The Methuselah Myth and the future of B.C. forestry

How did our understanding of forestry get so mangled? And how we can restore knowledge about a way of life that sustains communities and healthy ecosystems? Stewart Muir looks at the situation.

post-image.jpgA number of years ago, foresters with the B.C. Ministry of Forests Research Program were puzzled that an area known to be highly productive for old growth trees was showing up in forestry data as being considerably less special. 

In the warm bio-geoclimatic zone where they stood, these hemlock stands should have been much taller than the data showed. 

Experts Gordon Nigh and Bobby Love decided to take a closer look at the stands of old-growth coastal western hemlock in question. What they found remains relevant today: assumptions based simply on imperfect mapping data need to be ground truthed by field observation. (See their full report.)

For those surveying the current British Columbia forestry discourse, there are important learnings here, lest we repeat the lessons of the past. 

According to Night and Love, hemlock trees in the Kalum timber area between the Kitlope and Nass Rivers averaged just 43 feet tall based on site index data. 

This relatively small stature was puzzling. Old-growth hemlocks there would be expected to stand as tall as a 10-storey building.

Why the underestimation? The researchers found four factors. First, the growth potential of trees in the untouched old growth stands was suppressed. In the absence of active forest management by humans, such as thinning the less successful trees so that hardier specimens could flourish, the aged ones were not achieving the size that they would otherwise.

Secondly, it turns out there were flaws in using a standard formula used to calculate age by observation. 

Third, the tallest of the old forest giants had suffered damage to their tops, which meant that their measured height enabled underrepresentation of their true age, mass and scale. It was if they were stooped with age.

The fourth factor, and the one that is most astonishing, was that the tallest and best specimens had died (as old organisms inevitably do), leaving behind smaller trees that were then classified as the deterministic specimens. 

Consider what this means. As a natural forest ages, some of the trees can grow to great heights. Over time, whether through simple old age or other factors, the biggest ones perish. This runs counter to the romantic view of old growth forests, which is that simply by being left untouched by humans the stands will achieve immortal status and live forever. But that’s not how trees work.

Let’s call this the Methuselah Myth. It’s something that seems to affect a lot of people emotionally because often when old growth is discussed, a science-based writer like myself is darkly accused of perpetuating the slaughter of 2,000-year-old immortal trees. I feel just as attached to those beautiful ancient trees as anyone else does. Yet the fact is that they are exceedingly rare. Old growth does not necessarily mean ancient, although of course there are individual exceptions to this, which is why we have regulations in B.C. protecting these specimens. (I like to point out that all old growth trees in British Columbia have protected status. In the reservoir of old growth, there are multiple types and layers of protection as well as processes that allow certain trees to be considered for harvest that may result in their ultimately being turned to economic use.)

In the case of Fairy Creek, the majority of old growth trees in that area are ones that became old growth only over the past two decades. This means they were seedlings at the time of the American War of Independence, long before any non-Indigenous settlement on the British Columbia coast. Some event or process other than large-scale logging had to have occurred to remove trees older than this. Very likely, the same howling winter storms that blow north off the Strait of Juan de Fuca these days caused whole stands to be knocked over at some time in the past. 

Shorthand for this process would be “Mother Nature” – the cycle of life and death. 

Today, we have lobbyists and their researchers who insist that exactly 3% of high productivity old growth forests are still standing. What is a high productivity forest? Whatever they say it is. They have no trouble producing maps with alarming colours that supposedly prove this. Not only can they not explain why old forests exist that have young trees and therefore don’t fit their model. The hemlock example above would not fit their definition, even though it obviously fits.  Areas of forest of varied but younger ages are considered to be “unproductive” even when they are still able provide habitat for the marbled murrelet and migratory birds, winter range for ungulates, spring forage for bears and the like. The 3% distinction is arbitrary, confusing and self-defeating. It has a purpose though: to support those pressuring the provincial government for radical changes to forestry management, far beyond what has been recommended by an independent review panel, often seem unaware of the most basic facts about the extent of old growth forests. Nor do they seem willing to acknowledge that trees are living beings that change and grow over time. On Vancouver Island, for instance, a mature tree passes its 250th birthday every 20 seconds thus attaining formal old growth status. The idea of forests as museums is utterly inapplicable. Forests are living, breathing changing places.

With three quarters of coastal forest already protected in perpetuity, there is no danger that old growth will ever disappear. 

Saying this does not mean that improvements are not needed. There is always room for doing things better. But rather than paper and digital exercises associated with policy initiatives, improvements require going back and working in the forests. The tragedy of a wrong turn policy would be immense.

I have a few ideas for moving things in a more positive direction.

Since words count, let’s start with one important linguistic fact. Those proposing extreme measures are in the habit of talking about “protected” vs “unprotected” measures. In actuality, there is no such thing as unprotected old growth in British Columbia. Dozens of regulatory processes, and hundreds of bureaucratic steps, are in place to prevent any tree (old growth or otherwise) from being harvested.

By my count, a minimum of 102 bureaucratic procedures must take place before an “unprotected” tree can be harvested. That hardly qualifies as lacking in protection.

The artificial distinction of unprotected vs protected is used for rhetorical purposes because it is meant to pressure decision makers to move forests from the first category to the second.

What should we do instead? We should be talking about an old growth reservoir. The reality is, and we might as well be honest here, that without the ability to draw down on the reservoir in a sustainable fashion, there is simply no forest industry left in B.C. That doesn’t mean emptying the reservoir - who would be so foolish? It needs to be kept healthy and allowed to be replenished. The type and purpose of old growth management should be explicitly stated so that everyone is clear where things stand.

For those interested in forestry matters in British Columbia, it has been absolutely fascinating to watch the formation of anti-logging messages.

Once the domain of professional foresters, views about B.C. old-growth forests are now firmly held by anarchists from the United States, readers of Vogue, and of course the average resident and voter of the province.

In a province the size of Texas, Vancouver Island might be but a small corner in land-mass terms. But it is where all the public intensity is being focused because environmental groups have decided that they would like to see the Island’s forests subjected to the same kind of management regime as was instituted further up the Coast in 2016 in the form of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. This is the strategy driving everything, and the green coalition has decided that the summer of 2021 is the time when that goal will be secured no matter what the cost.

If, tomorrow, the province acquiesces to the demand of fringe protesters who defy laws that the rest of us respect, just like the Great Bear story, it will only be a matter of months before new demands are made.

Very quietly behind closed doors in Victoria, the eco-pressure groups have been hammering away at our elected officials for years. Numerous strategic coalitions seek to wear down the resistance of our representatives with a deluge of claims, augmented by public pressure such as the long-running old growth campaign that recently erupted into a classic, information-age war for mindshare.

A keystone of the lobbying has been the production of maps and reports that support the view that the forest products sector – British Columbia’s largest industry – must be eliminated. Yes, the pressure is sugar-coated with claims from lobbyists that “the forest industry will do just fine without old growth, because there is plenty of second growth.” But everyone knows it’s the immense volume of mixed-aged forests that include older trees that makes British Columbia coastal forestry the phenomenon that it is. 

Inventory-based forest mapping is a subjective endeavour that draws on 259 different variables that can be endlessly manipulated including through the use of emotive colours.

Without access to old growth forests, it’s game over and not just for loggers but the pulp and paper industry, custom cutters who produce everything from Steinway pianos to tall ship masts and architectural masterworks, and a sprawling goods and services supply chain that results in solid family-supporting jobs that could soon be a vanishing way of life. It is also the literal end for many rural and remote communities.

If those maps and reports stood up to scrutiny, any person of good conscience would have to say: “There really is a problem here and we have to do something about it.” But after a lengthy expert examination of the base material, my conclusion is that old growth on Vancouver Island is not in any particular danger as a class. You could log a soccer field every hour on the B.C. coast for 500 years and you would not come even close to eliminating it. 

At the same time, near-fanatical devotion to using forestry data sets to produce a state of panic about old growth has created an extraordinary disconnect. We need to go back to the learnings of the Nigh and Love report, and not accept at face value the claims of imminent disaster.

We also need to incorporate the warning contained in Nigh and Love into Annual Allowable Cut determinations, we may have grossly underestimated the site productivity of the forest resource. The increased productivity demonstrated by Nigh and Love suggests that we could intensify our commercial forestry management and effectively leave more or redistribute the landbase in such a way to better accommodate and aggregate old growth into the forest landscape of Vancouver Island.

I feel bad for the kids with the shiny faces and beatific Jonestown smiles who have chained themselves to “sleeping dragons” in the woods. I’ll bet they honestly believe that 97%, or maybe 99%, of the forests have been mowed down already, because that’s what they’ve been told. 

These tidy catechisms are emotionally engaging but utterly false. This is where the Methuselah Myth becomes quite consequential. Thinking back to the old growth hemlock forests at the start of this article, the forest stands in question were clearly ancient. Yet, because of a numbers game played by the mapmakers favoured by anti-logging pressure groups, they would be excluded from the inventory of high-productivity old growth in B.C. resulting in an undercounting. Multiply this error many times over in the province’s huge land mass and it’s suddenly obvious why this idea of “the last of the mighty old growth” is a very shaky concept.

Rather than wasting their time sitting in roads, maybe those idealistic youth protesters would like to consider donating their time helping complete better inventories of the existing “protected” old growth and other forest- and forestry-related activities.

It seems like these demands for urgent action, right now, have another purpose than actually bringing about change. According to the authors of the recent B.C. report, A New Future for Old Forests, the next step in a proper democratic process is to seek public response. Said the report’s authors: “We advise that this be developed in collaboration with Indigenous governments, and in consultation with many others. We hope this approach provides an avenue to simultaneously build good policy and practices, a stable timber industry as well as public trust.” 

To ensure that narrow interest groups do not derail that process, a strong and united front is going to be needed, in the summer of 2021 and well beyond. The true aim of the forest protests is to seize power from the people of British Columbia. 

Where is Old Growth? It is everywhere, if we would stop and look for ourselves rather than relying on others telling us what to think.

Stewart Muir is an award-winning author and journalist and the founder of the Resource Works Society.



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