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Ancient forests in B.C.

Posted by on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

--By Claudia Goodine and Shannon Dooling

On the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, just 15 minutes north of the historic logging town of Port Renfrew, an ancient old-growth forest named Avatar Grove gives visitors a glimpse of how the island’s trees may have looked 1,000 years ago.

Discovered in 2009 by photographer TJ Watt, cofounder of the Victoria-based environmental group the Ancient Forest Alliance, this 40-hectare old-growth forest is home to western red cedars and Douglas fir trees that stretch up to four metres in width.

Vancouver Island has lost 73 percent of its productive old-growth forest to logging, so Watt immediately recognized the significance of stumbling upon the pristine parcel of land.

The AFA has taken thousands of visitors on educational hikes through Avatar Grove to raise awareness about the importance of protecting the islands’ remaining ancient forests.

“To work to save an area, wherever you are in the world, if you experience a place yourself it gives you a greater resolve to protect it,” says Watt. “If you can experience that in real life you have a much greater and deeper appreciation.”

The AFA’s campaigning efforts and partnership with the local Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce has generated significant media attention and sparked a public conversation about whether the provincial government is doing enough to protect B.C.‘s old-growth forests.

The value of old trees

British Columbia is home to one of the largest coastal temperate rainforests left the world.

Saturated by an average annual precipitation of 3,671 mm — that's three times more rain than Vancouver gets in a year — trees in Port Renfrew absorb enough water to resist pests and forest fires, enabling them to live and grow for as long as 1,000 years.

Their slow growth produces tighter growth rings and a high quality of wood less susceptible to bending and twisting with age. This makes them attractive targets of the logging industry: Ancient logs can be worth thousands of dollars.

The business of cutting down trees in B.C. has developed a symbiotic venture with tree planting. Since 1987, reforestation laws in B.C. require companies to replant areas that they harvest.

Forty million seedlings have been planted in B.C. since 2005, according to Pat Bell, former Minister of Forests and Range.

But a recent study by Anthony Britneff, who worked for the B.C. Forest Service for 39 years, found that harvested areas are not always replanted adequately, meaning seedlings do not grow productively.

Britneff states that “not satisfactorily restocked,” or NSR, forests are estimated to be larger than they were 25 years ago and cover an area nearly three times the size of Vancouver Island. These NSR statistics help determine the annual allowable cut and can potentially limit the amount of land that can be harvested for lumber.

A 90 percent funding cut to B.C.'s reforestation program in 2002 has made ensuring the accuracy of NSR statistics difficult, leading Britneff to argue that B.C. has an “unprecedented reforestation challenge” on its hands.

The value of old forests

Author Charlotte Gill, who spent 20 years working as a tree planter in Canada, experienced firsthand the challenges of trying to turn a clearcut into a forest.

In her new book, Eating Dirt, she questions whether the intricate relationships between species that have developed over centuries in old-growth forests can be replaced through the efforts of an army of shovels.

“Human hands can replace the trees but not necessarily the forest,” she writes.

Regrowing a forest can take up to 400 years, according to Gill's research. Yet achieving the soil makeup necessary to sustain such a forest is a "millenial and geologic" process.

"You can’t build a forest floor in a nursery or manufacture topsoil in a mill."

A "third-hand" forest, she writes, would be more brittle than the one it replaced. The next one would be leaner still. In the logging industry, this is known as falldown.

Gill describes our need for maintaining undisturbed forests as they store precious fresh water, absorb tonnes of carbon and guard against the otherwise inevitability of soil erosion. Keeping old forests intact also does more to mitigate climate change than planting new trees, as more carbon can be stored in the soil of an undisturbed ancient forest.

Provincial protection

Mark Haddock, an attorney with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, says B.C. has historically viewed old-growth forests as a resource for lumber extraction, often overlooking the connection between the ecosystems that depend on them.

Species such as Roosevelt elk and northern spotted owls rely on the mix of new, old and decaying trees found in old-growth forests for food and shelter. The logging of B.C.’s pristine forests endangers these species as clear cutting continues.

“I think the conservation biology is pretty sound,” Haddock said. “I think it makes a pretty persuasive case to me as a British Columbian that there’s real merit in protecting old-growth forests. Now that we are aware of these ecological values, how do we act?”

Current provincial protection for old-growth forests is a matter of discretion by the government, Haddock said.

“There are rules that can and do protect old-growth,” Haddock said. “It’s just that the amount of old-growth that is protected is not stated in any mandatory way. It’s a discretionary decision by the government.”

Environmentalists like Watt question how long the logging of old-growth forests can continue as the AFA pushes the provincial government to grant Avatar Grove provincial park status.

“If they don’t have a plan and it’s not considered, what are they going to do in a couple decades when they finish it?” he said.

“It’s not if, it’s when.”

  Comments (3)

There is a tasty irony in this debate that many fail to appreciate. The irony is that our cities (towns, farms) in coastal BC are, with few exceptions, located on areas that were onced heavily forested; this is particularly true of Vancouver. And the fact is, the new forests, are far more biologically diverse than cities or farms.

You state that Avatar Grove has both “western red cedar and Douglas fir (sic)”. Is there actually Douglas-fir there? None appears in the video and the Port Renfrew area doesn’t have much natural Douglas-fir.

Also, the claims regarding “oldgrowth” are a bit wonky.

There are two watersheds of oldgrowth on southwest Vancouver Island: Carmanah and Walbran watersheds, both in the Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park with a combined area of 16450 hectares ( Further, although the low elevation oldgrowth is probably gone elsewhere on southwest Vancouver Island, the hill tops tend to be covered in oldgrowth forest. Low elevation forests with large red cedar and Douglas-fir are rare.

The loss of oldgrowth from low elevation areas is lamentable. However, the fact that we have any oldgrowth (what is known as primary forests) is quite unique, globally speaking. Europe, for instance, lost virtually all this forest type hundreds of years ago and there are even more ancient civilizations that lost their natural vegetation thousands of years ago to farming, urbanization or mis-management through use (cutting for fuel or construction with inadequate reforestation).

Current policies actually do require reservations of 7% or more on logged areas in BC on public land, arguably as good or better than anywhere else on the planet.

Our wealth in BC, and prosperity, are closely linked to the fact that the majority of the low elevation forests — the big Douglas-fir — were logged over the past 150 years, and our fecund ecosystems can regrow vigourously. Take a look at the forests hugging the coastline in your video from the ferry ride. That is all natural second-growth that came back naturally after logging years ago.

Actually, reforestation — through tree planting or natural regeneration — was a requirement before 1987 but it was paid for by the government. Widespread reforestation of all logged areas began in the 1970s with earlier, spotty, efforts starting in the 1930s. Any area logged on public land in BC since October 1987 has been the responsibility of the logging company (timber licencee) and the costs have been included in the calculation of stumpage — the price paid by licencees for public wood.

Although it is inconclusive whether or not there is more NSR today than say 25 years ago, the big change in the last 10 years has been the huge increase in NSR in the Interior of BC due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic which has resulted in the death of most pine trees in the Interior. The questions are: when, how and who will pay to reforest this area?

For all the areas I’ve worked in on the south coast of BC, for the past 20 years, areas which are quite typical, the vast majority of logged areas have been reforested within one to four years of logging. All areas are planted or allowed to come back naturally and are surveyed to ensure they are restocked adequately. Companies are obliged, through law, to ensure all land — except roads — are restocked in about 10 years and to hire forest professionals to ensure the work is done.

Charlotte Gill states:
A "third-hand" forest, she writes, would be more brittle than the one it replaced. The next one would be leaner still. In the logging industry, this is known as falldown.
This idea comes from ecosystem science — the idea that over time the nutrient capital of the forest will decline. This same potentiality exists with agriculture; yet, with the exception of places that have turned to deserts or in which the soils have become saline (salt-ladened), most areas in the temperate world have been able to sustain thousands of years of annual crops. So, it is likely that long-term cycling of forests is feasible. Think of new forests as farms — we don’t want them everywhere but we do need some.

The term “falldown” usually refers to the drop in the volume of logging due to a switch from oldgrowth forest to second growth forest.

Also, the author Charlotte Gill may have little experience with the regrown forests that occur after planting. Planters tend to get a large dose of freshly logged areas and little else, so the renewability of forests (the natural fecundity of forest ecosystems that have not been paves or plowed) can appear to be a stretch even if it isn’t.

The new forests are often ecologically simpler than the old forest they replace, though not always. Exceptions could be natural and young forests from wild fire, wind or insects with one species versus planted forests with multiple species.

If humans are going to stop using fossil fuels, wood is a great alternative because it is renewable, recyclable and a zero-net producer of carbon.

Although in the short-term an old forest may retain more carbon, in the long run the age will probably be irrelevant. When trees in old forests die they release carbon even if they store more in the soil or stems, and forests of young trees suck-up carbon. In thousands of years the only variable is how long the products from trees remain. So, the only way for wood to have anything more than a zero-sum regarding carbon is if we start burying it so it can turn back into coal in a few million years!

When considering the values of old versus new forests one should consider whether it is comparable to the ecological impacts of agriculture (low biodiverse farmland) or urbanization (low biodiverse cities) or the use of plastic or wood, all of which are worse carbon sinks. Also, is not the question more of matter of not what we do (log oldgrowth) but how much and where?

You state:
“There are rules that can and do protect old-growth,” Haddock said. “It’s just that the amount of old-growth that is protected is not stated in any mandatory way. It’s a discretionary decision by the government.”
Actually, logging companies on public land in BC must conserve a minimum of 7% of the area logged as per the Forests and Range Practices Act, Forest Planning and Practices Regulation, section 66. Also, on the midcoast companies must retain a minimum of 15% per block.

The province is going through a process wherein they are designating oldgrowth management areas in each landscape unit (OGMAs). Landscape units are divisions of the landscape in the 5000 to 20000 hectare size range. OGMAs will be off limits to logging and will ensure conservation of oldforest outside of parks.

Also on Vancouver Island there are large areas designated as deer winter range; generally, old forest on south-facing slopes with limited or no logging.

Management of forests for wood is good given the alternatives and we should be aware of all the elements, the laws and history, before we set aside more areas. Further, a fuller understanding may be possible through discussions with local foresters and First Nations; people who often have a deeper appreciation of all the values at play due to their long occupancy and familiarity with the land.

Colin Buss, Registered Professional Forester

Submitted by Colin Buss, RPF on Monday, October 10, 2011

Colin Buss states: "And the fact is, the new forests, are far more biologically diverse than cities or farms."

This is absolutely false. BC's tree plantations are far from diverse and the devastation seen as one leaves the highways shows the malpractice of current forestry. It is what Jared Diamond refers to as 'landscape amnesia'. The current forest machinists are so used to seeing bull-dozed clear-cuts and skinny sticks of regen. left to act as diversity. Sure there are a few token clumps of mature forests mandated now. This is what Colin is proudly pointing too. I will give you that there is a small token step in the right direction, however, liquidating the forests like we are with the big machines is certainly not the most economical way of adding value to wood and respecting the water, soil and biology. Like Albert said "you can't solve a problem with the same system that created it". Nice try Colin.

Submitted by michael hollihn on Sunday, May 22, 2016

We have a chance to show some intelligence in BC. We have to halt old growth logging now. Alberta gets the bad rep for oil but in all measures, clearcut logging is a far more destructive enterprise. Our grandchildren will look at loggers the same way we view lion hunters and whalers. Furthermore, cutting old growth forests, what little we have left is a backhanded slap to our descendants.

Submitted by Joel on Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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