The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The biodiversity potential of privately-owned land

Southern BC’s coastline hosts some of the greatest biodiversity in the province, yet currently protection potential is limited due to the high proportion of privately-owned land. What tools do local governments need to better safeguard ecological communities in this region?

Reports of the immediate actions required to prevent further global warming and biodiversity loss are becoming increasingly frequent. One of the more recent recognitions of this urgent need was the landmark agreement struck by 188 of the 196 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in late December 2022 to protect 30% of the Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas, and inland water by 2030. This level of protection will require significant commitment from all levels of government, particularly those governments with rare and threatened ecosystems within their jurisdictions. 

Registered Professional Biologist and Planner, Adriane Pollard, has been working to improve local protections of Coastal Douglas-fir associated ecological communities for over 25 years. Though there are many barriers that prevent adequate protection of these rare and threatened habitats, Pollard asserts that  identifying barriers is an important step to imagining innovative solutions to get past them.  

What local policy tools exist to protect Coastal Douglas-fir forests?

Ecological protection in the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) zone is tricky. Firstly, all of the plant communities within CDF are considered rare by the Conservation Data Center. It is not just pockets of rare species and habitat scattered across the landscape, the entire ecosystem is rare. Secondly, there is an incredibly high proportion of privately owned land throughout the extent of the CDF’s range. These two factors combined creates complexity as many people believe they should be able to manage their privately owned land as they see fit; but that desire does not change the fact that the land they own is representative of a globally rare collection of ecological communities. 

In tact forest next to the ocean.
CDF forests are globally rare. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

There are some who assert that people should be trusted to be good stewards and take appropriate care of habitat on their own. Many municipalities and local governments invest in this idea by providing educational resources on the tremendous number of rare and threatened species common to the CDF zone, the value of preserving standing dead trees (“snags”), and other related topics.  After 25 years working with local government, I have met many residents one-on-one. In those meetings I realized that beyond what has been legislated, most people do not think much about long-term ecological protection. For example, what will happen to their property once it changes hands–will the next owner be as aware?  

For the most part, people are receptive to receiving new information, and though it is good to see those positive reactions, there is nothing in place to hold people accountable to that knowledge and ensure that intact ecosystems remain intact. That, to me, is where the rubber hits the road. 

There are a few comprehensive tools that are currently available, but they each have limitations.  The Green Bylaws Toolkit is an excellent guide to these tools.

Huge clearcut next to the ocean.
A privately-owned property on North Pender Island that was clear cut by the owner. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Environmental Development Permit Areas

Environmental development permit areas (EDPAs) are currently the best tool available to local governments in BC for habitat protection. They can restrict development within specific ecosystem types as identified in a municipality’s Official Community Plan (OCP). However, it is up to local councils to implement EDPAs, so though there are municipalities that have EDPAs in place that have had success with them, there are many municipalities who are not using this tool to its fullest extent, and in some cases it is not being used at all. 

One limit to EDPAs is that they offer protection only when a habitat is threatened. That is, they are triggered when a development is proposed, but otherwise require no active restoration or other stewardship activities. Development includes subdivision, construction, and alteration of the land, under the Local Government Act.

Still, it is the best layer of protection available for private land in BC and there are various models used by local governments.  For example, some local governments identify the areas to be protected in advance, which can make landowners uneasy.  Alternatively, some municipalities implement EDPAs using a “you-are-in-until-proven-out” strategy. This means no one property owner is singled out as being responsible for ecological protection. Under this scenario, when an application for a building permit, subdivision, or land alteration is submitted, a registered professional will determine whether the proposed change poses any significant ecological risk. This has the added benefit of providing an opportunity for a landowner to engage with an expert and receive advice on how to proceed with their plans with the least ecological impact.

Conservation covenants

Covenants are legally registered to a land’s title and managed by a local registered land trust or the local government. They are proactive and carry on from one landowner to the next.  They can be expensive to maintain, unless one lives in an area where a tax incentive program is in place (like the Gulf Islands). There are some misgivings around covenants, and though they certainly are not a perfect level of protection, they are one of the best tools available for protecting private land over time and have the potential to significantly add to the proportion of protected area within a given local government’s jurisdiction.

What could local governments be doing better?

There are significant legislative gaps, not only locally, but at the national and provincial levels, that prevent adequate protection of at-risk species and habitats. For example, rather than adopting protective legislation that might protect assemblages of species and ecosystems at risk, the federal government adopted the Species at Risk Act (popularly known as SARA), which solely protects individual target species on federally-owned lands. More locally, to date, British Columbia has failed to implement any sort of legislation to protect species and ecosystems at risk. This lack of action by the provincial government has had significant influence on the approaches local governments can employ to protect landscapes within their jurisdiction.

Two band-tailed pigeons.
Band-tailed pigeons are classified as “Special concern” under Schedule 1 of SARA. Photo by Elizabeth Haslam via Flickr.

One of the biggest successes in local ecosystem protection in recent memory, is the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR) which was enacted by the province under Section 12 of the Fish Protection Act in 2004. This regulation was updated in 2019 as the Riparian Areas Protection Regulation (RAPR)  Essentially RAPR dictates that local governments have to implement setbacks wherever a stream occurs.

There was significant resistance to RAPR at first, but a system was devised so that if a local government was not willing to implement a setback, development applicants were deferred to the province, but either way a subdivision or building permit could not be approved without adequate setbacks. If these setbacks were not observed, a local government could be found to be in non-compliance (i.e. breaking the law). This is the sort of regulation environmental managers within local governments have been lobbying the provincial government for to protect ecosystems and species at risk. 

Ultimately, we need the province to give local governments the authority to adequately protect local ecosystems. In practice, this might mean protecting areas of significant ecological or cultural value and recommending more appropriate sites for proposed developments.

This sort of land protection could be accompanied by something similar to the Islands Trust Natural Areas Protection Tax Exemption Program (NAPTEP), which incentivizes landowners to protect their properties through a property tax reduction of up to 60%. Until the province provides the appropriate regulation, the best most local governments can do is work to influence, encourage, and educate people, which is important because heightened awareness of these issues will lay the groundwork for governments to become more comfortable with adopting this kind of legislation.

Local governments could improve the way natural areas on private land are valued.  Native plant communities are not given the same value as almost any other factor considered during development. There are many potential values for natural areas to add to the quality of life in new developments. They can also contribute to shading, cooling, stormwater management, slope stability, and other nature-based solutions.

Are there knowledge gaps, misunderstandings, or barriers that prevent effective protection of CDF habitats?

As noted above, private land ownership in the CDF is disproportionately high compared to other parts of BC, at 80% private ownership. There is enormous potential to influence better management on these privately-owned lands, but this is perceived as a hurdle for local governments. In the current policy landscape, there is very little in place to enforce anything long-term on private land. 

For landowners, I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how private property rights work in Canada. Most people think that they are similar to private property rights in the USA, and in some ways they are very similar, except that Canadian property rights are there until taken away. The government has the authority to define setbacks, structure specifications, and mining rights among other things. One way to interpret this difference is that private property rights in Canada recognize that the lands are part of the collective commons in a way that American property rights do not.

There is also a perception barrier that exists in this region about how private land can contribute to biodiversity.  In the course of my career as a municipal scientist, I have learned that there are many people who would rather not live within nature. Rather, they like to see nature from afar, or visit it in parks. Being able to live lightly within these landscapes, as part of these ecosystems, is part of the solution to multiple crises, the biodiversity and housing crises included. 

That is, adequate land protection tools (e.g. bylaws, zoning, provincial regulations) need to be in place to 1) protect intact habitat on currently occupied private land and 2) direct new development up instead of out. I have seen residents show up to protect their low-rise neighborhoods from high-rise buildings in what they call a “quality of life issue.”

However, when there is opposition to a development proposed in a natural area like a native plant meadow, it is often characterized by supporters as being anti-affordable housing. There are so many areas throughout the range of the CDF that are no longer natural that could be densified. Those are the areas that should be considered for development before even considering moving into natural areas.

Purple blowers in front of an arbutus tree.
A native plant meadow in the CDF. Photo by Alex Harris.

However, it is challenging to shift the way development unfolds on the landscape. According to one developer, once a development has been approved, the biggest structure possible within the allowable footprint is almost always constructed, regardless of the habitat destruction it causes. This is due to the economics: a maximized building footprint translates to maximum profit for the developer. But doesn’t this feel like a short-sighted development philosophy with limited beneficiaries and a narrow definition of value? Shouldn’t intact ecosystems be factored into approximations of value? 

Beyond protection measures, are there  other resources or strategies to help improve understanding of the condition of CDF forests?

A tool that has been widely used to quantify the current extent and condition of CDF forests and associated ecosystems is Marxan Software. The suite of Marxan tools available are incredibly useful and do an excellent job of identifying ecosystems of the highest conservation value (e.g. those ecosystems that demonstrate high levels of biodiversity). As such, outputs can be used to help prioritize where limited conservation resources should be spent. However, Marxan outputs need to be critically considered as I find that they often disregard important patches of land that may be degraded but that are essential to maintaining connectivity. In the CDF, so much has already been lost that places that have been degraded but still contain key CDF elements need to be considered for restoration and protection. Without linkages between protected places we just create isolated islands on the landscape.

Person planting a cottonwood sappling.
Stewardship and restoration are essential to maintaining biodiversity on private property. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Another tool commonly used by local governments, as noted above, is education. But this sort of grassroots approach is a slow journey. Stewardship programs are needed, beyond education and awareness. Giving residents the advice, resources, and assistance to manage invasive species, propagate native species, enhance habitat, and maintain native ecosystems is critical to the success of any protection measures.  

What are the key takeaways that you would like everyone living within the CDF to remember?

I find that people look around and seemingly see Douglas-fir trees everywhere and argue that it cannot all be rare. But of course, there is so much more to the CDF zone than just Douglas-fir trees. Maybe the name of the Coastal Douglas-fir zone is a bit of a hindrance. I know why this naming convention is in place, but it is not very intuitive for people. They hear Coastal Douglas-fir and think of just Douglas-fir trees. Similarly, they hear Garry oak meadow and think just of Garry oak trees. But it is not just the Douglas-firs and the Garry oaks that are rare, it is the assemblage of species together that is exceptionally rare. 

Native wildflower meadow by the sea.
It is the collection of ecological communities together that make the CDF so unique.. Photo by Alex Harris.

Further,  a lot of the Douglas-fir dominated forests people see need some level of restoration to reintroduce the former level of biodiversity that was once characteristic to CDF forests. The legacy of logging in this region is still very apparent on the landscape. This is something I struggle with working as a biologist in this zone. Some people argue that too much habitat has already  been converted and thus it is lost.

Others, myself included, argue that though second-, third-, and in some cases fourth-growth forests are too dense with limited understories and though some Garry oak meadows are now dominated by invasive grasses, there is still potential for these areas to be restored, to some degree, and enhanced. It is out of the realm of possibility for me to ever say that protecting a Garry oak meadow is not worth it. We live in a time when novel ecosystems are so prevalent the world over, that if we start to adopt the view that degraded ecosystems are not worth recovering, then we will lose so much more than we will gain.

A novel ecosystem is one that has been so impacted by human intervention that it no longer requires human attention for it maintenance 

– Adriane Pollard

An ecosystem doesn’t have to be the Amazon rainforest to warrant protection. It can be much smaller, much simpler.  Often people think, “well, it is not a complete ecosystem, it has a shed in it or some ivy,” but if there is a rare plant community next to that shed, it is still important. How do we make people understand that they live in a very unique ecosystem and recognize the iconic elements that make it so? Some of the species characteristic of this zone are so rare and/or so tiny that most people will never see them, but they are here and should be added to the suite of things that people understand to be sacred.

Ultimately, if people want to find a way to not conserve an ecosystem they will find an argument to defend that choice. This is why we must employ science locally with a global perspective,  and firm, clear ecological protections to identify and define what is protected.  Good stewardship and enjoyment of the land should not be wasted for the future.

About Adriane Pollard

Adriane Pollard is a Registered Professional Biologist and Planner,  and the former Manager of Environmental Services for the District of Saanich. She has over 25 years of experience working with municipal government.

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