The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: An ecosystem on the edge

There is a pervasive pattern of old growth loss across British Columbia due to a century of targeted harvesting of the province’s biggest and oldest forests. Nowhere has this loss been so devastating as in the Coastal Douglas-fir zone.

This interview with Dr. Rachel Holt, co-author of the stark report: Old growth: Last stand for biodiversity, contributes to the story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests through the lens of old growth protection. Dr. Holt also presents policy options to safeguard the forests that remain.

What are the forest values of the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) zone forests compared to forests in other parts of the province and Pacific Northwest?

The CDF includes the east side of Vancouver Island and is distributed across the Gulf Islands, and on the fringe of the southern mainland coast. Situated adjacent to similar ecosystems, such as dry portions of the Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH) and slightly drier ecosystems to the south, this whole low elevation region is in very poor condition from a forest and ecosystem health perspective. Once settlers arrived on the West Coast, the Fraser River estuary, and southern Vancouver Island–easily accessible coastal ecosystems–were targeted for harvest and that legacy of logging and ecosystem conversion has continued into the present.

Over 90% of CDF forests have been logged to third rotation (meaning the third time logged since old growth was discovered by industrial saws). As a result, most of the forests standing in this region today are second growth ranging from 20 to 140 years old. Though these forests can be beautiful and are ecologically valuable in their own right, they are not old growth. They have not developed under natural conditions, and so don’t have the diversity of niches, species, multiple aged trees or undisturbed forest floors that support the biodiversity and ecosystem services associated with a true old growth forest. 

Time is the key that makes old forests different – a slow accumulation of species and carbon, both in the dead and alive trees, and in the soils, makes old forests different and richer than their younger counterparts. Individual old and ancient trees have very high values – recent research shows how these ‘Mother Trees’ support the regenerating forest around them1,2. But individual trees are not ecosystems and the lack of unmodified watersheds or even stands of trees in this region is a signal for concern. The scarcity of old growth forest ecosystems in the CDF heightens the value of the maturing second and third growth stands critical to support recovery efforts. Unfortunately, there is no restoration strategy in BC to set aside these maturing forests and try to recover biodiversity and other values into the future.

Current old growth by forest productivity map showing how much old growth has been lost.
Map 1: Current old growth by forest productivity (SI, site index: potential height of a tree in metres at 50 years old). Old growth greater than each SI cutoff is dark green; yellow shows all other forest (younger or lower SI); white is non-forested (taken from Price, Holt, & Daust. 2021)3.

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

To understand how old growth CDF ecosystems have changed over time, it is important to understand the current patterns of old growth across British Columbia’s landscape. In our investigation into the state of old growth in BC, Karen Price, Dave Daust and I looked at forests of different productivity classes across the biogeoclimatic (a broad forest classification) variants of BC. The resulting report, Old growth: Last stand for biodiversity4–which has also been published as a peer-reviewed academic journal article3–highlighted that although across the province there is a relatively large amount of total old growth remaining, most (around 80%) is in small treed ecosystems. In other words, we found that in most biogeoclimatic zones there is a large amount of small tree forests remaining, but the big tree forests are gone. 

Around 50 million hectares (ha) of the BC’s 95 million ha area is forested with about 11 million ha classified as old growth3. However, a relatively small amount of the province’s total landbase has ever had the capacity to support the growth of large trees; historically, about 10%  supported the growth of large (20-25 m tall within 50 years) to very large trees (more than 25 m tall within 50 years). Due to targeted industrial harvesting of the biggest and most productive old growth forests since European arrival on this landscape, a very small amount, 415,000 ha, remains today3. In other words, though about 25% of BC’s remaining forests are old growth, less than 1% support high-productivity old growth. Analysis using different definitions, and metrics, shows the same patterns, if comparable analyses are used5

This matters ecologically because big tree, old growth forests have very different functions than the small tree forests. They are not inherently better, but they are inherently different. Put simply, old growth forests are self-regulating, having been shaped over decades of natural disturbance regimes and local environmental conditions. This results in ecosystems that replace themselves over time, providing a “dynamically stable environment for centuries” (p. 17)4. Wet coastal forests, for example, can grow to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old.  These old, big tree forests store significantly more carbon and provide valuable climate change mitigation services, compared to younger and smaller tree forests. They also support different biodiversity and different species, niches, and structures.  

What is left in the CDF is individual trees-we are down to individual members of an original population. This puts the CDF at the very top of the list in the province for being at high risk. 

– Dr. Rachel Holt

Photo by TJ Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance

The Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) ecosystem is on the very far end of the highest risk ecosystems in BC. Not only are there no big forested ecosystems left, there is practically no old growth at all remaining in CDF ecosystems, certainly less than 1% from valley floor to hilltop. This has been exacerbated by a high proportion of private land that has been completely converted to non-forested use.  What is left in the CDF is individual trees-we are down to individual members of an original population. This puts the CDF at the very top of the list in the province for being at high risk. 

Ecosystem conversion gets ignored in how we manage forested ecosystems. Once an ecosystem is converted to land for other uses, it is lost, stripped of its ecological functionality, and is thus unable to provide any of the services it once did, such as stormwater management, carbon storage, and habitat provision. The CDF has the unfortunate honour of being the most converted zone in the province with nearly double the conversion of the next most converted zone. Driving this landscape change is a very high human population. As people move in and neighbourhoods grow out, land conversion increases. These landscape-level changes are generally accompanied by myriad micro-disturbances that on a cumulative scale cause lasting harm to already stressed ecosystems, such as invasive species introductions; widespread removal of individual trees to maintain sightlines; mountain biking off marked trails; littering; replacing diverse landscape with lawn; and the list goes on. 

Plantation of trees with a big stump in the middle.

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

BC needs an effective cumulative effects framework. The Auditor General has pointed this out; the Blueberry River First Nation’s treaty rights court case pointed this out; the Forest Practices Board has written multiple reports that point this out. In this province, none of the information discussed in this article is incorporated into the design of ecosystem management systems or forestry practices. It is all ignored. If an effective cumulative effects framework were in place, no older trees would be harvested anywhere in the CDF zone, and there would be a robust recovery plan to maintain today’s mature forests so they can become functional old growth as quickly as possible.

Holding a tape around a large Douglas-fir tree.
Photo by Alex Harris.

The forest management policies that do exist, fall short. For example, there is a policy in BC that says old growth management areas should be established. However, the targets for retention are extremely low, poorly implemented in most of the province, and do not require retention of the most important old forest. In fact, the existing policies push retention into the lowest value forests – those not wanted for harvest. As pointed out above, these small statured forests tend not to support the biodiversity values and carbon storage of the larger forests – but primarily these smaller forests are of lower value because they are not at risk. In addition to the failure of crown land policies, ecosystems with a high proportion of private land such as the CDF, are further disadvantaged because this policy, and other environmental protection policies like it, do not apply at all. 

Yet, strong protection is needed for remaining mature and old growth forest, and in some cases even for individual trees. I have seen instances where foresters, even ecologists, and forest companies have argued that a massive, old or ancient tree does not quite meet some kind of old growth requirement and therefore it is allowed to be harvested. If effective management systems were in place, this sort of decision-making could not possibly happen in high risk ecosystems where the burden of proof should be precautionary. The idea that 1,000-year-old, 400-year-old, or frankly 200-year-old trees are still being cut and harvested in an ecosystem like the CDF or the adjacent drier CWH zones, that have been pushed to the edge is not science-based and certainly doesn’t meet stewardship requirements outlined by the various professional organisations. Private land regulations are basically non-existent, and that is clearly also a problem. This is controversial, but even under the Private Managed Forest Land regulations there are basically no limitations. In high risk ecosystems, best practices must be applied under all circumstances.

Human walking up a rich, diverse river valley.
Photo by Alex Harris.

There are those in industry, and those who work for their powerful lobby, who say none of these concerns are real. Luckily, in BC, we finally have an independent review that tells us otherwise. The recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review recognize that forests have been managed solely for timber supply for decades and that this approach has systematically failed. That report says we must change our management approach, and we must start to manage putting ecosystem health first. The old forest deferrals that have received much press in the last 6 months were intended to be a tiny step in the right direction – but there is much more to do to change our collective approach to forest and ecosystem management.  

If we are serious about change, there are obvious steps that must be taken. For a start, laws are needed that 1) protect ecosystem integrity and 2) protect species and ecosystems at risk. There is a very high density of species and ecosystems at risk within the CDF and currently there is no effective protection in place. In the bigger picture, as the very real and rapidly increasing effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, a forest management regime that ignores the carbon stored over centuries in these ecosystems is clearly problematic. Planning for retention and recovery of carbon-rich forests in this highly productive part of the rainforest must be an essential element of effective management in the future. 

Canada is one of the richest nations on the planet. We know what to do and we must stop engaging in denial and move forward to actively change our relationship with nature. Failure to do so is already having profound consequences, and will be deeply lamented by our children. Let’s get on with it.  

About Dr. Rachel Holt

Dr. Rachel Holt is trained in the science of conservation biology and land management. She has worked on every aspect of old forest management in BC over the last three decades. She is owner of Veridian Ecological Consulting, based in Nelson, BC; co-author of the groundbreaking report, Old-growth: Last stand for biodiversity;  and served on BC’s Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel. Holt has recently been Vice Chair of BC’s independent watchdog on forest practices – the BC Forest Practices Board, as well as the board of the Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology

References & Further Reading

  1. Simard, S. (2021). Finding the mother tree: Discovering the wisdom of the forest. Penguin Random House LLC. New York, NY.
  1. Simard, S.W. (2017). The mother tree. K. Verlag and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin Edited by Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin. The Word for World is Still Forest. ISBN 978-3-9818635-0-5.
  1. Price, K., Holt, R.F., & Daust, D. (2021). Conflicting portrayals of remaining old growth: The British Columbia case. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 51(5): 742-752. DOI: 10.1139/cjfr-2020-0453
  1. Price, K., Holt, R.F., & Daust, D. (2020). BC’s old growth forest: A last stand for biodiversity.
  1. Veridian Ecological. (2022). How much big-treed old growth remains in BC?.

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