Vanishing Old-Growth Forests

Brad Cundiff, Borealis Magazine, 1992

The disappearance of old-growth forests may be one of the most serious environmental issues today. Yet few people understand the issue even though many of today's major environmental conflicts are old-growth issues.

For those lucky enough to stand among them, the foothill forests of western Alberta are a source of wonderment. There is serenity here. Tall, cool, and centuries old, these forests are some of the last remaining outposts of old-growth in Canada. And everywhere they wear the drapings of their age, mossy green old-man's beard lichens that hang like Christmas decorations in these ancient woods.

But for the woodland caribou, the attraction is much simpler. For them, the lichen-festooned forests mean the difference between life and death when winter covers the ground with a metre or more of snow.

It takes the forests in this region 100 to 200 years to grow their long, nutritious, tapering beards. As is so often the case, time is a key element in nature intertwining to create a unique, life-nurishing environment. And the woodland caribou are but one example of species dependent on it.

The survival of hundreds of species depend on old growth forests. Yet still, there is a commonly held belief that mature forests are decadent and in need of renewal. In places like Temagami, Carmanah, and South Moresby, the Stein Valley and Madawaska, the argument has often erupted in fierce confrontations.

On one side, modern forestry practices, based on computer-generated models of optimal growth, dictate that forests must be harvested as soon as tree growth begins to taper off.

On the other side, environmentalists point to species loss, diminishing biological-diversity, and degraded water quality that do not show up on the loggers' computer screen. But as the arguments drone on, so does the rumble of log-laden trucks, carrying out the felled giants from their ancient hiding places.

Old-school foresters claim an understanding of old-growth forests born of years of hewing history. Stands like those of 200 to 300-year-old red and white pine in Temagami are past their prime, they say. Only a catastrophic and inevitable fire can spark their regeneration.

The interpretation only makes sense, however, if you look at the forest with a myopic focus on its profit potential for the lumber industry.

This is where the vision of foresters and people like Ken Lertzman, assistant professor of natural resources management at Simon Fraser University, diverge. Where some foresters see decay, Lertzman sees the regenerative and natural processes of a healthy forest. "I encourage people to stand in the middle of a forest and look at all the places where trees have died because I want them to understand that mortality is a natural process and a large part of what makes old-growth special," says Lertzman. Dead trees provide habitat for a wide variety of insects, birds, and other animals. And from the light that sifts through openings in the canopy of green overhead, a truly new forest emerges, says Lertzman. "Old-growth is not just big old trees and big logs, but young trees as well. There is constant replacement going on, it is a dynamic forest, not stable or stagnant."

Lertzman spent six years studying high-elevation old-growth forests of hemlock, and of Pacific fir and yellow cedar in British Columbia's Cyprus Provincial Park. The trees in these stands aren't as big or impressive as those in Carmanah. But this is still an extraordinarily beautiful forest and one of the best examples of old-growth in B.C, he says. Perhaps it is that old-growth forests, whether in Oregon, Temagami, or the lower-elevation forests of B.C., are so diverse that they are so universally misunderstood.

They are highly complex communities, unlike the foresters' utopian tree plantation. They devote large amounts of energy to nutrient recycling, rather than fibre production. They are highly dynamic places that produce, among other benefits, nutrient-rich soils and clean, clear water.

Old-growth forests are not on their way out, but rather they are robustly active and self-replacing, often one tree at a time, insists Canadian old-growth scientist Dr. Peter Quinby. His research into the tall pines of Temagami, Ontario, perhaps the largest stand of old-growth red and white pine left in North America, flies in the face of that province's official forest-management guidelines. In one finding, he showed that white-pine seedlings opportunisticly seize upon the sunlight let in by a dead or dying tree. In a five-hectare area, his survey team found 20 clusters of white-pine seedlings and saplings vying to replace the giants that laid dead nearby. It was an enlightening finding in more ways than one.

Until Quinby's research, government regulations require that white pine be harvested by clearcutting. It was believed that regeneration was impossible under the light-blocking boughs of an old-growth forest. Fire or human intervention (logging) was needed to stimulate growth in these white pine forests, according to the disproved popular wisdom.

Displaying a map marking the different ages of the pines, Quinby paints a clear portrait of an uneven-aged forest where renewal has been a constant event over at least 400 years. It's damning evidence for those who still cling to the theory that the Temagami forest was uniformly established after a major fire. The often played flip-side of the fire theory is the forestry myth that old-growth stands are fire traps because of the mass of rotting wood they contain.

In one research area of Cyprus Park, it is estimated there has been no major fire for 1,500 to 2,000 years. And one American old-growth expert, Chris Maser, claims to have won several bar wagers by literally ringing water out of the fibres of decomposing logs, even during the driest days of summer. But Maser says the forest industry could save itself far more money if it overcame the seemingly instinctive belief in some forestry managers to label some elements (such as fibre growth) good and other elements (such as insects) bad. Logging companies that spend small fortunes spraying replanted clear-cuts with rodenticide, may actually be destroying creatures that help seedling growth, he says.

By eating mycorrhizal fungi on tree roots, then defecating near the base of seedlings, mice and voles spread the spores of this beneficial fungi throughout the forest in self-contained, fertilizing pellets. The mycorrhizal fungi feed a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grows within them, passing it on to trees in return for sugar. We learn more about life in old-growth forests every day. But Doug Larson, a botany professor at the University of Guelph, adds a sense of urgency to the need for re-educating foresters immediately. "We have to learn how natural systems work before we screw them up," he says. "You can't study something that is diseased before you've studied what is normal. From coast-to-coast we have very few examples left of how Mother Nature works."

Two years ago, Larson surprised even himself. Core samples taken from small, gnarled eastern white cedars growing on a cliff-face of Ontario's Niagara Escarpment revealed they were 600-year-old trees. Further research showed these forests extend in a thin ribbon along the entire length of the escarpment. And where they remain undisturbed, they are actively regenerating.

It was a startling discovery and a strong argument against the kind of policies that lead to clear-cuts and trails of road surveyors' tape into last surviving old-growth areas, like B.C.'s Carmanah Valley. A cathedral among forests, Carmanah's groves of 90-metre-high sitka spruce still stand in awe-inspiring glory. There is a sense that the natural systems are in balance in this place where the cold, gin-clear water of Carmanah Creek still carves its course through the lush green undergrowth. Nature is in control here.

When environmentalists stumbled onto the Carmanah Valley its destruction seemed imminent. With no protective political status, it appeared destined for sacrifice by the logger's chainsaw like so many others before it. It hasn't happened yet, largely because of the efforts of environmentalists, who have so far managed to hold industry at bay in one half of the valley.

But how long the spectacular giant sitkas of Carmanah and the wizened cedars of the Niagara Escarpment, survive though, is still in serious doubt.

In B.C., only the high-elevation forests of the province have been substantially spared, passed over in favor of more accessible regions containing commercially valuable species, such as Douglas fir. But armed with new technology, foresters eyes are turning upward, especially since the first-growth, lower-elevation forests have all but

The situation in Alberta is no brighter. If all the timber agreements that are on the books now go together as planned, virtually all the province's forests will soon be under long-term leases to pulp mills or saw mills. And despite the province's recent expenditure of $50 million on a forest survey, a government foresters' report, released this summer, makes foreboding predictions. The wholesale attempt to resurrect Alberta's crippled oil-dependent economy with another natural resource is based on guesswork, without thought to potentially dire long-term consequences, says the report.

In Saskatchewan, university professor Stan Rowe, author of 'Forest Regions of Canada', adds a note of dark irony. Logging has skewed forest composition so many forests now actually fit the simple, timber-industry ideals. Instead of containing trees of mixed ages and a healthy percentage of old-growth, forests are becoming predominantly young, even-aged stands, says Rowe.

But if governments are guilty of grudgingly reacting with minimal protection for old-growth stands, only when backed into a corner by the environmental movement, part of the blame lies with environmentalists, he says. Too much effort is spent tracking down spectacular remnants of old-growth forest, when we should be setting aside sizeable tracts of land and letting nature give birth to old-growth forests again, says Rowe. "Patches of old-growth would always be developing as others fade away or are renewed as young growth. You can't set the forest in cement, it has to be a changing pattern." It may seem like unobtainable idealism. But according to a newly adopted American old-growth policy, the U.S. Forest Service is ready to start working toward just such a goal. The policy calls for a reduction in clearcutting and "the retention of residual trees, snags, dead-and-down material and logging debris."

The policy also aims to reduce fragmentation of old-growth forests by locating timber sales away from known old-growth stands. Logging rotations are to be extended in other areas, while both research and old-growth inventories are to be increased. But it was an even more shocking statement in the policy that floored the whole forestry community. "Where goals for providing old-growth values are not compatible with timber harvesting," the stunning new policy proclaims, "lands will be classified as unsuitable for timber production."

At the same time the U.S. policy was released, last November, the B.C. government brought together 80 representatives of conservation and recreation groups, government and industry for a conference called Towards an Old-growth Strategy.

Herb Hammond, a holistic forester, gave the assembled representatives his solution: designating 25 to 30 per cent of stems in a commercial forest to live out their natural lifespan, and setting aside intact watersheds. Like most at the conference, he was cheered by the serious treatment afforded the old-growth issue. But the reluctance to consider reducing annual allowable cuts in any possible compromise strangled the chance of concrete results, he says.

Simply protecting the Carmanah Valley, for instance, will be a hollow effort if adjacent valleys are clearcut. The valley might appear unaltered, but much of its ecology would not survive, Hammond warns.

Forests stripped of genetic and species diversity are a serious concern now, but when faced with a significant upheavals such as global warming, the old-growth issue may become as fundamental as it is for the woodland caribou, he says.

But young, vigorous forests produce more oxygen, and absorb more carbon dioxide, making it more beneficial to a world facing the greenhouse effect, argues Glen Blouin, executive director of the Canadian Forestry Association.

And he's probably right, if you compare a single young tree to its old-growth peer, says Hammond. But if you compare a young tree plantation to an old-growth forest, the scales tip the other way, he says. "Old-growth forests are very, very efficient carbon sinks compared to young tree plantations."

Nor does the plantation have the diversity of carbon-storing plant life that old-growth does. And when old-growth forests are clearcut, decomposition and carbon release in the resulting hot, open area happens many times faster than on the shaded forest floor.

"Foresters can pretend they are creating healthy forests and appeal to the public that we are alarmists, that these forests are fine, but somewhere down the road - 200, 300 or even 400 years - these ecosystems will collapse because the soils will collapse," says Hammond. That means governments and industry, that continue to devote vast resources to identifying and quantifying sources of fibre, must take an interest in protecting old-growth.

Currently, timber inventories treat all trees 80 to 100 years or older as one age class with no distinctions, according to federal forestry policy advisor Richard Cote. It is possible to make finer distinctions, of course, but there has been no need seen for it, he says. It's an imbalance in urgent need of reform, say environmental scientists. When we replace a system meant to run in 400 to 1200-year cycles with a system that runs in 80 to 100-year bursts, the forest inevitably declines, even if it takes longer than our lifetimes to become evident.