream after a long journey at sea to lay their eggs and die.

The salmon’s nutrient rich remains were dragged into the woods by bears, wolves, eagles, and other animals. They contributed to the astounding array of flora and fauna that flourished in the understory. All around, many fresh and saltwater bodies supported small and large mammals, numerous species of fish, invertebrates and a myriad of other life forms.

From Outstanding Natural Wealth to Scorched Earth

Downtown Vancouver after the clearcutting. Circa late 19th, early 20th century.
Two large trees remaining in downtown Vancouver near Georgia Street. Circa late 19th, early 20th century.

Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, local First Nations watched in horror as the world they had known and cared for through countless generations was radically altered. Acres of forest were unceremoniously reduced to stacks of wood to support invasive colonial commerce. Each giant tree took several days to hand cut. Two notches were made on either side of the lower trunk. A buckboard was inserted to enable the loggers to stand up off the ground. They passed a long saw back and forth to create the first massive wedge. Then another cut was made on the back and the giant tree came crashing down. Next, it was drawn through the woods on skid roads made of logs greased with dogfish oil. Horses or oxen pulled the giant trunks to tidewater where they were encircled by large booms and towed to the closest saw mill. In no time, the whole peninsula became known as “Stumpville.” A massive clear-cut and scene of scorched earth, devoid of life.

Logging a giant tree in the Lower Mainland
Map of Vancouver in 1886 when it was formally declared a city

Witnessing the Wealth of Natural History

In the 1990s, the other end of the twentieth century, I lived in South False Creek on Millyard Street, where old lumber-processing sites had been transformed into modern housing two decades before. On most days, I walked the seawall with our young daughter in her baby buggy. I looked at the high-rise towers on the opposite shore and wondered how it may have once looked. Little did I know that when I researched these stories, they would greatly alter my perception of home.

I first learned of the local big trees from historian Bruce Macdonald’s book, Vancouver, a Visual History which I found in Duthie’s bookstore at the corner of Burrard and Robson Streets. I combed through the landmark volume, written in 1992. What astounded me was the first map, displaying the natural history of Vancouver between 1850 and 1860. Bruce had painstakingly documented this valuable resource by going through ten years of original surveyor’s records.

A natural shoreline of the eastern False Creek Flats in 1909. In 1916, it was filled in. Photo by Chief Archivist Major Mathews

Every stream is shown on the map, every animal and plant mentioned. Many First Nations villages and place names are described in Coast Salish languages. The wealth of the area is extraordinary. Countless berry bushes, shrubs, ferns, fungus and moss thrived in the understory. Small and large insects, birds and animals made this their home. Bees, dragonflies, mosquitoes, slugs, frogs, snakes and mice. Eagles, loons, owls, sandpipers, grouse, woodpeckers and cormorants. Salmon, dogfish, rockfish, mussels, herring and surf smelts. Shrews, flying squirrels, beavers and raccoons. Bears, wolves, cougar, deer, elk, seals, otters, goats, sturgeon and whales. And much more. The numerous flora and fauna danced off the page as though they were coming back to life.

This tremendous wealth had been the local natural history throughout every century stretching from back from 1850. The real world forever before settlement, when the original people were sustained by the local land and waters and the vast number of species they supported. It was truly remarkable to see a record of the “richest place on earth.” And now little of it existed, other than in memory.

A Different World View Arrived with the Tall Ships

The mass destruction of such an ecological paradise was a death by a thousand cuts. The settlers extracted life from what once had flourished under the old-growth canopy and in nearby water bodies where salmon were home. All gone − in the space of a few decades for the new city of Vancouver and it’s growing population. Some of the lumber was sold worldwide because it was plentiful and profitable. Some was made into local buildings. I live in one such house built in 1910 from Douglas fir. But since then, many of the original structures have been demolished in favor of newer and bigger editions. And any leftover original wood has been unceremoniously thrown into the dump.

A typical Vancouver Edwardian house made from old growth timber. Early 20th century. 329 East Pender St.

Unlike resident First Nations, settlers who came from Europe and elsewhere did not understand the long-term value of giant trees and their unique ecosystems. They also did not comprehend the notion of social-ecological systems used by Indigenous peoples since time immemorial. From that point in history, until today, “human-centered” commerce has reigned.

Clearcut in Mount Pleasant 1889 at the intersection of Kingsway and Main St at 7th Ave. Downtown Vancouver and Strathcona are across the original waters of False Creek. Photo by Chief Archivist Major Mathews

From their experience in original homelands, settlers saw the forest as a large cash bonanza for those who seized it. Not as a value for the sake of other species, original people and future generations. Or to support the common sense and proven scientific fact that an intact natural world is necessary to sustain life on Earth. But tragically from then on, the local First Nations had no choice but to join the economy that invaded them. As they looked around at their new reality, the ecosystems and cultural imperatives that had existed for centuries were crashing down, alongside the vanishing forest.

The Miracle of a Giant Tree

The answer to “where did the biggest trees in the world once grow?” is right here in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. And many other areas of temperate rainforests on the west coast. One person who comprehensively researched this subject was Al Carder. He was born in 1912 and eventually became the oldest forest conservationist in BC. He lived over a hundred years and was an avid chronicler of old-growth, beginning his career at five years of age while helping his father measure a giant tree cut down in the lower Fraser Valley near their home. Al later earned a doctorate in plant ecology and became Canada’s first agrometerologist: one who studies weather and the climate to improve agriculture.

Carder wrote two books during his retirement. In his second one, “Big Trees as Objects of Science,” he describes the remarkable ancient groves he saw as a boy. Some of the Douglas fir were over four hundred feet tall. Because they were hard to cut and process, some remained standing for awhile. But in the 1940s, technology caught up to them. After that, settler society ceased to realize how big the original trees really were.

Prince Rupert. West coast of British Columbia A nice catch of salmon and halibut 1925. Credit LAC 3359156

The same is true for fish on both Canadian coasts. Few people remember when salmon were three times larger than anything you see today in the wild. Looking at old photos from a century ago, the richness of the lands and waters and magnitude of living things is hard to imagine. Modern life no longer allows the natural world the time and space to grow so large.

One giant tree in Kerrisdale matured for over a thousand years before colonization. Carder writes about The Tallest Douglas fir in the world, historically: “As the story goes, the Kerrisdale area of Vancouver once supported a tree taller than any other in the world. Among a region of Douglas firs stretching from California to the mid- latitudes of BC, the Kerrisdale area had particularly tall trees. One was allegedly 125 m (415 feet) tall until it was cut down for timber in 1875 and sent to Hastings Mill on Burrard Inlet. Or so the legend goes…”Another similar sized tree grew in Lynn Valley. Credible sources on Wikipedia tell us:

“The Lynn Valley tree was the tallest known Coast Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) at a measured height of 126.5 meters (415 ft). It was cut down in 1902…Since that time, in the lower valley where the tree grew, the entire old- growth forest has been logged. It was one of the tallest trees ever recorded, perhaps exceeded only by a small number of Australian mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). A Coast Douglas fir in Washington State, the Nooksack Giant, may have been 50 feet (15 m) taller, but the measurement of the Lynn Valley Tree’s height is considered by some more reliable.”

Four hundred and fifteen feet high. What does it take for a tree to grow that tall? After it is logged, will the world ever be the same again?

There are a few big trees left in Stanley Park and Pacific Spirit Park. As well on the North Shore of Burrard Inlet and beyond. But nothing compares to what originally grew in these parts. There is one specimen on Bowen Island left standing called “Opa,” German for Grandfather; similar to what First Nations mean when they call giant old trees grandmothers and grandfathers.

Other areas of old-growth forests still exist in British Columbia but are rapidly being extinguished by greedy governments who wish to continue benefitting for the sake of our present day economy. As if log-and-destroy activity has anything to do with honest human action that can be sustained for future generations, other species and the living planet all of us need. For the short and long term bio-geo-chemical existence of our home.

Fighting for Life

A giant old-growth tree at Ada’itsx (Fairy Creek) slated to be logged.

Old-growth logging mentality persists among those who wield power and privilege. Until Sept 28, 2021 when Supreme Court Judge Douglas Thompson ruled against renewing the injunction Teal Jones logging company held against forest defenders, a lot of brave souls protested the cutting of giant trees for more than a year at Ada’itsx Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew in Southwest Vancouver Island. Over a thousand one hundred people were arrested protecting what remains of an intact old-growth forest. Some were apprehended multiple times. This is greater than the largest mass arrest in Canadian history of eight hundred and fifty-six people at Clayoquot Sound in 1993. All these individuals took valuable time from their lives to save ancient trees. They were guarding the knowledge and wisdom these remarkable specimens hold and the crucial reality they offer us at this time.

At Fairy Creek, RCMP were filmed treating peaceful protesters with excessive violence. Judge Thompson rightfully considered that, “The methods of enforcement of the court’s order have led to serious and substantial infringement of civil liberties, including impairment of the freedom of the press to a marked degree.” He recognized that forest defenders are “respectful, intelligent and peaceable by nature. They are good citizens in the important sense that they care intensely about the common good.” Thus Judge Thompson made a noble and honest decision against extreme violence inflicted on innocent people trying to save nature.

It is imperative that such a strong response from police, alongside the logging of old-growth continues to be recognized as a tragedy and travesty on many fronts. This is ongoing criminal activity that is rarely labeled in these terms. A centuries-long assault on the natural world began with widespread colonization in the 17th century. It has not only continued unabated but is escalating. Governments who authorize the resource extraction activity of large companies benefit greatly while our common natural world shrinks.

We talk about “conflict diamonds” in Africa because resource removal causes the land and people to sustain severe irreversible impacts. In the same way, logging giant trees can be labeled “conflict lumber” because of its devastating effect on all people, ecosystems, other species and the planet as a whole. It also seriously impacts the health and well-being of Indigenous people, those who protest and all of humanity who grieves because they are directly impacted by persistent ecocide.

A plaque at the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens Reservoir, near the height of land at 37th and Oak St. The photo is Vancouver just after it was clearcut in 1912

Understanding and Respecting the Value of Nature’s Old Growth

A small percentage of old-growth still exists in British Columbia. In a May 25, 2021 article for the Narwhal, Garry Merkel, a professional forester and member of the Tahltan First Nation tells us BC created an old-growth strategy study twenty-five years ago that offered excellent advice, none of which was implemented. Had it been carried out, we would not be having more “War in the Woods” confrontations like Fairy Creek. Merkel says:

“We’re in a world now where people are afraid. They see the effects of climate change. They see the effects of large- scale pollution. You can see now at a global level what we are causing and that it’s going to hurt us − lots − as a species and hurt other things too. There’s very little accessible old- growth. Couple that with the entrenched paradigm. You have to have conflict to get through it, and push and shove…

There is certainly a perception out there in the public that we have so little old-growth left that we need to protect what’s left… It’s like climate change. It becomes symbolic. It doesn’t become about the place itself. It becomes symbolic about a much larger issue, so it’s going to continue. I don’t see it changing…”

He adds wise words about the level needed for maintaining biodiversity.

“What science tells us is that as long as you have at least 70 per cent of older parts of the ecosystems, in sufficient size, you will have little or no material effect on biodiversity. But once you start dropping below 70 per cent you start to impact biodiversity and you’re going to start to see species loss. You’re going to start to see possible water issues. Your biological index is going to go down. It keeps dropping quite quickly until you get to about 30 per cent. Once you get to 30 per cent or so, you will be at a higher risk of biodiversity loss.”

Merkel says it’s hard to turn the ship around because “we’re managing ecosystems − that are in some cases thousands of years old − on a four year political cycle.” In the meantime, an independent study by three ecologists who originally worked for the BC government claim that of the thirteen million hectares of old-growth forest left in the province, only thirty-five thousand hectares can support larger trees. Which means old-growth is fast disappearing and soon will be gone.

The study tells us old-growth trees store a “high amount of carbon, supports biodiversity and makes forests resilient to wildfire.” This is the great value of these giants in an age of extreme climate change, biodiversity loss and widespread forest fires. And yet the government is doing the opposite of saving them. They prefer to cut them down to provide jobs for the voting public. Or to appease local First Nations who ask for rightful income for resources in their territory. Instead the government spends a great deal of tax money paying police to fight protestors and employs rescuers to respond to extreme climatic conditions such as forest fires, hurricanes, and flooding. Better to use these funds to redress the environmental carnage Indigenous peoples have experienced in their territories for centuries and offer them compensation rather than cut the trees. This will prevent confrontation and disaster and save the precious ecosystems we have left which will benefit our planet and enhance the lives of all.

Bringing Back Life

Why should we remember the old-growth in Vancouver instead of citing California trees? When the clear-cut bonanza was happening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Lower Mainland and all over Vancouver Island and the northern coast, it was business as usual. There was no contest about which was the biggest tree in the world. They just simply took what they could to profit as much as possible. That was all that mattered. And that’s all that still matters.

We continue the fast forward of Canadian history that already happened for three hundred years back east. Take the trees, take the fish, take the animals and minerals. Sell them for money and create places for people who want to settle. When all the resources are gone, the land as real estate becomes the next big cash grab. Any Indigenous people and their allies in the way are continually forced to assimilate and follow colonial rule of law. That was typical of Canada’s original settlement aided by overpopulation in homelands in Europe and around the world. Powerful, privileged people ran the show, claiming they were “discovering” masses of resources in the “New World” which they could capitalize and claim as their own. The same is true now.

If we look at the present cutting of old-growth, trees felled for fossil-fuel pipelines and farmed fish, along with those grown in hatcheries and hauled out of the ocean as though it remains our right to take whatever riches we want, nothing much has changed. Except there are far fewer fish, trees and fossil fuels, there is more waste, pollution and species loss. And greedy people hungry to get a piece of the original wild land before it’s all gone.

Our common paradigm is that natural resources are an unending bank from which we can draw. They are recorded on our economic balance sheets only when they are taken and sold. Many people continue to believe that if we took so much, so quickly from the natural world for profit not long ago, we can do the same going forward. Endlessly. These notions are entrenched in British Columbia’s and Canada’s self-image and culture. But they are shameful notion; imagining people can continue to seize and destroy living specimens on our planet to use at their own will.

Not Ours to Destroy

Can the social systems that humanity makes up for its benefit ever really be the truth? We did not create the natural world. Then why do so many of us believe we own it to do with as we please? The Hebrew Bible spoke against this kind of wasteful and selfish thinking centuries ago. If our ancient ancestors created wise rules to care for God’s invention so long ago, surely there is no question humanity could do much better than support continual greed and seizure for profit.

Is it not surprising few people know that the biggest trees in the world were once right here. After all, these trees don’t exist anymore. We have high-rise buildings instead and masses of people who consume a lot of resources and create waste. That’s what most people see and understand to be reality. This is a typical and frightening example of what Al Carder referred to when he compared old-growth to the comparatively undersized second growth forests of today. Local fishery researcher and retired professor Daniel Pauly recently coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” meaning what people see in front of their eyes is believed to be reality − despite what went before and was destroyed. The colonial paradigm lives on in the hands of our policy makers, businesses and people who refuse to understand natural, human or any other kind of tradition and history.

Second growth Douglas firs at Van Dusen Botanical Garden; about 200 years old.

Humanity Can Do Much Better

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

John Muir

When will the race to ecological extinction turn around? It would help if we first understood the immeasurable value of what was recently lost, not just in financial terms. A hundred and seventy years is yesterday in natural history, yet the local land and waters were radically changed with the steady work of a giant saw. If we continue to forsake more of these magnificent arboreal giants, we do so at our peril. And more positive qualities about civilization will fall along the way.

Addendum:

There is a stark connection between Vancouver’s recent and swift destruction of the surrounding natural world and the effects such violence continues to have on the social fabric of our young city.

Vancouver, like many other settlements in North America, erected Single Room Occupancy buildings or SROs, in the downtown core. They were originally used as hotels, then became residences for new arrivals. A great many loggers and fishermen employed in the forest and fishing industry, lived in such hotels in the off-season. They were mostly single men who had immigrated from Europe looking for better prospects in their lives.

The Downtown East Side was a common area they gravitated to because it had many SROs. Most had a ground floor bar where they could eat, drink, and socialize. After the local trees were cut and the waterways fished out, men who were still single after many years of working remained in the SROs and their social life continued in the bars.

A century later, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side remains a magnet for displaced people who have ended up homeless, unemployed, dispossessed and looking for community. It is the poorest Postal Code in Canada with the highest proportion of sickness, mental health problems, drug addiction, prostitution and decay.

This is part of the considerable price our current society pays for an invasive, devastating boom and bust economy that wastes what it takes and leaves behind glaring human misery and species extinction.

Celia Brauer is co-founder of the False Creek Watershed Society. Her family spent ten years participating in Utsam: the Witness Project in the Sims Creek/ Elaho Valley region of the Upper Squamish River. The project’s intention was to share the Squamish Nation’s traditional knowledge with a wider audience to address the impacts of old-growth logging in Squamish Nation ancestral territories.

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Celia Brauer

Artist, writer, naturalist, activist, BFA, MA Anthropology, False Creek Watershed Society founder, Yiddish speaker and scholar. http://www.celiabrauer.com