Could oldgrowth specklebelly save the Fairy Creek Rainforest? Not unless Horgan keeps his promises about species-at-risk legislation.
IN A FEW REMAINING OLD-GROWTH FORESTS on Vancouver Island, a rare species of lichen, the oldgrowth specklebelly, Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis, lives on the branches and trunks of trees. Hanging in draping lobes, its topside is the colour of a pale robin’s egg, its underside a pale peachy-pink, speckled with white, raised spots and brown speckles. It has been found in only 41 localities in BC, all of them north of the Nitinat River. Until now.
“I’m at peace when I’m out there,” Natasha Lavdovsky says. A Princeton graduate and Master’s of Fine Arts student, Lavdovsky works with lichens in her art. She is also an amateur lichenologist. In July, she was at Fairy Creek working on an art project. In the branches of a tree that had fallen across a logging road, she found a small population of this specklebelly lichen, a blue-listed, species of concern.
Her find was on slope outside of the Fairy Creek watershed ridgeline. But the only part of Fairy Creek protected by BC’s two-year logging deferment is the riparian zone in the watershed valley, which leaves the area where she found the oldgrowth specklebelly vulnerable. “There’s a cutblock where the lichen lives that is already partly clearcut.” Lavdovsky tells me. “The road went right through the lichen zone. The whole area is up for grabs.”
Natasha Lavdovsky looking at oldgrowth specklebelly growing side by side with Lobaria linita (the greener lichen), on a tree marked with falling boundary tape, indicating the edge of a future clearcut beside a creek/riparian reserve (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
BC currently has no species-at-risk legislation, though Premier Horgan was elected on the promise to pass this into law four years ago. Currently, BC has two systems classifications for species at risk. Its red, blue and yellow lists are comprised by the BC Conservation Data Centre and give additional protection to red and blue-listed species. Listed species are supposed to inform conservation priorities in the province.
The second classification system was created by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent advisory panel to the federal minister of environment. According to COSEWIC’s 2010 report, oldgrowth specklebelly is a species of “special concern,” which means that it is particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events, and its numbers have declined enough that “its persistence is increasingly threatened.”
The specklebelly thrives in nutrient rich areas, within the drip zones of old yellow cedar trees or near the ocean fog zone, where it can harvest nutrients from the sea air. It is a nitrogen-fixing lichen. It takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and disperses it through its tree’s drip line. Like other lichen and mosses, it sequesters carbon. It spreads when pieces of its thallus body break off and land in another habitable spot—that is to say, it spreads extremely slowly.
For Trevor Goward, a naturalist and lichenologist who lives and studies lichen ecology in the Clearwater Valley, BC, and has been an advisor to the COSEWIC panel for decades, the key species that allows oldgrowth specklebelly to exist is yellow cedar. The issue, he says, is “not the lichen, it’s what it points to: the power of BC’s old-growth trees.” Yellow cedar lives longer than any other BC tree (up to 2,000 years). During their extraordinary lifespan, they become nutrient gatherers and feeders of other species around them. Coastal sea fog contains ocean nutrients; the moisture condenses on the cedar’s limbs and drips to the ground. The nutrients from this drip zone feed other trees, and even change the bark chemistry of the amabalis fir (Pacific silver fir), making it into a habitat for specklebelly.
Oldgrowth Specklebelly lichen (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
Lavdovsky found a small colony of oldgrowth specklebelly on the limbs of that first tree near Fairy Creek. It turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. She has returned half a dozen times this summer and found more at the edge of the clearcut: 20-foot long patches on two trees. By time of publication, she had found 55 trees with specklebelly. The lichen community was bisected by the logging road, including trees buried in road-building rubble with the bottom 10-feet of their trunks covered in the rare lichen. “I’d like to find out who the forester was who approved that cutblock,” she says, “and hold them accountable.”
Specklebelly is only present, Goward says, because the yellow cedar are there to feed them. “The lichen is an outward manifestation of the gift of nutrients from the yellow cedar. The trees have created this community of other organisms that benefit from that knack they’ve taught themselves.” A young yellow cedar cannot provide this habitat; only ancient forests—what Goward calls “antique forests”—provide this service.
“Cutting down these trees is immoral,” says Goward.
Lavdovsky spent time analyzing lichens at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Gatineau, Quebec, and she is taking the find seriously. She approached Goward and fellow lichenologist Troy McMullin, as well as Loys Maingon, a registered professional biologist, and Andy McKinnon (of famed Pojar and McKinnon BC field guides) to identify the specklebelly lichen and confirm her methodology for documenting its extent. “I thought if you find something that’s a listed species, it means you can’t [mess] with it. It’s not the case. I was really surprised, through this process, to see how terrible the laws are in BC when it comes to biodiversity conservation. As a province that prides itself on the natural environment, well, it’s…all just unfettered extraction on stolen land.”
A large population of Oldgrowth Specklebelly lichen on a tree trunk at the edge of a logging road. The pile of felled trees in the background are from the road building. (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
Lavdovsky values the relationships between people and land. She is aware of the complexity of settler/Indigenous relations, and of finding a rare species in a watershed that is itself a contested place. “It’s a problematic position to be in as a white settler: finding a rare species that’s only rare because of white, colonial, destructive, extractive industries.” But she is enamoured by lichens, and their complex role in a forest’s health. “You can’t call a lichen an ‘it’; it’s a ‘they,’” Lavdovsky tells me. “They’re a fungus and an algae and a yeast, and at times a cyanobacteria…They are metaphors for an ecosystem, for a community.”
Natasha Lavdovsky. Self Portrait, 2020.
Lichens were once described by Goward as “fungi who have discovered agriculture.” They are a unique partnership of species that work together to achieve what neither could do separately. They were one of the first to re-green (and blue and yellow…) the land after the last glaciation. They help rocks to hold more water, increasing moisture in landscapes. They can change the pH of rainwater, balancing the acidity of a forest. They’re also excellent indicators of healthy old-growth forests; many don’t appear in young or previously-logged forests.
Lavdovsky is afraid that with so much logging in BC in the last decade, the chances of oldgrowth specklebelly crawling up the endangered species list is high. But when she spoke to the biologists doing COSEWIC’s new status report, they told her it was “unlikely they’ll be able to make it down” to see her discovery. She wonders whether it might be because of its proximity to the Fairy Creek blockade—or a lack of funding.
“This story isn’t just about lichen,” she says, “It’s not about trees. It’s about whole ecosystems. And that’s one of the problems with the approach of our conservation system.” Goward agrees and expands it to “the capitalist neoliberal agenda. No one’s given this any thought because it would impact BC’s bottom line.”
The underside speckles of the oldgrowth specklebelly lichen, seen through a 10x hand lens (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
Currently, instead of halting old-growth logging to save species like oldgrowth specklebelly and the ancient cedars that feed them, BC has begun a second round of evaluation, bringing together an independent Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, after its 2020 publication of the Strategic Review of BC Old Growth Forest Management (if you can tell the difference between these two, let me know).
Goward is skeptical about this new panel. “Basically, the whole thing is choreographed,” he tells me. “You can feel the gears moving, but they’ll wait until almost nothing is left before making an announcement to stop.”
Goward also believes that the presence of oldgrowth specklebelly means that the forest has existed, without the presence of large-scale forest fires, for much longer than the current yellow cedars’ life spans. “When you find a population as large as Tasha found, it means that the forest has been there for thousands of years. I’d be astonished if anyone is able to find evidence of charcoal. [Those trees] have been standing in place since glaciation.” For reference, the last glaciation was 10,000 years ago. Lichen diversity is higher in older forests, and his studies show a continued increase into the sixth century and beyond. “A forest that’s 600 years old is not the same as a 2,000 year old forest.” The diversity just keeps growing.
Lavdovsky’s art works address the other-than-human world, “using temporality, seasonality, and the agency of organic materials as integral parts of its methodology.” Her website features a plethora of stunning works, which engage with species to produce photographs, installations, textiles, natural dyes and sculptures.
“Moss Chair” art installation by Natasha Lavdovsky
In her current work with lichen, she first obtains the chemical data of various lichen species in a particular location. She then uses the data set like a musical score, creating a visualization and then a sonification of the data. “Each lichen…will have a particular tonal sound or chord.” Together, they create a soundscape, an auditory experience of the lichens from a particular place.
“Lichens have given me so much joy,” she says. “It’s really important to me to have reciprocal relationship with the ecosystem of non-humans that I’m a part of.” When she found the oldgrowth specklebelly, it seemed to her an opportunity to “give back, to perform reciprocity.”
As a result of her find, other biologists have filed a formal complaint with BC Forest Practices Board against the negligence of whoever approved the cutblock. The board is currently pushing back against the complaint because the specklebelly was only blue-listed. The resolution of the complaint will take up to two years. She also reached out to Teal Jones, and an office worker told her to send an email to email@example.com (the same email that receives all the complaints about logging in Fairy Creek). When she said that perhaps this email would get lost in the hundreds of complaints sent by concerned citizens around the world, the office worker gave a verbal shrug.
Morning sea fog obscuring the view of a recent clearcut, near the area where the rare lichen was found (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
Lavdovsky is also in the process of reaching out to a hereditary chief of the Pacheedaht Nation, Victor Peter, as well as Bill Jones. “This is the privilege of a lifetime for me,” she tells me. “Not just to be [at Fairy Creek] but to find this lichen and try to help it be protected and represented.” Lichens are misrepresented and overlooked, she says. “But they do so much for us, and so much for the forest.” When Lavdovsky spoke with Andy McKinnon, he told her that humans have only discovered and recorded perhaps one or two percent of the species in an old-growth forest. “How come we don’t know this?” she wants to know. “We don’t really understand [the forest] yet—we don’t know.”
Eleven years have passed since COSEWIC’s last report, and the committee is currently completing a new assessment of endangered wildlife. Lavdovsky is confident that, thanks to logging, fewer confirmed localities will be identified this year. Even so, these classifications systems lack “teeth,” as Goward puts it, to actually prevent destruction of species. Only stand-alone species-at-risk legislation can do this. Until then, oldgrowth specklebelly and its innumerable community members will have to wait for Horgan to keep his promises, and hope that a forest fire or a timber cruiser doesn’t get them first.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which is in its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.