SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2004

By Berry Wijdeven

This is not a clearcut. I know, I thought so too. I mean it sure looks like a clearcut. Except for that one lonely tree. Wonder what’s up with that?

Anyway, this is not a clearcut. This is an example of variable retention.

Once upon a time, twenty odd years ago, we used to cut it all. Everything. Mow down every tree in sight. We’d go up one side of the valley and down the other. Not that all trees were wanted, far from it. What was considered of little or no value, alder, yew, or anything with a hint of a potential flaw, was crushed, burned or buried. Problem was, even though the whole scheme worked like a charm, at least in the short term, visually it wasn’t very appealing. The massive clearcuts looked ugly. Like war zones. Like something that was no longer socially acceptable.

Then came the massive protests at Clayoquot Sound and coming out of that the 1994 Report of the Scientific Panel for Sustainable Forest Practises in Clayoquot Sound. While the report recognized that, for economic reasons, trees had to come down, it agreed with the protesters that it was bad to take down all the trees. So, in a brilliant comprise, the panel decided that we should take down just some of the trees.

Now, it’s one thing to agree to cut only some trees, but things get tricky when it comes down to deciding which ones to cut? How many? And where? There are so many variables. Welcome to Variable Retention.

Variable Retention is defined by the Ministry of Forests as a “system that follows nature’s model by always retaining part of the forest after harvesting.” Trees are left standing dispersed or in groups throughout the cutblock in an effort to maintain old growth structure, habitat protection and visual quality. Variable Retention is supposed to leave snags, large woody debris, and live trees as habitat for a host for various forest critters.

And further, to qualify as Variable Retention, more than half of the cutblock must be under what’s called the forest influence. This forest influence, or edge effect, presumes that a forest doesn’t stop at its edge, but that all or some of its effects on climate, soil and water extend beyond that edge. So, just because an area has all the trees removed doesn’t mean that it’s not affected by the nearby forest. Technically, therefore, everything up to a tree length into the cutblock is still thought to be part of the forest. Neat.

So, is Variable Retention working? There is many a doubt. The Friends of Clayoquot Sound, after analyzing all that happened in their neck of the woods, concluded: “In many ways, dropping the recommendations of the Scientific Panel into the existing regulatory and corporate framework has been much like grafting a human ear onto the back of a mouse: the result has been unwieldy, and there are no indications that the mouse can hear any better.”

On Haida Gwaii, the success of Variable Retention in maintaining a healthy forest is in doubt as well. I have been told that the original purpose of Variable Retention, which was to maintain old growth structure, habitat protection and visual quality, has been subverted by licensees into a “tool” to high-grade the forest. Rejigging the cutblocks to maximize the harvesting of valuable timber, they are creating designer clearcuts hiding under the guise of environmental management. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say, but judging by the fact that old growth cedar is disapp}aring nearly twice as fast as the rest of the forest profile, there is likely to be some truth in those statements.

What I do know, is that I have yet to run into a Variable Retention cutblock where, in the continuing struggle between economic and environmental values the latter appear to have gotten anywhere near equal consideration. I have yet to see a cutblock where the remaining patches look like more than a remnant sale at a carpet outlet. A few scruffy trees, huddled in fear waiting for the near inevitable blowdown do not a functioning forest make.

What is clear, first and foremost, is that blowdown and windthrow are up to truly obscene levels. The creation of miles and miles of additional forest edges, kilometers of road and hundreds upon hundreds of forest openings has resulted in an open invitation to local storms to have their way.

But the real problem goes way beyond blowdown. One of the main goals of the Clayoquot Scientific Panel was to maintain ecological integrity. In the real world in real time, however, this goal has been translated into maintaining ecological integrity while logging as much as possible. A conservative logging approach and the precautionary principle are in scant supply, reducing the presence of ecological integrity to the realm of tokenism.

Which brings us back to the tree, that sad, single lonesome tree standing by its own in the middle of the cutblock. Surely it wasn’t left accidentally. In fact, the crew must have expended considerable time and money, not to mention a certain amount of emotional distress, to keep that tree in the upright position.

A Ministry of Forests report on retention systems notes that “Retaining individual trees and/or small groups of trees not only increases the structural diversity of the regenerating stand, but also retains patches of undisturbed mature forest to help maintain biodiversity and wildlife habitat.” Uh, I don’t think so. This is not a wildlife tree, too tall and skinny with few branches, cavities or other nesting opportunities. And one would think it takes more than one tree to qualify as a patch. Sometimes trees are left in the cutblock to improve visual quality objectives and if that was the intent, it failed; visually it looks pathetic.

So, the question remains: why the tree? Finally, after exhausting all options that came to mind, I showed the photo to an acquaintance, an expert in the field, or the forest, rather.

“Hey, what’s with that tree? I asked.
“The tree?” he said. “Easy. That tree extends the forest influence. Increases the edge effect.”


I went to bed that night, still trying to wrap my brains around the concept. I must have dozed off, but when I woke up in the middle of the night, I was shivering. I glanced over to discover that my spouse had hogged all the covers - again.

“Honey,” I said. “Can I have some of the blankets? I’m freezing.”

“Quit your whining,” she said. “It can’t be that bad. You’re getting the edge effect.” She may have been right, of course. But I was still cold.