New research identifies ancient culturally-modified trees, and with them the future of forest management

New research led by the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Stewardship Authority in partnership with the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab at UVic and Raincoast Conservation Foundation can help with forest planning and management.

After practising sustainable forest management for millennia, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation has looked to its ancient cedar trees to help guide the future of its forests stewardship. 

Reporting in the peer-reviewed journal, FACETS, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Stewardship Authority and academic colleagues from the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation reveal how recent surveys identified hundreds of previously undocumented cultural modified trees (CMTs), which comprised key data in creating a spatial model to predict the occurrence of CMT ‘hotspots’ over ~1,200 km2.

CMTs are trees that bear evidence of past use by Indigenous peoples. Commonly, western red cedar trees – now of extraordinary commercial value – were harvested or utilized. Uniquely, and unless canoes or wood for other large structures were sought, Indigenous People would extract material from a live tree without needing to cut it down. 

Instead, only sections of bark or wood plank were removed and used for clothing, building and other technologies, often allowing the tree to heal and be utilized again and again. Although the evidence of many CMTs have healed over after centuries, to the trained eye the forest abounds with CMTs that still show visible signs of these ancient and sustainable forestry practises. 

The practice is also still very much alive today. Vernon Brown, co-author and Kitasoo/Xai’xais lead resource stewardship technician says, “Cedar always has been and always will be an important resource for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais People.”

This work shows how a locally- and Indigenous-led approach to stewardship can help identify and protect the critical links between people and nature that are, and have always been, the bedrock of sustainable resource management  Tweet This!

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais Stewardship Authority sought unique ways to identify which areas of their territory should receive special cultural consideration in decisions about commercial forestry management. Protecting CMTs became a top priority in their Cultural Feature Inventory approach, which differs fundamentally from western approaches that often focus purely on wildlife that vary in their cultural salience. 

As it turns out, recent provincial legislation (the Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Objectives Order) also supports this culturally relevant approach. The challenge of managing for CMTs and other cultural features, however, is knowing exactly where these special trees are located in the densely forested and nearly roadless landscape. 

Surveying for CMTs over 40 days in 2018 became a community-oriented project in not only scientific management but also culture, archaeology, youth engagement and place-based learning. Large teams surveyed over 110 linear kilometers, up and down mountains, and through breathtaking and densely vegetated terrain. 

Combined with existing records from archaeologists, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais’s CMT database allowed the research team to predict where more CMTs are likely to exist outside of surveyed areas. A model incorporated statistical associations between CMT occurrence and landscape features, both in a biophysical context (such as elevation) and in a cultural context (such as accessibility from canoe landing beaches and inland travel corridors).

The top of a rectangular bark strip CMT, the ways in which CMTs age can make them difficult to spot to the untrained eye, Kitasoo/Xai’xais Territory.
The top of a rectangular bark strip CMT, the ways in which CMTs age can make them difficult to spot to the untrained eye, Kitasoo/Xai’xais Territory. Photo by Bryant DeRoy.

Vernon Brown contributed these cultural components to the model, which would have been overlooked by his academic colleagues. He reckoned that CMTs would be more likely to be found along historic harvesting routes accessible by canoe from beaches and freshwater lakes. This ‘variable’ in the model was among the most strongly predictive of CMT occurrence. 

Vernon Brown reflected on the project and his involvement: “A key aspect of Kitasoo/Xai’xais stewardship is creating our own tools, and working in this kind of partnership is key to enabling that and moving things forward in a positive direction. The potential with this kind of mapping is that we can be more inclusive with our own data and be more innovative. There are endless possibilities for innovating how forestry is done. The value of this work has already provided immediate use, all of the first places we went to go ground truth the model have been loaded with CMTs and other undocumented cultural features.”

Although the evidence of many CMTs have healed over after centuries, to the trained eye the forest abounds with CMTs that still show visible signs of these ancient and sustainable forestry practises.  Tweet This!

The model outputs, in the form of heat maps that show hotspots of high CMT likelihood, now help to inform forest planning and management by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais. It’s an important contribution, given the analytical results show that CMT hotpots cover 51% more area inside the land base where commercially viable trees are likely to occur compared with forests outside these areas. 

More broadly, this work shows how a locally- and Indigenous-led approach to stewardship can help identify and protect the critical links between people and nature that are, and have always been, the bedrock of sustainable resource management. 

Bryant DeRoy, lead author who led the analysis as a graduate student at UVic, says “It was an honour to be involved in this project and to get to spend so much time in the field with such an incredible crew. Approaches to stewardship – like the Kitasoo/Xai’xas have developed – involving stewardship practitioners, guardians and youth along with scientists provide critical examples of how resource stewardship can be done in a collaborative way that provides better outcomes for both people and nature.”

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