Protecting Ancient Trees in British Columbia

Earlier this year, a concerned citizen happened to photograph a loaded logging truck on Vancouver Island’s Highway 19 near Nanaimo. On its sturdy deck was a sizeable log , somewhat less than three metres in diameter. The photo swiftly went viral, and that log ended up raising quite a furor in British Columbia, where many people are currently rallying to protect ancient forests. In actual fact, you might be surprised or even unaware that countless trees of similar size are routinely cut down here in this province.

While initially the log’s origin was unclear, this article eventually cleared up that confusion. The image, meanwhile, sparked a visceral debate regarding the reasons why trees like this are still permitted to be harvested in British Columbia. Inevitably, questions were asked, such as “Why are we still cutting down big trees like this?” and “What does it take to get a tree get protected in this province?” In this story, I’ll attempt to address those questions, and a few more. Call it a TED talk, if you like!

This is a Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), the same species as that big log on the truck! A tree native to coastal regions and lower elevations, it thrives on heavy rainfall and wet conditions…photo by Doug Pope

To those who may have wondered, I’m not a professional forester ( I don’t even play one on television!). Many years ago I did work summers in forestry jobs and actually had intentions of working as a timber cruiser, but life took a different turn. It had been years since I’d delved into all of the rules and regulations surrounding the various ways in which trees could come to be protected. Truthfully, I could have done so earlier, but I find it to be tedious task and would rather be out there searching for trees and promoting preservation instead. Nonetheless, this review has been helpful to me, and I thought the information was worth sharing.

Yes, hunting for trees and fighting to preserve them is more fun, but I’m glad I researched this story as the information was very useful…photo by Matt Casselman

Before we get to the details, in case the the reader isn’t familiar with the measurement of trees, I’m including a few notes here on that methodology. You’ll notice I work interchangeably between feet, metres, and centimetres. That’s a product of measuring trees for the last three decades or so! For all intents and purposes, you’re looking to measure the widest face of the tree at DBH, but here are the mathematical equations involved:

While you can measure diameter at the tree’s widest face, this formula will give you a more accurate, averaged figure, after measuring the circumference. If you don’t want to do the math, you can measure circumference with a D Tape (diameter) which saves you having to do the calculations
Chris Hood demonstrates the art of tree measurement
If you’ve measured the diameter but would like to know the tree’s circumference, go with this formula

The diameter of a tree is measured at breast height (DBH) in metres, centimetres, or feet. Traditionally, that measurement is taken at about 4 1/2 feet (or 1.3 metres) up from flat ground. Width is the only criteria considered in B.C. government size limits , and no special dispensation is given to height where preservation is concerned. Another statistic, volume of wood, an accepted standard used to rank the size of big trees, is also not factored in. Exceptional height is particularly important, as it quite often identifies future growth success. Click link for more Government of BC information on Old Growth Forests.

Big trees, not big stumps!

Before I focus on the many ways in which a tree can gain protection in British Columbia, I must begin with this particularly telling fact, in bold type below…




*The only exceptions were if the trees were protected in Wildlife Management Areas, or Old Growth Management Areas, neither of which confer permanent protection. I’ll discuss more on those classifications as this story progresses.

Before July of 2019, there were no thresholds for size to protect trees like this 500 year old Sitka spruce, on Crown land in British Columbia!

When I began researching this article, I thought I’d just forgotten where to find previous information about size limits for the protection of trees. I knew of course, for many years there had been no regulations, but for some reason I thought there had been changes introduced sometime in the last twenty years. I was incorrect, as no such rules had ever been made.

Under the old rules, the only things that could save a tree like this giant cedar were luck and or generosity!

Credit, therefore, to the BCNDP for finally introducing some limits in July of 2019, even if they did downgrade and replace them in September of 2020. Their forestry policy has definitely been a disappointment, in practice, but at least the doors were opened to the concept of using size limits to protect trees. Those limits, realistically, are set far too high to protect significant stands of old growth trees, but at least they are a start. We also need to conserve more forests in their intact state, not just individual specimens.

The magic of an old growth forest is irreplaceable

Now, to the facts! There are a number of different ways a tree can gain protected status in British Columbia, some of them being self explanatory. For starters, if the tree is located within a national, provincial, regional, or municipal park, obviously, then it is considered safe from logging.

This is Doug Pope with the world champion Western red cedar, which grows near Cheewhat Lake The tree was discovered by the late Sooke resident and tree hunting legend Maywell Wickheim in 1988. It resides in an area removed from a Timber Forest License to become part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve…….STATUS: This tree is now protected in a national park
This venerable coastal Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga Menzieszi), which I call the Kitty Coleman Fir, is located in Kitty Coleman Provincial Park, near Courtenay on Vancouver Island……. STATUS: This tree is protected in a provincial park
Here I am photographing an ancient Western red cedar in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park, near North Vancouver. This park, formerly a watershed with restricted access, was opened to the public in 1985, thus protecting many trees…STATUS: This tree is now protected in a regional park…photo by Rich Sobel

Should a tree be located on private land, the landowner may choose to protect it, or in some instances be compelled to do so for environmental reasons, such as proximity to a water course. Sometimes organizations like The Land Conservancy (TLC) , or other trusts, will raise funds to buy private land in order to protect it from development, thus protecting the trees on it as well.

Qualicum Heritage Forest, where a concerned group of citizens raised funds and purchased a tract of forest from private landowners with the town’s help…….STATUS: This Douglas fir is now protected within a community park

Finally, the Government of British Columbia can act to protect trees in a wide variety of ways. First of all, they can choose to remove an area of Crown Land designated as a timber forest license(TFL) and allow it to be added to a national or provincial park, or designate that land as a provincial park. In the event they do so, they will often reassign other lands to that particular license holder. Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was set aside in this way.

Ancient Forest Chun Toh Whudujut Park and Protected Area, not far from Prince George, is a great example of collaboration between the Government of BC, timber license holders, and First Nations. These trees were once slated to be logged but many are now saved…….STATUS: These trees are now protected within a provincial park

In addition, trees may also gain protection through being included within a Wildlife Management Area. These areas are set aside to protect or study regionally or internationally significant fish and wildlife species, and or habitats. It’s important to note that Wildlife Management Areas do not necessarily guarantee permanent protection because they are subject to being reclassified. The government may also, through legislation, create a Wildlife Sanctuary, and this does permanently preserve the wildlife and the trees within. That happened, for example, when the Khuzymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary was created.

Contact the Khuzymateen Wilderness Lodge , the go to source for more information about wildlife viewing and more in the Khuzymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary….photo posted on Facebook by Khuzymateen Wilderness Lodge

A tree can also be protected  if it is situated within an ecological reserve, or if it has been sufficiently identified as a significant Wildlife Tree. There are also locally designated nature sanctuaries which can provide safe harbour, such as Nanaimo’s Morrell Nature Sanctuary

This is a sign affixed to a Douglas fir in Seymour Valley’s Eagle’s Nest Grove, in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve . There have been eagles nesting here for at least the last fifty years, so the tree has been protected for many decades

The government, and other land managers, can also designate some areas of high wildlife and biodiversity value in what is called an Old Growth Management Area (OGMA), which also temporarily protects the trees within. In the past, unfortunately, some OGMAs have been reclassified then made available for timber harvest. While this does not happen all the time, it is within the government’s power to do so, and this has understandably eroded trust between the government and conservationists. It is worth accessing the provincial government’s mapping data on OGMAs if you’re interested in the location of big trees.

Duncan at one with this tree in Chester’s Grove , a cluster of ancient Sitka spruce and Bigleaf maples along the San Juan River near Port Renfrew. It is, to my knowledge, part of a small Old Growth Management Area. Notably, were it within an area eligible for harvest, it would now qualify for Special Tree protection anyway, but most of the surrounding grove would not…….STATUS: Protected, but not permanently, in an Old Growth Management Area

Much of Fairy Creek, for example, is currently protected in an OGMA. One the main reasons the blockades there came to be was that roads were being built at high elevation onto a ridge adjacent to the watershed. Historically, the construction of such roads has always meant logging will soon follow, and that was a risk that conservationists weren’t willing to take. The main reason? High elevation old growth stands of yellow cedar in upper Fairy Creek are in fact actually NOT protected in the OGMA. Many readers will be aware that there is a deferral in place on logging within the Fairy Creek watershed while a new management plan is being formulated by the Pacheedaht First Nation. That’s hopeful, but it’s important to reiterate that deferrals are not permanent protection.

An aerial perspective of Fairy Creek, with the Old Growth Management Area defined. The intended harvest areas are also shown here. At this time the core of the valley is temporarily protected, but if logging eventually was to occur in its upper reaches, there would be concerns. That’s what sparked the current wave of protests about old growth logging.

The provincial government is also empowered to protect any individual tree on Crown land, if it wishes to do so. It may even approach private landowners for this same purpose, occasionally. For example, in July of 2019, 54 notable trees were set aside in a one time preservation measure. Those trees had been determined to be significant or exceptional examples of their species, and were referred to as Specified Trees. Most of those trees were already unofficially protected, but that status had simply not been formalized yet. Designating them was basically a token gesture, meant to appease the many people vehemently protesting old growth logging. Yet, at the same time, the province of British Columbia also announced a new big tree protection policy based on the methodology used to designate these 54 trees. It was later repealed in favour higher size limits for protection in what is now called the Special Tree policy.

Chris Istace looking small as he approaches the iconic Big Lonely Doug, near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. This Douglas fir made the list of 54 Specified Trees, which were designated in July of 2019 Status: Protected as a Specified Tree

Below are the standards which were to determine the Provincial Big Tree Conservation Policy, along with those 54 significant trees, announced in July of 2019. So why were they repealed and replaced with inferior standards the following year? It’s likely it was done to appease timber companies, who may have felt the new size limits too restrictive, but no explanation of the changes was given to the public.

The introduction seemed on point…
However, pay attention to the Operational Factors section, as its stipulations gave the more unscrupulous operators ways to fell the tree even if it did qualify for protection. Some of these regulations have carried over to the new Special Tree qualifications.Most timber license holders, however, do tend to follow the regulations so that would not always be an issue.
Section “G” of
Operational Factors is one I find to be egregious. By no means should you ever fall a tree that qualifies for protection on a timber forest license just because there is a “local abundance of big trees”
These are size limits for retention in this table from the 2019 policy which were repealed and replaced. They were used instead only for the Specified Tree designation of the 54 trees
Note that all levels for protection in these 2019 tables are far lower than the 202o Special Tree thresholds

The table below shows those new size limits for protection of big trees which the government of BC installed in September of 2020. It took them just fourteen months to take a serious step backwards, sadly, because these thresholds are considerably higher and protect far fewer trees.

For comparison, here are the size limits for protection set by the Government of British Columbia, September 2020. The limits are a lot higher than they would have been had the government stuck with the original method of calculation used in the aborted Provincial Big Tree Conservation Policy introduced in July of 2019

One other important factor is that there are still no size regulations set for trees not included in the 2020 table, such as Western hemlock, Mountain hemlock, Western white pine,, and Amabilis/Pacific silver fir, to name but a few species. In the 2019 guidelines, such species were included.

This is Norvan’s Castle, a massive Western hemlock in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. Since there are no size limits in place for its species, a tree like this one can legally be cut under the new Special Tree qualifications if it’s growing on Crown land

Government of B.C. size levels set in September of 2020 refer strictly to trees growing on Crown land. Crown land is land owned by the province that can be divided into timber forest licenses, where applicable. Qualifying trees eligible for the designation of Special Tree status must promptly be reported by the timber license holder when discovered. No insight into the process of determining these size limits was given to the public, so I cannot offer input on that other than to say that the process should have been more transparent. Finally, regarding jurisdiction, it is completely within the power of the provincial government to lower the thresholds for big tree protection at any time!

Yes, that’s right! If the government wants to lower size limits for big tree protection, they basically can do so unilaterally

Since we’ve discussed provincial size limits, it is also worth talking about the lower limits already set by B.C. Timber Sales (BCTS), and other stakeholders, in their voluntary programs. Keep in mind that those Government of BC Special Tree limits are far higher than those set by BCTS in their Legacy Tree Program, which began much earlier, in September of 2017! BCTS, which manages about 20 per cent of the province’s Crown land timber, does this with full government approval despite actually being an arm of the provincial government, but it’s clear they are advocating much better size limits.

BCTS size guides for their Legacy Tree Program are much lower than those set by the government of B.C.

Western Forest Products(WFP) also has set limits similar to BCTS within their own Big Tree Retention policy.

WFP size protection levels are also far lower than current Government of B.C. thresholds

When you see this sign on a tree it means that it is protected. BCTS manages about 20% of Crown timber in the province. (There is a common misperception that BCTS manages ALL Crown timber in British Columbia, but in fact other stakeholders manage the other 80%.) In the past, BCTS has made some questionable decisions when it comes to managing old growth timber, but currently there are signs of hope where conservation is concerned. Full credit to them for starting their Legacy Tree Program in 2017, in the last four years they have permanently protected many trees

Both the BCTS and WFP programs are voluntary, but are currently being well followed by many successful timber license bidders. This kind of policy is leading the way in the industry, and it would certainly be helpful if the remaining Crown timber was also managed with equivalent size limits*. Unfortunately, stakeholders operating on the remaining 80% of timber licenses on Crown land must only adhere to the larger size limits set by the Government of BC. Why, again, then did the government change to higher size limits in most of the rest of their timber forest licenses? It seems to me that the province ought to be at the forefront of tree preservation, don’t you think? Plainly, the provincial government still favours cutting larger trees and is resisting positive change!

*Note: There may be other license holders who advocate lower size limits than those the government has set, but at this time I have not received details about any other programs. Should you, the reader, be aware of any such policy, feel free to message me so that I can appropriately update this story.

This Sitka spruce in Chester’s Grove is an estimated 2.20 m/ 7.22′. Under the province’s Special Tree policy, it falls far short of the size for protection which is 2.83 m/ 9.28′.
BCTS or WFP policy, when followed, would actually protect this giant, now beginning its fourth century of life, as the threshold is 2.20 m/ 6.88′.
Western red cedars between 3.00m and 3.85m are afforded protection by either BCTS or WFP policies, yet under the Government of B.C. size limits they remain available for harvest

Now, assuming you’re still with me on this odyssey, it’s time to talk about some prominent examples in order to make the case for lower size limits and the protection of more big trees!

A coastal Douglas fir must measure at least 270cm/2.7metres in DBH to attain protected status through Government of BC regulations, which translates to 8.86 feet wide. That’s just under nine feet! Trees smaller than that are eligible for the cut, even though most firs over seven feet in diameter are at least four centuries old, generally speaking. Since the largest of this species have commonly grow largest at elevations of 600 metres or less, that’s resulted in an increasing scarcity of big Douglas firs due to relative ease of access. The days of trees like Port Renfrew’s World Champion Red Creek Fir, with its 4.23m/ 13.9′ diameter, have become distant memories.

My son Conor enjoying this coastal Douglas fir, located on Denman Island in Fillongley Provincial Park. It is at least 600 years old, but under current provincial regulations on Crown land it would just barely qualify for protection if it grew on crown land. The forest around it, which contains many more firs now well into their fifth century of growth, would not!

A Sitka spruce must measure at least 283 cm/ 2.83 metres in diameter for government protection, which is equivalent to 9.28 feet in width. In today’s forest inventory, spruce that size are a disappearing breed! As they grow most prolifically in valley bottoms with moist climate, they have been well exploited  over the years. If you visit Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park , you can discover the glories of a mature Sitka spruce forest, which is an unforgettable experience! Alas, Carmanah is full of ancient trees that would not even qualify for protection if they were situated on Crown land, due to current government size regulations.


Moss laden branches abound on Sitka spruce. This particular tree is protected in North Vancouver’s Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, but if it were located in a Crown land timber forest license it’s 2.44m/8.0′ diameter would not be enough to save it from the chainsaws

The Western red cedar has long been the backbone of the timber industry in British Columbia. Some logging companies, such as Teal Jones, target old growth cedars exclusively, and have little interest in curbing that voracious appetite. In the coastal biogeoclimatic region, this tree must break the tape at a whopping 385cm/ 3.85m in diameter for protection, which is 12.66 feet in width! Though determining the age of cedars can be challenging due to varying conditions for growth and core rot, I can tell you that plenty of these trees under that measure are extremely old.  Age range for specimens between 3.00m/9.84 feet and 3.85m/12.66 feet in diameter can be anywhere between 400 and 1500 years in age, yet all are ineligible for protection by lax government standards!

Chris Istace getting set up to photograph this (coastal) Western red cedar, located in Vancouver Island’s iconic Avatar Grove . This tree, at about 3.20m/10.50′ in diameter, comes nowhere close to being protected by government thresholds, yet it may be up to ten centuries old!…….STATUS: Protected in Avatar Grove
Another of Eden Grove’s many marvels! Who says trees don’t cooperate? In this case, a 3.2m/10.5′ cedar supports a leaning cedar which is 2.5m/8.2′ cedar. Both are earmarked for harvest in the now infamous TFL 46, near Port Renfrew…….STATUS: Endangered

Perhaps the most misunderstood of all trees coveted for timber harvest is the yellow cedar. Due to the fact it grows at higher altitudes, it’s out of sight and out of mind to many, and does not reach the conspicuous size of the Western red cedar. It can, however live an incredibly long life, given the opportunity! The size limit set for government protection of this tree is a ridiculously high 2.65 m/ 8.69′, which means that scores of specimens between 500 and 2000 years in age are still eligible for cutting. The slow growth of this species in subalpine regions means that populations are extremely difficult to recover.

Duncan Morrison taking a comfortable rest inside the hollow of an ancient yellow cedar (Cupressus or Chamaecyparis nootkatensis or Xanthocyparis nootkatensis) This tree resides in a potential cut block adjacent to the Fairy Creek Valley and inside TFL 46, near Port Renfrew. It is well over 1000 years in age, but champions of the same species live twice that time in their high elevation homes. The record yellow cedar, cut in the Caren Range near Sechelt, had 1841 years of growth rings when measured!…….STATUS…Endangered 

It’s increasingly self evident that if we want to save more of British Columbia’s big trees, then it’s time for the government, timber companies, and everyone else to step up and get things done. In short, we ALL need to participate. To jump start that process, consider contacting our premier and telling him why preserving more trees is important to you. Perhaps if he hears it from enough people, he might consider keeping the commitment he made to protect our old growth forests in the first place. So far, that does not seem to matter much to him, unfortunately.

Premier Horgan seen here with former Forests Minister Doug Donaldson. The new Minister for Forests is Katrine Conroy. Join the cause, email them, call them, and demand action
An aerial view of the Fairy Creek Valley, the core of which is protected as an Old Growth Management Area. We need to ensure that places like this never see a chainsaw. They are simply too rare!

In any event, we certainly know that the current business model for timber harvest in British Columbia is not sustainable from an ecological viewpoint. Old growth forests, especially those of relatively lower elevations where the final large specimens survive, are critically endangered and have been for decades. There must be a stronger transition to second growth harvesting in order to accomplish better results, and that change needs to be led by industry as well as government. Yes, it’s obvious that cutting an old growth tree makes a faster buck, but these giants are vanishing at an alarming rate! That returns us back to the genesis of the issue: Are we going to save as much of our ancient forests as possible? Only time will provide that answer, and the direction we choose will be forever scrutinized by future generations!

Let’s make the right decisions, not just for ourselves, but for all citizens of the forest

*******AUTHOR’S NOTE*******

Thanks to Ira Sutherland, Chair of the B.C. Big Tree Committee, for his guidance on where to locate some of the references I used in this story. Check out his website, which is always a great source of information, and visit the B.C. Big Tree Registry for more information on the location of our big trees. Just a note, that can get addictive and may or may not lead to frequent tree hunting expeditions and or tree hugging. You’ve been warned! As well, thanks to Greg Herringer of BCTS, for his input on the Legacy Tree Policy of BCTS, and for other relevant information used in this story.

Ira seen here contemplating some Bigleaf maples in the Nahmint Valley
Greg with an ancient Douglas fir we recently visited in the Nahmint Valley
Until next time

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