Field Notes from a summer of big trees

Big tree registries inspire a deeper understanding of forests, communities, and the relationships between them.

S,DÁYES (Pender Islands), and other islands of the Salish Sea, are the relatives of the W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. These island ecosystems hold this knowledge despite the deforestation and land conversion from logging and subsequent commercial and residential development, which continues today. 

Pender Islands Big Tree Registry

The Pender Islands Big Tree Registry is a growing database of big, old, and special trees on the Pender Islands, driven by community nominations. It is a valuable undertaking to initiate and maintain conservation, monitoring, and restoration efforts and an important opportunity for community engagement in the forest. This summer, I joined the Raincoast team as the Big Tree Intern to find and add trees to the Registry and grow the community assembled around the project.

Diverse networks

In this position, fieldwork has involved being in the community as much as being in the forest. Getting to know the networks of the Pender Islands, human and nonhuman, is the part of this work where everything integrates and I realize again how deeply entwined environmental and social issues can be.

I visited Pender for the first time knowing the island only through tree measurements and email correspondence. The trees were what I expected – as a long-time resident of Bowen Island I know that most of the islands in the Salish Sea have a similar composition of second growth, some big and maturing, as well as rare fragments of old growth. The landscape is marked by iconic Douglas-fir, tall and straight, gnarly red cedars in low moist pockets, and arbutus which crawls across high South-facing ridges. Some protected areas have trees up to 2 meters in diameter, impressive growth in just a few hundred years. 

Aria touching the bark of a leaning tree.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Some areas are more obviously logged, with matchboxes of dense Douglas-fir, still figuring out their ranks. From the road, I glimpse into lots recently ravaged by excessive tree cutting. I hear about buyers from the city who sneak past local protection policy and take all their trees with them. Where is the concern for these particularly sensitive and vulnerable island environments, especially in an ecosystem so threatened by habitat loss and climate change like the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimatic zone? Trees on this island affect all the organisms that surround them. Tree cover is protection and security. Roots hold the soil and therefore the water, vegetation cleans the air, bark and leaves are habitat for many species of insects, which in turn attract birds, and together, trees can regulate temperature. The trees that surround us, despite what a land title says, cannot be separated from the complex network that determines the health and wellbeing of all life, both human and non-human. One has to wonder why there is such a lack of protection for forests and trees throughout the Southern Gulf Islands?

These questions go through my mind during a conversation with a long-time Pender resident at the market. His mustache hides his words, but I hear him loud and clear as he tells me he would never add his trees to a big tree registry. It would lead to greater conservation, something that would impede his ability to manage his land how he wants. I understand his frustration with bureaucratic entities, yet his comments simultaneously make me think of the late Dr. Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this classic essay, Hardin addresses the reality that humankind is embedded in a finite biological setting, a fact that is especially pronounced when it comes to islands. Having these conversations with locals was one of the most important parts of my job this summer, integral to raising awareness in the community, but also deepening my understanding as a scientist and conservationist. 

Stories from the land

My favorite part of this job has been ground-truthing; visiting big trees and taking measurements, such as diameter, height, and crown spread, to be added to the registry. It can be blissful solitude. Some of the trees we register are identified using LiDAR, which is a remote sensing method that detects the surface of the earth. I am often alone, tromping through the underbrush towards a LiDAR-identified GPS coordinate. Looking for big trees makes me walk through the forest with heightened awareness. My eyes are open wide, as I have to be alert to signs of a thick trunk, camouflaged in dense understory. Looking above, I find a canopy much higher than the others around it. Once I locate the big tree, my attention turns to who else is around. I look for signs of animals in the base of the trunk and seek out neighboring plants, noting who’s been nibbling them. I notice the contours of the land, which way the prevailing wind blows, and the sun’s movement across the sky. The forest quickly becomes an intimate space. This is one way I develop a deeper connection with the land. 

I have learned that the Registry, much like other conservation-focused projects, is a social endeavor alongside a scientific one. It is also a balancing act of multitasking as I gather accurate tree measurements while chatting with enthusiastic Pender property owners. It is so sweet to hear the intimate stories of locals and the land: what the birds are up to this time of year, how the laurel is encroaching since the neighbor removed some trees, or what angle they can best see an eagles nest from. This is a part of this job that really resonates with me. 

I believe that meaningful change requires reorienting our relationship to the land and building a deeper connection to it. I hope that folks who are new to registering big trees on their properties will be inspired to forge this kind of relationship. Those who already have this relationship hold invaluable knowledge of the ecosystems around these trees, which is exactly what we are trying to accomplish with this project. Focusing on big trees is just a starting point to learning to listen to the land and building a meaningful connection to it. 

Gathering: The Big Tree Blitz

On August 13, we hosted a Big Tree Blitz in partnership with the Pender Islands Conservancy to hunt, measure, and register big trees together; a profound switch from my solo travels under the canopy. A small but intrepid group of big tree enthusiasts gathered at Woodpecker Forest, a property recently purchased and protected by Lisa Baile and Peter Pare, long-time supporters of the Big Tree Registry. 

Two people walking towards a big tree in the forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

After a quick tutorial, everyone jumped into gear, measuring and registering trees like pros: a spontaneous, makeshift community formed in the forest. It reminds me how powerful small movements like this are. An event does not have to be big or wide reaching to be integrative and transformative. Thank you to all who joined us with such interest and enthusiasm! We ended the day off with refreshments at Peter and Lisa’s and a giveaway of awesome prizes from our generous donors. Thank you to Patagonia, Munro’s Books, Hoyne Brewery, Sun Bum, and Ecologyst for supporting our event!

Big tree registries are not only a valuable method of data collection in the interest of conservation, but they offer an opportunity to build social and ecological connections which deepen and diversify the environmental movement. They provide a new lens through which to view the forest and help to build connections between fellow forest-dwelling humans. It has been an awesome experience working for Raincoast this summer and getting to know the people and trees of Pender Islands. Thank you!

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.