The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: Living within rather than apart from the places that sustain us

This installment is the first of several articles seeking to explore the ways ecosystems  differ between the islands within the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimatic zone. Adam Huggins, Restoration Coordinator with the Galiano Conservancy Association (GCA), explains the ways topography, historic land use, and shifting economies have influenced and continue to shape the ways CDF forests and associated ecosystems function on Galiano Island. 

Can you describe the CDF forests and associated habitats on Galiano Island? How do they differ from neighbouring islands like Pender or Mayne Islands?

Galiano Island is essentially a series of parallel ridges. In contrast to the other Southern Gulf Islands, insofar as I’ve known and experienced them, Galiano is more topographically heterogeneous. It is wet and low in the valleys, high and dry up on the ridge lines, and in-between on the ridge faces there are some of the best remaining patches of mature Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forest because those areas were very hard to log. Topographically speaking, that is the main distinction.

Looking at the Terrestrial Ecosystem Maps (often known as TEM) for Galiano Island, much of it has been mapped as zonal Douglas-fir / Salal, which is that ecosystem defining Douglas-fir forest with salal understory. This makes wetland pockets in the valleys and dry ridge lines with open areas for Garry oak associated ecosystems, both running parallel to those forested areas, so important. These maps look like a series of parallel lines running northwest to southeast.

Old photo taken from an airplane of Galiano island showing farm fields.
Aerial photo of Galiano Island, 1987.

A significant portion of Galiano Island was clear cut in the seventies and eighties by MacMillan Bloedel, which owned over 50% of the island at the time. This is a story many people will be familiar with as there was a contentious court battle with Island trustees and the Galiano Conservancy named as defendants in a SLAP lawsuit. Though Galliano feels very forested due to significant habitat protection efforts in recent decades, a huge portion of the island is covered by fairly simplified, dense Douglas-fir forest as a result of that commercial forest liquidation in the seventies and eighties. 

The Galiano Conservancy Association (GCA) did a lot of work in the early 2000’s at the Pebble Beach Reserve to demonstrate that it is possible to transform the simplified plantations MacMillan Bloedel left behind  into something more closely resembling a functioning ecosystem by restoring ecological and structural complexity. This was done in a number of ways. For example: pulling down trees using a pulley system to simulate natural windthrow; girdling and topping trees to simulate wind effects and other disturbance types, thus creating wildlife habitat and enhancing other ecological values; and moving coarse woody debris around using slack lines to enhance soil quality and create habitat. 

Pulley attached to a tree with workers in the background.
The pulley system, also known as the “Millard technique”. Photo by Molly Dubé.
Four people pulling a rope in a forest.
A team effort to pull a tree down using GAC’s signature non-invasive pulley system. Photo by Don Enright.

While these second and third growth forests make up a significant chunk of Galiano’s area, there are a few pockets of mature forest that have been protected, along with some on private land that might not be formally protected, but due to the nature of that private ownership is under de facto protection (i.e. owned by folks practicing a stewardship ethos on their property). The other, non-forested ecosystems have likewise been subjected to significant disturbance. Like so many places across British Columbia, most of the low, wet redcedar, cottonwood, and alder swamps across Galiano have been cleared and drained for agriculture. While some of this land is still occasionally used for farming, much is just the clearings around houses. So, many people are living in, on, or around what used to be the wetlands of Galiano Island. This is also the case for what used to be Garry oak and associated ecosystems that occur along shorelines and ridge lines. What remains is an island where a lot of the classic CDF forest has been logged in the last 50 years, and the vast majority in the past 100 years. The remaining sensitive wet and dry ecosystems are where the majority of people live.  

This is not to say that it is not possible to restore these ecosystems. I live just above a wetland and beavers recently moved in. Just in the time that I have been living here 一 which is not that long, I have been here full-time for four years and have been visiting for about six 一  the beaver activity has increased dramatically! As a result, there has been increased flooding in areas that did not flood previously. This recolonization of beaver on landscapes that have been heavily impacted by agriculture and forestry is an important part of local ecosystem recovery in the CDF.

Beaver swimming.

Finally, another feature fairly unique to Galiano compared to some other Gulf Islands is the level of land protection it now enjoys. There are five provincial parks, and both the GCA and Galiano Club own and maintain large protected areas. This is complemented by a comprehensive trail system across both public and privately owned properties, so anywhere you go on this island you can hike. As a result there is really excellent access to different parts of the Island. Close to 28% of Galiano Island’s terrestrial area has some form of protection. 

What have been the primary disturbances within Galiano’s forests?  How have the  CDF forests and associated ecosystems changed over time?

As mentioned previously,  much of the housing on Galiano was constructed in cleared, drained wetland areas or what would have been Garry oak associated ecosystems. In some cases people living in such areas are good land stewards. While this is important, it does not change the fact that many of the sensitive ecosystems once characteristic to Galiano Island have been lost to development of various kinds. Luckily, some still remain intact. Mount Sutil, for example, which is protected by GCA, is probably one of the largest intact Garry oak ecosystems in the whole region. 

Another impact that is obviously very important to mention in the context of the CDF is fire suppression. Any old growth Douglas-fir that I have seen on this island, anywhere, has fire scars. Yet, there has not been a fire here of any scale for an incredibly long time, with the exception of one in 2006 in the Heritage Forest. Hairy manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana), which is restricted to dry, sunny areas, typically along rocky slopes and outcrops, provides a good species-specific example of the impacts of fire loss. Anecdotally, hairy manzanita on Galiano are senescing without propagating sufficiently to maintain local populations. Though yellow-listed in BC, meaning its population is considered secure, hairy manzanita is federally recognized as sensitive and its common association with arbutus (the Arbutus menziesii / Arctostaphylos columbiana ecological community) is red-listed or endangered. It is hypothesized that low-intensity fire once played an essential role in seed germination for hairy manzanita. As such, widespread fire suppression since settlement throughout its native range has reduced its ability to self-propagate.

Senescing is an ecological term describing deterioration due to age.

Hairy Manzanita tree with red bark and green leaves
Hairy manzanita. Photo by Adam Huggins.

It will likely be unsurprising to anyone familiar with the CDF to read that intense herbivory by native black-tail deer, which are considered to be hyperabundant, is another threat to ecological integrity. While the impact of herbivory on Galiano is not as profound as it has been on neighboring islands, such as Mayne, which is experiencing the added pressure of the introduced fallow deer population, the effects on Galiano’s understory are still obvious. Though there have been signs in the last year that the pressure might be alleviating around the Millard Learning Centre 一 perhaps due to localized hunting activities or an island-wide effect of the Adenovirus 一 there is still a very high level of herbivory. This means that if an area has been cleared, it will regenerate very slowly or not at all because the deer are fully capable of grazing out almost all new growth. Eventually, the firs and cedars will probably grow out of the reach of deer, but other species, like red alder, might not. Alder are such an important pioneer or early successional species which help to raise the later successional species like those firs and cedars. Removing alder interrupts the regeneration process and can almost grind it to a halt in some places. 

Further, deer have an effect on the wildflower ecosystems associated with Garry oaks. As a result, in many places you can only really see native wildflowers at their full-size on cliff faces where they are inaccessible to deer. Spring gold, which due to herbivory on Galiano produces tiny golden tufts on the ground that look a bit like moss, can grow to half a meter tall on cliff sides. They provide a perfect example of the dwarfing effect of the deer on wildflowers. Of course, the deer have impacts on many other plants, many of which we assume were once quite common, but are now rare. 

Yellow flowers in a field.
Spring gold. Taken by Kristen Miskelly of Satinflower Nurseries.

The introduction of many very aggressive species is another notable disturbance in CDF forests and associated habitats. Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) will come to mind for many people in the region, along with other aggressive shrubs like Daphne (Daphne laureola) and Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). Perhaps less well known is the invasion of a suite of introduced grasses (e.g. Kentucky bluegrass (Poa  pratensis)), some of which were intentionally brought here for pasture or hay, and others have unintentionally been spread by people and animals over time. These grasses can be highly aggressive and will move into any open ecosystem. That means anywhere that has historically been a Garry oak associated ecosystem is now likely to have a groundcover dominated by invasive grasses. This has a negative impact on the native wildflowers that are so characteristic of this region.

Between fire suppression, the hyperabundant deer population, and invasions of non-native plants, there are only a few places remaining in this region where the full display of spring wildflowers can be seen. Consequently, many people are unfamiliar with the once abundant flower species native to this place. In 2005, communities from around the Gulf Islands participated in a mapping project which culminated in the publication of Islands in the Salish Sea: A Community Atlas, a collection of illustrations, natural history information, and local maps. If you look at the Galiano Island section, almost every flower species illustrated on the border of the community map is an introduced species – including daffodil, foxglove, and bluebell. People now associate those species with this island and this region. People have to be in the right place at the right time to even be aware of the diversity that was once prolific across Galiano Island, and at a larger scale, throughout the CDF region.

This is unfortunate, because native flowers provide so much value beyond just producing lovely blooms in the spring, compared to introduced counterparts. Take common camas (Camassia quamash) versus bluebells for example. While bluebells are pretty and may be a food source to generalist pollinators in the region, camas are a cultural keystone species that have coevolved alongside a diversity of fellow plants, animals, and Coast Salish people over millennia. These millenia-long relationships between species are essential to maintaining ecological integrity at the landscape scale. At the individual species level, camas are an essential pollen and nectar source for native pollinators including the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. 

All of this is to say there is much work to be done. Thankfully, many of these native species are very amenable to gardening. It should be no surprise that plants thrive in their native habitats! People can create lovely and low maintenance native plant gardens fairly easily. I recently visited Playfair Park in Saanich and saw the work that has been done there by just a few dedicated volunteers over many years, and it is incredible what can be achieved if just a little bit of time is invested in it. 

Why is ecosystem connectivity important?

Within the CDF region, Victoria harbors a palpable sense of loss. Where there was once an incredibly biodiverse, food-producing, ecologically, culturally, and regionally unique complex of ecosystems over a huge area, there is now essentially a suburban development spotted by a few oak trees and remnant meadow patches. I feel that loss very strongly and I am not even from here, but I can see it. Even at Playfair Park, looking around at the yards of all the surrounding properties, not a single neighbour has  taken the cue. No one has removed their lawn to replicate the efforts at the park to allow camas and other native species to return. That whole area could be like the park, fostering the return of provincially red-listed species. It is a little discouraging. Maybe people can learn to appreciate these things but how do we connect them to the fact that they are living on top of these ecosystems? How do we make them feel a sense of responsibility to restore what has been lost, let alone to the Indigenous people on whose land they sit? It is something we need to work at.

This loss feels a little less extreme on Galiano. Though most of the island has been disturbed by European colonization in significant ways, it has not been suburbanized. There is still a lot of intact habitat remaining and there is still connectivity. It feels like less of a stretch to say to people: look at what is right next to you, how about bringing back some of the species and ecosystems that have been significantly displaced? 

Cleared land right next to an intact forest illustration destruction.
Clear cut logging results in significant habitat fragmentation and myriad additional ecological disturbances. Maintaining connectivity is essential to climate resilience, biodiversity preservation, and increasing efficacy of restoration projects. Photo by Alex Harris.

As a practitioner of ecological restoration, it is incredibly helpful to have connectivity, because without it, there are limited sources for bringing back native plant biodiversity. If there is a restoration site right next to an intact forest, suddenly there is seed raining down that can eventually be used to get a degraded ecosystem on trajectory toward recovery. Further, these intact ecosystems provide habitat to animal species, that in turn aid in that recovery. Woodpeckers, for example, might move between intact forest patches and restoration sites depositing seeds and excavating cavities for other birds and critters to use for nesting and habitat. Eventually, other animals like beavers might eventually make their way into restoration sites, furthering their recovery.

Forest with a wetland.
A wetland restored by GCA staff at the Millard Learning Centre on Galiano Island. Photo by Eric Hagen. 

There is decent connectivity on Galiano thanks to far-sighted efforts, especially by staff of the GCA, to protect and restore areas that are contiguous with one another. Of course, it could be argued that there is relatively poor connectivity between mature forest patches, which are separated by seas of MacMillian Bloedel plantation forests which are only now reaching 50, 60, or 70 years old, and even just 30 to 40 years old in some cases. Further, most of the remaining mature forest on Galiano was high-graded, so there is very little old growth among those patches, just less disturbed mature forest.

Plantation of Coastal Douglas-fir trees and no undergrowth.
Plantation forests on Galiano Island. Photo by Adam Huggins.

High-grading is a selective type of timber harvest that targets the highest grade (i.e. the most marketable) timber. It is a contentious form of selective harvest that typically removes all mature keystone species from forest stands leaving little chance for natural regeneration. 

The only way to get better connectivity between mature forest patches is to allow the areas in between to grow back and maybe do some restorative work to improve structure and function on a time scale that is a little faster than would happen on its own. The Mid Galiano Island Protected Areas Network at the GCA is a great example of people recognizing the need for ecosystem connectivity and building that into a conservation strategy. 

Can you describe the work the Galiano Conservancy Association does to strengthen protection of CDF forests and associated habitats?

The GCA was established in 1989. It was one of the first community-based land trusts in British Columbia. It has a long and fascinating history that I am still learning about by reading old editions of our various newspapers and newsletters. The DNA of the organization is very strong and fairly unique. It grew out of a group called Clearcut Alternatives in the late eighties that aimed to protect Galiano’s forests from being violently liquidated by MacMillian Bloedel. 

Clearcut Alternatives was not only trying to protect the forest in the strict fortress conservation sense. Though they were trying to preserve a forest land-base for the benefit of local ecosystems, they were also doing it for the benefit of the community, to protect forest-based livelihoods that historically sustained island residents. While they were successful in their efforts to protect large tracts of forest and make it much harder for that sort of logging to happen on the island again, they did not achieve their latter goal. Yet, that desire to establish sustainable ecosystem-based economies on the island remains in what is now the Galiano Conservancy’s organizational purview. 

In addition to the traditional work of a land trust (i.e. land acquisition and protection), GCA’s activities include well-developed, decades-long education programs; restoration efforts dating back to the nineties; and a sustainable agricultural program which includes a food forest, native plant nursery, and tea company. The organization has been quite successful in growing to be a significant presence in the Southern Gulf Islands by virtue of embracing a holistic vision of what conservation means. It doesn’t just mean protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. It also means finding ways to:

  1. live sustainably by establishing local, non-extractive, non-exploitative economies built on natural ecosystems; and
  2. meaningfully reconcile with the many Indigenous people that live here.

Finally, there is no place quite like the Millard Learning Centre in the region. The property preserves an undeveloped 2 km coastline of mature CDF forest ecosystems. Nearby are active restoration sites, and educational demonstration sites for water conservation, renewable energy generation, and local food production. It is rare to see all of these things in one place and it defines the GCA quite well. 

Large tree in a field with a group of people sitting at the base.
Nuts’a’maat Forage Forest at the Millard Learning Centre. Photo by Emily Francis.

Can you tell us more about the Galiano Conservancy’s One Island, One Earth project?

The One Island, One Earth project uses an ecological footprint framework to determine the impact of the average lifestyle on Galiano Island. What we found is that if everybody in the world lived at the same material standard as the Galiano community, we would require the equivalent of 4.3 Earths to sustain the human population. That is slightly less than the Canadian average, but much more than the global average. To some people that will not be surprising: we live in North America, a very resource and specifically carbon-intensive culture. But, I think for many people who have been on the Gulf Islands and who might have observed how hard people try to live sustainably in this region, this might come as a shock.

Small house with wooden siding tucked into the forest.
An example of low-impact housing in the CDF forest of the Gulf Islands. Photo by Alex Harris.

Specifically relating to the CDF forest, this project included a biocapacity assessment. We found that Galiano Islands’ ecosystems, and CDF ecosystems of this whole region, are 36% more productive than the average terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. What this means is that a given hectare on Galiano Island is 36% more productive than the global average for terrestrial ecosystems. That is huge! This coastal, temperate rainforest  is not only the smallest biogeoclimatic zone in BC, the most imperiled, and the most biodiverse, but it is also one of the most productive! That productivity is sucking up carbon and producing other valuable services and resources. 

“Biocapacity is measured by calculating the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the resources a population consumes and to absorb its wastes, given current technology and management practices.”

Global Footprint Network

We also interviewed many old-timers for something we called the Ecological Fingerprint, which is a qualitative study to complement and contextualize the results of the quantitative ecological footprint analysis. Something we learned is that it is important for us to learn how to sustainably live off CDF ecosystems again to a certain extent, not just protect them and lock them away 一though that is necessary in some cases for the sake of biodiversity. 

Many interviewees talked about how much of their livelihoods had once been based on the forest and fisheries. Both of those economies are gone now. Fish stocks have been widely depleted and regulatory frameworks have pushed a lot of people, especially Indigenous people, out. The forestry industry is also gone, partly as a result of what MacMillan Bloedel  did decades ago.

What I am interested in is what I think the GCA has always been interested in, answering the question: how do we live, work, and play here while also reconciling and healing the damage that has been done –  AND, how do we do it quickly enough to contribute to global efforts against climate change and biodiversity loss?

Are there changes needed to secure a more stable future for CDF habitats?

Going back to my visit to Playfair Park: there were thirty practitioners from all over the CDF zone gathered together to learn about invasive species removal and other restoration techniques and everyone is experiencing the same challenge: how do we get enough volunteer effort to maintain restored ecosystems? There just does not seem to be enough capacity. 

Yet, there is an enormous amount of people here relative to what was here historically and a tiny amount of remaining natural area. How is it that we as a  society cannot muster the resources and capacity to maintain these areas? My answer is partly that the aesthetic and biodiversity values of these places are just not enough to motivate enough people within our current society to action. Instead, maybe the answer is that we need to connect these places back to people’s interests in maintaining a sustainable and dependable livelihood.  

Field of purple and pink flowers with grass.
Camas meadow. Photo by Alex Harris.

The Coast Salish People, including lək̓ʷəŋən speaking people, W̱SÁNEĆ people, the Hul’q’umi’num’ speaking people, did not cultivate and create beautiful and open ecosystems for biodiversity or protection necessarily, but to have a reliable, sustainable food source. They created them for cultural purposes, for food, hunting, and enjoyment, for all sorts of practical purposes. People were not out there weeding, burning, and maintaining these places just because they thought it was the right thing to do, but also because it was an integral part of their culture and economies. There is no reason that we should not be doing that same thing now. We should be trying to find ways to live within these ecosystems that does not harm them, but, in fact, enhances biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services, while also supporting local economies and cultures. I think we are going to fail until we do that. 

The Coast Salish people are the absolute experts on living in,  and intertwining their cultures and economies with, this amazing place. I would love for us all to follow their lead. I think that is the way we are going to do it, if we do it. 

About Adam Huggins

Adam Huggins is the Restoration Coordinator at Galiano Conservancy Association; the founder, producer, and co-host of the podcast, Future Ecologies; and an instructor in the Restoration of Natural Systems program at the University of Victoria.

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