Tree projects across BC are coming together to advance research objectives and protections

BC’s big tree registries met in December 2021 to discuss collective objectives for future big and “significant” tree work within the province. Attendees agreed that increased communication between groups would benefit collective work. The next step is creating a website for registries to use as a platform for communication.

Big trees are an iconic feature of the Pacific Northwest. Though they range in species types and geographical locations, something they have in common is the admiration they elicit in the communities that live around them. These local giants inspire connection to forests, and nature, and encourage people to reflect on their relationships with the land more broadly. 

BC contains roughly 11.1 million hectares of old growth forest, only 3.5 million hectares of which is protected, and 33,262 hectares of which was harvested in 2020 alone (Government of British Columbia, 2022). However, there has been a heightened focus and increased concern regarding BC’s forestry industry, reflected by the Old Growth Strategic Review process and the implementation of the Special Tree Protection Regulation both of which took place in 2020.  This new recognition of value beyond timber aligns with what environmental stewards and conservationists have been advocating for since the War in the Woods. Yet, much work needs to be done to hold policymakers to account and ensure on-the-ground action to safeguard mature and old growth forests into the future. 

In late 2021, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and several partners in the British Columbia big tree community came together to explore opportunities for advancing tree protections. This article provides an overview of those efforts to date and developments to come.

Building the big tree community

An overarching aim of Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Gulf Islands Forest (GIF) Project is to mobilize science and community effort to protect at risk ecological communities throughout the Coastal Douglas-fir region, including the limited old and maturing second growth forests that remain in this largely degraded system. One way this has manifested is through big tree protection work, which has included the creation and maintenance of the Pender Islands Big Tree Registry. This initiative was inspired and largely informed by the BC Big Tree Registry (BCBTR) managed by the University of British Columbia, which helped to develop a partnership between Raincoast and the custodians of the BCBTR. 

Douglas-fir snag through the woods.
Photo by Elis Fowler.

Over the past year, the community of big and special tree projects across the province has increasingly been working together to explore pathways for ensuring that  the province’s largest and most “significant” trees are documented and eventually  protected. These projects are largely mobilized and supported by community efforts, creating opportunities for community members to significantly contribute to actionable conservation by building a comprehensive database of large and other significant trees growing across BC. 

Big tree registry basics

Big tree registries are an aggregation of mostly community-collected records of exceptionally large and other exceptional trees within a designated geographic area. According to most municipal tree bylaws and other regulations and legislation, an exceptional, significant, or special tree can be defined in any number of ways. For example, the District of Saanich in the Capital Regional District of Vancouver Island, has adopted several definitive criteria including:

  • Outstanding specimen; 
  • Rare species; 
  • Historical significance;
  • Significant row or grove; 
  • Landmark; and
  • Wildlife habitat.

The Special Tree Regulation of BC uses diameter at breast height (DBH), collected at 1.3 m above the higher side of the base of a tree, as the single definitive criteria for determining whether a tree will be protected, as shown in Table 1.

Table one: Specified trees as outlined in BC’s Special Tree Protection Regulation, 2020.

Big tree registries, however, generally accept any nomination, adopting the axiom: “if it is big enough to you, it is big enough for the registry”. Several such registeries exist within BC, including the BCBTR, Pender Islands Big Tree Registry, Gabriola Land Trust and Trails Trust Registry, and the Cortes Island Registry, each of which covers different local regions. 

Mossy branch
Photo by Elis Fowler.

Plenty of additional big tree projects exist  beyond BC’s borders. They are generally designed in similar ways, allowing contributions from anyone in the community. Trees may be nominated by supplying basic measurements through the registry’s preferred platform; they are then validated by a representative of the registry before being officially added to the database. Many registries display their trees in maps; however, there are many ethical questions that arise with making the locations of trees publicly accessible.

Big Tree Summit, 2021

In December of 2021, a Big Tree Summit was held for BC’s tree registries and related projects to connect and discuss independent  initiatives and identify mutual goals for the future of big tree work in BC. Such collaboration will allow groups to share methods, data and ideas, as well as advancing aligned conservation goals, such as developing more regionally specific definitions of “special tree” than currently exist. Ultimately, regular communication between monitoring groups via workshops, meetings, and events will help broaden the effects of individual, localized projects.

Two people looking at a measuring tape wrapped around a douglas fir tree.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Going forward, our collaborative group will continue meeting and sharing information to increase connectedness between various projects across the province. The next step is the creation of a webpage hosted by Raincoast, which will serve as a touch-stone for registries to share information with each other and a wider public audience. Most importantly, the website will feature a map displaying the regions monitored by different registries in BC. This map will not display the location of individual trees, rather it will host information about the different registries and projects to increase visibility and community involvement. This way community members will know where they can report information on big and special trees they may encounter. 

The map is being created by Patrick Hayes, creator and manager of the BC Forest Map with assistance from Nick Gottlieb, geospatial web developer and author of Sacred Headwaters, a newsletter about the interconnectedness of social and ecological crises.

How to get involved

The Big Tree Project map will be published in late spring 2022. It will be an excellent resource for community members looking to get involved with local projects. To learn more about how to measure and nominate trees for a BC-based project, check out the collaborative how-to series published in summer 2021 by Raincoast and Nerdy About Nature. 

Woman looking up at a tall tree.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Our intention is to continue  expanding the conversation between tree monitoring groups to share knowledge, strengthen stewardship efforts, and increase public awareness of tree protection projects across the province, and the wider Pacific Northwest region. If you are part of a big, special, or significant tree project, and would like it to be included on the Raincoast map, we would love to hear from you. Contact for more information.

About Emily Grishaber

Emily Grishaber is a MSc student in UBC’s Geography Department and a Raincoast volunteer with the Gulf Islands Forest Project.


District of Saanich. (n.d.).  Significant trees in Saanich.

Forest and Range Practices Act, Special Tree Protection Regulation. (B.C. Reg. 229/2020).

Government of British Columbia. (2022). B.C., First Nations move forward with unprecedented old growth deferrals.

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