Port Renfrew, long a logging town, has realized they can capitalize on the protection of their natural assets to keep the community alive.
The Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the Ancient Forest Alliance, the advocacy group that leads tours of the majestic ‘Avatar Grove’, to funnel more tourists into the area and feed the local economy.
The two organizations launched an info centre Thursday, July 14 that will hopefully be a hub for visitors looking for information about Avatar Grove and a boom for local businesses.
“What we used to rely on to sustain Port Renfrew was logging, but the tables have turned,” said Rosie Betsworth, chamber president.
She said while the partnership with an environmental group initially raised eyebrows among area residents, the forest alliance isn’t a “radical” group, instead one that aims to educate people gently about the importance of protecting old-growth forests.
“Their application is soft and it works.”
And it is working. The Ancient Forest Alliance holds tours once a month through the grove, and an average of 50 people show up each time, many from across Canada and Europe. TJ Watt, campaigner and photographer for the alliance, said thousands have come through the grove since he first discovered it in late 2009.
“There are five, six, seven cars there on an average day,” he said. The maps available in the info centre provide directions on how to reach the grove, a 20-minute drive from the village centre and then a 15-minute hike. It features the world’s biggest Douglas fir and Canada’s gnarliest tree, covered with a 10-foot wide burl at its base. Watt estimates the oldest tree in the grove is 500 years old.
Betsworth said the flow of visitors coming to see the grove is translating into real growth for the village, and she can understand why.
“The town is small, unique, green and clean,” she said. Everywhere you turn there’s something else to see.”
The community now has its first strip mall- a row of businesses with a restaurant, a market and the info centre, as well as a growing list of accommodations, eateries and eco-tourism opportunities.
She admits that the quality of the West Coast highway needs to be improved, and the switchbacks need to be gentler.
“The pressure is on” to keep the Pacific Rim Circle Route, a logging road which connects Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan, maintained.
Watt thinks local businesses are on-board with this new tourism strategy.
“I find that most business owners have made the connection between protecting the earth and raising funds,” he said.
However, he’s not yet assured that the tourists will be able to visit Avatar Grove indefinitely.
On Watt’s second visit to the grove in February 2010, he noticed surveyor tape around some of the trees. Since then, it’s been “a long, drawn-out battle for the last year and a half” to get the grove protected. The government is currently consulting with Teal-Jones Group, which has logging rights. Watt thinks that with the frenzy of people coming in to see the trees, it would be in the government’s best interest to
“It’d be way too backwards to cut it down at this point.”