Protecting the evergreen giants at the edge of the sea

Introducing the Gulf Islands Forest Project.

Roe Lake on North Pender, on a blue sky day.

Roe Lake, North Pender. Photo by Shauna Doll.

The rainshadow region, extending  across the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island from Metchosin to Deep Bay; covering the Gulf Islands, and reaching the Sunshine Coast, has been subject to rampant land conversion—by some estimates up to 50%. Agricultural and industrial development, along with logging, are key protagonists, as is the ever-increasing population attracted to the natural beauty and pleasant climate. This uniquely temperate climate has nurtured the growth of a rare and majestic ecosystem dominated by evergreen giants, standing sentinel at the edge of the sea: the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimactic (CDF) zone. Not to shortchange the deciduous trees, these island ecosystems are also home to threatened Garry Oak and Arbutus, both species at-risk in BC.

Forest on South Pender Island
The Coastal Douglas-fir forest from the top of Mt. Norman, on South Pender Island. Photo by Shauna Doll.

This diverse assemblage of habitats occupies less than 0.3% of BC, roughly 250,000 hectares, and exists nowhere else in Canada. It is the smallest and least protected of 16 biogeoclimactic zones in the province, with the lowest proportion of old growth forests, the highest proportions of privately-owned forested lands, and the largest human population outside the lower mainland. By most standards, the CDF is the most threatened and endangered ecosystem type in the country. With the added threats of climate change, significant ecosystem imbalances- such as the functional loss of top predators leading to unchecked deer population in the southern Gulf Islands, and little operational policy aimed at encouraging forest conservation on privately owned land, protecting the CDF is a challenge. As such, in the fall of 2019, Raincoast Conservation Foundation launched the Gulf Islands Forest Project to characterize forest health, identify measures to protect forest habitat, and promote ecosystem resilience at a time of rapid climate change.

By most standards, the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimactic (CDF) zone is the most threatened and endangered ecosystem type in the country.  Tweet This!

The Gulf Islands are governed by the Islands Trust, a unique federation unlike any other governing body in the province. Described as a “special purpose organization,” it was created via the Islands Trust Act in 1974 with the object of “preserving and protecting” the unique amenities the Gulf Islands have to offer. This area includes 13 major and 450 smaller islands that constitute 25% of the CDF region. Like the rest of the region, most of the land within the Islands Trust Area is privately owned. Yet, forests growing in the Island Trust Area have 39% higher native community bird diversity and 43% higher carbon sequestration potential than forests in other areas within the Capital Regional District. This ecological potential combined with the unique object of the Islands Trust presents a significant conservation opportunity!

From beginnings as a discussion topic at a community meeting in the autumn of 2019, this project has gained momentum in a few short months due to the continuing contributions from essential partner organizations, government branches, and engaged citizens. Using North and South Pender Islands as an initial case study, Raincoast will identify pathways to better conserve and protect CDF forests of the Islands and design a transferable template to benefit the other 11 major Islands. 

Second growth forest near Shingle Bay campground, North Pender.
Second growth forest near Shingle Bay campground in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on North Pender. Photo by Shauna Doll.

A foundational assessment of forest health has already begun and preliminary observations align with anecdotal community reports; land-use decisions and climate change are stressing forests, resulting in canopy decline, and seemingly increased tree mortality. This spring, baseline data will be collected as part of the Salish Sea Emerging Stewards program to better understand current forest conditions and inform conservation action. 

As this project has developed, it has become increasingly clear that it is only through collaborative, collective action that lasting protection of these precious ecosystems will be secured. We invite, and indeed encourage, our Gulf Islands community to get involved with forest conservation by joining efforts in their immediate neighborhood or reaching out to the CDF Conservation Project’s Lead Researcher, Shauna Doll, to find ways to help.

For the forests that remain.

Shauna Doll Shauna Doll smiles in the Geography department foyer at the University of Victoria.

Shauna Doll completed her Master’s degree at Dalhousie and has worked in forest conservation in Nova Scotia in the context of climate change. She is the Lead Researcher on the Raincoast Gulf Islands Forest Project. You can find her in the lab, or in the forests of the Gulf Islands.

Acknowledgements: This article was inspired by the forests found on S,DA’YES—Pender Island—the traditional territory of the Tsawout First Nation. It was written on the unceded Coast Salish Territory of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations. We express our gratitude to these communities. We also thank the community members on North and South Pender Islands whose efforts are making this work possible.