Hunting big old trees in the Elaho
A fire more than 1,000 years ago was the catalyst for a modern day debate
By Bob Brett
You have to assume the 1,000 year-old trees in the Elaho Valley north of Squamish have seen a lot: deep snow and freezing cold, windstorms, hail, thunderstorms, and maybe the occasional fire. But it’s almost certain they’ve never before seen anything like the recent flurry of protests, police and arrests.
Even before anyone knew how old the trees were, some environmental groups were doing their best to stop logging in the area. There was virtually no scientific data on either the local forests or wildlife, and the environmentalists’ campaign relied mainly on beautiful photos of the untouched wilderness and a faith in its uniqueness.
Then, last summer, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) dropped its bombshell. They’d already built and publicized the "Douglas-fir Loop" and had just started researching the 40 huge trees contained in the area defined by the trail. Shortly after, the WCWC’s forest ecologist Andy Miller claimed to have found 1,300-year-old trees.
A 1,300-year-old Douglas-fir is ancient in anyone’s books — how many other living things started growing in 700 A.D.? The oldest Douglas-fir ever recorded was only 40 years older when it blew down in the mid-1980’s. Even the famously huge Douglas-firs in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island are "only" 500- to 800-years-old.
If confirmed, last summer’s announcement by the WCWC meant the goalposts for the potential longevity of Douglas-fir would have to be moved. More importantly from the environmentalists’ perspective, confirmation of the trees’ antiquity meant additional ammunition towards stopping logging in the area.
Still, it was unlikely any logging plans would be changed until the WCWC’s claim could be verified. Before agreeing to set any part of the area aside, both the Ministry of Forests and Interfor, the timber company with cutting rights, wanted a non-partisan assessment. Paul Kuster, the District Manager for the Ministry of Forests in Squamish, then brought in Fred Nuszdorfer, the Ministry’s Regional Ecologist.
Nuszdorfer was given two objectives: to determine whether the trees were as old as claimed by WCWC; and to determine whether there were other sites in the Squamish Forest District with trees as old and large as those in the Upper Elaho.
Looking for "old and large" trees in such a big area is no piece of cake. The Squamish Forest District includes 11,000 square kilometres within a roughly-rectangular area bounded by Lions Bay, the north end of Harrison Lake, D’Arcy, and the Upper Lillooet River.
Faced with the needle-in-a-haystack problem, staff at the Squamish Forest District came up with 21 sites where they had heard about or seen big trees. Limited by time and funds, Nuszdorfer was forced to whittle his choice down to 11 of the most promising sites.
Nuszdorfer first examined the vegetation and soils at each of these sites, then turned his attention to the big trees. After measuring heights and diameters, he did his best to determine ages. Unfortunately for Nuszdorfer, none of the trees could produce a birth certificate.
Quantifying tree ages is generally a straightforward procedure. The researcher inserts an increment borer into the tree far enough to reach the centre (pith), then extracts a pencil-sized core. The core reveals a cross-section of the annual rings which usually gives a reliable age for the tree. All straightforward, that is, if the tree is co-operative.
In the case of the trees Nuszdorfer was sampling, however, many were nearly 2 metres thick and often rotten in the middle. His longest increment borer was only 80 cm long, not long enough to reach the pith. Even when the tree was small enough to use an increment borer, many of the cores shattered from rot.
Nuszdorfer collected as much information as possible within these constraints. He was able to get some accurate cores and had to deduce the approximate ages of others. Ironically, stumps were his best source of information since many were recent and their wood was sound. Nuszdorfer used a chainsaw to remove sections of the biggest stumps, prepared them in a wood shop, then counted the rings under a microscope.
After a winter of analyzing his results and writing up his findings, Nuszdorfer recently released his report: Old and large Douglas-fir and western redcedar in the Squamish Forest District (downloadable from the Ministry of Forests’ website at www.for.gov.bc.ca/vancouvr/research/ecopub.htm).
One of the things Nuszdorfer confirms in his report is that size is a poor indication of a tree’s age. He found very big trees in low-elevation valley bottoms, for example, but few were very old. The tallest trees were in fact among the youngest he sampled, like the 69 metre-tall Douglas-fir which was only 210 years-old.
Another finding was that the oldest Douglas-firs, those 1,000 years or older, shared a characteristic appearance. Most were about 2 metres in diameter, had deeply furrowed bark, and their tops were broken 40 or 50 metres above the ground.
Two sites sampled near Whistler, the Ancient Cedars and the Cheakamus Lake Trail, contained some of the oldest trees in the study. Although hollow cores prevented exact ageing of redcedars at the Ancient Cedars, Nuszdorfer did find enough evidence to show the trees are indeed ancient.
One big, hollow redcedar, cut where it had fallen across the trail, revealed 588 rings in just its outer 19 centimetres, so was undoubtedly much older. A Douglas-fir cored beside the Ancient Cedars trail was approximately 700 years-old, and matched the age of Douglas-firs found near the entrance to the Cheakamus Lake Trail.
Nuszdorfer found two sites with similarities to the Douglas-fir Loop, though neither had the same concentration of old trees. In the Upper Squamish Valley, there was one 991 year-old Douglas-fir stump and an adjacent strip of similarly-sized, live trees. The other site, the new Clendinning Provincial Park, is in a side-drainage of the Elaho River. Although unable to get ages, Nuszdorfer assumes some of the big Douglas-firs in the park germinated at about the same time as those in the Douglas-fir Loop.
After concluding large old trees are uncommon in the Squamish Forest District, Nuszdorfer was faced with the task of scrutinizing the WCWC’s claim of 1,300-year-old trees in the Douglas-fir Loop. He asked to examine the core the WCWC showed in presentations to the media, but it was apparently on-tour and therefore unavailable.
Nuszdorfer decided instead to age stumps on cutblocks near the Douglas-fir Loop. Since Douglas-firs usually require major disturbances like fires or landslides to reproduce, Nuszdorfer reasoned it was likely many of the big, old trees in the area germinated at about the same time, and that the ages of nearby stumps could be used as surrogates.
He located and aged three stumps over 2 metres in diameter on blocks just south of Lava Creek and cut in 1998 and 1999. Ring counts ranged from 1,012 to 1,096 years, and surprised Nuszdorfer by the soundness of their wood. Given the lack of rot, he surmised they could probably have lived another few hundred years.
Although he never found a 1,300 year-old specimen, Nuszdorfer’s evidence showed that such old trees were possible, especially in the Upper Elaho. The WCWC was at least partially vindicated.
In his report, Nuszdorfer concluded: "...the density of the old and large trees [in the Douglas-fir Loop] is unmatched in the other areas that were examined or viewed. The area of old and large Douglas-fir in the upper Elaho River valley presents a rare and splendid opportunity to carry out ecosystem-scale research on this type of temperate rainforest.
"If this area is to be managed for research and conservation," continued Nuszdorfer, "it will be necessary to substantially reduce the extent of the Douglas-fir Loop trail, decommission the road near the area and provide a buffer around the area that contains the concentration of old and large Douglas-fir."
Keith Rush, Interfor’s General Manager of South Coast Operations, is not convinced that such "nuggets" (a forester’s term for an unusually impressive tree) are so rare in the area. "The report was pretty all-inclusive, not just specific to the Upper Elaho. In terms of old nuggets, there appears to be lots around, like in the Clendinning and in the Elaho itself."
Rush and Interfor also maintain trees aren’t as old as publicized by WCWC and others. While Nuszdorfer was doing his study, Interfor commissioned its own (unpublished) study with UBC forest ecologist Sharon Hope.
According to Rush, the UBC study showed: "...the ages are being exaggerated, most were less than 1,100 years old. Of course, that’s still pretty amazing, but there were only a few over 1,000 years and most were in the 900’s."
Nonetheless, Interfor and the Ministry of Forests recently agreed to change cutting plans to exclude the Douglas-fir Loop. Interfor’s Rush explains the area has been set aside as a 45-hectare "wildlife tree patch."
Rush is confident the current plan will protect the big, old trees. Contrary to claims from WCWC and others, he believes the wildlife tree patch includes almost all the big trees: "For the most part in that area, that’s all there is. There’s the odd one that shows up in some of the stands further south."
Commenting on developments since his report, Nuszdorfer expresses less confidence the trees have yet been adequately protected. "I’m not sure that area is enough to conserve the concentration of big trees. Additional research should be conducted to determine if the current reserve is large enough."
Wildlife tree patches aren’t meant to be permanent set-asides and can conceivably be cut as soon as adjacent blocks are declared "free-growing," which means a reprieve of as little as 15 years. Paul Kuster, District Manager for the Ministry of Forests, is therefore investigating ways to provide long-term protection for the area under the Forest Practices Code.
Kuster is considering designating the site as a "Sensitive Area." He explains that: "Under the Code, a park would be protection in perpetuity. This is the next best thing." Only if something happened, like trees blowing over or dying from disease would there be much difference in the designations. Dead or dying trees would be left in a park; in a Sensitive Area they would likely be removed and sold.
Meanwhile logging has started north of Lava Creek near the Douglas-fir Loop. Interfor is known mostly for clearcutting, but has recently announced it will be using partial cuts (where some trees are left behind) on the two blocks closest to the Loop.
Changing to partial cutting still may not be enough to help buffer the big trees in the Douglas-fir Loop, according to Nuszdorfer: "If they cut up to the edge, there would definitely be an effect. If we wanted to study interior forest species, it wouldn’t be possible in that area. I’m not confident Interfor has the technology or expertise to leave the trees that are remaining in good condition."
Kuster is more optimistic, though he notes a nearby partial cut done by Interfor would not be appropriate.
"Basically what they did there was to leave the older trees, some of very poor quality from an economic point of view." Interfor now plans to leave additional patches of standing trees which will, says Kuster: "...represent the nucleus of the old forest. This would be a better example of partial cutting for maintaining old-growth values."
Interfor’s new development plan was approved this week by the Ministry of Forests, and provided some surprises, including a delay in any road-building or cutting north of Cesna Creek (just north of the Douglas-fir Loop) and a commitment to do a study of grizzly bears and archeological values in the Upper Elaho. Interfor will also have to provide details about how they will make their logging harmonize with what Kuster calls the "world-class hiking trail" from the Elaho Giant over to Meager Creek Hotsprings.
Interfor’s commitment to go a little slower and do more research meets some of the recommendations Fred Nuszdorfer made in his report. Interfor’s new direction may provide a little breathing room, but as of yet there’s no news of any plans or funding for forest ecosystem research.
Nuszdorfer would ideally like to see a collaborative research project to examine how forests in the Squamish and Elaho valleys develop over time. He says forests containing such old trees, "...represent an important stage in ecosystem dynamics. Such old-aged examples which have a significant component of Douglas-fir in them are rare now and may never have been common in the past."
Speculating further, Nuszdorfer says: "There was very likely a fire in the area just over 1,000 years ago and Douglas-fir regenerated. There may have been a subsequent fire, there may not have been, but based on the appearance of the trees that aren’t Douglas-fir, they’re also quite old. So it’s been several centuries at least since there’s been fire in the area. [The other trees] regenerated under the Douglas-fir canopy and will eventually replace the Douglas-fir as it dies."
Ecosystem research of the sort Nuszdorfer envisions has led to major innovations in forestry, most of which are based on the principle that forest management should mimic nature rather than fight it. Research underpins innovations such as partial cutting, leaving more dead and dying trees for wildlife, and protecting stream corridors.
A working example of applied research is now being tested in the driest part of the Squamish District, near D’Arcy. Researchers working with the Ministry of Forests discovered fire control was actually harming ponderosa pine forests and are now directing burning trials to simulate natural fires.
Back in the Elaho Valley, Nuszdorfer is excited about answers the old trees could provide. "It’s an ideal research situation because we have a good [undisturbed] area to examine, plus areas which have been logged which were similar in terms of stand structure and characteristics. We can examine stumps and do dendrochronological work [precise aging of trees using annual rings] on them to look at the stand history."
Opportunities to study intact old forests in the Elaho may meanwhile be diminishing. As documented on the WCWC website, there are still 1,000 year-old redcedars and Douglas-firs being cut south of the Loop.
Even though there’s been some remarkable developments in the Elaho over the past month, including the recent announcements by Interfor, it’s unlikely the remaining old trees notice. They’re busy doing what they’ve been doing for more than a millennium.
Bob Brett is a Whistler-based forest ecologist who assisted during part of Fred Nuszdorfer’s field research.