SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2002


by Ian Lordon

Towering above the forest floor, aged and nurtured over centuries, an ancient cedar tree is one of Haida Gwaii’s most impressive and inspiring sights. These pillars of the rainforest are a fixture of the Islandss’ contemporary life and economy, a fountainhead of Haida culture, and a continuous thread linking us with generations past.

Cedar was the foundation upon which Haida society was built. It bore the Islands’ people upon the waves, put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food in their mouths, recorded their history, their lineage, and carried the deceased into the next world. It was, as the late Haida artist Bill Reid once articulated so flawlessly, a material ideally suited to the place, the people, and the times.

“If mankind in his infancy had prayed for the perfect substance for all material and aesthetic needs, an indulgent god could have provided nothing better. Beautiful in itself, with a magnificent flared base tapering suddenly to a tall, straight trunk, wrapped in reddish brown bark like a great coat of gentle fur, gracefully weeping boughs, soft feathery fronds of grey-green needles.

The wood is soft, but of a wonderful firmness and, in a good tree, so straight-grained that it will split true and clean into forty foot planks, four inches thick and three feet wide, with scarcely a knot.

Across the grain it cuts clean and precise. It is light in weight and beautiful in colour, reddish brown when new, silvery grey when old. It is permeated with natural oils that make it one of the longest lasting of all woods, even in the damp of the northwest coast climate.

When steamed, it will bend without breaking. It will make houses and boats and boxes and cooking pots. Its bark will make mats, even clothing. With a few bits of sharpened stone and antler, with some beaver teeth and a lot of time, with later a bit of iron, you can build from the cedar tree the exterior trappings of one of the world’s great cultures.”

Today cedar remains an integral part of Haida culture and society, however, the future of the trees themselves is now in doubt. Industrial logging has already claimed many of the ancient giants and the few which remain are being targeted for harvesting because cedar is exempt from the US tariff on softwood lumber. Meanwhile a new and surprisingly benign predator is also contributing to the uncertain future of the species on the Islandss.

Black-tailed deer, or Odocoileus hemionus as they are known to scientists, were introduced to Haida Gwaii in the early part of the twentieth century by settlers who found the indigenous game wanting. The handful of mating pairs brought to the Islandss found a welcome home in the mild climate and abundant vegetation of the Islands rainforest. The complete absence of large carnivores ensured the survival of their young, a long life for themselves, and before many years had passed there was more game on Haida Gwaii than any hunter could wish for.

Beyond creating often hazardous driving conditions and some of the easiest deer-hunting in the world, the introduction of the black tail has by all accounts wildly altered the very nature of Haida Gwaii’s forests themselves. Prior to the introduction of deer, the forest floor was blanketed by a crowded understory teeming with ferns, shrubs, and vegetation which one 1931 observer likened to a jungle.

“The luxuriant growth of vegetation in the Queen Charlotte Islandss is most striking. The forests are a jungle and to traverse them it is necessary in many places to cut one’s way through an undergrowth composed of such plants as red huckleberry, salmon berry, salal, and devil’s club, not to mention young Sitka spruce and hemlock, springing up densely all round. Beautiful ferns abound.”

Today, over much of Haida Gwaii, a walk in the wilderness reveals forests which are little more than trees and moss — a stark contrast to the descriptions from less than a century ago. Scientists studying the Islandss’ forests lay most of the blame for this radical shift in conditions upon the influence of multitudes of deer foraging for food.

The once ‘luxuriant’ understory that offered plentiful food and habitat for birds, insects, fungi, and all manner of plants is now relatively barren. The introduction of one new player to the ecosystem has upset the balance it once maintained and turned the playing field upside down for resident species.

Scientists are still unraveling the results. Queen Charlotte City’s Laskeek Bay Conservation Society is one of several organizations engaged in monitoring the effects of introduced species upon the landscape. Removing deer from controlled areas, the Society has helped recreate forest conditions similar to those which existed before their introduction to help gain some understanding of the functioning and nature of Haida Gwaii’s native forest ecosystems.

One of the most disturbing discoveries in recent years is that black tailed deer, in their relentless search for sustenance, have an almost insatiable appetite for young cedar seedlings. This appetite has severely hampered foresters’ efforts at replanting and regenerating cedar forests after areas are logged, and the result is a new crop of second growth where cedar no longer boasts the prominent place it formerly enjoyed. Vast tracts of land which once were home to giant cedars coveted by Haida carvers, weavers, and canoe-builders, are now producing forests composed almost entirely of Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce whose seedlings are less appealing to browsing deer.

The Ministry of Forests and local forest licence holders have employed several methods of protecting freshly-planted cedar seedlings from browsing deer with varying degrees of success. The challenge is deterring the deer long enough to allow the young tree’s branches to extend beyond the reach of the animals’ mouths. Repellents incorporating everything from cougar urine to rotten eggs have proven ineffective. Physical barriers such as fences and browse guards made from plastic and wire mesh have been more successful, but the expense of installation means restocking clearcuts with other species of trees is cheaper and more attractive.

Population control is also unpalatable. Hunters and animal rights activists (odd bedfellows) both bridle at any suggestion that a cull of this forestry ‘pest’ be organized for obvious reasons, and the introduction of large predators like wolves or cougars could have any number of unanticipated consequences for the ecosystem and even human residents.

The changes brought upon the forests of these iIslandss, the changes which now threaten the future of the cedar trees which provided so handsomely for Haida people for thousands of years, were all wrought by man. Man introduced deer to Haida Gwaii and felled most of the giants which once stood in the forests. If future generations hope to enjoy the Haida way of life and culture, it is our responsibility to divine the solutions which will provide the iIslandss with stately and venerable cedar forests for tomorrow’s need. •

SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2002