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!
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.
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:
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.
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…
IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT, PRIOR TO JULY OF 2019, THE GOVERNMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA HAD NEVER ENACTED ANY MANDATORY REGULATIONS TO PROTECT TREES ON CROWN LAND IN THE PROVINCE BASED ON THEIR SIZE. WORSE YET, THEY REPEALED THOSE LIMITS IN SEPTEMBER OF 2020 AND REPLACED THEM WITH HIGHER ONES THAT PROTECT FEWER TREES
YES, YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY…
UNTIL THAT TIME, NO TREE WAS AFFORDED PROTECTION ON A COMPULSORY BASIS, AND COULD BE CUT REGARDLESS OF SIZE*
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
Western Forest Products(WFP) also has set limits similar to BCTS within their own Big Tree Retention policy.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.