Ethics of making the location of big trees accessible to the public

Ultimately, the protection of these big trees is what matters the most.

Pender Islands are located within the rapidly diminishing Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone. These islands, along with many others in the Salish Sea represent a large portion of what is left of this increasingly rare assemblage of ecosystems. Forests found in this zone have been logged multiple times over the past century and contain little old growth, with few remaining big trees.

In September 2020, Raincoast Conservation Foundation hosted an event to take note of and measure big trees across Pender Islands. These became the first big trees nominated to the Pender Islands Big Tree Registry. Over the past year, almost 100 big trees have been registered. By nominating trees for the registry, Pender Islands’ residents are helping to create a living record of the ecological value of these charismatic giants. Moving forward, Raincoast will work to protect these trees and forested areas not only on Pender Islands, but across the islands scattered throughout the Salish Sea. 

What goes into a big tree registry?

Big tree registries are a common way for people to keep track of and measure impressively big trees within an area. Some big tree registries also allow nominations of trees that are notable for reasons other than size. This can include trees with cultural, heritage, or spiritual value or trees of unusual, rare, or threatened species.

When nominating a big tree for a registry, there are multiple data points typically recorded including species identification, trunk diameter at breast height (DBH), height, average crown spread, tree condition notes, and understory composition, among others (to get more details on the information collected for the Pender Islands Big Tree Registry, see Raincoast’s Big tree measurement guidelines). 

Though all of this information is important, one of the most essential data points is location information. Every tree nominated for a registry is verified by a qualified professional, which is only possible if the tree can be found. While a tree’s location is essential information to be shared with the custodian of a big tree registry, whether or not to share precise coordinates of big trees publicly is one of the more controversial aspects of big tree registries.

Should we make the location of big trees open to the public?

Big tree registries around the world have taken different paths when it comes to making the location of their trees open to the public (Laskow 2015). Often, when people live in close proximity to a big tree they develop a sense of ownership and responsibility over it. However, some registries have decided to keep the coordinates of their trees closed to the public. There are many reasons why this is advantageous in protecting big trees and the radius around them. 

Benefits of public access to big tree locations

When the location of big trees is known to tree owners (if on private land) and land managers (if on Crown or other public land) they can be held accountable for their decisions and practices. Unrestricted access to big tree locations allows nature enthusiasts to build connections to trees and forests they may not have otherwise visited. This connection to the megaflora of BC has the potential to  instill a sense of responsibility and ownership over vulnerable areas containing big trees. Ideally, this will enhance the role played by the public in protecting big trees. 

One of the significant, quantifiable benefits of making the location of big trees unrestricted is the economic opportunity for growth in eco-tourism. In recent years, eco-tourism has played a major role in providing communities with greater long-term economic benefits, which is exactly what is happening in Port Renfrew on southern Vancouver Island. Port Renfrew has been named the Tall Tree Capital of Canada and concurrently transformed into an old growth forest tourism destination. Port Renfrew is home to many famous forests including Avatar Grove and the Central Walbran Valley, and iconic trees such as the Red Creek Fir, Big Lonely Doug, the San Juan Spruce, and the Harris Creek Spruce. Across the province, many local economies have calculated a greater net economic benefit  from protecting their nearby old growth forests instead of harvesting them (Morton et al, 2021). In allowing for unrestricted access of big tree locations, tourists are able to connect with and explore the remaining old growth within British Columbia. Locations that were previously reliant on resource extraction have been able to experience significant economic growth in their transition to eco-tourism.

Why many registries keep the location of big trees private

To begin with, some of the more popular big trees can attract a lot of attention. Over time, high volumes of well-intended visitors around the base of a tree leads to soil compaction and damage to roots. This was made evident in 2014 when a famous western redcedar on Gabriola Island displayed signs of tree stress as a result of too many visitors (Petrescu 2014). Soil compaction around the root zone is one of the biggest health threats to trees in locations with heavy traffic (Coder 2000). 

Allowing public access to the coordinates of big trees may bring other forms of attention. Previously unadvised logging companies may gain interest in unprotected areas that contain big trees. This is a direct threat to the big trees and forests we want to protect and should be avoided at all costs.

 In addition to the threat of soil compaction and root degradation, tree poaching has become increasingly evident in forests during times of high lumber prices. For example, the North Cowichan forest reserve has seen an increase in tree poaching this year. In February, at least 50 felled trees were found in the Mount Sicker area, with poachers using techniques to hide their path. There are barriers in place to deter people from tree poaching, such as signage, fines, and a reward system for information to find the person responsible. However, even with these measures in place, big trees are being actively poached. This adds to the argument against making the location of big trees available to the public. 

In another vein, it is not uncommon for very big trees to be in a state of deterioration, partially decaying, and thus more susceptible to wood-rotting diseases. Although they still play a big role in the ecosystem, they may eventually become a safety hazard. If this is the case, they may be removed to allow for safer travel along nearby trails. However, if the tree is growing in a low-visitation area, away from foot traffic and its location is kept private it is unlikely to present a risk to the public. 

Big tree protection is what matters most

Big tree registries help connect communities with the remaining wilderness around them. Unfortunately, there have been devastating implications in some places when a tree’s coordinates are made public. The benefits and implications of unrestricted access to tree location need to be carefully considered prior to making such decisions. Ultimately, the protection of these big trees is what matters the most. 

References

  • Coder, K. 2000. Soil Compaction & Trees: Causes, Symptoms & Effects. University of Georgia School of Forest Resources Extension Publication FOR00-3. 37pp.
  • Laskow, Sarah. “What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Celebrity Tree?” Slate Magazine, 17 Sept. 2015.
  • Morton, C., R. Trenholm, S. Beukema, D. Knowler, R. Boyd. 2021. Economic Valuation of Old Growth Forests on Vancouver Island: Pilot Study; Phase 2 – Port Renfrew Pilot. ESSA Technologies Ltd. for the Ancient Forest Alliance. Vancouver, BC (PDF)
  • Petrescu, S. 2014. For popular Gabriola cedar, fans too much of a good thing. Times Colonist.

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