A scientist’s challenge: old growth complexity in a sound bite

Written By Karen Price

Dr. Karen Price is an independent scientist and recent member of the old growth technical advisory panel for B.C.’s ministry of forests.

B.C.’s massive old-growth forests, along with primary forests worldwide, are vanishing. Anyone who looks down from a plane, or onto Google Earth, can see the swaths of young harvested forest.

More broadly, we’re living amidst biodiversity and climate crises – moose are starving, caribou populations are disappearing, salmon runs are shadows of their former glory. Insect populations have crashed and songbirds have declined by the millions.

Whole ecosystems, including the inland temperate rainforest and coastal Douglas-fir forests, are endangered. We all know somebody who has been affected by wildfire, flooding and/or drought. These things are linked.

Conserving B.C.’s remaining highly productive old-growth forests can help mitigate both crises: productive old forests store immense amounts of carbon, ameliorate drought and flooding, pose less wildfire risk than managed plantations, and provide a home for a diverse array of species that interact, communicate and share resources.

Paradigm shift and old-growth deferrals

According to a recent review, British Columbians believe that our forests must be managed differently. Al Gorley and Garry Merkel, respected foresters and authors of the independent, government-commissioned Old Growth Strategic Review, heard a surprising consensus about the need for a paradigm shift away from managing for timber and profit and towards managing for ecological health and human wellbeing.

Their review listed 14 recommendations to shift B.C.’s forestry management paradigm, including deferring logging old growth at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.

The B.C. government committed to implementing all 14 recommendations and created an Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel to help them identify harvest deferral priorities. I’m one of three independent scientists who sat on this five-person panel.

Over six months, we worked long days and weeks using B.C. government data to design the most robust method we could, to identify the most at-risk old growth for harvest deferral. We worked collaboratively with provincial government experts to develop recommendations they supported.

“Over six months, we worked long days and weeks… to identify the most at-risk old growth for harvest deferral.”

Critically, deferral is not protection; it’s a brief pause to allow time for planning. It’s a small step towards a paradigm shift, but one we took seriously.

Yet some in the forestry industry oppose this small step towards a shift, in essence saying “Don’t Look Down” at the checkerboard of plantations that have replaced complex old forested ecosystems.

Since the provincial government accepted our deferral recommendations last fall, we’ve seen attempts to undermine our work to the point that the logging will likely continue in many of these forests at high risk of imminent biodiversity loss.

This is not a paradigm shift.

Ecological loss

I’m a scientist and naturalist who’s watched forests fall for more than 30 years. I understand the ecological loss. I’ve also felt the pit of my stomach drop when an old-growth forest I’ve known intimately has been cut.

I taught Coastal Temperate Rainforest Ecology at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Every year, our class visited and studied the Pachena River floodplain spruce forest. We measured light and forest structure, dug soil samples, caught flying insects, documented plants, fungi, birds and mammals.

Karen Price and her students measured light and forest structure, documenting plants, fungi, lichens, birds and mammals in the productive floodplain forest of the Klanawa River Ecological Reserve on Vancouver Island.

[Photo Karen Price]

One year we returned to find stumps. That year, the entire class – about 20 of us – stood on one stump.

Some say, “Don’t worry, trees grow back.”

True. But misleading.

Harvested forests aren’t old growth

After a typical industrial harvest, these ancient forests won’t recover their size or complexity for centuries, if ever, given climate heating and invasive species.

Our class also visited 70-year-old second-growth Douglas-fir forests. These are the tall, straight “thrifty” trees beloved by many foresters, the type of forests that are replacing most unprotected coastal old growth.

“After a typical industrial harvest, these ancient forests won’t recover their size or complexity for centuries, if ever.”

To our class, having learned how to look beyond the trees to see the ecosystem, these forests were biological deserts, disturbing in their uniformity, lack of light, and lack of movement. We saw few birds, few insects, no shrubs and no festoons of tree lichens. Some students wept.

We’ve lost so much old growth that many people might not discern the difference between primary (never harvested) forests and mature second-growth forests. They haven’t had the chance to explore highly productive old growth off well-beaten paths. They haven’t clambered over logs that crashed to earth centuries ago and nursed trees now reaching old age.

Second growth forests, like this one in North Vancouver, have much simpler structure and less diversity compared with old growth.

[Photo Karen Price]

Protected areas, treasures though they are, mostly protect small-statured forests. While it’s true that B.C. has many parks, they are dominated by subalpine hillsides and rocky ridges – beautiful, but not the complex, majestic old growth that used to line so many valley bottoms.

We don’t seem to recognize what we’ve lost until we see dramatic photos documenting the transition from massive living tree to stump. And this effective visual comparison still doesn’t capture the complexity of the ecosystem beyond the trees.

My limitations as a scientist

As well as a deep ecological grief, I feel a responsibility to help facilitate the paradigm shift that will transform management to prioritize ecosystem health. I know the situation. I hold professionally informed ideas about what needs to change.

However, my role as a scientist limits my ability to communicate these ideas to the public. If scientists use terms that capture public interest and generate sentiment – like Suzanne Simard’s “mother trees” – we risk our credibility and must spend our time amassing evidence to support our word choice (as Simard and her colleagues have done).

“My role as a scientist limits my ability to communicate these ideas to the public.”

Evidence matters less outside science. For example, the three independent scientists on the Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel have been branded “Sierra Club cronies” by some in what seems to be an effort to discredit our independence.

It’s catchy, but untrue. We are independent consultants, each with 25 years of forest ecology experience who have worked primarily for provincial and First Nations’ governments.

Similarly, an industry claim of “30 per cent not three per cent” remaining big-treed old growth is catchy and untrue.

Our peer-reviewed analysis revealed that three per cent of B.C.’s remaining old growth supports big trees. Meanwhile, the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) funded its own analysis. By using different criteria, the report concluded 30 per cent of remaining old growth had big trees, raising uncertainty about our results.

Most of B.C.’s old growth supports relatively small or medium sized trees. Few “very large” trees remain, with approximately 300,000 ha in this size class across the whole province. The average large tree in an ecosystem 100 years ago, would be much larger than today, particularly in low elevation ecosystems. The grey trees represent these lost ghost trees.
[Graphic Anneke Rosch, Rachel Holt, Karen Price]

As a scientist, my responsibility is to explain the discrepancy. My challenge is that the explanation hinges on technical details indigestible as a sound bite. Essentially, the industry report reclassified medium-sized trees as big, and unsurprisingly, found more.

Appreciating complexity

Communicating scientific knowledge isn’t the only challenge. Historically, science has performed poorly at answering complex questions about natural systems, leading to management policy that fails to achieve objectives.

“My challenge is that the explanation hinges on technical details indigestible as a sound bite.”

Established scientific methods answer reductionist questions well by focusing on a single puzzle piece and controlling other variables; they have more trouble answering questions about the whole puzzle. Answering ecological questions requires holistic thinking, lost to most western cultures living with a weakened connection to the land.

In recent years, as scientists have learned to grapple with complex systems, we’re slowly discovering more about forest ecosystems. For example, the shrubs growing in clearcuts may not be a nutritious feast for moose – a common assumption – but instead can be junk food, leading to over-winter starvation.

Even more striking, until recently, many scientists couldn’t imagine that fungal networks linked trees into a communication and resource-sharing web.

While science is learning to appreciate complexity and connectivity, forest management policies have not caught up. Practices are still based on reductionist science, using agricultural models that focus on ideal seedling type and spacing while ignoring the ecological connections that build resilience necessary to accommodate the changing climate.

While science is learning to appreciate complexity and connectivity, forest management policies have not caught up.

[Photo Karen Price]

There have been incremental management changes, but no paradigm shift. For example, the scientific recognition that large trees form ecosystem hubs has been reduced to policy that protects a limited number of the biggest trees – a symbolic action that fails to grasp interdependence.

Misunderstanding leads to high-risk management

Meanwhile, misunderstandings abound, often perpetuated by spokespeople in industry and the provincial government.

Some claim that logging helps our carbon budget because young forests sequester carbon quickly.

“Logging and milling lumber quickly releases about three-quarters of the carbon stored in the standing forest into the atmosphere.”

However, logging and milling lumber quickly releases about three-quarters of the carbon stored in the standing forest into the atmosphere. It’s true that – after the first few decades – young forests do add carbon quickly, but they do not replace these lost carbon stores for centuries.

And that initial slow accumulation means planted trees cannot recapture emitted carbon dioxide before 2050 – when it really matters if we want to avoid catastrophic consequences. By spending our carbon capital now to generate potential future interest, logging will lead to more, not less, climate heating.

Some suggest that logging reduces the risk of wildfire. However, clearcuts dry quickly in the sun, and logging coats the ground with fine fuels – twigs and branches – that ignite easily on the dry ground. Current logging practices do not reduce wildfire risk.

And let’s test the assertion that there are sufficient protected areas and old-growth management areas to allow us to continue logging old growth without concern elsewhere.

Protected areas are biased toward rock and ice (half are non-forested) and small-stature high elevations forest. Very few protect highly productive, valley bottom forests. Consider Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island. Visitors flock there not because it was the biggest forest (most of its trees are too small to meet the province’s big-tree criteria), but because it’s one of the last accessible groves of giant Douglas-firs.

Protected areas are biased toward rock and ice, and small-stature, high-elevation forest.

[Photo Karen Price]

Old-growth management areas – intended to maintain old-growth values in B.C. – are no better. To begin with, two-thirds of old-growth management areas are not actually old. Most conserve forests of no interest to the logging industry, in patches too small to protect old-growth ecological values.

Science tells us ecosystems need a minimum of 30 per cent retained to avoid high risk to biodiversity. Yet, in many of B.C.’s landscapes, legal old-growth retention targets are three to four per cent.

All is not well in our forests; current policy is not protecting B.C.’s ecological values and services.

Collapsing systems

Ecosystems are unraveling globally. While B.C. may be faring better than most places, our ecosystems are also collapsing due to combined effects of climate and land management.

We are becoming aware of these collapses: wildfires, often sparked in clearcuts, threaten human communities; stream temperatures are hostile to our cold-water loving fish; interior goshawks have insufficient mature forest habitat to reproduce; and moose populations have dwindled where they once thrived.

Resilient ecosystems will cope better as the climate heats. If we want to maintain functioning resilient ecosystems that continue to provide us with the services we value – and need – we have to change the way we treat them.

A solution

Here’s my proposal.

Conserve more natural ecosystems (including primary old-growth ecosystems and recovery areas). Science suggests that nature needs half of each natural ecosystem to maintain resilience.

We could reach half by protecting 30 per cent of B.C. at the landscape scale and retaining 30 per cent within the 70 per cent of forest stands available for harvest elsewhere.

The federal government has committed to protecting 30 percent of its land by 2030. Landscape conservation would meet this goal for B.C.

Critically important, let’s make sure that our 30 per cent represents all ecosystem types, including the big-treed old-growth at high risk, not just the rock and subalpine trees already over-represented in protected areas.

Outside the 30 per cent conserved, let’s log more carefully, in a manner that creates more jobs. We know we can because we’ve done it before.

Job loss

What about jobs?

Job loss over the past 30 years was primarily caused by mechanization and increased efficiency, not protection.

The size of the area logged has remained similar over time, showing that decreased area available for timber harvest isn’t the issue. What has changed is the number of jobs per cubic metre of wood milled.

Environmentalists haven’t caused job loss. Our industrial model has caused job loss. The numbers –easily accessible in Canadian Statistical Data – show the pattern.

Companies do what society has asked of them: increase efficiency and profit to make money for shareholders. In the absence of a triple-bottom-line economy, or expansion of ecological rights, it will remain that way.

Ecologists are not trying to destroy jobs; we’re trying to find a path to keep jobs and sustain families into the future.

We know what to do. Science and traditional ecological knowledge agree. We need to harvest less, more carefully.

[Photo Karen Price]

Harvest less, more carefully

We know what to do. Science and traditional ecological knowledge agree. We need to harvest less, more carefully.

Our natural ecosystems support many lives, including our own, and we are tearing apart this life support system. The earth will recover when we’re gone, but I’d like my son’s children, and yours, to have a world where they can live and thrive.

A system that bases choices on the agenda of multi-national companies who care primarily for profit – as they are designed to do – cannot take on this task. Governments, provincial and Indigenous, must.

And the provincial government must provide conservation financing so that First Nations are not faced with the Hobson’s choice of losing functioning ecosystems or losing the opportunity to build community economic well-being.

I support forestry. I co-managed a woodlot for 25 years. It burned down. I know what it’s like to feel helpless to circumstances beyond my control. I also know that many more jobs will be gone soon unless we transform forestry management.

Al Gorley and Garry Merkel heard the same thing consistently during the Old-growth Strategic Review. Even industry foresters acknowledge we need to manage forests differently.

So why protest what we agree needs doing?

Instead of denial, let’s adapt by building connections and working together community-by-community.

Let’s support a paradigm shift that helps us adapt. Please. Because the world can’t handle more grief.