Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Oft Forgotten Mountain Hemlock

Here in the Pacific Northwest, when talk turns to the preservation of old growth trees, generally what people are discussing are the giants of valley bottom ecosystems. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce are most frequently mentioned. Why is that? Well, the answer seems obvious, in that they are located at lower elevations and as such might seem more relatable to the average person. They also reach great size and are conspicuously targeted by logging companies in pursuit of the almighty  dollar.

There are, however, a number of different species that grow in the Coast Mountains that simply don’t garner as much attention. One such tree is the Mountain Hemlock, also known as Tsuga Mertensiana . If you’ve ever explored the forests above 800 metres in elevation, then you’ve seen your share of them. What you have likely never heard, however, are sharp cries of protest when the oldest of their kind are cut down. In truth, most people remain unaware that they are even targeted for harvesting!

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Five foot diameter Mountain Hemlock on Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park
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An interesting pair of Mountain Hemlocks near Cabin Lake in Cypress Provincial Park. I like to call them The Happy Couple!

Invariably, you’ll find the Mountain Hemlock at those higher elevations, where it’s most prolific. In coastal British Columbia it shares space with Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and in this subalpine zone it tends to be the dominant forest tree.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time in British Columbia’s southwest region, I’ve come to admire this hardy survivor of the woods. It’s specially designed to be able to hold the heavy snows of winter in the alpine regions, and to shed them efficiently. The Mountain Hemlock can be found growing in the most adverse conditions. It can thrive in groves, where some protection from the elements is afforded, but some big specimens are often found on exposed ridges, where they must confront the wrath of winter head on. Smaller, stunted versions are often found growing on rocky summits where their trunks thicken even more to withstand the winds.

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Heavy snow loads and crazy shapes in winter!
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Snow encrusted Mountain Hemlocks
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Me with an ancient Mountain Hemlock near the Seymour Trail junction. Photo by Doug
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Tsuga Mertensiana, the Mountain Hemlock. This one is on a wind blasted ridge at almost 1500 metres in elevation on Chanter Peak

The Mountain Hemlock is a tree that grows at a very slow and measured pace. When you see one that is just several feet wide in diameter that usually identifies a tree that is already several hundred years old. Growing season is short and difficult in the mountains, and nutrients are sparse, yet I’ve seen so many that have lived multiple centuries. In 2008, when Cypress Provincial Park was given permission to remove trees to accommodate some of the facilities for the Olympic Games, I made a startling discovery. Quite by accident I wandered into an off limits area where dozens of old growth Mountain Hemlocks had been cut down. Even the ones that were just three feet wide proved to be over 400 years old when I counted the growth rings and some of the trees were nearly two metres in diameter. Experts estimate that the tree can reach up to 800 years in age but I am convinced that some may make it into a second millennium.

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Gnarled and ancient Mountain Hemlock. If ever there was such thing an ent, this is it! It grows on the summit of Mt Bishop, at over 1500 metres in elevation

Yet another example of similar negligence occurred when the trail to Joffre Lakes was expanded  back around 2010. BC Parks contracted a firm to do the excavation and during the process they decided to take down a number of Mountain Hemlocks that were over a thousand years old. This was done, allegedly, in the name of public safety, but truthfully in this case they simply took the easiest possible line to widen the path. I’m quite certain they would be standing today had that evaluation been more accurate.

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Making tracks in the magic of a Mountain Hemlock forest

Many an ancient Mountain Hemlock has been levelled by ski resorts, road builders, loggers, and even homesteaders building cabins, over the years. Sometimes this has been done for business purposes, and other times for expediency, but nevertheless countless venerable trees have been destroyed in the process. Much of that destruction has occurred out of sight and out of mind, and it’s high time we paid more attention to this fine and noble tree. In the big picture, it plays an important role in nature, and must not be forgotten!

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Sun sets on Mountain Hemlocks and Vancouver, as seen from Mt Seymour

 

 

 

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