The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The “right” management

Management practices that consider ecology first are required to maintain ecological and economic viability.

Despite significant losses to biodiversity and connectivity in the Coastal Douglas-fir forests of southern British Columbia, management regimes continue to honor practices that value profits over preservation. According to this interview with registered professional forester, Satnam Manhas, management practices that consider ecology first are required to maintain ecological and economic viability.

What is the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimatic (BEC) zone?

I am sure Andy McKinnon is better suited to answer this question, but it is the area on the eastward side of Vancouver island/mountains and is the driest part of the coastal forest in BC.  It is a unique ecosystem in Canada that is a very small area that goes along the coast north of Seattle on the leeward side of the mountains, also referred to as the gulf coast. It is the  only part with any significant natural fire history, but still long intervals between stand replacing fires. It is also home to Coast Salish peoples.  

Drone image of a Coastal Douglas-fir and a shoreline.

What are some unique features of the CDF zone / what makes the CDF zone so diverse?

Many features of the CDF are threatened or already extinct.  Douglas-fir and Garry oak systems are unique in BC to this area and Canada.  

How do the ecological communities in the CDF compare to those found in other areas (or BEC zones) of BC?

The CDF zone is the most threatened collection of ecosystems in BC  because of forest conversion and the lowest rates of protection (along with the Interior Douglas-fir Zone) in the province.  Natural fire has been suppressed over the last 80 years or so and as a result many of the fire adapted plants and ecosystem functions are also threatened. 

Yellow fungi coming out of a forest floor.

What are the major threats to this zone?

The CDF zone, within the eastern portion of the South Island District (Arrowsmith TSA),  is the smallest BEC zone on Vancouver Island within the Timber Harvest Land Base (THLB) and contains some of the province’s rarest vegetation, which is seriously threatened with a history of conversion to urban, agriculture and second growth forests. Close to 93% of this area is in private lands and only 4% is in protected areas status, while less than 1% is old growth.  You usually need a minimum of 30% of the natural forest in old growth to maintain ecosystem resilience before species start going extinct exponentially. The rest of BC only has 7% in urban, agriculture, and private lands and 93% in Crown/Indigenous lands. 

Hooded merganser swimming with it's head in the ocean looking for food.

Water loss/reduction in aquifers is a major threat with so much forest conversion and short forest rotations for logging. Forest fire threats will increase with climate change because of this water pressure and other stressors.  In addition, many non-native species/invasive plants like Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry have invaded areas or created competition for traditional habitat/plants.  You can also say that Indigneous communities have had no way–except maybe fishing, and that is also threatened–to practice their cultural activities in this ecosystem, which are supposed to be protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act. 

What are your management recommendations for foresters, ecologists, and others working in the ecosystems found within this zone?

In 2018, Ecotrust Canada contributed to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Controlled Wood Risk Assessment in regards to the FSC Mix Label (the use of which is a demonstration of commitment to sustainable forest management). The Ecotrust Canada FSC Chain of Custody Group did not allow any sourcing of timber from the CDF zone because of high conversion risk and low level of old growth protection, with the exception of red alder trees, which are a pioneering tree and grow easily and abundantly on disturbed sites.  

As a recommendation for those in the forestry sector, longer forest rotations (i.e. longer periods between harvest) will increase the amount of stored and sequestered carbon, but there is an increased threat of severe wildfire if spacing, thinning and pruning are not considered and incorporated into management planning. Longer rotations will also increase the amount of water retained in watersheds. As an example,  the Victoria watershed levels were greatly reduced when the adjacent forests were cut, but today with these forests grown back up, watershed levels have significantly increased. Ecostrust in Portland sees that forests between 80 and 90 years old have over twice the water retention compared to forests half that age on their managed properties in Washington and Oregon.  To protect ecological function and diversity, water is the most important resource on the islands within the CDF range and longer rotation periods  are a good place to start to increase freshwater retention. 

Another recommendation is for Island Timberlands, the largest private landowner of forests in the CDF; though they are currently Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) certified, this certification does not really have a landscape-level biodiversity consideration. They could have the largest impact by changing forest practices.  For example, FSC certification requires increased protection of all riparian features; landscape-level protection of under-represented ecosystem communities; and Free Prior and Informed Consent agreements with affected First Nation communities. None of these are requirements under SFI standards. 

Another recommendation is to aggregate projects and treatments on privately owned lands that are fragmented–both are conditions that are common in the CDF zone. Bringing projects together can make a big difference! However, this would take a lot of coordination and changes to government tax incentives, especially inheritance tax that could incentivise improvements. 

In sum, forest activity has been a historic threat in the CDF, made worse by conversion/deforestation for urbanization and agricultural expansion. But the right management in what’s left of these forests could improve their current condition. With the “right” management considering water availability, carbon sequestration and storage, and improvement of biological diversity complemented by longer rotations and forest strategies/treatments that promote ecological functionality.  

About Satnam Manhas

Satnam Manhas is a BC-based Registered Professional Forester (RPF) and former Director of Forestry at Ecotrust Canada with over 20 years of experience. He currently works as a forest/community development consultant specializing in ecosystem services, climate change, and designing and implementing forest-based carbon projects.

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