2nd August 2019
...continued from Part 1
“We need to start thinking about old-growth forests in the interior of B.C. in terms of how it relates to the global loss of biodiversity and the global loss of habitat,” she says.
“We’re in an era now where we’re losing species, hundreds a day, and we need to think of the value of these last places in an international sense.”
As if on cue, along the Fraser Flats logging road the scientists spot four black bears and a young cinnamon-coloured grizzly bear, a species vulnerable to extinction in many jurisdictions, traversing a wetland on a fallen tree bleached grey in the sun.
A moose, a Canada lynx and a red fox follow the next day — only some of the rainforest’s charismatic megafauna, which includes species at risk of extinction such as southern mountain caribou, fisher, wolverine, goshawk and bull trout, which spawn in cool, sheltered streams in two old-growth rainforest valleys, the Goat and the Walker, both open for logging.
As Connolly takes stock of a new addition to the logging road, which has grown by several kilometres since her visit less than two weeks earlier, a wayward western tanager flits from bush to bush along the forest fringe, flashing tropical yellow and scarlet. Blue dragonflies suddenly appear like apparitions, whirling over the road where it tops a burbling creek, now running through an industrial culvert.
Politicians destroying ‘part of what it is to be Canadian’
Scientist Trevor Goward, who has studied the inland temperate rainforest for four decades, calls clear-cutting the grand cedar and hemlock stands an “international tragedy.”
“Our political leaders are destroying a major part of what it is to be Canadian,” says Goward, who lives near Wells Gray Park, close to the the rainforest’s southern and western fringe.
For Goward, one of North American’s leading lichenologists, the rare ancient trees are only the largest members of what he calls B.C.’s inland rainforest “biological archives,” which hold more than 2,300 plant species, including 400 species of moss.
Some plants are immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a B.C. coastal rainforest: frilly horsetail, skunk cabbage and the rarer deer fern, whose feathery fronds resemble ostrich plumes. Dozens of inland rainforest plant species, including the white adder’s mouth orchid and the dainty and mountain moonwarts, a type of fern, are vulnerable to extinction.
Goward focuses on the hundreds of lichen species in this rainforest, including oceanic species so far from their place of origin he says their presence is “almost inconceivable.”
“The number of oceanic species is beyond belief. It’s an absolutely incredible phenomenon.”
Goward has formally described dozens of lichens, including rare and endangered rainforest species, giving them evocative common names such as green moon, peppered paw and mourning phlegm.
Many more await description, says Goward, who continues to pull out new biological gems from the vast inland rainforest archives. Five years ago, he and seven other lichenologists published a paper describing eight new species of inland rainforest lichen, including crumpled tarpaper, a lichen now listed as globally threatened.
“When you know something about the organisms that live in these forests, particularly the mosses and especially the lichens, you feel like you’re Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels,” Goward says.
Caribou depend on inland rainforest valley bottoms
Inland rainforest lichens range from toad whiskers, resembling five o’clock shadow, on the underside of leaning trees, to Methuselah’s beard, which grows up to three or four metres in length and is wrapped around tree branches by the wind.
Leafy lung lichens, named for their resemblance to human lung tissue, grow only in places with clean air, yet include a species with the common name of smoker’s lung, for its black upper surface resembling cigarette tar.
Hair lichen in the inland rainforest, draped over tree branches like wiry wigs, is an essential winter food for woodland caribou, whose stomachs carry special bacteria that help them digest lichens.
Hair lichens die when buried in snow and can be out of reach for caribou in early winter, Goward notes. In years following winters of exceptionally deep snow, herds are forced to migrate to rainforest valley bottoms for prolonged periods — “a critical but much overlooked part of their lifestyle,” says Goward, who has studied the relationship between hair lichens and caribou since the 1980s.
“Part of the reason the caribou are disappearing is because they’re logging the lower elevation forest.”
Thirty of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, including six of the remaining ten herds whose habitat includes the inland temperate rainforest. Little more than a decade ago, there were 18 deep-snow caribou herds, but eight of those herds no longer exist.
Goward suspects that ongoing loss of old-growth at lower elevations promotes occasional “starvation winters,” periods when caribou suffer from malnutrition. Such winters, he says, are likely to exacerbate caribou decline by, for example, increasing the mortality of calves born the following spring.
“Caribou biologists wedded to predator control are at a loss to explain the rapid decline of some herds,” Goward notes. “In my view, episodic starvation is certainly part of the story.”
Inland rainforest stores far more carbon than tropical rainforests
The B.C. government calls the inland rainforest a “rare and hidden treasure” in promotional materials, yet only small patches are protected.
Those patches are found in three provincial parks that straddle Highway 16 between Prince George and McBride, where Boreal BioEnergy, a B.C. forestry company, plans to open a biomass plant to turn wood waste, including from the rainforest’s ancient red cedar and hemlock, into pellets for export to Japan. All of the parks include large areas that have been clear-cut.
The Ancient Forest Park and protected area — Chun T’oh Wudujut in the local Lheidli language — was conserved by the B.C. government in 2016 but given short shrift because all eyes were on far more extensive new protections in the Great Bear Rainforest. Almost one-quarter of the 12,000-hectare Ancient Forest Park and protected area was clear-cut before the designation, according to Conservation North.
An information display near the park entrance singles out the largest tree in the conserved area, measuring five metres in diameter and thought to be more than 2,000 years old.
In the coastal rainforest, trees are generally big and some are old, Connolly points out.
The giants of the inland temperate forest are all old, yet a much shorter growing season means that only some reach the Leviathan proportions of the coastal behemoths, 54 of which the B.C. government recently protected from logging on the grounds that some of the largest trees deserve to stand.
Size matters in the world of B.C. politics, where both of the two major political parties, the Liberals and the NDP, promote industrial logging of the province’s remaining unprotected old-growth forests.
But here in the inland rainforest, it’s age that counts. The stately red cedars and hemlocks designated for logging have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of years, in some cases well over a thousand.
“What we’re looking at is the accumulation of tons and tons of carbon that has been pulled out of the atmosphere and stored in these trees for centuries, helping to keep our planet cool,” DellaSala says. “It’s like outdoor air conditioning.”
As part of the international study of primary and intact forest landscapes, Connolly and her colleagues at the Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Oregon, are quantifying the above-ground carbon stored in the unprotected inland rainforest.
According to a peer-reviewed article by Australian scientists, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, temperate rainforests store twice as much carbon per hectare as the most carbon-dense tropical rainforests.
DellaSala says B.C., which is legally committed to slashing carbon emissions, is sitting on a world-class carbon sink.
“This is not being recognized as a potential carbon sanctuary,” says the scientist, whose PhD focused on forest fragmentation. “We’re missing an opportunity to slow down the pace and velocity of climate change by squandering this resource.”
Spruce beetle logging poses new threat to rare rainforest
Wearing thick rain pants and gloves as a shield against the copious spines of devil’s club, a medicinal shrub that grows like Jack’s beanstalk in the damp stillness of the rainforest, the scientists hike a short distance from the road into the designated old-growth management area. Connolly, wearing a bright safety vest and yellow rainproof overalls, carries a can of bear spray and a ringed notebook.
Tall cedar trees, some in clumps of three or four, stretch as far as the eye can see. Raindrops begin to plop onto the leaves of wild ginger, blackcurrant, bunchberry and foam flower, which looks like constellations of tiny white stars on the forest floor.
Here, in the old-growth management area, beside the planned clear-cut, Connolly and her colleagues have marked out a circular area one hectare in size, one of 28 such areas they are studying in different locations in the rainforest.
The scientists are measuring everything inside the circles, from saplings to towering cedars, by girth and height, using equations to estimate the carbon. Fallen trees on the forest floor, known as coarse woody debris, are also counted, although rainforest soil, also a carbon sink until it is disturbed by logging, is not part of their study.
When the rainforest is logged, “only a small fraction of the carbon goes to the mill,” Connolly points out. “The rest of it goes into the atmosphere.”
Notably, hidden and uncounted emissions from B.C. forestry exceed the province’s official emissions by threefold, according to a recent report from Sierra Club BC.
The value B.C. derives from logging primary rainforests, which provide ecosystem services such as clean water, carbon storage and air filtration, pales in comparison to the value of leaving them intact, according to DellaSala.
“We come in here and just take the trees, which do have an economic value. But, when you add up all the other ecosystem benefits that we get for free from these forests, they greatly exceed the one-time benefit we get from knocking them down and converting them into wood products. It’s really short-sighted.”
B.C.’s forest industry in transition
And now there is a new threat to the inland rainforest: the spruce beetle.
A cyclical spruce beetle outbreak in the Interior has accelerated logging plans for the inland temperate rainforest and other areas of the interior wet belt, even though Connolly points out there is no scientific evidence that logging shortens an outbreak.
“[Logging companies] are coming after the spruce and everything else is just going to be laid to waste,” she says.
Driving back to Prince George, whose city mascot is a Sasquatch-sized log man known as “Mr. PG,” Connolly and DellaSala pass ghost towns abandoned decades ago by the forest industry.
All that stands of an old Canfor mill beside the railroad tracks in the town of Upper Fraser is a beige-coloured tower with protruding pipes, now occupied by swallows, and a tumbledown trailer with a broken window.
Out of sight, lining the railroad tracks, are piles of rusting metal and cylinders filled with concrete, long-abandoned parts from an industry that underwent major reconstructive surgery decades ago, emerging as the major employer in a region known in forestry circles as the “fibre basket” of B.C.
..Continued in Part 3