The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: Stewarding the small things

An interview with Dr. Briony Penn, naturalist, writer, educator, and broadcaster well known in BC for her tireless devotion to protecting endangered species and sensitive ecosystems in British Columbia.

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

If you look at the Pacific coastline of North America, and the range of Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) from the lower southern groves  in California up to the last stragglers on the central coast in BC, what makes this region so unique is the inland sea full of islands providing so  many opportunities for forests to meet estuaries; freshwater mingling with saltwater. This geomorphological accident—a big piece of Wrangellian terrane crashing  into the mainland 70 million years ago—created a topography that fosters incredible diversity. 

Wrangellia art map.
Art by Briony Penn.
Art map of the Salish Sea
Art by Briony Penn.

The Douglas-fir forest ecosystems of the Salish Sea differ from areas of CDF to the south by this diversity of microgeographies and their microclimates. They evolved within a complex geological framework in a dry, rainshadow basin. Unlike the straight wave-pounded coastline to the  south, our archipelago is within  relatively calm waters resulting in optimal plant growth, but is still enriched  by the nutrients rushing  in from the open ocean and mixing with the freshwater in the estuaries. Eelgrass meadows and kelp forests flourish and create nurseries for herring and salmon populations. The sealife attracts everything from eagles to bears and people who bring the oceanic nutrients, like nitrogens, into the forest. Our forests are in essence fish-fertilized forest gardens—or at least that is the legacy.  

Eel grass meadow art with the creatures that live within eelgrass meadows.
Art by Briony Penn.

Not surprisingly, this region has been a popular place to live for millennia, giving rise to flourishing  First Nations cultures. People have been tending these forests, cultivating and encouraging biodiversity to increase abundance of fish and forest food supplies so this ecocultural food fest is what makes it so unique.

How do the ecological communities in the CDF compare to those found in other areas of BC?

The way that I teach about this ecosystem is that it is a microcosm of BC. From my house, if I climb up the northeast slope of the mountain behind me, I start in a Sitka spruce and skunk cabbage old growth temperate rainforest swamp (most people don’t even know we have spruce here) that looks like Haida Gwaii. I pass through a classic Coastal Douglas-fir forest with sword ferns until I climb 300 metres where I am in a  western hemlock forest that looks like the outer coast. If I walk back down the south facing slope, I can cross a rocky area of moss and lichens that you might associate with northern tundra until I hit bluffs of manzanita and pine like California. Then I descend through  garry oak and arbutus into coastal savannahs that have prickly pear cactus, reminiscent of the Okanagan. Much of our forests at sea level are classic drier Coastal Douglas-fir with Oregon grape and shrubs , some of which remind me of Chilcotin landscapes—a  mosaic of ecosystems within a very short distance. 

Scientific drawings of moss.
Art by Briony Penn.
Scientific art of lichens.
Art by Briony Penn.

It is a unique region too because it is a transition zone. It is the northernmost edge of the range of some southern species, like northern alligator lizards; and the southernmost  edge of the range of some northern species, like reindeer moss,  and they are all able to find a niche because we have the diversity of geographies and climates enabling them to co-exist. On my walk up a mountain, I start with northern red-legged red frogs in the swamp, pass rough-skinned newts in the rotting fir logs, find long-toed salamanders in the western hemlock then encounter alligator lizards sunning themselves on a rocky south facing bluff.

Scientific art of aquatic amphibians.
Art by Briony Penn.

I think that the metaphor of being able to experience the whole province  in one region is something that really distinguishes this part of the CDF. There are pine forests, savannas, pocket deserts, temperate rainforests, and dry and wet Douglas-fir forests with their own array of forest species. If I want to go anywhere exotic, I can find it within an hour of my house.

How have the ecosystems in this region changed over time? 

I do research with historic records like surveyors’ reports from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Surveyors kept accurate data of forest species and their diameters to assess timber values. Remember these were the first agents of a colonizing nation looking to extract resources. The location and diameters of the fir and cedar provide the written evidence of the changes in these records. I can also answer the question anecdotally through stories from my own  family history in the region that stretches back five generations to contact. My ancestors were some of the first legislators in the new colony and it is very apparent from their descriptions and their photos—they were taking photographs in the late 1800s—exactly what has been extracted. I also spend time with elders who recount in detail this incredible loss of abundance. With all three perspectives, the answer to the question: How have these ecosystems have changed over time? is— a loss of abundance by several  magnitudes. There is virtually no old growth left and the forests have become unhealthy and impoverished. 

Just as one example, I remember the herring schools coming into Fulford Harbour and the number of seabirds that would accompany them in the spring before the industrial fishery pushed them to the brink of extinction. And my baseline was nowhere near the abundance described by elders of what it was like prior to contact. Everything follows the herring, they were pivotal to the health of the ocean,  forest, and people. The decline of herring is so obvious that it hits you in the face. There used to be billions of herring swarming into the Salish Sea in spring so what effect has the disappearance  of this species had on our forests?

Scientific art of Pacific herring including a harlequin duck.
Art by Briony Penn.

This question would be like asking: “How has Africa changed with disappearing migrations of wildebeests through the savannah?” The amount of biomass loss has completely altered every aspect of this ecosystem from the health of trees to the number of species gathering during the herring spawn. And I haven’t even mentioned salmon yet; the loss of salmon (all five species of salmon–six including cutthroat trout) is the other big flux. 

For example, cutthroat are not coming up the creeks anymore. They require big freshets in February when there is a lot of rain and snowmelt making creeks big enough to allow these fish to swim up to spawn and get back down again. Because almost all the creeks have been altered or channelized by logging and urban development, their structure and water quantity have changed. Now freshets are often so large they blow out the creeks and inundate them with sediment, so the fish have no chance. Cutthroat fry need  big trees to provide structure around the creeks and shade. In my lifetime, the cutthroats have gone from the creek where my great, great grandparents would record their presence every year. 

Scientific drawing of gulf island streams.
Art by Briony Penn.

The removal of predators has also been a big change. The loss of cougars, wolves, bear, and human hunters–high level predators–has allowed deer populations to get out of balance, leading to overbrowsing of young trees and shrubs.. Any vibrant forest has a vibrant shrub layer. Traditionally cared for by women, shrubs were cultivated for berries, tools, medicine, and other useful elements. Some grew in forest swamps, some in the drier forests. When they stopped being tended, what happened is similar to what happens when people stop tending their vegetable or flower gardens: they disappear. The double whammy of losing the stewards of these forest gardens and the removal of predators who provided a check to the browsing animals (mostly black-tailed deer) has meant loss of shrub layer, and when shrubs are lost, we lose nesting habitat for birds, insects, small mammals, etc.  Shrubs are the most underrated plant group and we don’t talk about them. In Europe,  they talk about saving hedgerows to protect birds and hedgehogs; we need to talk about saving our shrubs.

Scientific art of berries found around the Salish Sea.
Art by Briony Penn.

Another big impact is invasive species. For example, my great, great grandparents brought the plants they loved with them when they emigrated:  broom,  gorse, holly and ivy. They wanted to have plants from their own culture, but these plants have had devastating effects on local ecosystems here. Whether it’s broom and gorse invading Garry oak meadows, or holly and ivy dominating Douglas-fir forest, these introductions have been highly impactful. 

Scientific art of English Ivy.
Art by Briony Penn.

One difference I have noticed between forests here and those more southerly  is the extent of  the loss of forest cover and the degree to which the forests that are left  are choked with invasive species. These places have been settled longer and there are just more people. Conversely, in the Islands Trust Area we have had this rare opportunity for the last 50 years–nearly two generations–of the Islands Trust governance system that limits  development to five acre parcels. It isn’t perfect but in  terms of western jurisdictions,  it is unique where nature has any standing at all. 

What is the state of the old growth within the CDF zone?

When the forest has been simplified by clearcutting and slashburns, essentially it has been set back by at least 200 years, the soil probably much longer. It is only just now that forests razed at contact are starting to recover, yet the harvesting  is gearing up for a second and in many cases a third harvest. Second growth forests that have reached 80, 90, 100 years old are all being harvested again.  We haven’t recovered the structural complexity that used to exist prior to these forests being clearcut. After two industrial cuts, third growth forests have been simplified to “dog hair forests” referring to dense thickets of small trees that stagnate  having lost much of the associated fungi, lichen, and mycorrhizal networks. The latter of which refers to where a diversity of trees and shrubs are mutually supported by a network of underground fungal threads that distribute the nutrients available throughout the forest. 

We are down to counting  the number of old growth trees left on my island.  I’ve  watched them go down, one at a time;  an incremental loss that we will never recover. I remember watching a 1,000 year old tree being cut down 30 years ago, right around the birth of my first born,  and I thought: “This can’t last that human beings feel entitled to cut down a tree that has been standing for 1,000 years and destroy the homes of  the wildlife that has evolved around that tree for all that time.” At the time,  I had just returned  from graduate school in Scotland, where the last of their old growth had long gone. If there had been a 1,000 year old tree in Scotland it would be a national monument! I remember there was one pair of ospreys nesting in Scotland and they were getting over a million visitors per year to see them rear a chick because they are down to the last of everything: the forest is gone, the salmon are gone, the beavers are gone, the wolves are gone. My son is now 30 and we still have no protection for old growth. We still can’t make the association that BC is going in the direction of Scotland. The difference is, it took them thousands of  years to destroy their forests and it has taken us a mere two centuries. 

Art showing a river full of salmon and bears foraging with an old growth forest in the background.
Art by Briony Penn.

We have passed the tipping point, but that is not to say there isn’t the need to keep trying to restore systems; they do recover from  extraordinary disturbance regimes like glaciation, tsunamis and fires. But for restoration to work you need the raw material—refugia (places with species intact that haven’t been damaged) from which landscapes are repopulated and restored. I think of these  islands as refugia for both species and cultural ways of stewardship. 

We still have cultures that remember how rich and abundant these places were within their own lifetimes. Chief Pelkey, who is the hereditary chief of the Territory where I sit right now, has memories of the abundance in his Territory. These cultures have a belief system we should be adopting, because it plans for generations ahead. If you place the same value on future  generations as you do for your own children, then you are thinking ahead. 

As an example, imagine your child asks for a new bike from some big box store , and you say no because that bike is going to cost too much in carbon emissions for your great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren. This probably sounds like an inconceivable thing to do, but that is, in fact, what we have to do. 

This is the sort of worldview we need to convince people to value old growth forests. Instead of looking at an old tree and thinking “I need to build my house there,” we need to value them as priceless—the mother trees.  It is a very difficult thing to do—being inconvenienced or taking a cut in our privilege and lifestyle unless we all do it together.

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

We just need to look at and work with natural  and cultural stewardship practices. For example, take the story of the Large Marble butterfly of this region that was thought to have gone extinct. The Lepidopterists (entomologists specializing in the study of moths and butterflies) had assumed the causes were urbanization or invasive species. But when it was rediscovered on old military lands of San Juan Island feeding on its main food, a rare type of mustard plant that grew in the divots left by the firing range, a new theory emerged. Those divots were similar to those created by the traditional digging of camas. In a very paradoxical way, a military zone replicated a traditional cultural disturbance regime.

Scientific art of Camas flower.
Art by Briony Penn.

The lesson here is that natural and cultural disturbances are our clues to how we need to manage, because species have adapted to this place based on these regimes. One of the things that people have never done in CDF forests is mow everything down. That level of disturbance only happened in ice ages. So why did we think we were going to get away with that practice? 

These are complex systems and disturbance regimes vary for every ecosystem. For example, coastal savannas were maintained over thousands of years with light grassland fires lit in the fall. In these landscapes, Douglas-fir seedlings might have poked up but a light fire each year would have suppressed their growth and favoured root crops like camas. These were cultural landscapes and with the warming and cooling  fluxes of post-glacial climates, people would have adapted to maintain them. Fire was used as a tool. Cultural burning in grasslands is one thing  but it  can’t be conflated with a western practice of  ‘fire smarting’ where forests are “parked out”, i.e., lawns with trees.

What we have evidence of is that fires stop when they meet healthy  forests with native shrub cover that are fire-resistant like salal and Oregon grape which shade the soil. We also know  fires intensify in clearcut forests where slash and soil has dried out. What weakens trees and increases  fire risk is reduced soil moisture. This fact takes us back to the importance of native shrubs and the tending practices that maintain them.  Where there have always been forests, we need to work on the microclimates of the soil. Get rid of mowers and grow native shrubs to keep the soil lush and cool. 

During the heat dome, I walked into my berry shrub patch at the edge of a stand of old growth trees and I wasn’t in a heat dome anymore. I was cool. Nearby, in a clear cut it was unbearable. There is nothing like that experience to make you realize that the most important thing we can do right now is to nurture and steward our forests to create shade from these increasingly freak climate events.   

Scientific art of Douglas Fir trees.
Art by Briony Penn.

This raises the question of social equity. Who are the people doing the stewarding of forests? Who has the  inclination to guard and steward small things like soil moisture, tree frog habitat, and wrens’ nests? Are they rewarded by society for their work?  W̱SÁNEĆ elder, Mavis Underwood, talks about the small mouse. Respect small mammals—that is the teaching. There is so much wisdom in that statement that we need to explore and understand. Small mammals (voles, shrews, deermice)  live in the duff and soil layer where they tunnel, add their nutrients, distribute mycorrhizal spores and hide.  They are really important animals for the forest and yet we know so little about them. Respect the mouse and our elders.

Scientific art of Townsends Vole.
Art by Briony Penn.

If ever there was a visual reminder of why we need to pay attention to old patterns of land stewardship, it is on an  island just off the central  coast called Triquet which has an archaeological record of  15,000 years of continuous occupation. There are meters of black, organic soils, interspersed with cultural materials. That soil and the ancient trees towering above are what we call a carbon sink—a 15,000 year old carbon sink. That is our gold: stored carbon. There is no other way to sequester carbon than plants and no other place to store it long term than in the soil and ground. When we cut trees down, burn the slash  and release the soil to the sun and rain all that carbon returns to the atmosphere. The emissions are huge,  our sink grows smaller and our climate grows warmer. On the island of Triquet, people nurtured this carbon sink and the trees that sequester. To fight climate change and the loss of the natural world, this is the image to keep in our minds. 

Protect the soils, tend the shrub layer, and maintain the umbrella of the forest canopy,  Once you start breaking systems into those manageable units, you can see where our energy needs to be spent. 

About Briony Penn

Dr. Briony Penn, has a Ph.D in Geography from Edinburgh University. She was a sessional lecturer at UVic for 20 years. She has given workshops and lectured widely across British Columbia on natural and cultural history and stewardship. A founding member of The Land Conservancy of BC, Penn has worked with local and provincial environmental and cultural organizations since 1991. Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books as well as a contributor to many anthologies and chapter books. She has been a feature writer and columnist for decades with over five hundred articles on environmental issues and natural history in newspapers, magazines, government publications, on-line news sources and peer-reviewed journals. 

Further reading

Penn, B. (2019). A Year on the Wild Side: A West Coast Naturalists Almanac, Touchwood Editions, 2019.
Penn, B. (2010). For the Love of Nature: Solutions for Biodiversity, Columbia Institute.
Penn, B. (2008). The Kids Book of Canadian Geography, Kids Can Press.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
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