A winter on S,DA’YES in a future ancient forest

A path winds its way up a hill through a forest into the light.

Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

It was a profoundly silent winter morning. The forest was vividly awake.

Twin sister red cedars, the sacred XPÁY, grow intertwined, elegant limbs drooping around each other, coiled in an ancient embrace. The ubiquitous sword ferns poke at their feet, while a tricky, twisted Arbutus, ḰEḰEIȽĆ, reaches to tickle their chins with its evergreen leaves and ribbons of peeling bark. A group of sweet young alders, SḰOLṈEȽĆM, crowd together nearby, too shy to join the fun. They are all diligently watched over by a deeply furrowed and greying grandfather Douglas-fir, JSÁY, after whom this forest is named. He stands tall and invariable, just up a gentle slope. Many others like him assemble as far as the eye can see. A cracking branch sends a Harlequin duck skittering across the surface of the nearby lake, breaking the interminable quiet. 

It is a young forest, by this region’s standards, perhaps only a century old — give or take a decade. In the mid-1800s, its ancestors were felled, like so many others growing on the Islands throughout the Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound, leaving less than 1% of old trees remaining. Yet, walking under the second-growth canopy, those long cut trees are still potently present. The weight of their legacy hangs in the air, dangling heavily in the branches of their living kin. 

These young trees grow within the radius of Roe Lake, a rare freshwater ecosystem in the Gulf Islands. The area’s importance has been recognized by the federal government of Canada and awarded protection, allowing these trees the chance to grow to maturity. For some this means a 1,500-year lifespan. Those growing on neighbouring lands are unlikely to be so lucky.

Most land in the Gulf Islands is privately owned. Without regulatory governance guiding the care of privately-owned trees, many are sacrificed for a seaview, or generally undesired. 

On many Islands, large parcels can be purchased to clearcut and develop without the consent of neighbours or First Nations. With few exceptions, there is almost nothing to prevent old trees or forested lots from being logged. 

These short-sighted practices are highly destructive to threatened and rare undisturbed habitats. Herein lies an important distinction between ecosystem management and ecosystem governance. 

The term “management” is often preceded by “resource” and thus implies a process resulting in economically beneficial outcomes. Governance suggests a more comprehensive, more collaborative approach to making land-use decisions. 

Accordingly, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation Gulf Islands Forest Project casts a wide net to incorporate diverse perspectives and strategies to secure long-lasting conservation of Coastal Douglas-fir habitats across the Gulf Islands. 

 To start, we are focusing on North and South Pender Islands.

Roe Lake on North Pender, on a blue sky day.
Forest surrounding Roe Lake in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on North Pender Island. Photo by Shauna Doll.

Work is underway to build relationships with those living on the Penders to implement environmentally-focused policy.  We’re also building relationships with the people who have 1000-year-old ties to these sacred places. 

This past spring, I participated in the first five-day session of an immersive program on S,DA’YES: the ṮEṮÁĆES Climate Action Project. A joint initiative between the Southern Gulf Islands Community Resource Centre and W̱SÁNEĆ Knowledge Holders, this program aimed to weave conventional science with Traditional Knowledge to empower participants to undertake personal climate action projects.

Though we had intended to undertake fieldwork through this summer to better understand the current condition of Pender Islands’ forests, the global pandemic shifted our focus. At present, we are working with community action groups, local scientists, the Pender Island Conservancy, and PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ to establish citizen science initiatives, education programs, and research to involve the community in furthering conservation goals. 

I continue to spend time under the canopy to better understand the land and the forest that make this region one of the rarest and most beautiful in the world.

Western red cedar (XPÁY or Thuja plicata) trees growing on the Roe Lake Loop Trail in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
Western red cedar (XPÁY or Thuja plicata) trees growing on the Roe Lake Loop Trail in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, North Pender Island. Photo by Shauna Doll.

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. SENĆOTEN plant names used throughout this article were identified in the book Saanich Ethnobotany by Nancy J. Turner & Richard J. Hebda, under the guidance of Saanich elders, Elsie Claxton (Tsawout), Dave Elliot (Tsartlip), Christopher Paul (Tsartlip), and Violet Williams (Pauquachin). Used here with permission.