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  • The vanishing ancient forests of Vancouver Island


    Stephen Hume

    As they are logged, whole ecosystems disappear forever, along with their superior ability to sequester carbon.

     

    GLOOM AND SILENCE lodged in my memory first. An occasional shaft of golden light lanced between immense trees. They towered like the columns of some ancient Greek temple. If there was a breeze in the foliage, its rustle was muffled by the dense canopy hundreds of feet above.

    It was 1956. I was nine. My father had taken me on my first real hike into the back country.

     

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    A stand of old-growth Douglas fir on Vancouver Island (Photo by David Broadland)

     

    The temple allusion seems apt. The only other times I would feel that sudden, deep-shaded sense of sacredness—imprinting itself for the first time upon the virgin sensibility that art critic Roger Shattuck has called “the innocent eye”—occurred years later. Then I stood in the vaulting nave of an 800-year-old cathedral. Its construction began about the same time those Island trees of childhood memory were seedlings, pushing their first roots down into the decaying bole of a fallen ancestor, repeating the endless pattern of regeneration that had recurred over ten or more of their unimaginably long generations.

    The ancient forests of Vancouver Island are ancient, indeed. The south coast was one of the first places deglaciated at the end of the last ice age. Palaeobotanists studying plant pollen in lake-bottom mud discovered that more than 12,000 years ago, when most of what’s now the province still slept beneath glaciers as deep as Mount Waddington, these forests were growing here.

    On my first encounter with the ancient forest that once covered all of Vancouver Island, the trees seemed timeless, inexhaustible. And yet, that primeval forest, the living connection with our Palaeolithic origins in the natural world, was already in rapid retreat when my father took me to experience its miraculous, never-to-be-forgotten presence.

    It is utterly astonishing to think that in my brief lifetime, less than 10 percent of the life span of one of those trees, that same primeval forest has almost vanished from Vancouver Island.

    Seventy years ago, my father, now 96, was still hand-logging old growth west of Sooke with double-bitted axe and misery whip. “We thought it would never end,” he recently said—sadly I thought.

    But ending, it is.

    “We’re down to the guts and feathers now,” laments Erik Pikkila, a forester at Ladysmith who is assembling the “big data” needed for accurate, detailed analysis of BC’s practices and their consequences—what he calls “forgotten history”—both long and short term. “Here in BC we run forestry in a black box,” he says. “We need a technological revolution. The Province has run away from inventories. We don’t even know what is out there. If we don’t know what’s in the bank account, how do we manage that account sensibly going forward?”

    A decade ago, the Liberal government’s cost-cutting mania resulted in a savage downsizing of the Province’s forest service. In 2010, a BC auditor-general’s report concluded that despite high-minded declarations about preserving ecological integrity, the Province was falling short of its goals.

    “We should know where every tree is, where every log is at any given moment in the forestry cycle,” Pikkila says. “This is how you achieve real efficiency and sustainability in forest management. It’s how you eliminate waste. They can do this in Scandinavian logging. We can do it here.”

    “What is the state of the forest? We don’t really know anymore. We have to do things differently.”

    One step might be, as the Province has done with threatened grizzly bears, to boldly declare an immediate moratorium on logging the remnants of the ancient forest until we can gather the best science to determine what we should preserve, what we can preserve, and what we must preserve. Where to start? Perhaps with all trees still standing that were here before Europeans arrived—say 300 years old.

    The governments of Washington State and Canada, with the support of British Columbians, pledged more than $1 billion to attempt to save the iconic Southern Resident killer whales from extirpation. Yet BC not only tolerates, but enables and even encourages the killing of 500-year-old trees to manufacture disposable products.

    Today, probably 85 percent of the original ancient forest that covered Vancouver Island has been mowed down and turned into toilet paper, newsprint, dimensional lumber and plywood—purportedly a sustainable use, although most construction lumber goes into landfills after 50 years, the usual lifespan of a building in our throw-away culture of planned obsolescence. Tattered remnants remain in the North Island’s littoral zone and in a few parks and protected areas. Pockets survive in the most remote river valleys.

    To fly the Island from Cape Scott to Greater Victoria is to witness a landscape modified almost beyond recognition on an industrial scale. Ten thousand-year-old ecosystems have been stripped and replaced with artificial plantations that are, themselves, already in some places being stripped for a second time in less than a century. Forestry is now agriculture. Loggers, their historic self-perceptions notwithstanding, have become well-paid farm hands.

    Government, industry, academics and technicians reassure us that they can reconstruct ancient forests. Others don’t think so.

    “By treating 500 to 1,000-year-old forests as if they were a renewable resource, we are acting out a fiction and thereby making a grave mistake,” wrote Peter Raven, then-director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, in a prescient forward to the book Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest.

    “Once they have been removed from a particular area, the ancient forests…will never appear again, given the human activities in the contemporary world and their consequences,” Raven wrote. “We not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time. No manifestation of the anthropomorphic causes of tree death could be more permanently fatal than this.”

     

    NOMINALLY, GOVERNMENT FOREST POLICY supports jobs and the economies of small forestry-based communities. But this, too, is a lie of self-deception. Government decoupled forest resources from workers and their communities a generation ago.

    In 1980, says Natural Resources Canada, about 100,000—one in 10 BC workers—were employed in the forest sector. By 2018, Statistics Canada listed 18,600 as employed directly in forestry, logging and support. Over that 38 years, though, the annual allowable cut remained the same. So that 20 percent of the original work force—and the communities depending upon it—now cuts the same amount of wood. The wealth from that productivity gain did not go to workers. It went to government and corporate bottom lines.

    Industry rationalizes liquidating old-growth forests on the fiction they are “over-mature.” The real reason, however, isn’t concern for the well-being of the forest, it’s because, as Charles Little pointed out in his book The Dying of the Trees, “Plantation trees are worth only about one-tenth as much as the 500-year-old pre-Columbian veterans.”

    Ironically, liquidating what’s left of old-growth forests merely accelerates the problem for forest-dependent workers and their communities. When the high-volume old wood runs out, the replacement feedstock can only be low-volume plantation wood of inferior quality. This warning isn’t a radical idea cooked up by naive environmentalists. The Vancouver Province ran a major newspaper series more than 80 years ago warning about the coming “fall down” effect.

     

    LOOKING DOWN FROM A LIGHT PLANE cockpit upon the patchwork quilt of clear-cuts, newly replanted cut blocks, immature growth, and the few protected areas and crannies too rugged to log, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Island is being defaced by some disastrous case of disfiguring psoriasis.

    Satellite mapping shows as shamelessly optimistic estimates that 15 percent of old-growth inventory in moderate-to-high-value forest remains intact. Image analysis shows what remains is about a third of that or less. Only about 10 percent of the biggest trees, the 1,000-year-old giants from river bottoms and lower elevations, still stand. So, 90 percent of the most majestic trees are already gone—flushed down your toilet; used to wrap fish and chips; used to make disposable forms during construction of steel and glass skyscrapers, and then discarded.

    Break it down by actual ecosystems, and the picture is grimmer yet. Of low elevation coastal Douglas fir and the Douglas fir adapted to the Island’s dry east coast rain shadow, only about one percent remains. For mountain hemlock in the very dry zone, about seven percent is left.

    “This is crazy policy,” Pikkila says. “Ecologically, we need to be leaving all those big trees. Between 60 and 80 years in the growth cycle of those trees, the volume of wood doubles. The bigger the tree, the greater the volume of wood, the more carbon captured from the atmosphere and sequestered for a thousand years.” He adds, “The best tool we have against climate change is forests—but we have to let them get old. We have to plant a trillion trees, but the catch is to let them get really old.” While vigorously growing young trees sequester atmospheric carbon, they have to grow for 500 years to match the carbon sequestered in old-growth veterans.

    On a per-hectare basis, temperate old-growth rainforests in BC sequester better than twice the carbon in equivalent forested areas of the tropical Amazon basin, whose deforestation has been so much in the news of late. More than 1,000 metric tons of carbon is sequestered in one hectare of BC rain forest, compared to about 400 tons in the Amazon.

    Ecologist Elliott Norse points out in a seminal study of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest that timber operations in old growth “release a huge pulse of carbon dioxide in the few years after logging.”

    This doesn’t square with the carbon budget targets bloviated by the NDP in the provincial legislature.

    Based on the best current science, Ken Wu of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance calls for a dramatic expansion of targets for protecting remaining old growth. The United Nations target is currently 17 percent. BC has achieved 15 percent. Wu says we need to go to at least 50 percent protection by 2030.

     

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    Ken Wu stands beside an old-growth Douglas fir on McLauglin Ridge (Photo by TJ Watt)

     

    “To continue logging the last giants is akin to slaughtering the last herds of elephants or harpooning the last great whales,” Wu has written. “It’s unnecessary and unethical, given that second-growth forests dominate more than 80 percent of BC’s productive forest lands and can be sustainably logged.

    “Indeed,” he continues, “the rest of the Western world is focused on logging 50- to 100-year-old second- or third-growth trees. BC is one of the very last jurisdictions on Earth that still supports the large-scale logging of 500-year-old trees. On Vancouver Island alone, about 10,000 hectares of productive old-growth forests are logged each year while only 8 percent of the original is protected.”

    As with cancer patients, it’s easy to get drawn into a confused and confusing realm of contested statistics when it comes to evaluating survival rates, statistical probabilities, fretting over what the numbers actually mean—or if they mean anything. Yet for any lay person trying to sort out the facts, one thing is certain: government and industry data have gaps, sometimes large ones, and whether by incompetence or designed obscurantism, it’s opaque.

    Spending an hour trying to extract intelligible data from the equivocating, jargon-laden labyrinth hosted by the Provincial Ministry of Forests feels like the same mind-numbing paralysis that follows sucking in a Freezie too fast.

    Government, which is responsible for managing about 20 percent of timber sales (through BC Timber Sales), and industry, which has billions vested in business-as-usual, both argue that more old-growth forest has been protected than environmental groups acknowledge.

    But Wu, a long-time campaigner for expanded old-growth protection, says the spin cycle has been cranked up to high for government and industry statistics.

    He argues, for example, that provincial statistics mislead, because they include in protected old growth all the low commercial value forests growing on terrain so rugged it can’t be logged; stunted forests in shore bogs; treeless high alpine zones of rock and snow. They lump together fundamentally different ecosystems, from temperate coastal rainforest to arid rain shadow.

    Wu likens this greenwashing of provincial forest policy to a politician combining Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown East Side, where the median household income was $13,000 in the last census, with West Vancouver, where the median family income was $90,000, and then huffing that everyone, including those in the Downtown East Side, is doing just fine because median household income averages $50,000. Well, it does, but it’s misleading.

    Furthermore, he argues, if you include protected parklands in your annual old-growth inventory, the proportion of protected to unprotected old growth will appear to increase as unprotected old growth is logged. Eventually, when you’ve liquidated all the unprotected old growth, you’ll be able to claim that 100 percent of your old growth is protected, although it will represent only a minuscule fragment of what was once present.

    The fact is that at least 80 percent of the moderate-to-high-value forest—those are the big trees—has already been extirpated on Vancouver Island, Wu says. Another 15 percent is unprotected. Only about five percent is protected by parks or ecological reserves. So, the NDP government’s plan, inherited from the opposition Liberals, appears to be to adopt a legacy of having stripped 95 percent of our ancient forest from the landscape, all the while congratulating itself on its environmental commitment.

    Vicky Husband, another battle-scarred veteran of the fight to save what’s left of a vanishing ecosystem, concurs.

    “Our ancient, old-growth forest of giant tree ecosystems is seriously endangered and irreplaceable,” she says. “Less than 15 percent of the original extent of ancient forest remains. There is very little valley-bottom ancient forest. Most [of what does remain] is seriously fragmented across the landscape by rampant clear-cut logging, with no regard for protection of other values.”

     

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    A typical clear cut with grapple-yarder that hauls bucked logs up to the cold deck where they are sorted into truckloads. When dragged logs disturb the surface of the forest floor they can create furrows that channel winter runoff down steep slopes, contributing to erosion. (Photo by TJ Watt)

     

    She observes that the temperate coastal rain forests never amounted to more than about 0.5 percent of the world’s original forest and yet it’s still being logged to near extirpation. “The kind of extreme mismanagement and liquidation of the last of our ancient forests is a total crime against nature. We have the best remaining ancient temperate rainforests in the world, and we are losing them so fast,” she says.

    Continuing, Husband says, “We have protected only 5.5 percent of the original extent of the ancient forest on Vancouver Island. Does anyone think that is enough? The NDP has totally betrayed us all. They have continued the Liberal regime with regard to mismanagement of our forest, no consideration or protection of other important values, only timber.…and they are massively overcutting what we have left as fast as they can.”

     

    MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, when my father hiked me up into the old growth, it covered the lower slopes of Mount Arrowsmith, flanked the Cameron River where it winds from Labour Day Lake under Mount Moriarty, and swept over to Cameron Lake.

    He showed me liquorice ferns, deer ferns, maidenhair ferns—a whole palette of vivid greens—offset by the pale, corpse-coloured ghost pipes that live in parasitical symbiosis with living tree roots.

    Another persistent recollection, embedded like a kind of muscle memory, is the springiness underfoot. Moss that seemed knee-deep in places moved beneath my feet like a trampoline, although it was a more fragile kind of trembling.

    We looked at nurse logs, huge trunks of ancient trees that had died, stood for another century or so, then fallen to the forest floor to begin a new cycle of growth. The moss, explained my dad, was so deep that nothing could take root, and the canopy so dense that there was little light. But these falling giants laid down a nutrient-rich bed into which seedlings had a brief window in which to push tiny roots into crevices and capture light slanting in through the opening left in the canopy.

    We gorged on the fat, red huckleberries that take root in decaying stumps and took home a couple of cups, which my mother tossed with lemon juice, some sugar and promptly baked into a tart, tangy pie—another indelible childhood memory.

    As we climbed towards the tree line, spring-fed rills bubbled up and frothed down the slope, tumbling over deadfalls and rock ledges. It was a landscape as magical and mesmerizing as any I’d found in the books at the tiny Port Alberni library where I was often deposited while my mother shopped.

    Timespans are different in childhood. Summers seem so long that their end is always a shock. But it was nothing like the shock when I went looking for that vividly remembered ancient forest of childhood. It was a ruin of debris.

    All that remains of that forest of my memory is the beautiful but ecologically insignificant postage-stamp park called Cathedral Grove, a thin ribbon of trees in the steep canyon of the Cameron River, and a few veterans here and there left to blow down in some big storm.

     

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    Logging in old growth on McLaughlin Ridge. Only about 5 percent of ancient forest is protected. (Photo by TJ Watt)

     

    Provincial forest policy, and the attitudes of our elected politicians, seem maddeningly obtuse. The forest sector supports fewer and fewer people who are used to mow down the last intact bits of unprotected old growth at a time when children are taking to the streets demanding that we do something to preserve their future and their heritage.

    BC’s parks recorded 200 million visits over the last decade. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve gets about a million visitors a year. If hikers continue to reserve places on the West Coast Trail at the current rate, 75,000 will complete the arduous wilderness trek over the next decade.

    Government brochures, reports, and websites celebrate and promote these visits because they inject billions into the provincial economy—certainly more than logging does. The promotions are plastered with dramatic photos of pristine forests, hikers gazing at huge trees, and campers setting up in a pastoral paradise.

    But it’s really more of the Big Lie to which our children object. Beyond the park boundaries—and parks are now so jammed that reservations months in advance are a necessity—the landscape is still being shaved bald.

    Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.



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    Ecosystems are going to disappear because of the impending climate disaster. Better get your tears ready. Stephen Hume sure knows how to pull on your emotional heartstring as he tries to save the past, but he won't be able to since we are doing diddlysquat about our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

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