Volunteering with the Big Tree Registry

Being a part of this work with Shauna Doll, and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, is a way to quantifiably support conservation and awareness for this Island and this coast that I call home.

My name is Taeven Lopatecki and I feel grateful to know Pender Island, S,DÁYES in the SENĆOŦEN language, as home for most of my life. Behind our house is a hill and from its summit the deep mossy green forest is a blanket that ends only at the side of the sea. The island is held in a bowl rimmed by the mountains on the mainland behind Vancouver and those along the Olympic Peninsula, visible like clouds on some days from the top of the hill. 

The rainshadow of the mountains to the west grants this area the unique habitats of the Coastal Douglas-fir zone. Here, the ocean weaves between the islands, with its tides like the breath pulling from our world’s lungs – the forests above the shore. 

I became involved with the Pender Island Big Tree Registry after participating in the ṮEṮÁĆES Climate Action Project last spring, in one of three courses created by the Southern Gulf Islands Community Resource Center and the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council and School Board. 

Other than leaving me with an immensely deeper understanding of the place I live, I met Shauna Doll, the coordinator for the Gulf Islands Forests Project, via Zoom. I had been eager to volunteer with Raincoast for a few years, and being asked if I wanted to help with the new Big Tree Registry on Pender was not really a question. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours a week outside under the arms of the canopy of lofty cedar and fir, partaking in conservation work and community awareness? 

View from the bottom of an fir tree looking up.
Fir tree on S,DÁYES. Photo by Taeven Lopatecki.

The second growth forest here that I know as tall is really only a shadow of what it would have been as old growth. 

Rising from the soft floor of fir needles and woody debris are the great stumps of these forebears. The few old growth fir trees that still stand are often the imperfect ones, those that have made more of a dance of their growth. Other big trees include the trees of life, western redcedars, arbutus, and Garry oak that stand from their own coastal ecosystems. Other than being major oxygen givers and always making me feel small, big trees are indicators of what was. 

Forests, when they are allowed to reach maturity, are places where biodiversity creates a resilient net of species, habitat, and community. 

Allowing these forests to recover and form this net is critically important for their role in supporting biodiversity, sequestering carbon, maintaining watershed health, and ultimately supporting environmental health and climatic balance. The Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems of the Salish Sea are also inextricably entwined with the lives of those living in it. 

The W̱SÁNEĆ people’s Traditional Territory includes Pender Island, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge is embedded in W̱SÁNEĆ culture and ways of being. Those of us living here need to listen. For anyone who is a current resident on the Islands it is nearly impossible not to be within reach of the forest’s arms. 

I would say that for most of my formal education, the forest on the Islands were a central classroom. Homeschool years were spent roaming our backyard and Island trails, while highschool years were spent trying to decide which was home: the forests of Pender or those of Saturna. Go to any viewpoint on the islands, though, and the truth is obvious. 

If not for the rising and falling fill of the ocean, these Islands are all the same forest. Though Islands may not be defined by their forests, I think the people living on them are. Other than the measurable assets of outdoor recreation through parks, trails, and campsites, I think the forest creates a more subtle, yet greatly influential, source of inspiration and wellbeing. The value of this forest is that of unique community and culture applicable to all those who have ever lived on the island. 

Aerial view of S٬DÁYES on a sunny day
Aerial view of S٬DÁYES on a sunny day. Photo by Taeven Lopatecki.

Though the forest looks unbroken from the top of the hill, a different case presents itself from a lower perspective. The majority of land on S,DÁYES is now privately owned, and few old growth trees remain after logging followed the first European settlers to the Island. While significant areas have been covered by parks and private or community conservation covenants, other areas have been cut clear. 

These patchworks break the larger functioning of the Island’s forest apart, isolating ecosystems and putting stress on the species that call S,DÁYES home. Climate change does nothing to help the situation – I see increasing numbers of cedar trees going brown from their tops, and each year’s storms snap new arbutus and fir, strewing them across the roads. Many old fir trees bear fire scars as tribute to historical cleansing of the forest by flame. If a fire ran through the Island now, it would clean out more than just the undergrowth and ground debris. 

Going forward into a sustainable future for the forests, and consequently ourselves, means taking the initiative for conservation, management, and awareness. 

For me, volunteering with the Big Tree Registry is a way of quantifiably supporting conservation and awareness for this Island and this coast that I call home. Raincoast’s scope of work, stretching from coastal landscapes to the waters of the Salish Sea and beyond, satisfies my interest in conservation topics. Thinking of the work I hope to do in the future, Raincoast’s balance of science, education, and advocacy for this coast aligns with my values. I feel grateful to volunteer with the Big Tree Registry because of this. 

I hope to not only be able to learn about how I can take a bigger role in conservation and environmental advocacy, but also be able to see tangible success for conservation and awareness on this Island I feel thankful to call home.

This article was written on and inspired by the forests of S,DÁYES, Pender Island, the traditional territory of the Tsawout First Nation and part of the unceded Coast Salish territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ, Tsawwassen, Malahat, and Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group. I would like to express my acknowledgement and gratitude to these communities, and their knowledge and stewardship.

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