The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: All about Hornby Island

The natural environment is why people come here.

This installment is the third of several articles seeking to explore the ways ecosystems  differ between the islands within the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimatic zone. Grant Scott, chair of the Hornby Island Conservancy and trustee on the Hornby Island Local Trust Committee, describes how historic land management regimes continue to shape the ways forests are managed on the Gulf Islands today and makes recommendations for maintaining stable CDF forests into the future.

Can you describe the unique ecological features of Hornby Island? How is Hornby and its forests different compared to other Gulf Islands?

Hornby Island is one of the most northern Gulf Islands within the Islands Trust jurisdiction. Visiting from Vancouver Island requires two ferry rides, the first departing from Buckley Bay near Courtenay, and the second from Gravelly Bay on the south eastern edge of neighboring Denman Island. If one is traveling from the mainland, three ferries are needed. This lack of access has historically set Hornby apart from some other islands. Places like Salt Spring or Bowen Island lend themselves easily to being bedroom communities because of their proximity to major cities, whereas living on or visiting Hornby requires a lot more intention. In the past, this has meant that Hornby has experienced less development than islands to the south. But this is changing. Twenty five years ago, the Hornby community rejected the idea of evening ferry service to maintain remote island character. Ferry access has become a major issue as more people have discovered the beautiful beaches, vistas, and unique Hornby character. 

Located at the northern end of Georgia Strait, Hornby is located in the rain shadow created by the Beaufort Range to the west on Vancouver Island. While Henderson Lake on the west coast of Vancouver Island gets 300 inches of rain annually, Hornby gets about 40. This has a major impact on the type of forest cover on Hornby compared to nearby Vancouver Island. In addition, the effect of the rainshadow on each Gulf Island differs, depending on a variety of factors including geology and topography.

Two people walk along a cliff on Hornby Island in the Georgia Strait.
Photo by Arleta Tyzo.

The many cliffs, bluffs, and bays around Hornby are attributed to past glacial activity and erosion processes. The steeper topographies characteristic of the southeast of the island around Mount Geoffrey Regional Park are juxtaposed by shallow sandy beaches and gentle slopes in other areas of the island like Grassy Point to the northeast. These changes in altitude result in many distinct microclimates, with higher elevations often receiving winter snow and southerly lowlands receiving more spring sun. Due to the fractured rock foundations and limited standing water on Hornby, freshwater availability is a concern for most islanders.

More than one third of Hornby Island has been protected as provincial or regional parkland, including the 2,872 hectares of Helliwell Provincial Park.1 The bluffs of Helliwell host some of the most notable Garry oak ecosystems on Hornby. While the Coastal Douglas-fir zone (CDF) is the smallest and rarest forest ecosystem in Canada, Garry oak meadows and associated ecosystems are the rarest of the rare. The extent of Garry oak meadows has been at least halved in the last 80 years. Prior to settlement on Hornby, the extent was likely to have been three or four times larger than what can be found on the island today. Douglas-fir can be particularly intrusive, aggressively moving into Garry oak meadows in the absence of cultural burns to keep them at bay. First Nations people burned the grasslands under the oaks to encourage growth of camas roots which are an important food source.

Map of protected areas on Hornby Island.
Protected areas on Hornby Island. Borrowed from Islands Trust Conservancy, Regional Conservation Plan, January 2018. Available at

The marine environment surrounding Hornby and Denman also sets these islands apart. Unique rock formations and deep channels provide good habitat for a range of marine species. Some of the most consistent herring spawning on the British Columbia coast occurs in the waters around Hornby and Denman each year.2 Though British Columbia’s biogeoclimatic (BEC) classification system incorporates influences of geography and climate, both of which can be tied to marine processes, it is a terrestrially-focused system. Yet, the CDF zone is deeply connected to the coastal and marine ecosystems that surround it. These places do not exist in separate silos from one another. 

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

Our single greatest concern for Hornby is climate change. It is already affecting the water tables and the condition of Hornby’s forests. For example, though Douglas-firs are stressed, they seem to be displaying more resilience to climate change than other species, such as western redcedar and grand fir, which  have been incredibly stressed by recent prolonged summer droughts. One indication of this stress is seed overproduction. Western redcedars are just dripping with cones; this is something they do when they are desperate to keep themselves in the gene pool. Many redcedar are dying; Douglas-fir, not so much.

Cedar bough close up with a dark background.
Photo by Rebecca Benjamin-Carey.

Though this year brought a cool, wet spring, this may just be an anomalous blip in the hot, dry summers that are now typical for this region. Though each Gulf Island has unique features and land use histories this climate change experience is not unique to Hornby. All Gulf Islands are experiencing similar climate stress. Further, all Gulf Island forests are recovering from land-use patterns over the past century. These days, there is less intensive agriculture and industrial logging, more people and dwellings.

Settlers began clearing land for agriculture and industrial-scale logging in the late 1800s and continued right up until the 1970’s. As a result, there are very few old growth trees left and whatever old trees remain are often diseased. What is left is very fragmented but thrifty second growth forests on Hornby. 

Thrifty is a term often used in forestry to describe healthy fast growing young forests.

Grant Scott

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

Historically fire was a natural part of CDF forest succession and under the care of Indigenous communities, fires were lit to encourage camas to grow on the Garry oak grasslands. There is a whole procession: first the burn and then the little pioneer tree and other species come in and naturally repopulate, resulting in all-age, heterogenous forests. That is the way succession works. But we don’t let that happen any more. The result, however, is that most recovering forests on the Gulf Islands are the same age. 

This really affects my thinking on climate change. As a long-time resident of Hornby Island, forester by training, chair of the Hornby Island Conservancy, and Island Trustee for Hornby, I know policies must be in place to protect people and property from climate change. But there is not just fire risk to consider. On Hornby, hurricane force winds often blow through and this is expected to increase in frequency as time goes on. So, we need policies in place to protect trees but also to protect people’s property from fire and wind.

Forests growing on shorelines on Hornby Island.
Forests growing on shorelines are at particular risk of blow-down with increased severity and frequency of high wind storms. Photo by John Struthers.

Islands across the Trust Area seem to have differing perspectives on how to address these questions based on land-use histories. For example, large areas of Galiano island were clear cut by MacMillian Bloedel 30 years ago. The attitude about how to best preserve and protect ecosystems may be different there compared to Hornby, where that level of industrial-scale forestry has not been practiced in recent memory. As such, it is challenging to imagine Trust-wide policies being put into place that will work for each unique context.  I believe people on each Island are in the best position to make these decisions through their Official Community Plans and Land Use Bylaws under the Trust’s mandate to “preserve and protect” the unique environment of these islands.

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

The Hornby Island Conservancy does a number of small projects like beach clean-ups and the like, and is currently  focused on three main projects. The first, Trees 4 Tomorrow, is a land-based climate action campaign aimed at planting 10,000 trees a year across the Salish Sea region. It has been a big success, with thousands of trees planted. But lessons we have learned include: 1) there are only so many places to plant new trees and 2) it takes significant effort and resources to travel to different islands to plant 30-40 trees a day. As such, we recently shifted toward educational efforts and encouraging individuals to purchase trees locally and plant them independently.

Grant Scott planting Trees 4 Tomorrow.
Grant Scott planting Trees 4 Tomorrow. Photo by Rebecca Benjamin-Carey.
Rebecca Benjamin-Carey planting Trees 4 Tomorrow.
Rebecca Benjamin-Carey planting Trees 4 Tomorrow. Photo by Rebecca Benjamin-Carey.

The second project is one we have been engaged with over the past six years: Herring Fest. The Hornby Conservancy organizes an annual celebration during the herring spawn each spring. This initiative has significantly increased local awareness of the huge ecological significance of this 8–10-inch fish, that no one, not even the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, understands very well. As a result, people in this area know a lot about the importance of herring in the marine food web. As a complement to this work, we are currently producing a video in partnership with Bowen Island videographer, Bob Turner, called The Silver Highway, following the herring migration from around Hornby Island to the west coast of Vancouver Island and back each year.

Finally, we are organizing the first annual Hornby Forest Fest scheduled for this fall following the model of Herring Fest. Unlike Trees 4 Tomorrow, this event will not necessarily focus on getting trees in the ground, but increasing local awareness about trees, forests, and associated ecosystems. We will show videos, take forest walks, and generally educate people about the ways different forest ecosystems work (e.g. alder swamps vs. old growth fir and cedar forests).

What are your key recommendations for people living in and maintaining CDF forests? 

Number one is for people to learn more about the amazing forests that surround us. I suggest attending events like Forest Fest, reading books like Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree, and getting involved with your local conservancy association.

Secondly, be mindful about how you manage the ecosystems around your property. It is important to look out for the safety of your home, but doing this effectively means making careful decisions. For example, it might feel intuitive to get rid of trees to reduce fire risk, but trees are vitally important to holding the water table. If you have ever walked into a forest from an open area on a hot day and felt the temperature drop, you will understand how forests maintain microclimates and act as a sponge for water. This is not to say that you can never cut down a tree. But, have a plan, because every cut you make will have an effect on something else.

A person looks up into the wild forest branches.
Photo by Rebecca Benjamin-Carey.

Remember that these trees and forests are often very old, and store a tremendous amount of genetic memory. They have the potential to be here a lot longer than we will be, so think twice about whether it really needs to come down. Many species rely on standing dead trees (i.e. snags) for food and habitat. So, when you go out in the forest to get firewood, choose to take live alder, a fast growing, early successional species, meaning it will be quick to replace itself and leave the dead alder because the woodpeckers and other creatures love nothing more than a snag. 

Thirdly, we need to restrict large scale industrial scale logging in the Gulf Islands to avoid the kind of disaster wrought on Galiano Island. That is not to say that small-scale sawmills are not a viable option. There is one example on Hornby that uses only wood from dead western redcedar trees. Operating small, sustainable scale forestry operations is something that can be done sustainably.

About Grant Scott

Grant Scott has a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from the University of British Columbia and has been a Registered Professional Forester (RPF) with the Association of BC Forest Professionals since 1974. He has practiced as a forest professional throughout BC, which has included working with communities and First Nations. He has lived on Hornby Island for over 25 years where he is currently the Chair of the Hornby Island Conservancy and one of two elected local Trustees.


  1.  The Land Conservancy of British Columbia. (2018, June 11). Hornby Island species inventory.
  2. Islands Trust. (2010). Hornby Island community profile (PDF).

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
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