Old growth trees — one of British Columbia’s most iconic natural symbols — are once again grabbing international attention as hundreds of protesters are willing to be arrested rather than see the trees cut down for their economic value.
These massive trees have long played an important part of the province’s forestry sector. But the logging of old growth trees, some of which have stood for 800 years or more, often comes with criticism that their harvest harms B.C.’s biodiversity and ability to deal with climate change.
Currently, the trees at the heart of ongoing confrontations between demonstrators and RCMP in the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island.
Here are five things to know about old growth trees in B.C.
What is considered an old growth tree in B.C.?
Old growth trees vary in size and age, but the most common image is of a massive tree erupting from the earth stretching 60 metres or more into the sky. The trunks of these trees are covered in dense bark, and a family of four people would struggle to hold hands and encircle one.
Conservationists and loggers both say it’s significant when trees like this — such as yellow cedars, Sitka spruce or Douglas firs — are discovered in forests, often at the bottom of lush valleys where rainfall and access to nutrients help them grow.
The province defines coastal forests to be old growth if they contain trees that are more than 250 years old, while forests in B.C.’s Interior are considered old growth if the trees are at least 140 years old.
Why are old growth trees logged?
The province says old growth trees are “vital” to supporting the industry because of their value and quality. Wood from old growth trees is often desired for high-end and specialty products such as fine furniture, musical instruments, specialty finishing products and shake and shingle manufacturing.
In the last fiscal year, the province said $1.3 billion in revenue was linked to the forestry sector, which employs more than 50,000 British Columbians, including 5,300 Indigenous people who are directly employed in the industry.
Typical coastal old growth sites can yield as much as 1,500 to 1,800 cubic metres per hectare, according to industry experts. In comparison, they say second-growth forests — trees that grow after the original trees were cut down or destroyed by natural disturbances like wildfires — yield around a third of that because they are harvested at younger ages.
Also in many areas, like Northern Vancouver Island, more old growth is logged because second-growth forests haven’t yet grown big enough to be harvested.
Speaking in April at a convention for the BC Council of Forest Industries, provincial forestry minister Katrine Conroy didn’t say how old growth would factor into the future of the sector. But Conroy was clear her government was committed to ensuring forestry remains an economic driver for the province.
“B.C.’s forest industry is, and will continue to, provide opportunities and benefits for British Columbians for decades to come,” she said at the time.
How much old growth remains in B.C.?
The province says there are currently 13.7 million hectares of old growth in British Columbia, and 10 million of those hectares are protected or not economical to harvest. For reference, the entire province is roughly 95 million hectares in size, with approximately 57 million hectares of forested land.
Around 20 million hectares of public forest in B.C. is available for harvesting, according to the province, of which 3.6 million hectares is old growth.
Each year, 200,000 hectares of forested lands in B.C. are logged. The province says 27 per cent of this annual harvest comes from old growth.
But for the past decade, conservation groups like the Ancient Forest Alliance, the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club B.C. have all used provincial data to argue that old growth trees in the areas where the trees grow biggest are being cut down at an unsustainable rate.
A panel of independent scientists produced a report last June which used provincial data to show that the oldest trees in B.C. in some of the most lush, biodiverse forests were on the brink of extinction.
The report found that areas able to grow massive trees cover less than three per cent of the province and “intense harvest” has removed significantly old trees from nearly all of those areas.
“These ecosystems are effectively the white rhino of old growth forests,” said the report said. “They are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging.”
Why should old growth be protected?
Conservationists argue that intact forests with old growth trees in them will help protect the province from future climate change disasters.
As well, forests with old growth trees in them are often rich in biodiversity — which means they support many other animal and plant species, including some which cannot live in any other type of habitat.
These forests have dense canopies, thick tough bark, extensive roots systems and space between them, which helps prevent the spread of forest fires, landslides, and flooding — along with protecting water sources.
Even old growth trees that die and fall to the ground and rot help the remaining forest around it by providing nutrients and habitat for other species.
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The trees also have cultural significance for First Nations, who for thousands of years have used trees such as cedar for clothes, baskets and other tools as well as for ceremonial objects and regalia.
In places like Port Renfrew, large, old trees are being marketed as tourism destinations — which is a way the trees can contribute to B.C.’s economy without cutting them down.
How can old growth be protected?
People on all sides of this issue agree that old growth trees in the province should not be cut down with abandon. The province says old growth is protected in Old Growth Management Areas, under land use plans and in conjunction with species protections for caribou, marbled murrelet and northern goshawk.
B.C. is also committed to implementing 14 recommendations made last September in a report conducted by two foresters. The report was commissioned by the province to review how old growth should be protected.
As part of that process, the government announced at the time that it would defer old growth logging in 197,000 hectares mostly in and around Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, an area known for its large trees, biodiversity and confrontations over logging.
Also at that time, the province implemented a special tree regulation, which ensures large, old growth trees on their own can be protected and have buffers around them so they are not disturbed by logging nearby.
But since then, impatience has grown from stakeholders that the province is not moving fast enough to put in place more deferrals and other measures the report calls for.
“The evidence is clear: Premier Horgan’s government is likely the last one with a chance to save the last old growth forests as a legacy for future generations,” Jens Wieting, a forest and climate campaigner at Sierra Club BC, said in a release in March.
During the 2017 election, the BC NDP vowed to overhaul the forestry sector and model how environmentalists, the forestry sector, First Nations and the B.C. Liberals eventually worked together to establish an agreement to protect the Great Bear Rainforest in 2016 on B.C.’s central coast. An area the size of Vancouver Island is now off limits to logging.
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