Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Big Trees, Forest Cathedrals

Big trees like this Sitka Spruce are fascinating. Click on the title and you can go to the Web page "Cathedral Grove" that looks at the big conifers of the Pacific West from an art history point of view. Cathedral Grove is also the name of a small BC Provincial Park situated on the highway to Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. It contains ancient and huge Douglas Firs. The trees are very old and diseased and are a small reminder of the magnificent virgin Douglas Forests forests of Vancouver Island.

It is easy for a forester to reduce the tree to a wood growing plant and dismiss the considerable interest in old massive trees as "woolly headed tree hugging sentimentality". About forty years ago, I located forest roads in virgin Douglas Fir forests around the Nitinat Valley on southern Vancouver Island. The smallest trees were about three feet in diameter. Massive off highway logging trucks were used to haul the logs to the Alberni Inlet. Some logs were too big to fit between the 12 foot wide bunks of these trucks. Instead, single massive logs were chained to a low bed truck normally used to transport large logging machines. Unfortunately, most of these prime old growth forests have been logged.

If you are seeking the wonder and awe of a cathedral forest, any old growth or even an old growth stand with a few massive specimens does not measure up. We have been careless with our endowed abundance, and allowed almost all of these cathedral forests to fall to the chainsaw. Both the BC Government and environmental groups respond to the present situation by looking to the remaining old growth. Some old growth is protected in parks. Some, usually poorer old growth remains to be harvested. However, the largest area of undisturbed old growth in natural condition is situated in what the government calls the non contributing land base. This is the parts of managed forest landscapes that are not suitable for forest harvesting owing to terrain or other reasons. There is more land area in this category than in Parks or protected areas. Most of it will remain in natural virgin condition. The boundary between this area and the harvestable area has not been subjected to rigorous analysis in most landscapes. Some small parts of it may be harvested but some parts of the harvestable area will never be harvested. In the long term, rising energy costs are likely to protect the non contributing land base from harvest. Environmental groups want to protect most or all remaining old growth, and the government points to old growth in the non contributing land base as a major old growth and habitat reserve. Both sides remain locked in adversarial arguments. The Government and forest sector are trying to protect industrial timber management, though it seems to be a failing business model for managing public forests. The attacks of environmentalists have promoted reactionary entrenchment. One side paints the other as a threat to the economy. The opposite side charges the other with environmental villainy.

Neither side has much to offer on restoring our natural heritage of cathedral forests. The environmentalists proposed ban on logging old growth would, at best,just add a bit of area to the mediocre old growth that will be protected in substantial area and quantity in the non contributing land base. The BC Government is also overstating the value of the old growth in the non contributing land base. Most of it is not top grade old growth and its contribution to habitat, and biological diversity may be less than the prime old growth that used to occupy richer lower elevations sites.

The term "non contributing land base" is a Freudian slip of the BC Government. The Government claims that BC's public forests are subject to sustainable forest management. Non contributing means that the land area is not supplying timber. However, the Montreal Process, an international standard on sustainable forest management makes it clear that forests should be managed for many economic and social benefits. The non contributing land base is an area that is larger than all BC's Parks that will remain in natural condition. It includes mountains and some of the world's most spectacular scenery. Switzerland's mountain scenery has been sold to the world for 150 years with considerable economic benefit. The Swiss would not describe their mountains as non contributing land base. BC has a much greater natural endowment of mountains and scenery. The lack of government funding to maintain our Park system demonstrates our unwillingness to invest in infrastructure to generate a larger nature based economy to compliment the timber economy.

Sustainable forest management also includes the idea that you should gain maximum economic value out of the timber that you are able to grow. Growing for quality starts with forest management and follows through to a diverse wood products manufacturing industry. Lower quality timber can go to pulp mills and sawmills producing commodity lumber. Higher quality timber can go to secondary wood manufacturers that produce finish wood products such as doors and mouldings or specialty post and beam or timber framing components.

BC has a poorly developed secondary wood products manufacturing industry because most of the harvesting rights are held by commodity producing wood products companies. Consequently, there is little incentive for managing public forests to increase the quality and value of wood produced. Big healthy older trees provide higher quality wood than smaller young trees. Douglas fir, the tree that grew to massive size in the virgin forests of coastal south west BC is a classic example. It grows quickly and in young trees the rings are wide, but as the tree gets older each years wood growth is laid down on a larger area of surface and there are more rings to the inch. If wood from a young Douglas fir tree with wide rings is run through a high speed moulding machine, the machine vibrates and the surface of the finished product can be poor. Douglas fir wood from an old tree with many rings to the inch, will go through the machine with no vibration and the finished product will be smooth.

The trees of the BC coast will put on good growth to 180 or 200 years. This offers the opportunity to grow quality high value wood and tall forests with old growth qualities qualities. If terrain permits, a longer rotation forest can be thinned several times to produce timber in the mean time and also to increase the size and quality of the remaining trees. Long rotations may become increasingly attractive in the not so distant future. Timber harvesting and log hauling consumes considerable energy, and higher value trees are more likely to cover the costs and produce a profit. Tall forests with old growth characteristics could form part of our timber production forests, if we had a diversified wood products industry. Unfortunately we will not move in this direction until we re-engineer our arrangements for managing public forests that allocate most public timber to commodity lumber and pulp companies.

We usually hear that old growth is several hundreds of years old and we are given to assume that it will take centuries to re-create some examples of prime old growth forest. The idea of re-creating old growth has never emerged for public debate. Forest on good sites on the BC coast can achieve old growth characteristics at about 100 years. Trees can be large and appear like old growth at that age. The flora and fauna and micro-organisms of the old growth forest will be re-established. Growth of massive trees could be aided by thinning, even if the area is protected. At 150 to 200 years a cathedral like forest with massive trees could be back as part of our natural heritage. There is considerable second growth forest that is already 80 to 100 years old, so recreating some new cathedral forests could be done within a generation. Some parks have protected forest that is reaching old growth characteristics and will go on to supply examples of cathedral forests.

Our main impediment to re-creating a natural heritage of cathedral forests is our lack of imagination. Government, forest industry and the environmentalist opposition are locked in limited adversarial arguments over outdated centralized industrial timber management. A new legal and institutional framework that devolved forest management to local forest trusts under a true sustainable forest management charter would bring needed change. Local forest managers would have the freedom to manage the local landscape to maximize the value of its natural capital. There would be a nature based component to the local forest economy that would supplement timber. In addition to adding additional cash to local economies there would be an economic incentive to protect the environment and develop local examples of cathedral forests. Since most of BC's forests remain in public hands, we can do this, if the public wants it. Unfortunately, we are so tied to our failing timber dollars that we are willing to let our government hand over more management responsibilities and eventually ownership of our forests to forest corporations. We should remember that there is a large area on Vancouver Island capable of growing the absolute best cathedral forests that we gave up to private hands. We paid the Dunsmuir coal barons to construct the E and N Railway and BC threw in a bonus of a huge area of prime timber lands on the east coast of Vancouver Island. At the time, there were strong protests that the deal was a rip-off, but the majority acquiesced because they thought that coal baron dollars would trickle down. We have already given our forests away to un-enlightened industrial timber management because we expected timber dollars to trickle down. If we took our forests back and placed them under independent sustainable forest management at the local level, we could re-create our heritage of cathedral forests.