Julie L. Nielsen Opinion Falling Boundaries
Falling Boundaries; An Opinion
by Julie L. Nielsen
MSc., RPBio., PhD candidate, in the School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
Julie Nielsen at work, northern Vancouver Island, 2018
"It is our history telling us
—it is like wildlife or it is like anything—
you only took what you needed.
Our younger generation have to learn that."
Wei Wai Kum First Nation
The old-growth forests  have always been a timeless place for me. I have returned to spots in the forest where I stood decades earlier with a feeling of stepping back in time, as if a quarter of a century just passed in the blink of an eye. The landscape features remain the same. The overhanging rock outcrop I skirted and the stream I crossed in my orange caulk boots again guide me to my destination—a grove of big old cedar and fir trees. It is a rare occurrence for me, however, to be able to return to such a grove, given that most were logged decades earlier.
Back then, I hiked the rugged mountains that are typical of the coastal temperate rainforest of British Columbia (BC) as a forest engineer. I was trained to search out stands of trees that would fetch the highest value on the commercial market. The forests covering the most accessible areas—the valley bottoms and coastline edges—were liquidated of big cedars and firs by the latter half of the 20th century. These were productive stands of old-growth, now mostly found on the upper slopes and in the inaccessible hanging valleys of the coastal mountains. In decades past, only short roads into the valley bottoms were needed, while along the coastline, logs were flown by helicopter in short rotations to deep-water ocean drops. Timber harvesting had never been so lucrative. In those days of easy access, revenues the provincial government received for every tree cut, known as stumpage, were a cost incurred by industry that was more than worth their while. The physical landscape was conducive to logging immense clear-cuts, where machinery could be efficiently moved up the valley to reach every tree. But today, the high overhead costs of logging ‘hard to reach’ areas of old-growth have drastically reduced industry revenues, despite low stumpage rates and the exorbitant dollars per cubic meter that old-growth cedar and fir still sell for on domestic and international markets.
Nevertheless, the industrial forest sector on the coast of BC remains motivated to go where even hiking is a challenge, let alone harvesting and tree planting. So, why not harvest all that is left of the old-growth rainforest while we can? If we don’t, surely the next generation will, right? But perhaps we should not harvest all that is left of the old-growth forests because it is our responsibility, collectively, to take care of Aweenak’ola—the word for “the lands we are on” in the Kwak’wala language of the Kwakwaka’wakw resident First Nation groups. Perhaps we should not let our greed steal away the opportunity of stewardship and the rewards that come with it, from our successors. Perhaps we should recognize that we have already taken too much, to our detriment and to the detriment of myriad species, some of which we may never know existed. A wealth of information exists from research that examines the economic, social, cultural and ecological values of the benefits, known as ecosystem services, that intact old-growth forests provide. Second-growth forests are inferior to old-growth systems in terms of the provision of ecosystem services, such as water regulation, soil conservation, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and cultural benefits. The less area that is covered by old-growth across the landscape, the less we receive of the goods and services that only these ecosystems can provide.
Julie's team in the field, northern Vancouver Island 2019
Perhaps we should work to dispel the fallacy that old-growth forests and trees are a renewable resource. A 300-year-old forest cannot return in less than 300 years. These forests, these ancient fir and cedar trees, some of which are more than 1200 years old, are the last of the old-growth coastal temperate rainforest left on earth. At the root of the belief that old-growth is renewable lies the premise that our current application of silviculture replaces what we took. Yet, to believe that the plantations of the last 60 years will provide old-growth trees and forests similar to those of today is overly simplistic and ignorant at best. They will not. How could the short harvest rotation cycles that characterize industrial forestry permit second- (and now third-) growth trees to transition into the large growth forms that embody old-growth forests? Even if second-growth stands were left to recover for the next 200 years, the clear-cut openings these trees began their lives in are not conducive to the development of clear, dense-grained wood—two distinguishing wood traits of old-growth trees. Moreover, the disturbance of clear-cut harvesting has occurred at a frequency and spatial scale far greater than any natural disturbance in the coastal region of BCs temperate rainforest. This has far reaching implications, together with climate change, in terms of the trajectory of recovery of clear-cut areas and thus, the future structure, functions and processes of these forests, all of which will differ, likely significantly, from today’s old-growth forests.
If there is one thing I have learned as a biologist, forest ecologist and ally of Indigenous peoples, it is that everything is connected. We are a part of the ecosystems we disturb, which is apparent through critical feedbacks that occur between ecological and human well-being. If our natural resources are in poor health and become less resilient, so too will this manifest in society. But, in general, if we take care of the land, it will take care of us. In doing so, it will mean we accept that the protection of the remaining old-growth trees and forests is more salient to human well-being than harvesting timber to meet our immediate needs. It will mean turning over a new leaf for this era of forest management and working towards a stewardship approach that promotes ecological health and resilience. It will mean prioritizing the conservation of large old trees for their ecological, biological, cultural, and social values, through the protection of contiguous tracts of old-growth forest. And really, given that the economic value of ecosystem services provided by old-growth forest far outweighs the income generated from harvesting old-growth trees, isn’t this our only economically viable long-term option anyhow?
So, if not now, when? As Joe Martin, Nuu-chah-nulth master carver, once said, “Mother Nature will provide for our needs, but not our greed”. There will never be a good time to exacerbate cuts in provincial revenues and employment. Change is difficult and we resist it at all costs. However, if we act now to terminate old-growth harvesting and forgo short-term benefits in favour of long-term future ones, we can provide for our needs, but not our greed. It would be an utter shame to put ourselves first, at the expense of generations to come, only to experience our own inevitable demise as a result of having trees just barely older than our grandparents cover the entirety of Aweenak’ola.
Julie Nielsen, March 2021
 Old-growth forests and trees are those considered to be >250 years old in the coastal region of BC (BC Ministry of Forests, 2003)
Julie Nielsen at work, northern Vancouver Island, 2018