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  • BC’s Big Tree Protection: a legacy of public deception

    Lannie Keller

    Most of the magnificent trees in Cathedral Grove would not meet the strict criteria for being protected under BC’s regulations.

    By Johanna Paradis and Lannie Keller


    THE BC GOVERNMENT’S RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT of deferrals on 2.6 million hectares of forest reminds us of other commitments to protect some of the remaining big trees in the province. On the surface, the new plans sound encouraging but as with other protection proposals, the devil will be in the details.

    On our home islands at the top of the Strait of Georgia, the landscape is in various stages of clearcutting and recovery. In the newer cuts, the alder and salmonberry grow up and thin, revealing enormous stumps that are the dwindling evidence of what-once-was. Two hundred years ago, the Discovery Islands’ forests were very different: magnificent cathedrals of green, light and shadow, columned with massive giants of fir, cedar and hemlock. 

    These islands have some of BC’s best growing conditions for coastal Douglas-fir. We stand in awe of our largest veterans—for example, the cedar that takes all of our elementary school students to link hands around, and the Douglas-fir mother-tree that presides over salmon-bearing waters. 



    School children from Surge Narrows visit the White Rock Cedar on Read Island (photo by Lannie Keller)


    When we were looking into protection for these last big old trees in the Discovery Islands, we learned about some programs recently touted by the BC government.

    In January 2018, BC Timber Sales (BCTS) announced a “Coastal Legacy Tree Program” for its management areas, about 20 percent of BC’s Timber Supply Area. This voluntary option for protection was available for trees exceeding specified diameters, and offered a 56-metre buffer (about 1 hectare) surrounding the tree. At the time, the BC government (Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development) promised additional regulation through the Forest & Range Practices Act (FRPA). They stated that, “The [BCTS] policy will be reviewed to make it stronger.”

    However, in September 2020, when the BC government presented its “Special Tree Protection Regulation,” they weakened the possibility of protection by increasing tree size requirements. Previously identified Coastal Legacy Trees which fell short of the new requirements lost their protection. As well, logging companies could file for a permit to cut an identified Special Tree and/or its supporting trees. 

    It is not clear why government increased the required diameters, or who influenced those changes. We do know that the Coastal Legacy Tree minimum diameters were arbitrarily determined by dividing in half the diameters of the largest known specimens in the province, and these size requirements were upped by the forests ministry. It is noteworthy that tree diameter, as the defining criterion, entirely disregards tree age, height, growing conditions, and other characteristics.

    So, with BC’s new Special Tree Regulation in hand, we headed out to measure our islands’ first growth. To our dismay, we soon realized that none of the few remaining giants, nor any of the first growth stumps were big enough to qualify for provincial protection. 



    Johanna Paradis recording trees in the Discovery Islands (photo by Lannie Keller)



    David Broadland measures a large Douglas fir on Quadra Island. With a diameter of  257 centimetres, it’s too small to be on a tree registry. (Photo by Leslie Campbell)


    The Discovery Islands are blessed with mild climate, rich soils and abundant precipitation, some of BC’s best growing conditions for coastal Douglas-fir. If Special Trees don’t grow here, where could we find them? And how many trees in BC actually qualify to be Special Trees? 

    That led us to visit Cathedral Grove. 


    VANCOUVER ISLAND’S BEST KNOWN and most-visited big trees are at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park on Highway 4 en route to Port Alberni. Surely those trees would meet BC’s Special Tree criteria? On a rainy day in early October, a few of us from the Discovery Islands met at the Grove to measure its very biggest trees. Of 14 Douglas-fir trees, only 3 were big enough to qualify for protection, 2 of them just-barely. Of the biggest cedar trees, none were big enough to win BC Special Tree Protection status. If Cathedral Grove wasn’t a park, only 3 trees and an adjacent 3 hectares of land would be protected.



    The largest Douglas fir in Cathedral Grove qualifies for Special Tree status (photo by Lannie Keller)



    This Douglas fir in Cathedral Grove, with a diameter of 266 centimetres (short of the required 270), does not qualify (photo by Lannie Keller)



    This Cathedral Grove red cedar doesn’t qualify—it’s diameter is 290 centimetres and the requirement is for 385 centimetres (photo by Lannie Keller)


    The BC government estimated its Special Tree Protection Regulation would identify about 1500 trees, resulting in a total protected area of 15 square kilometres [0.0016%] of the provincial land base. But in fact, far less will gain protection because many of the legacy trees are already safe in parks and ecological reserves. The Big Tree Registry (begun in 1986, now managed by UBC) includes all of BC’s identified large trees to date. It lists 457 trees, but 253 are in already-protected areas, and not all of the remaining 204 actually meet the Province’s new requirements. We wonder, if it took 35 years to find and list 457 trees, how long will it take to achieve the new provincial objective of 1500—and who will do it? 

    BC’s Special Tree Protection Regulation describes an intention to protect big trees, but no plan for implementation. Logging companies are bound by law to record Special Trees, but that industry’s self-regulation and professional reliance have a woeful track record. Log scalers (who evaluate harvest volume) could check for infractions; however, their latest manual makes no reference to the Special Tree Protection Regulation. Will it again be concerned citizens who are tasked to find, measure, verify, and register the additional 1296 trees that are supposedly somewhere in BC’s clearcut landscape? 

    Clearly, BC’s big tree protection strategy is not a forest protection strategy, or an old growth protection strategy.  Its 56-metre buffer amounts to a handful of “supporting” trees protected around a Legacy Tree. The result is lonely old trees isolated in a clearcut—nothing like the interdependent forest ecosystem that was before. Trees need to be part of a forest of sufficient size in order to be resilient to catastrophic events like wind storms, fire, drought, disease and insect invasions. As we are witnessing, these events are becoming more frequent and more intense. Single tree protection is hopelessly inadequate, and the lonely legacy trees are a depressing reminder that we are losing the expansive forests which made BC famous.



    Big Lonely Doug near Eden Grove in the Fairy Creek area is aptly named (photo by David Broadland)


    The Special Tree Protection Regulation is a token gesture by a business-as-usual government that is attempting to placate the public into thinking it is addressing the issue of disappearing old growth. In actual fact, more than 97 percent of BC’s rich lower elevation forests have been logged. Less than 3 percent of the habitats required for growing legacy trees remain intact

    If BC’s government was genuinely concerned about protecting big trees, they would have listened to experts and citizen concerns, and at the very least they would have reduced the size requirements. Government did the opposite, with a public relations stunt that serves the logging industry, and diverts public attention away from the real issues of deforestation, habitat destruction, and loss of old growth and biodiversity. The real and urgent need is to protect BC’s remaining old forests, and to create an effective plan for ensuring the recruitment of younger forests as future old growth.

    The Big Tree Protection program demonstrates yet again how BC’s government disregards forests and democracy. The overwhelming majority of British Columbians want to protect all remaining old growth. We desperately want to believe that government is doing the right thing, following through on promises, waking up to the urgent needs of today, and heeding science. But, the NDP’s newest deferrals are vague and untested. This time, let’s keep the pressure on government to be honest and responsible to the land and its people.

    Lannie Keller is grateful for the beauty of living in a forest by the sea. She and her family run a kayaking company from their homestead in the outer Discovery Islands. Johanna Paradis has a technician background in Fish & Wildlife work. She has spent the last 13 years homesteading and raising wild kids on a remote coastal island. Lannie and Johanna, along with a score of others, work together on local forestry issues.


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    Hi - fabulous article, thanks. Could you please put a link to the legislation in, and add a map defining this "coastal" range, and a chart of tree species and diameters, at what height off the ground? We'd like to measure the Grandfather Tree at Fairy Creek, and others.

    Is the new legislation just on BCTS land?

    Last time I was in Cathedral Grove, most of it had blown down. The sign board says: "Windfall is a natural event". Next time I go through I'm taking a magic marker and writing "Yes, but not this windfall, which was caused by clearcutting the whole valley to ribbons."

    Forests need to be forests, not postage stamps.

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    Links to the legislation and Big Tree Registry are now in the article. The Big Tree Registry has a package you can download for measuring trees. See https://bigtrees.forestry.ubc.ca/bc-bigtree-registry/

    BCTS has a program but the legislation also applies to other Crown land and certain private land. See https://www.bclaws.gov.bc.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/229_2020.

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    Guest Individual tree protection


    Thanks for this explanation of the 'big tree' approach to forest protection. I am constantly surprised at the misleading programs and public announcements that come from BC government departments or politicians who should be serious about protecting some semblance of healthy forests in BC. And that UBC participates by hosting the big tree registry is equally surprising and short-sighted (imho). They have trained scientists who should know better than to celebrate individual trees over ecosystems or biodiversity. I try to appreciate what we have left because I don't see any signs of positive change in our forest industry or in our ability as a society to take a longer view. I feel sad that our grandchildren won't have a chance to experience what we used to take for granted.

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    BCTS Coastal Legacy Tree program Continues to Afford Protection to Big Trees

    I would like to clarify a statement in this otherwise good article on the short-sightedness of protecting individual trees. The author states ' Previously identified Coastal Legacy Trees which fell short of the new requirements lost their protection.' This statement is incorrect as all trees identified as Coastal Legacy Trees remain protected under this voluntary program. BCTS has set their own thresholds for preservation of big trees and remains committed to preserving all trees identified to-date as well as those to be identified in the future. The diameter thresholds set by  BCTS (and those set by Western Forest Products under their own voluntary big tree preservation program) are significantly lower than those outlined in the Special Tree Protection Regulation. some examples are as follows:

    Douglas Fir     2.10m-BCTS   2.70-(STPR   Sitka Spruce  2.20m-BCTS  2.73m-STPR

    Yellow Cedar  2.10m-BCTS   2.65-STPR   Western Redcedar 3.0m-BCTS 3.85m-STPR

    Edited by Intheshadowofgiants
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