BC’s Coastal Douglas-fir zone needs protection now

Since colonization, BC’s forests have been over-exploited, primarily due to a legacy of old growth liquidation policies.

Since colonization, BC’s forests have been over-exploited, primarily due to a legacy of old growth liquidation policies. Such policies, established in the first half of the 20th century, enshrined an unsustainable rate of cut inhibiting development of mature forest characteristics and perpetuating an economic imperative to replace “over-mature, decadent and diseased” old growth with “thrifty” tree plantations. 

In an era where climate change is a modern reality and biodiversity is in crisis the world over, the province’s continued support of industrial logging in old growth forests is out of sync with global scientific consensus and policy objectives. This is especially true in the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimactic zone, the smallest and most endangered of 16 such zones in BC.

The CDF zone covers less than 0.3% of the province, roughly 2,500 km², which represents its entire national extent; over 25% of that exists in the Gulf Islands. Yet, it is the zone being most rapidly developed in BC and less than 1% of remaining CDF forests are classified as old growth. As a forest type once dominated by evergreen giants of Douglas-fir and western red cedar, species with lifespans up to 1,000 to 1,500 years respectively, this is a significant loss. Immediate action is needed to protect the remaining old, and second-growth forests of the CDF.

In 1992, the provincial government designed a management strategy for old growth forests, but piecemeal implementation hindered its efficacy and it ultimately failed to alleviate the pressure unduly exerted on these rapidly dwindling ecosystems. Now, 28 years later, BC still has no comprehensive old growth strategy. In late 2019, a new strategic review process, overseen by an independent panel was announced. This included considerable public consultation that ended early in 2020. The resulting report outlined 14 management recommendations emphasizing the need for Indigenous involvement in decision-making and the prioritization of ecosystem health. Notably it was recognized that “the priorities that currently drive our forest management system are backwards. Rather than determine what must be done to maintain ecosystem health and resilience, and then what social and economic benefits we can derive within that guidance, we often do the opposite.”

Following the report’s release, the province announced a logging deferral in 9 old growth areas amounting to 352,739 hectares ( 44% of this area is described as second-growth, clearcut, or non-forested). They also announced a plan to expand their “big tree protection” initiative that aims to protect the most exceptional “majestic giants” in BC, from 54 to 1,500 trees. However, pointedly missing from the deferral areas are CDF forests. Similarly, only 7 of the 54 trees originally identified by the big tree protection initiative grow in the CDF.  Furthermore, the panel’s review focused on public lands, but a driving factor behind the loss of old Coastal Douglas-fir forests, particularly in the Gulf Islands, is a lack of regulations governing the high proportion of privately-owned land. Due to the threatened status of most ecosystems found in the CDF zone, an old growth protection strategy should prioritize these forests regardless of land ownership. 

Most ecologists agree that connectivity is a vital component to conservation planning. In a province that reports 13.2 million hectares of old forests (much of it fragmented/degraded and  under-regulated), protecting disconnected patches of old growth and proposing initiatives that emphasize the protection of single trees over ecosystems seems more about public relations  than protecting forests. This is especially true considering the province has yet to commit to the 36 month timeline recommended by the independent panel. While the new protections are steps in the right direction, they are forebodingly similar to the piecemeal approach taken in 1992. 

All the above considered, Raincoast urges the following measures for old growth protection:

  • A moratorium on old growth logging in BC’s most intact and endangered old growth forests, including those on private land—particularly within the CDF zone.
  • Development of a science-based plan for old growth protection including a prioritization model to guide where, when, and how protection will be implemented, emphasizing the protection of contiguous forest.
  • Greater jurisdiction for the Islands Trust to implement environmental regulations to fulfill their “preserve and protect” object and reduce highly unregulated tree-cutting on private property.
  • Increased transparency on provincial forestry practices reporting 

There are no legitimate excuses left for continued inaction; the tripartite climate/biodiversity/old growth crisis is known to all levels of government in BC. The time for strong and substantive forest protection was yesterday. 

This article was first published in the Vancouver sun.

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