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EFI hits the road – a “Busman’s Holiday” around British Columbia’s beleaguered forests

Anyone who works as a researcher with an environmental or forestry organisation like EFI will tell you that there’s no such thing as a “proper” holiday; indeed, sitting on the beach for 2 weeks sounds to me like the very epitome of sensory deprivation (and that’s even despite having a dodgy knee). By contrast, the idea of a road trip around British Columbia (BC) with my family this summer sounded like a veritable voyage of discovery. So, it was with enthusiasm (and a degree of trepidation) that we boarded a flight from Frankfurt bound for Vancouver with the aim of exploring parts of the Pacific NW in a campervan. Without a doubt, BC’s diverse forests would certainly influence a large part in our travel itinerary; both in positive and negative ways, as it turned out. There was much to learn on our journey. 

Urban Forests of Vancouver 

Our first port of call was Vancouver itself, giving us the opportunity to check out some of the City’s amazing urban forests. As a member of European Forest Institute’s (EFI)  EFI Resilience team, I’ve been focusing closely upon urban forestry approaches and the participatory management of natural resources. Indeed, Vancouver’s Urban Forestry Strategy is one of the policy documents which we’ve recently referred to, when checking international examples of best practice in urban greening.  

The “Jewel in the Crown” of Vancouver’s urban forests is surely the world class Stanley Park, which occupies a sublime location on a forested peninsula, surrounded by water and mountains on most sides and located just minutes from the City’s vibrant Downtown. The iconic park contains significant remnants of coastal temperate rainforests characteristic of the Pacific NW bioregion. These include ancient western red cedar trees, big-leafed maples and towering, cathedral-like Douglas firs, which reach to over 50 metres in height. The forest has bounced back over the years, following a series of disturbances, including a great fire of 1886 and selective logging which took place between 1860 – 1890, before the area was designated as a park. Most recently, following a devastating windstorm in 2006, some 15,000 new trees and shrubs were planted to restore the park’s forest ecosystems. 

The big issue now though facing Vancouver’s urban forests is the problem of drought, which has severely affected the entire region, particularly the interior of BC. Many parts of BC are currently on the highest levels of drought alert – 4/5 on a scale of 1-5 – following a succession of dry springs and summers in recent years. In addition to the obvious implications of moisture deficit on the City’s beleaguered tree stocks, urban greening strategies are focusing on the issue of reducing urban heat island impacts, including consideration of how the presence of an extensive tree canopy, can help to lower temperatures in residential neighbourhoods.  

This has implications for social and environmental justice; despite best intentions, healthy canopy cover is most often associated with upmarket neighbourhoods, where properties can easily change hands for several million dollars. It’s fair to say that Vancouver’s popularity, sky-high rents and the legacy of Covid have exacerbated social inequalities in recent years, with homelessness becoming disturbingly evident in many parts of the Downtown. In the search for quick fixes to heatwaves, the City of Vancouver have been experimenting with creating “cooling stations” which are accessible to all (including socially disadvantaged groups), with water sprays to provide welcome relief from the most extreme summer heatwave conditions – something that my kids really enjoyed experiencing. 

An Ecotopia on the Pacific Coast 

Ian Whitehead during his voyage of discovery in BC.

After the “Van” experience, it was time to leave the big city behind and head for nearby Vancouver Island with a rented RV (campervan), where we were keen to explore some of the Island’s wonderful coastal scenery and temperate rainforest ecosystems. Further indication of drought related problems was all too soon in evidence though, when we turned onto the Island’s scenic Highway 4, heading for the small coastal resort of Tofino. 

Just before reaching the famous and magnificent “Cathedral Grove” of Douglas Firs near Port Alberni on Highway 4, the road winds beneath precipitous slopes, between a lake shore and a steep mountainside. A smouldering wildfire on the upper slopes had partially blocked the highway, with heavy engineering operations underway to prevent debris from sliding down onto the road from the destabilised slopes above. This was no light undertaking; indeed, the Highway had been completely closed for a couple of weeks, putting a huge strain on the local economy, with few alternative transit options existing, other than tortuous unsurfaced logging routes. Fortunately, just in time for our trip, the road had partially reopened, albeit with a long and slow traffic management/convoy system in operation. 

So, we eventually reached Tofino on the Pacific Coast. In recent years, Tofino has acquired the reputation as an “ecotopia” resort with its endless miles of sublime beaches, temperate rainforests and the bountiful marine life of the Clayoquot Sound. Here, it’s possible to undertake just about every form of adventure and ecotourism activity; from surfing to sea kayaking, to winter storm watching, to whale and bear watching. The Sound boasts some of the most intact coastal rainforest ecosystems in Canada, with magnificent Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, Sitka spruce and Western red cedar stands – some of which are over 1000 years old. We took advantage of excursions offered by a couple of local adventure tourism operators, including a sea kayak trip to visit the legendry Tree Trail of Meares Island and a wildlife watching tour offering opportunities to see orcas, humpback whales, sea otters and black bears. Such small ecotourism businesses now form the mainstay of the Tofino economy. 

The “War in the Woods” and a new economic model 

The region’s spectacular natural assets have not always been perceived as being of such value however; before the advent of the ecotourism boom, Tofino was very much an old-fashioned logging and fishing town. Back in the 1980s there were even plans by big logging firms to clear-fell the trees of the Clayoquot Sound, their worth being perceived merely in terms of sawn timber commodity value. The resultant protests from indigenous First Nations groups and environmental activists achieved legendary status as the “War in the Woods”. The campaign had an impact far beyond the shores of Clayoquot Sound and was actually the largest ever act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, with several hundred people being arrested in clashes with law enforcement officers. 

Following years of intense conflict, the entire Sound was eventually designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, further emphasising its ecological significance. However, to this day, the agreement is still contested and is not legally binding in preventing companies from logging the area in the future. Later, in 2014, local First Nations residents created the “Meares Island Tribal Park”, effectively proclaiming Indigenous sovereignty over a large area of the Sound. In advocating for the expansion of Tribal Parks on formerly held indigenous land, First Nations Canadians seek to return to more traditional systems of natural resources stewardship. Overall, the position of First Nations groups, is politically a sensitive one in Canada at the present time, with Tribal Parks increasingly likely to play an important role in the future. The inspiring approach taken in Tofino has shown how a local economy can be transformed, from one based purely on unsustainable resource extraction, into a model favouring longer term sustainability, environmental stewardship, ecotourism and the preservation of cultural heritage. 

Into the interior of BC: forests’ health in danger 

After leaving the Pacific Coast, the next leg of our tour took us into the interior of BC, towards the great ranges of the Rockies, including the world-famous National Parks of Glacier, Jasper and Banff. Our route took us through a staggering variety of biogeographical zones, from the forest clad slopes of the Coast Ranges to the parched dry grasslands and semi desert region around Kamloops.  

The further you travel into the interior, the more apparent it becomes that not everything is right with BC’s forests. Our journey took us through desolate uplands, featuring oppressive monocultures of lodgepole pine; seemingly, devastated by successive waves of wildfires and bark beetle infestations. The extent of burnt areas was really quite mind-blowing and the resultant landscapes singularly bleak to witness. Worryingly, the bark beetle problem also seems to be increasing in areas of formerly pristine montane habitats such as along Rodgers Pass in Glacier National Park, where thousands of trees have been affected by spruce bark and mountain pine beetles; milder winters in recent years have contributed to the explosion in the beetle population. At Rodgers Pass, I spoke to a somewhat world-weary Parks Canada ranger there who appeared to feel powerless and depressed about the situation – obviously having answered too many questions from curious visitors on why the Park’s forests weren’t looking so healthy these days. 

Rockies? What Rockies? 

It was after leaving Rodgers Pass, however, on the route towards Golden, that the real impact of Western Canada’s drought and intense heatwaves became depressingly apparent. All too soon, sublime panoramas of distant peaks and glaciers became a thing of the past as the acrid smell of woodsmoke filled the air; intense colours fading to monochrome as visibility decreased dramatically. We were now experiencing the new norm of BC’s fire season; it appeared that much of the smoke was actually drifting in from huge wildfires far away in Northern BC, burning hundreds of km away. 

Along with enormous fires in Eastern Canada this year, BC’s fire season has already been by far the worst on record. Even by mid-July, a staggering 14,000 square km had burned across the province (equivalent to an area of 45% of Vancouver Island) which already overtakes 2018 as being the worst fire season on record. In addition to the obvious environmental and economic impacts of this, the effects on human health through smoke inhalation are significant, particularly to those with existing heart and raspatory conditions. There is also a considerable threat to human life and property; indeed, three firefighters had already tragically lost their lives this year in the struggle to contain out-of-control blazes across the province.  

The smoky skies continued to dog our excursion to the Rockies, often combined with dust from seemingly endless road construction projects, aimed at upgrading the TransCanada Highway from 2 to 4 lanes. We booked into lodge accommodation at the iconic Emerald Lake Resort, surrounded by the grand peaks of the Rockies, for a couple of nights, but were unable to really enjoy the normally sublime setting of Yoho National Park. The all-pervasive smoke muted colours and reduced visibility, putting rather a damper on the whole experience.  

The same was also true in massively over-touristed Lake Louise, though it did get slightly better when we headed up the renowned Icefields Parkway, as far as dreamy Bow Lake, where starry-eyed couples posed for surreal wedding photos admidst the smoky backdrop of the lake and surrounding peaks. Although we know fire plays an important role in natural forest regeneration, I had to admit that my holiday mood felt a little subdued in the knowledge that somewhere, not so far away, forests were being reduced to ashes; particularly given the abnormal intensity of this year’s fire season.With little improvement in prospect, we revised our plans to head further up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper and cut our losses, heading back west towards Revelstoke and eventually finding blissfully clearer skies. Visiting the renowned “Meadows in the Sky”, a biodiversity hotspot in Mt. Revelstoke National Park, really was like moving from the darkness into the light; as panoramic views of peaks were once more revealed, and the vibrant hues of mountain skies and wildflowers again reached their full intensity. 

Dry as a bone in the Shuswap 

We spent much of the last week or so of our BC trip in the town of Salmon Arm in the Shuswap Lakes Region of BC where my brother has lived, on and off, for the last couple of decades. Salmon Arm is an attractive and pleasant place to live, close to mountains, lakes and forests – but also boasting productive agricultural land, fruit farms and wineries to boot. If there is a promised land to be found, then Salmon Arm must surely be somewhere well on the road to it. 

However, even here, in the laidback Shuswap Region, there was a sense of foreboding about the ever-present risk of wildfires and the threat to life and property that this presents. There are constant reminders; helicopter teams buzz the surrounding hills after every dry lightning storm to check out possible sources of ignition for the next big blaze – many buildings such as my brother’s house are particularly vulnerable, being located close to the forest edge. A constant daily threat of evacuation hangs over residents, who must be prepared and ready to pack up at a moment’s notice should worst come to worst. 

Peoples’ minds in the region will also be focused upon the sad case of Lytton, a small community in BC’s Fraser Valley which had the unfortunate accolade of recording Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6 degrees C, on June 29th, 2021. The following day, a devastating wildfire swept through the entire town, reducing it to ashes in minutes and causing the deaths of 2 people. During our stay, we also had the chance to visit the Border town of Osoyoos, where my niece has been working on biodiversity conservation projects. Even as I write this, parts of the town have also been evacuated in response to an aggressive wildfire, spreading North from across the US Border. The threat is constant and very real.  

Journey’s End: it’s time for action and not words 

So sadly, it was soon time to pack up and head for home. We were recommended to take the scenic Highway 99 back to Vancouver, which turned out to be an excellent low-traffic alternative, to the tedious slog and barren scenery around Merritt. Needless to say, this first involved the need to check traffic and smoke reports to look for potential hazards on route. Generally, though the journey back was quite breathtaking with awesome vistas of lakes, mountains and rugged canyons; though we did pass one major blaze across the Fraser gorge near the town of Lillooet. The final section from Whistler to Vancouver on the “Sea to Sky Highway” was a bit of a slow grind though, due to a vehicle collision and a resulting 3-hour traffic hold-up. On a more positive note, however, a black bear casually sauntered across the road in front of us, just outside the resort of Whistler; another one for the tick list. 

And so back to Europe and the long flight over Canada’s far North, Hudson’s Bay, Baffin Island, the Greenland Icecap, Iceland, the Faro Islands and the Hebrides. Generally, our trip was a great experience, providing a myriad of impressions and memories; both good and bad. However, the scale of the challenges facing Canada’s forests through increasing temperatures, droughts and wildfire hazards cannot be overestimated.  

The global community simply cannot afford to ignore these warnings any longer; now is the time for action and not words… 

Some Background information

People asked to conserve water as province says B.C. drought already worse than October 2022

Trees of Stanley Park

How Clayoquot Sound’s War in the Woods transformed Tofino | The Narwhal

How a resurgence in Indigenous governance is leading to better conservation

2023 has become B.C.’s worst ever wildfire season

The 2023 wildfire season is now B.C.’s most destructive on record — and it’s only mid-July

Some relief for residents as evacuation order reduced for wildfire burning near Osoyoos, B.C.

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