Forest professionals believe that British Columbia’s old forests are important. Old forests are ecological reservoirs of genetic variation, a record of ecological history, habitat for specialized species or predators, recreation inspirations, and they are complex buffers to change. That’s why when it comes to managing BC forests and implementing government forest policies, forest professionals rely on the best available data to design management strategies that meet government objectives, like the retention of old growth. These management efforts are adaptable, allowing past assumptions to be reexamined in light of change like the devastation of pine forests from Mountain Pine Beetle, or a fire storm that consumes 10,000 hectares.
The state of old growth forests on Vancouver Island resurfaced in the news recently with the announcement that a pair of environmental activist groups plan to reprise a tour of Vancouver Island communities to talk about preserving the Island’s old growth forests.
The difficulty with any conversation about old growth forests begins with the definition. As anyone who attended the same environmental group’s meetings in March quickly discovered, definitions of what constitutes “old growth” were mushy and malleable depending on who was speaking. This lack of a clear definition of what constitutes “old growth” then leads to incorrect numbers and assumptions about the amount of old growth forests on Vancouver Island that are just plain wrong. As the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
The phrase “old growth” is an emotional expression, conjuring up feelings of nostalgia, awe, and respect. At the same time, “old growth” means different things to different people. For some, old growth means old trees. But how old? For others, old growth represents big trees, so big you can’t wrap your arms around them. Consequently, when many people use the term “old growth,” they are not using it in a science-based context despite that being the context in which government makes policies that govern management and preservation of old growth forests.
From a forestry science perspective, old growth forests are seen as having very old (250 to 1,500 years), very large trees; a diverse structure (combination of dead standing, old, new and young individual trees); an understory microclimate with vegetation (in clusters or in gaps); and a dominate canopy layer of climax species or combination of species and ground debris that exhibits the silhouette of past fallen giants partially decomposed and absorbed into the forest floor being replaced by other mature growing trees. Additionally, the characteristics of old growth forests don’t show up all at once, the occurrence of the characteristics is gradual. And there are old growth characteristics in some younger forests. Vancouver Island, which is 3.28 million hectares in size, has 2.4 million hectares of Crown land. Using the above definition of “old growth,” and digging into data from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, we find that 860,000 hectares of that Crown land (46 per cent) is old growth forest and of that, about 520,000 hectares (62 per cent) is estimated to be protected. Old growth areas are included in protected areas like parks; biodiversity targets for landscape units have been set so that old growth exists in all regions; specific Old Growth Management Areas (OGMAs) have been established; and reserves for fish and wildlife habitat, ungulate winter ranges, and other natural uses have been established. No one in BC wants to see the harvesting of all old growth and with 520,000 hectares of old growth forest protected, it’s clear that’s not happening nor is it going to happen. So while there’s no question that our old growth forests can elicit strong emotional feelings in many of us, when it comes to discussing old growth forests and how they are managed, it’s best if we stick to the facts.
Written and submitted by Mike Larock, RPF, and Megan Hanacek, RPF, RPBio