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Ancient giants and modern challenges – exploring the forests of British Columbia 

By Bas Lerink & Gert-Jan Nabuurs (Wageningen University & Research) 

Douglas fir trees tower over our heads, as we make our way through the inlands of Vancouver Island. While the dimensions of these trees are already impressive, the enormous stumps around them act like headstones of the fallen giants that once dominated the Canadian west coasts’ forests. Some of the stumps bear clear signs of the efforts that were needed to fell them. 150 years ago, settlers were balancing on planks while sawing their way through the thick tree trunks. The cavities where they mounted the planks are visible in photo 1. 

Photo 1: enormous stump of Sitka spruce tree 

The province of British Columbia currently has ca. 13 million ha of old growth forests left.  During some of our hikes we are gazing up at cedars more than 1500 years old, amazing, they germinated around the year 500 AD. The debate on how to deal with these remnants is heated and complicated. Next to that, both primary as well as secondary forests are clearly affected by climate change. It is impossible for us to interpret the situation thousands of kilometres away at the desks in our own institute, so it was time to get boots on Canadian grounds.  

International collaboration is key to address the challenges we are facing in our forests worldwide. In the case of climate change, the effects on forests are surprisingly similar across the Northern Hemisphere. Frequent forest fires, outbreaks of pests and diseases and prolonged drought periods are detrimental to the vitality and carbon uptake of boreal and temperate forests across the globe. Forest modelling helps to better understand and quantify the effects on our forests. The models that are used for this are developing fast. Our mission is to bridge the gap between Europe and Northern America and learn from each other’s work.  

We were warmly welcomed by the carbon accounting team at the Pacific Forestry Centre (PFC) in Victoria, where the Dutch and Canadian flags were hanging next to each other. The vast amount of carbon in Canadian forests is immensely hard to quantify and constantly poses challenges to the researchers. For example: how to properly account for the increasing number of forest fires in Canada? And how to get meaningful input data for your model when only a limited number of measurements is available? PFC’s Carbon Budget Model (CBM) has constantly been improved throughout the past few decades, and still a team of experts is working on it on a daily basis. We learned a lot from each other while discussing the different elements of our models, which will surely result in more collaboration in the future.  

We were also very interested in perspectives on forest management in Canada. Mosaic Forestry is the largest private forestry company in BC and invited us for a tour in their forests (you can see our guide Sager Bradley from Mosaic Forestry and us on photo 2). While clearcuts of 40-60 ha are still the common practice, they simultaneously carry out experiments with thinnings. When we later visited the silviculture group at the UBC, the urgency of a shift to more continuous cover forestry was echoed. Projections of the baseline situation show an ongoing, serious decline in wood supply after the recent surge in supply from mountain pine beetle affected forests, which calls for more sustainable solutions.

Photo (from left to right): Sager Bradley, Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Bas Lerink

During the weekend, we explored remnants of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests. We fell silent while hiking through Avatar Grove and gazed upon the massive San Juan Sitka spruce (photo 3) and the record-breaking Red Creek Douglas fir (photo 4). After these fantastic experiences, we had a chat with the old-growth protection organisation Sierra Club. It was disappointing to hear that old-growth forests in BC continue to be logged at alarming rates. It seems that the wish to protect what is still left of these magnificent forests is broadly shared among BC’s citizens, but trade-offs with decreasing job availability in the forest sector and lengthy negotiations block effective implementation.  

Image 3 and 4: humble admiration of massive San Juan Sitka spruce (photo 3) and record-breaking Red Creek Douglas fir 

BC is the largest wood production region of Canada while at the same time it harbours the most beautiful temperate rainforests of the world. The challenges are enormous to find a balance between protecting and exploiting the forests. However, we were inspired by the Canadians we met along the journey. It is up to them to find the solutions, so that we can all enjoy the variety of different functions of Canadian forests for generations to come.  We have laid the seeds of an enthusiastic collaboration with several groups and this will not take 1500 years to mature; we’ll be back in due time!  

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