3rd August 2019
Less than one-third of the world’s primary forests are still intact. Deep in the interior of British Columbia, a temperate rainforest that holds vast stores of carbon and is home to endangered caribou is being clear-cut as fast as the Amazon
Sarah Cox Jul 27, 2019
On a balmy day in mid-July, in the heart of British Columbia, Dominick DellaSala steps out of a rented truck to examine the remains of one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet.
DellaSala, a scientist studying global forests that hold vast stores of carbon, is silent for a moment as he surveys a logging road punched through an ancient red cedar and western hemlock grove only days earlier.
A spared cedar tree, at least 400 years old, stands uncloaked in the sun beside the road, an empty bear den hidden in its hollow trunk.
“I haven’t seen logging this bad since I flew over Borneo,” says DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, a partner in an international project to map the world’s most important unlogged forests.
“It was a rainforest. Now it’s a wasteland.”
Vast majority of rare inland rainforest slated for clear-cutting
To encounter a rainforest more than 500 kilometres from B.C.’s coast, with oceanic lichens that sustain endangered caribou herds during winters, is something of a miracle.
By all accounts, a rainforest shouldn’t be scattered in moist valley bottoms stretching from the Cariboo Mountains east of Prince George to the Rocky Mountains close to the Alberta border. Other temperate rainforests, far from the sea, are only found in two other places in the world, in Russia’s far east and southern Siberia.
Scientists wonder at the alignment of nature that made it possible for coastal species to hitchhike here thousands of years ago and flourish undisturbed in the sheltered dampness that kept fire at bay. Tiny flecks of coastal lichens no larger than a millimetre stuck to the feathers and feet of migrating songbirds, while stowaway seeds sunk roots into valley soils, watered by year-round rain and the constant trickling of snow.
Following decades of industrial logging, much of what remains of B.C.’s undisturbed and unprotected inland rainforest is now at risk of being clear-cut — including the few unlogged inland rainforest watersheds between Prince George and the U.S. border, 800 kilometres to the south.
ears of salvage logging for the mountain pine beetle in B.C.’s interior are drawing to a close and timber companies, permits in hand from the provincial government, are moving into the ancient rainforest’s hemlock and spruce stands to feed interior mills running out of wood.
Without a rapid change in B.C. government policy, old-growth hemlock and spruce will be milled into two by-four and two by-six planks, and wood waste will be ground into pellets and shipped overseas.
Cedars that were seedlings 1,600 years ago, when Mayan civilization flourished in cities in the tropical jungle, will wind up as fence posts, shakes and garden mulch, or burned in huge slash piles that line logging roads like a giant’s game of pick-up sticks, adding to B.C.’s uncounted forestry emissions.
Pace of clear-cutting comparable to logging of Brazil’s rainforest
In the interior, older cedars are almost always hollow and are of little commercial value to forestry companies like Carrier Lumber, which has flagged cut blocks along the Fraser Flats logging road where DellaSala stands, a 90-minute drive east of Prince George.
One cutblock borders a designated old-growth management area, now bisected by the muddy road. The old-growth area’s shaved boundaries, approved by the local B.C. forest district manager, are marked by letters in orange spray paint on the furrowed bark of cedars: OGMA.
Clear-cut logging in B.C.’s inland temperate rainforest, found in valley bottoms that are part of a much larger ecosystem called the interior wet belt, is taking place at a rate “if not faster, then comparable to what we’re seeing in the tropical rainforest of Brazil,” says DellaSala, who carries binoculars and a professional camera.
“And that’s just unacceptable,” he tells The Narwhal. “We can get our timber needs met in a lot of other places. We shouldn’t be going into our last primary and intact forest landscapes … We just have so little of this left on the planet.”
In 2017, as DellaSala considered which North American rainforest to choose for the international study, led by Griffith University in Australia, at first he zeroed in on B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest and Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
These old-growth forests are not renewable. They’re not coming back after you log them.”
But few people outside the Prince George area knew about what DellaSala refers to as “Canada’s forgotten rainforest,” and for that reason he chose to focus on the lesser-known rainforest instead.
He partnered with Conservation North, a non-profit society created by Prince George scientists and forest ecologists to draw attention to the critical role of the inland rainforest in storing carbon and sheltering a myriad species in the age of extinction, as scientists worldwide warn of a global biodiversity crisis and potential ecological collapse.
“It took hundreds and hundreds of years for this forest to develop,” says Conservation North director Michelle Connolly, a forest ecologist.
“And it will take a really short period of time to eliminate this beautiful mature forest. It takes us days to knock it down, push the stuff we don’t want into a huge pile, burn the pile and then that’s the end of this stand … These old-growth forests are not renewable. They’re not coming back after you log them.”
Inland rainforests rich in species at time of unprecedented global extinctions
Connolly, who is touring DellaSala through new logging cutblocks and previously logged valleys with names like Anzac and Goat, pulls out an iPad and zooms into a map of the rainforest. It shows logged areas in red, the remaining unprotected old-growth in forest green.
Most of the forest lands are red. Dozens of petite, raggedy green pieces are splashed unevenly throughout the map, denoting unprotected ancient forest. Some border popular protected areas like Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, making them ideal candidates to spare, Connolly points out.
But with so little ancient rainforest remaining in B.C.’s interior, and only 30 per cent of the world’s primary forests still intact, Connolly and DellaSala believe every single splotch of unprotected forest green on the map deserves immediate protection.
Old-growth management areas provide only minimal protection because they are routinely moved and chopped at the discretion of district forest managers and include young forests and replanted clear-cuts, set aside on the grounds that they will be old in hundreds of years, Connolly says, noting that many are too small and fragmented to protect biodiversity.
...continued in Part 2