The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: Places that have been millennia in the making

Dr. Nancy Turner identifies consultation with First Nation communities as the missing piece in land management practices in the CDF region.

Though a unique combination of biophysical factors created the conditions that allow the diversity of Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats to flourish, it was generations of stewardship by Indigenous Peoples that created the “perfect Eden” described by settlers when they landed on Vancouver Island in the 1800s.

In this article, Dr. Nancy Turner identifies consultation with First Nation communities as the missing piece in land management practices in the CDF region.

A group of people standing a listing to Nancy Turner in a field.
Photo by Alex Harris.

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

The Coastal Douglas-fir Biogeoclimatic zone is restricted, in all of Canada, to a small area on southeastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and a strip along the opposite mainland coast, from Powell River southwards. This special zone is generally drier than the rest of the BC coast by virtue of being in the “rainshadow” of the Olympic and Vancouver Island mountain ranges. 

For me, the remarkable diversity of habitats and species within the CDF zone, including many plants that are restricted to this region, to be found nowhere else in Canada, makes this area so special. Some species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world! It is a little “island” of Mediterranean climate within a cooler, wetter climate found in the rest of coastal British Columbia. The Garry Oak woodlands and old growth Douglas-fir forests within this zone are similarly unique, restricted in Canada almost entirely to this part of British Columbia.

Field of purple camas with a path through it
Camassia quamash (common camas). Photo by Nancy Turner.

What can you tell us about the history of the CDF zone? How have the ecosystems in this region changed over time?

This entire area was covered with an immense, massive continental ice sheet during the late Pleistocene. As the ice started melting away, the vegetation repopulating the area was probably similar to that seen in the Yukon and other northern regions today. We still see remnants of that early vegetation in places like Rithet’s Bog near Victoria, and some of the other peat bogs and bog lakes within the zone. There would have been lodgepole pine trees, sphagnum moss, Labrador tea, swamp laurel, and highbush cranberry as well as bog blueberry, and bog cranberry. Some of these species would have remained throughout the Pleistocene glaciation in pockets of unglaciated areas, such as Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The area also would have been populated by species moving north from the unglaciated areas in what are now southern Washington, Oregon and California. We share a number of common species with these southern locales, including Garry oak, arbutus, hazelnut, oceanspray, and camas, chocolate lily, wild caraway, harvest brodiaea, and springbank clover, to name just a few. 

Many of the species of plants and animals living today in the Coastal Douglas-fir zone – including Douglas-fir itself, would have populated this zone from the south. People, too, would have moved into the area at various points following the retreating ice sheets. 

People speaking dialects and languages within the Coast Salish language family have been living in the region since time immemorial, and their knowledge of and stewardship of the plants and animals of the CDF zone has existed for millennia. This includes their use of fire to create and maintain a diversity of successional stages within the overall zone, including having a strong influence in creating and maintaining the characteristic Garry oak savannah, or parklands comprised of Garry oak woodlands interspersed with open camas prairies that were so remarkable for James Douglas and the other colonial newcomers to the area in the early 1800’s. Much has been written about “the perfect Eden” that was what the Victoria area on southern Vancouver Island was termed by the European newcomers.

Map of LEKWUNGEN territory.
Taken from Lutz, 2020, p.115.

What are your recommendations for managers and others working in the ecosystems found within this zone? 

All precious remnants of the original Coastal Douglas-fir BEC zone should be retained, with careful tending and maintenance emulating the practices of First Nations, who managed and enhanced the productivity of these habitats using fire and other practices. There are so many species that have been extirpated from many areas within the zone where they used to be common – Roosevelt elk, northern riceroot, and springbank clover, for example. We need to restore the species that used to be here, and ensure that there are appropriate habitats for them.

Indigenous Peoples of the CDF zone have been the principal caretakers of the different habitats and species for many thousands of years. They have relied on using the woodlands, forests, wetlands, and prairies, for foods, materials, medicines and spiritual practices, and have been perhaps the most greatly impacted by the loss and degradation of CDF ecosystems. It is imperative that they be consulted, and that their interests and knowledge be incorporated and accounted for in any conservation or restoration initiatives.

Purple camas flower up close.
Camassia leichtlinii (great camas). Credit Nancy Turner.

The number one threat to the Old-Growth Douglas-fir forests within the zone is logging, which has also impacted many of the estuaries and other habitats of the area. Within the drier Garry oak subzone, urbanization, with associated roads, highways, shopping malls and infrastructure, has caused the greatest destruction. Throughout, wherever there have been disturbances from logging, agriculture and other industrial level activities, invasive species have taken over large areas. English ivy, English holly, English hawthorn, broom, daphne laurel, and many different grasses, from orchard grass to couch grass, reed canary grass to cheat grass, are some of the main invasive plants. Invasive animals like gray squirrels and rats have also impacted these ecosystems. Trying to reduce the numbers of these species is a huge challenge, but with programs like the “pulling together” program of the CRD some excellent progress is being made. 

Is there anything else you would like to share about these ecological communities?

It is important to understand that forests and woodlands are three-dimensional, not two-dimensional. We should be assessing them by volume, not by area. So, if we think about the difference between an Old Growth Douglas-fir forest, and a plantation stand, the former is not only much more diverse, it is also multitudes bigger/greater in volume than a second or third growth stand. That means way fewer of all of the mosses, lichens, insects, spiders, birds, etc. in plantations than  can be found in the canopies of the old trees. Then, too, if we think about the underground habitat and the networks of roots, fungi and other organisms in the soil, and how the trees and shrubs themselves help to build the soil, this makes these Old Growth Forests and old Garry Oak savannahs and woodlands that much more significant. I’m amazed that some people do not see the critical importance of the CDF zone in terms of our country’s biodiversity!

About Nancy Turner

Dr. Nancy Turner is an ethnobotanist and ethnoecologist. Dr. Turner has lived in British Columbia since she was five years old. Apart from three years living in Vancouver for graduate studies at UBC, she has lived within the Coastal Douglas-fir zone. Dr. Turner has been learning from and collaborating with Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Holders in British Columbia for over 50 years, and has authored many books and articles centered on this region, mostly recently Luschiim’s Plants (Harbour Publishing, 2021) working with Dr. Luschiim Arvid Charlie of the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) Nation.


Luschiim Arvid Charlie and Nancy J. Turner. 2021. Luschiim’s Plants: A Hul’q’umi’num’ (Cowichan) Ethnobotany. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC.

Turner, Nancy J. (2021; orig. version, 1999). “Time to Burn”: Traditional Use of Fire to Enhance Resource Production by Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia.” Pp. 185-218, In: Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, edited by Robert Boyd. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press. [new, updated edition, Originally published 1999]

Kuhnlein, H.V. and N.J. Turner. (2020). Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use. Routledge Revivals, Taylor & Francis, CRC Press. [Originally published 1991]

Turner, N., and D. Mathews. (2020). Serving Nature: Completing the Ecosystem Services Circle. In A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene, edited by H. Bai, D. Chang, and C. Scott, pp. 3-29. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press.

Turner, Nancy J., editor. (2020). Plants, People, and Places: the Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 

Turner, Nancy J. (2014). Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America. (2-volume book; 14 chapters). McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series Number 74 McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, QC

Turner, Nancy J. and Richard Hebda. (2012). Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEC’ People. Royal B.C. Museum, Victoria

Turner, Nancy J. (2010). Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Victoria: Royal BC Museum, (reissued 1997, 2003, 2006, by RBCM and UBC Press; revised from 1975 edition, Food Plants of British Columbia Indians. Part 1. Coastal Peoples.) Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum Handbook, Victoria, BC).

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.