SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2002

New growth on a spruce tree.
Old Growth Forests
by Ian Lordon

On Haida Gwaii, as elsewhere, old growth forests are perceived as ‘decadent’ by a timber industry determined to liquidate these threatened ecosystems and replace them with managed tree farms, also contradictorily known as ‘working forest.’

The contradiction is that the forests were working fine before industry stepped in to manage one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. In less than a century, mostly in the past 30 years, almost 60 percent of the old growth available to the logging industry on Haida Gwaii has been eliminated, and pressure is mounting to finish off the remainder.

Scientists and foresters can’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of ecosystems which took centuries to establish themselves, and the full extent of the impact of industrial activity upon them may not be known for centuries to come. Our modus operandi as stewards of these magnificent landscapes has long been one of ‘log now, ask questions later.’

The consequences of this shortsighted approach are beginning to manifest themselves in alarming fashion. The list of species threatened with extinction grows longer each year as once-plentiful habitat is dramatically altered and grows scarce. Damage to rivers and creeks from industrial logging contributes to the decline of salmon, hampers stock restoration efforts, and undermines water quality for both humans and wildlife.

Of course the loss of old growth is not exclusively responsible for these developments but the debate is really a matter of degree — as in to what degree is the widespread elimination of old growth contributing to the decline of species abundance and diversity on Haida Gwaii, or to what degree is logging responsible for the deterioration of salmon stocks and fishing opportunities.

Part of the answer lies in the importance of old growth itself, its unique composition, function, and stability in a healthy ecosystem. Old growth forests feature large trees, snags, large fallen trees, and heavy accumulations of biomass which are essential to functioning forests. These structures allow old growth forests to store carbon and nitrogren, produce oxygen, and filter water better than younger forests while providing stable habitat for plants and animals to flourish.

The biological diversity associated with old growth forests reduces their susceptibility to disease and blight which sometimes plague relatively homogenous managed tree farms — stocked with a few species of commercially desirable trees bred to replace original forests as quickly as possible.

Old growth is the forest’s inherent state, interrupted only when natural or unnatural disturbances damage the canopy and create the conditions for renewal. This renewal progresses through the various successional stages of a forest’s growth and development until it returns to old growth or ‘climax’ forest. It’s an entirely natural process, and without question several species of plants, insects, and animals thrive in the conditions which characterize these stages of renewal.

The issue is one of magnitude, the extent to which industrial logging has changed the landscape, and the timing and quality of the changes themselves. Before logging came to Haida Gwaii, fires were largely responsible for most major disturbances to the forest canopy. Fires, no matter how large, are usually restricted to a portion of the landscape while those areas which escape harm remain a refuge for wildlife, and contribute to the reconstruction of lost forests. The impact of logging, on the other hand, is spread throughout the Islands — breaking the wilderness into disconnected pockets of old growth forest separated by roads and clearcuts which inhibit the movement of wildlife and the exchange of genetic material essential to the future health and survival of all species.

Furthermore, the largest fire in the memory of Haida Gwaii occurred little more than a century ago and swept away much of the forest in the southeastern portion of Graham Island. A monumental burn by rainforest standards, the damage wrought by this once in a millennium event was significantly less than what the logging industry has managed to accomplish in only thirty years.

Protection afforded by Gwaii Haanas National Park/Reserve in South Moresby and Naikoon Park on northeastern Graham Island will ensure that some ancient forests will always remain on the islands. However, unless the policies and practices which guide industrial logging on Haida Gwaii are reformed and remodeled, the tree farms which today dominate the Islands’ landscape, and where few forests outlive their eighty year rotation, will be our future legacy — forests where biological diversity takes a back seat to fibre production, and a poorer legacy than the one which we inherited. •

SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2002