The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: Restoring symbiotic relations with the ‘true community to which we all belong.’

Since the arrival of settlers within the range of the CDF, there has been a pervasive decline in forest organisation, vigour, and resilience. Though there is much to be done in restoring these ecosystems, according to Dr. David Rapport: “The real work is a change in our values away from self-centred materialism, away from the ego-system toward an ecosystem, toward a humans-in-nature perspective”.

In our ninth instalment of The Story of Coastal Douglas-fir interview series, we interviewed David Rapport, one of the originators of the concept and field of ecosystem health, and is Principal of EcoHealth Consulting, an international consulting group that has consulted to numerous national and international agencies including the US EPA, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, and The World Bank among others.

What constitutes a “healthy forest” in the CDF region and along the BC Coast more generally? 

I live within a remnant Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forest on Salt Spring Island. From my front porch, I have access to the diverse ecologies that comprise this unique forest zone. My walks through these forests never fail to delight. Looking skyward toward the tops of towering Douglas-firs – some of which have likely stood their ground for well over a century – I am in awe of their massive stature (and feel much diminished by it). They are giants among other giants like the western red cedar, long a cornerstone of the culture of Indigenous Peoples who have been here for millennia and who discovered the incredible range of practical uses of the lightweight, rot-resistant wood of this amazing tree.  Here and there, I walk past a scattering of arbutus, Canada’s only native evergreen broad-leaved tree, with its surreal splash of colors from bright red to orange to green and pale yellow beneath their peeling bark.  

Underfoot throughout the CDF forest (and most forests) lies a gigantic mycorrhizal network that serves to shunt life-essential water, nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus), carbon, defense compounds, and other substances from plants that have these necessities in abundance to those that are in deficit. The mushrooms that spring up everywhere in the fall are the visual cues that this extensive network is alive and well. In some real sense, fungi are keystone species of most forest ecosystems: without their support of the dominant trees, these forests would not exist.

A forest is of course more than trees. It is a dazzling array of diverse plant and animal life. About one hundred species of plants (trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and mosses) are found in the CDF forest. This includes the ubiquitous salal shrub with its edible berries, Oregon grape, and ocean spray. In addition, there are at least a dozen species of lichens and several species of ferns.  CDF forests once supported large predators, including wolves and cougars. These are long gone from the remnants of CDF forests in the Gulf Islands, however, and the loss of these top predators has given their main prey, black-tailed deer, the run of the islands to the decline of numerous native plant species.  

Salal leaves
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Rounding up the denizens of the CDF forests is an abundance of avian fauna, amphibians, small mammals, and invertebrates. And I would be remiss to not mention the abundance of insects found high in the canopy of old-growth CDF forests. One survey found some four hundred species in the canopy, of which about 100 appear to be limited only to old-growth CDF forests. Of these, surprisingly, about 50 were previously unknown to science.

I have lingered on the diversity of life forms here, because one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the complexity of this ecosystem. Given that complexity, what can be said about its overall state of health today? 

Pacific chorus frog in the moss.
Photo by Alex Harris.

To address that question takes us into another realm altogether. We need to pay close attention to the human component of this ecosystem. For thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples have lived in this region and modified the environment as they provided for their subsistence. They established clam gardens in the near-shore and invented ingenious ways of harvesting salmon, while allowing for sufficient escape to assure future harvests.  When it comes to the forests, they used low-intensity fires to clear the underbrush, rejuvenating forest soils while aiding their hunting practices.

That all changed when European colonists came to dominate the region. Gone were the symbiotic relationships that Indigenous Peoples had established with the forests. Settlers exploited the old growth and cleared much of the forests for farms and settlement. Today, less than 1% of the old-growth CDF forest remains – far too little to support the health of this unique and now highly fragile ecosystem.  

We must face the fact that today, after nearly two centuries of intensive human-generated stresses, the CDF forests are but a shadow of their former self. The fragmented landscape, loss of old growth, and loss of key predators creates major imbalances between predator and prey that have indeed upset the apple cart. Although one can still experience a diversity of life forms in the remnant CDF forests today, there is little doubt that diversity is much diminished, and what is left is struggling – particularly so in the face of the rapidly intensifying consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

In short, a ‘healthy forest’ is a thriving forest – one that bustles with the life forms characteristic of its type, is capable of replenishing itself, is largely comprised of native species, and that maintains balance in the age classes of its dominant tree species. While this is not the case today for CDF forests and for the rainforests of  much of southern Vancouver Island, and while it would take immense work and care to regain what has been lost, it’s not impossible to imagine that large areas might be restored to their former glory – if there was sufficient political will.  

Cedar branch
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Starting points would be to 1) drastically reduce ongoing human-inflicted pressures; 2) work toward regaining symbiotic relationships with these forests  founded on an ethos of care and respect; and 3) restore critical habitat within these ecosystems to make them more resilient to pervasive impacts of human-induced climate change. While these unique and biologically diverse forested ecosystems have become much impaired, and their long-term future is far from assured, there is much that remains that could serve as the nucleus for recovery.   

What are some of the key indicators of the health of these forests? 

I’m glad the word “key” was inserted in this question, for the search for indicators of ecosystem health has become a thriving industry, especially when it comes to indicators of forest health.  There is a plethora of indicators – mostly amounting to an unstructured “laundry list” of aspects of the ecology of forests that a given group has an interest in. Far more useful in my opinion would be to target the three   principal characteristics of healthy ecosystems and develop a small set of practical indicators for each that could, in principle, be readily monitored over time to keep watch on the health of these critical ecosystems. 

The primary characteristic of healthy ecosystems is their capacity to maintain their organization, vigor, and resilience.

Organization can be assessed in terms of both the diversity of species and the number of their interactions among one another and with the abiotic environment. When ecosystems come under stress, invariably the diversity of species is diminished, and so are the linkages among species and to the abiotic environment. In short, the ecosystem becomes simplified. As well, the species composition changes toward a lower prevalence of native species and a higher prevalence of invasive species. In the CDF forests there is a long list of endangered species as well as a sizable list of invasive species. Among the most obvious examples of invasive species in these forests is the proliferation of Scotch broom, which readily colonizes disturbed habitat.

Vigor can be measured in terms of activity, metabolism, or primary productivity. From this perspective, there has been a notable decline in vigor of CDF forests. Co-dominant trees are observed to have become weakened in our increasingly dry environment and to be vulnerable to our ever-increasing weather extremes. Development has inevitably increased the fragmentation of remaining CDF forests, which has resulted in soil nutrients becoming depleted as they leach into the watersheds during extreme precipitation events. This deprives the forests of their fertility, and thus can be expected to contribute to overall declines in productivity. The discontinuation of the practices of Indigenous Peoples in the region, such as the controlled burns to rejuvenate the forests, also has undoubtedly contributed to declines in soil fertility, and thus to declines in tree metabolism.   

Resilience is the capacity of   ecosystems to maintain their structure and functions in the presence of stress. When resilience is exceeded, the ecosystem can suddenly “flip” to an alternative state. We can glimpse examples of this in the lack of regeneration after clear-cuts on steep slopes of the mountains on Salt Spring Island.  Viewing the clear-cuts from the sea, there appears to have been little or very limited regeneration other than ground cover, in more than two decades since Mt. Maxwell and portions of Mt. Tuam were heavily logged.

Here it is important to recognize that, from a forestry perspective, indicators of “forest health” have a very different meaning. In forestry, the focus is not really on the health of the forest ecosystem per se, but rather on the health of the forest industry.  That goal directs attention to indicators of maximum sustainable yield of merchantable timber – and that is, in many respects, the antithesis of ecosystem health. From a forestry perspective, a healthy ecosystem is one that yields sustainable harvests. From that point of view, trees are “timber”, not an integral part of sustaining life – including human lives as a part of the ecosystems in which we live. 

The forester would deem a forest “healthy” if it provides a sustainable supply of high-value species that can be harvested with ease – essentially, if the forest is a plantation.  Further, to a forester old-growth is any growth beyond the age of maximum annual growth, which for most species is in the 60-80year range. Right up until a few decades ago, ecosystems that harbored trees for which annual  growth tapered off were seen by foresters as “over-mature” and requiring priority harvesting before “decay” would set in. There was—and, judging from the slash piles left on the mountainsides today in BC,  there remains—a woeful lack of recognition of the unique role that old-growth forests have in fostering biodiversity  and thus forest health. 

Then, too, from a forestry perspective a forest is healthy if it is “disease-free”. That perspective incorporates a lack of appreciation for the role of disease in rejuvenating forested ecosystems. Similarly, forest management right up to the present regards fire as an “enemy” of the forest, and thus strives to put out forest fires without recognizing the benefits of low-intensity fires for the health of the forests, as was the practice of Indigenous Peoples for millennia.  

Some of these misconceptions have become belatedly recognized, while others persist. 

What are some of the dominant anthropogenic stresses on our forests?

The three dominant stresses on the CDF forests are commercial logging, economic development, and global warming.  By far, commercial logging has had the greatest impact up to now, compounded by development, which often follows at the heels of terminal exploitation of forests.  However, looking ahead, the enormous change that is being brought about by human-induced global warming is likely to become the dominant driver of deteriorating health of the CDF forests as well as the other forest zones of coastal BC.   

Clear cut on a hill surrounded by intact forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

How have CDF forests and associated ecological communities changed over time? What have been the agents of those changes?

 In large measure this question has already been addressed: the large changes in CDF forests are the wholesale loss of their extent, their ongoing fragmentation, the enormous decline in old-growth Douglas-fir (owing largely to the targeting of this age class for commercial harvest), the increased number of species that have become endangered, and the increasing presence of invasive species. As we look to the future, the overriding looming threat is human-induced climate change – which puts the future of this special ecosystem, and in fact of all the ecosystems of Canada and the world, in grave jeopardy.  One cannot overstate the urgency and gravity of this threat.

Looking to other regions, are there policies, regulations, or agreements that might be applied to the CDF to halt its ongoing degradation and aid in its recovery and restoration?

I remain highly skeptical of the viability of policies, regulations, or agreements that might halt the ongoing degradation of CDF forests and aid in their recovery and restoration – for the simple reason that the dominant economic system has yet to recognize the primacy of healthy ecosystems to sustain life on the planet.  

Hummingbird on a branch.
Photo by Oliver Tweedie.

In the current economic system, in which growth in GDP matters more than sustaining the life systems that sustain us, there is little hope for change. Further, the continuing lack of progress in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change is most discouraging. Our addiction to materialism and our enduring neglect of economic inequities and social injustices weigh heavily against any expectation of a magical turnaround.  

All that said, we humans have the potential for dramatic changes in attitudes and actions.  If we begin to appreciate that healthy ecosystems are essential for our health and thriving, we might summon the will and resolve to turn the corner on the dismal recent chapter on our history of neglect, and restore symbiotic relations with the ‘true community to which we all belong.’ 

Person planting a cottonwood sappling.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What sort of work is needed to ensure that these places are stable and resilient into the future, especially considering the effects of climate change we are already experiencing in British Columbia?

There is not much that we can do so long as the values and attitudes that prevail today remain. What is needed is a drastic restructuring of the economy, so it begins to act within the boundary conditions of our life-sustaining biosphere. Is such an economy possible? Definitely! Is the will for that kind of a shift present now? Likely not. But one can work to generate that will.  The key to a sustainable future lies within us, not “out there”, and certainly not with yet another technological “fix” that more likely than not will boomerang.

The real work is a change in our values away from self-centered materialism, away from the ego-system toward an ecosystem, toward a humans-in-nature perspective. This was precisely the perspective that dominated the Indigenous cultures that prevailed for ten thousand years and lived within ecosystems they maintained in healthy condition. We blew it all in just a couple of centuries. From many of the signs of ecosystem and biospheric collapse already present, it is clear that we have but one thing to do: wake up tomorrow with a new understanding of what is truly important in life – and act on it.

About David Rapport

David J. Rapport, is one of the originators of the concept and field of ecosystem health, and is Principal of EcoHealth Consulting ( Dr. Rapport holds a doctorate in Economics from the University of Michigan and carried out postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto on applications of economic models to ecology. His scientific research focuses on conceptualizing and assessing the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Dr. Rapport has served as Senior Scientist and Science Advisor to Statistics Canada where he co- developed the statistical framework (today known as DPSIR), adopted by multiple international agencies and countries worldwide for integrating human activities and the environment. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, in the fields of economics, ecology, ecosystem health, public health, environmental management, and medicine. He also co-directed and co-authored Canada’s first State of the Environment Report and was co-founder and Inaugural President of the International Society for Ecosystem Health and Founding Editor of its journal, Ecosystem Health. He held the Tri-council Eco-Research Chair in Ecosystem Health at the University of Guelph.

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