AWARE battles back to turn the focus to old growth 

Community Foundation funds successful symposium on ancient forest, tree age study

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The Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) has had its share of successes over the years, first lobbying for recycling services in the resort and most recently for municipal composting. Over the years the groups' volunteer boards have also worked to preserve biodiversity, to educate the public on the environment, and to advocate for everything from bans on plastic bags to sustainability with a solid track record for success.

AWARE's most recent focus has been on Whistler's old forests, a hot topic in the resort since the resort and First Nations obtained tenure rights to harvest trees in an area called the Cheakamus Community Forest. The goal was to control where and how trees could be cut in the region surrounding Whistler to maintain recreation, sightlines and environmental values.

However, AWARE hired local biologist Bob Brett to take some core samples and find out how old the forests really are, and held a two-day Old Forest Symposium in October to discuss findings — and the fact that Whistler's forests are older than anyone previously realized.

AWARE president Claire Ruddy was amazed at the impact of the tree study and symposium, as the municipality passed a motion to approach the province and request a 20-year moratorium on logging in the community forest until second growth forests were ready to cut.

"The symposium and tree study ran at the same time essentially, so it was great to be able to announce that we found some really old trees at the symposium," said Ruddy. "It really brought it all together, and brought the issue home to people."

With the discovery of the oldest tree in the Whistler area, probably over 1,200 years, the discussion centered around the lack of provincial policy to distinguish between stands of trees that are 250 years old — considered old growth — and ancient forests that are two, three, four or more times older than that.

"Instead of just seeing old growth at 250 years, there's now a real push to recognize forests that are 500, 600 or more years old as something different with real importance ecologically for different species," said Ruddy. "I think there was a bit of a blank slate (before the symposium), and now people are realizing that these forests are different. We need to talk about Whistler and our annual allowable cut, and we need to be more active province-wide to petition the government to recognize ancient forests. I really feel like we made a good start."

Bob Brett's tree coring project and the symposium were funded by a $6,885 Environmental Legacy Fund (ELF) grant. ELF is managed by the Community Foundation of Whistler.

For Ruddy, the symposium was important for AWARE as well as for forests, and represents a new beginning for the organization.

"AWARE is now 24 years old, we're on the verge of a quarter century from the early days when the directors were driving down to Vancouver with trucks full of recycling," said Ruddy.

The organization was at the brink of folding in 2011 with just three board members remaining and declining membership. They hosted a make-or-break annual general meeting where the community rallied to preserve the group, filling in directorships and setting a new direction for the organization.

Now AWARE is looking at the future. Ruddy says the board is interested in continuing their work on old/ancient growth, as well as creating more awareness regarding sensitive areas like high alpine meadows.

"Land protection will always be a central focus for the group," she said. "I'd also like to see AWARE in a position where we can react to things that come up, which is one thing that's challenged AWARE for a long time. That's why programs like SHARE Whistler are fantastic — we don't have any funding that's continual, we have no paid staff. So just to be in a position where we could respond to something that comes up at council like a new development, and being able to do our own independent assessment and report back, would be great."

SHARE Whistler

This is the third in a series of articles on Pique's SHARE Whistler campaign, a five-week campaign that encourages community members to donate online to local charities through the Community Foundation of Whistler. Pique will match donations up to $10,000, with half going to the CFOW's community fund. For more information, visit www.whistlerfoundation.com.

Donations of $50, or more and people who volunteer five hours or more, will be eligible for the weekly Prior draw every Wednesday until Jan. 2.

The second half of Pique's donation will be up to $5,000 to local charity groups based on matching volunteer hours. One volunteer hour is valued at $10.

This week's Prior Snowboard winner: congratulations to Russell Boyd.

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