Let the Trees Grow Old

A visit to the rare old-growth fir forests of Vancouver Island

Old growth forest on Vancouver Island has reached almost mythical status. The swaths of clearcuts and second growth monocultures that now blanket the island have become the new normal, with boundaries publicly defined not by First People’s territories, but by logging tenures.

This is Interfor land. This is Western Forest Product territory. This area belongs to BC Timber Sales.

The tenure area signs resemble election signs promoting party candidates. We have logged over 90% of Vancouver Island’s low elevation ancient rainforest, and we’re adding about 34 soccer fields to that number every day. The few stands of old growth that are left are so special, so rare now that they require proper names: Cathedral Grove, Avatar Grove, Carmanah. Tourists know these names and flock to these isolated patches with checklists like a safari of rare species – the elusive ancient forests of BC. Remnants of the “old world”. We are drawn to them for some deeply innate reason—it is impossible not to be dumbfounded by them while looking up through the boughs of these elders.

Photo Deirdre Leowinata

Tavish Campbell and I are on the search for one of those mythical spots—an ecological reserve on the Nimpkish river in ‘Namgis First Nation Territory that supposedly harbours some of the last old-growth fir on the island—and we’ve been told it’s in the middle of the Western Forest Products kingdom. Some kilometres up the logging road we wonder if it’s possible, passing block after block of freshly cut young second-growth fir. How could there be any old growth left when they are now down to logging 40 year-old trees? Young fir doesn’t look dissimilar to pre-pubescent humans; awkward limbs extending out at various angles below a developing but very closed canopy, destined here never to mature into the strong, robust, clean-trunked adults they strive to become.

Some ways down we spot something: A stand of big trees that look very out of place towering over the adolescents we’ve been surrounded by. We park and walk up the river between young alder and willow, and reach a sign: “Ecological Reserve”. It seems so strange and out of place so far into the labyrinth of forestry tenures.

Photo Deirdre Leowinata

We cross the river and, after ducking under some low hemlock and fragrant cottonwood, are immediately transported to another world. We walk along long cedar bridges that bring us over past stretching stems of devil’s club and regenerating browsed skunk cabbage and deeper into what is left of an ancient land. Towering firs and cedars offer protection and dappled shade to maple trees and nurse logs that raise new spruce and hemlock trees. The mossy ground is rich in its variance, as fresh green vanilla leaf enjoys the rays of sun that reach the forest floor, and we gaze on long-bearded spruce trees with their aged wisdom.

Upon emerging on the other side of the forest, we find ourselves in yet another world. This one is not defined by industry, or humans at all, but by the differences in natural biomes that it supports through differences in soil type, climate, and hydrology. Elk scat covers the ground interrupted by the odd bear, mink, and wolf track. Every so often their smell saturates the air, convincing us that they’re watching us from around the next riverbend. Patches of wild strawberries share the spaces with the tracks between sprouting trees. We peek into small freshwater pools, where coho fry feed on insect larvae, waiting for a big rain to carry them to the river that will take them into their next stage of life.

Photo Deirdre Leowinata

We cross to the gravel bar between the two confluent streams. Nearby, Oregon dark-eyed juncos play in the hundreds of microhabitats found within a single log jam, building new nests and repairing old ones. A bald eagle stands sentinel by the river, not straying far from its nest up a tall red cedar. An excited group of barn swallows swoop acrobatically overhead. A Northern flicker pecks away somewhere in the trees. And suddenly, in a seemingly boastful show of nature, we see them. A small herd of elk is browsing on willows by the stream bank in the light of the deepening evening sun, unconcerned by the arrival of two strange, hairless, bipedal intruders on their river.

Across the river we can see the boundary where the logging has stopped. Second-growth forests are dark, homogenous places, without the luxury of time to develop the important vertical structure that brings life into developing understories. And after walking through the rich undergrowth of Narnia, this one seems particularly forlorn. Forest ecologists estimate that old growth characteristics don’t begin to appear in temperate rainforest until about 250 years of age, and hundreds more are needed for them to reach the apex stage that the first Europeans would have witnessed when they arrived here. Recent research has demonstrated that although individual trees can have lifespans of up to hundreds of years, the life of a forest and the thousands of microbiotic relationships and networks that make it whole take much longer to develop.

Photo Deirdre Leowinata

In this little paradise, recent isolation has exposed much of its surface area to wind, which will slowly but surely eat at its edges. Old trees don’t stand alone—they need families. And like us, they’re only as strong as their support systems. This vibrant ecosystem is only an 8 hectare exception to the surrounding thousands of hectares of ecologically bankrupt forests that are now the status quo.

We continue to cut these ancient forests down knowing increasingly well the large and crucial role they play in not only carbon sequestration but in countless ecosystem services—and those are big shoes that cannot be filled by their younger relatives.

As we walk out, we see the final symbol of how this river and this old forest are so deeply connected—what looks like the toothy lower jaw of a coho salmon lying at the base of a cedar tree.

Photo by Tavish Campbell

A barred owl watches us from a high, slender snag, judging us and our species from above. A small black bear runs across the road and we can’t help wonder where it’s going, and if it remembers a time when its habitat was lush and full.

The resilience of nature is a beautiful thing. Life has a strong will to carry on, and will take advantage of the opportunity even in the smallest, most unlikely of places. These utterly rich old worlds could once again make their way into the present, but it will take time. A long time, not easily measured by the scales on which humanity normally operates.

These “Narnia” forests should not be the exceptions. They should be the norm. We dream of the day when we can drive a road on Vancouver Island and instead of saying “Hey, look at those old trees – how special”, we can instead look at a stand of second-growth forest as it follows in the ancient cycle of succession and say “Hey look at those young trees – they have a long life ahead of them”.