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The Red Creek Fir, the biggest Douglas-fir tree in the world. San Juan River Valley B.C. August 29, 2010.Arnold Lim/ The Globe and Mail

When the Red Creek Fir was a mere sapling, Leif Erickson established the first Viking settlements in North America and William the Conqueror invaded England and the Song Dynasty in China was in the throes of a cultural renaissance.

For more than 1,000 years, the massive evergreen has stood in the moss-covered, windswept rain forest of southwestern Vancouver Island, where punishing winter storms routinely snap giant trees in half like toothpicks.

But now environmentalists say the Red Creek Fir's survival is being threatened by a logging operation less than a kilometre away from its ancient roots.

"We're not concerned they're going to cut down the Red Creek Fir, but we are concerned as they get closer, the tree becomes more vulnerable to the elements and environmental degradation," said Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee.

The Red Creek Fir is the world's largest based on height, girth and "total volume of wood," Mr. Foy said. The tree measures 74 metres high and nearly 13 metres around the base.

Despite its remote location, a short hike off a barely passable logging road about 15 kilometres outside the town, the tree attracts hundreds of visitors every year.

Mr. Foy's organization first sounded the alarm in February when activists discovered logging company survey tape on trees less than 50 metres away.

Forestry giant TimberWest, which owns large tracts of land outside Port Renfrew, said at the time it had no plans to harvest trees in the immediate area.

But last week, activists learned the company has started logging on Crown land near the giant tree under the province's timber sales licensing program.

TimberWest communications co-ordinator Sue Handel referred all questions to the Ministry of Forests.

Ministry spokesperson Vivian Thomas said the wood being harvested is mostly second-growth hemlock.

The boundary of the cutblock is about 500 metres from the Red Creek Fir, which lies in a special "old-growth management area" where logging is prohibited.

"The tree is protected," she said. "There's no chance of it being logged."

Joan Varley of the Wilderness Committee's Victoria office said logging the surrounding forest has left the Red Creek Fir vulnerable to "blow-down."

"It's really windy in the San Juan River valley, and as more trees come down, the wind wreaks more havoc on the ones that are remaining," she said.

Wind-related casualties to old growth tress in Cathedral Grove outside Parksville have increased in recent years due to logging near the park, Ms. Varley added.

Jon Cash, co-owner of Soule Creek Lodge in Port Renfrew, said interest in the Red Creek Fir helps boost his tourism business and called on the government to make sure the tree is protected.

"That's the one thing we have that we can say is the world's biggest or the world's anything," he said. "I just wish more people could access it."

The oldest known Douglas fir, in the Elaho Valley near Squamish, is about 1,300 years old.

A core sample would be needed to determine the Red Creek Fir's precise age, but based on similar-sized Douglas fir stumps in B.C., its "at least 1,000 years old," Mr. Foy said.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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