No wooden hearts

Vancouver Island's environmentalists want to protect the great Douglas firs that grow there. But loggers are an endangered species too

The Douglas fir tree wasn't exactly a prime specimen. Tall, emaciated, stripped of all its branches and tied up with black ropes, its base was pinned to the ground. This particular fir tree had been shaped into a flagpole and stuck in the middle of a busy clearing, where everyone could testify to its misfortune.

The Douglas fir tree wasn't exactly a prime specimen. Tall, emaciated, stripped of all its branches and tied up with black ropes, its base was pinned to the ground. This particular fir tree had been shaped into a flagpole and stuck in the middle of a busy clearing, where everyone could testify to its misfortune.

Not something you'd expect to see among the neat flowerbeds and bulging glass canopies of Kew Gardens. But that's where it is. A neat plaque tells you that the tree came from Copper Canyon on Vancouver Island; that it was 371 years old when it was felled and that the Government and Forestry Industry of British Columbia had given it to Kew Gardens to commemorate the 1958 centenary of British Columbia and the 1959 bicentenary of the Royal Botanical Gardens.

In a place devoted to the nurture and protection of things leafy, to see the flagpole felt like walking into a pet sanctuary and finding a stuffed chihuahua. All very strange. But then Kew Gardens has apparently been putting up Douglas Fir flagpoles on the same site since 1861, a time when it might not have seemed so peculiar.

In the 19th and 20th centuries there were plenty of Douglas fir trees in Canada and, in an era when travel, to many people, meant either trophy hunting or trophy giving, what was a dead tree between friendly countries? And, what was the point of going places and seeing sights unless you could bring a bit of them back - dead or alive - to stick them on display?

Today a large proportion of us can, and do, travel and there are no points to be scored by collecting trophies. The motivation to travel is different too. If I was going to see a Douglas fir, I'd want to see it in a Pacific rainforest, with its own leaves and branches, surrounded by squelchy moss, with birds squawking overhead.

Named after David Douglas, a Scottish botanist who explored the Pacific Northwest in 1825, Douglas firs are native to the region. They grow up to 85m tall and two and a half metres wide. They should be easy to spot on Vancouver Island.

Trees are what the whole place is about. As you fly in from Vancouver or Seattle, the first thing you notice is the green-ness. Yet this apparent abundance of trees might be the island's undoing.

In a country that is famed for its protective attitude to the environment (even the luxury hotels provide separate bins for cans, paper and plastics), much of the old growth forest here has gone. Delve a few hundred metres off the roads and the scenery isn't always so pretty. Part of a belt that once stretched from Alaska to Northern California, this temperate rainforest is apparently being felled at a quicker rate than its sister forest in the Amazon. As well as the aesthetics, environmentalists are worried about possible knock-on effects such as flooding and reduced air quality.

The major cause of this destruction is, of course, logging. Vancouver Island is one of the most heavily-logged areas of North America. Fortunes have been made and communities developed around the demand for timber to build the houses, boats, bridges and railways in both the New and the Old Worlds. These days the lessening demand, coupled with automation means, understandably, that those loggers still working are under pressure to keep their jobs.

The environmentalists claim that loggers are refusing to use managed forests and are, instead, lopping down the remaining old-growth forest. The region is a battleground. And that flagpole at Kew Gardens may be more poignant than you think. The British, it seems, import a good slice of British Columbia's plywood.

The auguries were not good as I landed at Vancouver - the airport is close to a timber yard and the only trees I could see from the air were floating. Undeterred, I took one of the tiny seaplanes across to the Island from downtown Vancouver.

You just turn up and hop on, which makes it feel more like a bus than a plane. We swooped over the Lion's Gate bridge and the green blur of Stanley Park and were soon skimming the silky mudflats beyond the city. The inky blues and greens of the gulf islands and then the urban skyline of Victoria gradually came into view, the peace of the scene shattered by the whirring of the engines.

From Victoria, I drove north. To the left the line of the ocean was interrupted by the snow-topped peaks of the Olympic Peninsula and, between me and the water, a rugged, rocky shore. After an hour or so, I parked up and followed a path down to China Beach.

The ground was covered by feathery ferns, dark, sappy lichens and odd splashes of colour from clumps of wild flowers. But the most striking feature in the landscape was the Sitka spruce trees, which stood in elegant formation all around. The higher my eyes travelled up their stems, the trunks seemed to turn a deeper shade of red and the leaves a more brilliant green. The forest felt cold after the heat of a sun-soaked car. Under this giant canopy I crept along the path through warm little puddles of sunlight. Apart from an elderly couple hurrying back up the path from a picnic on the beach I was the only person there.

It was the same on the beach. Its pale grey pebbles and soft white sand were as cold as the water crashing in from Japan, and the enormous bleached timbers strewn across it had been sculpted into strange shapes and colours by the actions of sun, wind and sea. There were no ice cream kiosks to be seen, no railings, no cigarette butts - just pristine surf and sand. I couldn't help wondering how desolate it would look in the rain.

My guidebook said that the oldest Douglas fir in Canada (700-1000 years and of 41ft circumference) was a few miles further north, near Port Renfrew, but it was situated on a logging road and therefore off limits to a hire-car driver. So instead I made my way up the eastern coast of the island to Cathedral Grove, in Macmillan Provincial Park. Cathedral Grove is a huddle of Douglas firs, as solid and tall as the trees at China Beach. Again, I found myself completely alone in the fading sunlight. Wisps of fine, cobwebby lichen dangled between branches way above my head, heightening the sense of serenely contained space. The place was aptly named.

On my way back to Victoria I tried to look at things from the loggers' point of view. The "British Columbia Forest Discovery Centre" would have been better titled the "History of Logging Centre", but it was well worth a visit none the less. From black-and- white photographs of old logging camps to a video of the latest hi-tech techniques, you can find out all you need to know about logging here, or just trundle around the site on an old steam train.

The antique logging machinery strewn around the grounds seem like nothing so much as the wounded of a battlefield. The sense of strangeness was only heightened by the clutch of old camp buildings which had been brought here and reassembled to show what daily life would have been like for the loggers of the Thirties.

The camp they came from, Copper Canyon, closed down in the Fifties. Although I doubt it would ever have been so clean and tidy when in use, it was easier to feel a little empathy for loggers when you could picture them slurping watery stew from enamel plates, hanging their long johns up to dry above their measly camp beds and felling a tree that was destined to end up as a flagpole in Kew Gardens.

* Rhiannon Batten flew to Vancouver as a guest of British Airways. She paid C$95.23 (£46) to fly from Vancouver to Victoria with Harbour Air (001 604 688 1277, www.harbour-air.com) and C$68.26 (£33) for one day's car hire with Avis (0870 6060100, www.avis.com). The BC Forestry Discovery Centre (entrance around £4) is at Duncan on Vancouver Island (00 1 250 715 1113). Adult entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (020-8332 5622, www.rbgkew.org.uk) costs £5

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