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B.C.'s ancient forests draw Al Jazeera's gaze

With Gadhafi teetering, Mubarak toppled and pretty much every Arab state having come down with a severe case of the wobbles, Al Jazeera naturally turns its attention to ... Avatar Grove.

Times Colonist - Jack Knox, March 4, 2011

B.C.'s ancient forests draw Al Jazeera's gaze
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The international news group Al Jazeera filming near Canada's Gnarliest Tree in the Avatar Grove
Photo by TJ Watt

With Gadhafi teetering, Mubarak toppled and pretty much every Arab state having come down with a severe case of the wobbles, Al Jazeera naturally turns its attention to ... Avatar Grove.

It's true. A crew from the English-language version of the Mideast-based news network has waded into the Vancouver Island woods for a story on B.C. logging practices.

Which evokes a picture of Moammar, the man who put the Daffy in Gadhafi, glued to the big-screen TV and saying: "That's the gnarliest Sitka spruce I've ever seen."

Well, no, Al Jazeera English is actually available to 220 million homes in more than 100 countries around the world, which is what has local environmentalists excited.

"International audiences will be astounded to see that British Columbia still has 1,000-year-old trees with tree trunks as wide as living rooms and that tower as tall as downtown skyscrapers -and horrified to know that our government still sanctions cutting them down on a large scale," said Ken Wu, executive director of the Victoria-based Ancient Forest Alliance, which is campaigning to end old-growth logging in areas where such trees are scarce.

Wu and Metchosin's T.J. Watt guided the Torontobased Al Jazeera crew around the Port Renfrew area, taking in clearcuts and the stand of massive trees they have dubbed Avatar Grove. The name might be so shamelessly contrived that it makes some want to club a whooping crane to death out of spite, but it seems to have done the trick in attracting attention to the cause.

"We're always interested in environmental stories," said Al Jazeera producer Jet Belgraver, on the phone from Toronto. The story, which will air Saturday, aims to give global viewers "a bit of a reality check" about B.C. logging practices. "When they think of Canada, they think of pristine forests."

This sort of thing makes Canadians squirm. We get our noses out of joint when international media ignore us, then do a 180 and get all shirty when they report on our dirty laundry, as was the case when the world showed up for the Olympics and discovered that Vancouver's Downtown Eastside looked like the cast party for Shaun of the Dead.

As for the struggle for Vancouver Island's forests, it hasn't really garnered international attention since 1993's War in the Woods, the massive protest against Clayoquot Sound logging. The cameras rolled when activist rockers Midnight Oil -whose big, bald lead singer, Peter Garrett, went on to become Australia's environment minister -played a concert at the protesters' camp that July. Environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy, Jr. (another kind of rock star) waded in two weeks later. International pressure, the threat of boycott, eventually spurred B.C. forestry reform, such as it was.

Americans tend not to pay much attention to us anymore, though. The Washington Post shut its Canadian bureau in 2007, following the lead of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Two years ago, CNN was so ignorant that when Barack Obama paid his first presidential trip to Canada, it identified the red-serge Mounties as soldiers.

Al Jazeera English bills itself as the only international network with a permanent bureau in Canada. The four-year-old 24-hour news service, based in Qatar, began broadcasting as a digital channel in Canada last May. The Toronto bureau's staff are all Canadian, with Imtiaz Tyab, who had worked for the CBC in Vancouver, its on-camera face.

In fact, the entire network has a strong Canadian flavour, including Tony Burman, former editor in chief of CBC News.

Although influential abroad, the network is having a hard time getting a toehold in the U.S., where the Al Jazeera name conjures up images of bombhappy radical Muslim clerics, and where there appears to be widespread support for exposing the public to a diversity of perspectives, as long as they're American.

Al Jazeera isn't that readily accessible in Canada, either. Shaw carries it as a specialty channel in Victoria, up in the nosebleed section with the Knitting Knetwork and Lithuanian pay-per-view porn, or something like that. It's easiest to stream it live over the Internet.

As for the old-growth logging practices at the heart of the story, Wu and Watt are encouraged that Forests Minister Pat Bell recently asked B.C.'s chief forester to investigate a Forest Practices Board recommendation that the province find a new way to protect ancient, giant trees.

It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine the government declaring Avatar Grove (even politicians have begun using the name) off-limits to logging; the Liberals need to do something to recover from the Juan de Fuca lands debacle.

But Wu says that would just be a start. "It's not just about saving the cherry on top of the cake."

If the government doesn't come up with an oldgrowth strategy acceptable to the Ancient Forest Alliance, the group plans to target vulnerable Liberal MLAs -not a war in the woods, but a war in the swing ridings.

Maybe that would bring back the cameras, the media always being drawn by war.

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