On a clear day last fall, TJ Watt shouldered his pack, stepped off a logging road in British Columbia’s Caycuse Valley, and started hiking up the hillside where the trees used to be.
A skateboarder turned activist and conservation photographer (and definitely not the pro football player of the same name), Watt has spent much of his adult life exploring the skyscraping forests of his native Vancouver Island. Or what remains of them, to be more exact—despite B.C.’s left-leaning politics, more than a century of nonstop logging has turned most of the island into a patchwork of barren cut blocks and second-growth plantations.
Larger than the Hawaiian Islands combined, almost all of Vancouver Island was once covered in monumental fir, spruce, and cedar trees. But less than 10 percent of its original old growth is currently protected, and more than 10,000 football fields’ worth of untouched forest are still harvested each year. It’s a question of global relevance, as B.C. still holds the world’s largest intact stands of temperate rainforest, providing critically important carbon storage, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity reserves. These forests boast more biomass—the total weight of living matter—than any terrestrial ecosystem on earth.
Watt is one of the founders of Ancient Forest Alliance, an environmental nonprofit working to protect old-growth forests, and he hopes to focus attention on his province’s many unsustainable logging practices. When he came across a spectacular stand of old-growth cedars that was flagged for harvest in the little-traveled Vancouver Island backcountry, he saw an opportunity to photograph it in a way that would cut through the clutter of the public’s social feeds.
“I’m always trying to convey the sheer sense of beauty of these forests and the devastating loss when they’re cut down,” he says. “As a photographer, you’re always trying to find the most impactful way of doing that, and I finally landed on the idea that maybe doing carefully planned before-and-after images would show just how clear that loss was.”
Back in April, before the Caycuse Valley grove was clear-cut by a company called Teal Jones, Watt bushwhacked through the forest, set up his tripod, and photographed himself with the majestic thousand-year-old trees. When he returned in November, the landscape had been completely transformed.
“This is not a series I ever hoped to complete,” he noted on Instagram. “Heart-wrenching as they are, I hope these images stand as a stark example of what is still happening every day across B.C., and what needs to end now.”
The response to the images was almost immediate. As the likes and comments rolled in, along with reposts from actors and rock stars, it was clear that Watt’s forest selfies had struck a nerve, and they’ve sparked a new campaign to pressure the B.C. government to better protect its forests.
“In ten years of doing this,” Watt says, “I’ve never seen a reaction to photos as big as this.”