On Logging Old Growth Forests

Old growth forests in western Canada and many parts of the Earth are composed of very large trees whose diameters are measured in meters and whose heights are measured in football field lengths. The trees in these forests are economically valuable for their wood, and this has produced a conflict that almost all governments wish to dodge. I do not want to speak here as a terrestrial ecologist but as a human being to discuss the consequences of logging these old growth forests.

As I write this there are a mob of young people blockading the roads into old-growth forest stands in southwestern British Columbia to prevent the logging of some of the largest trees remaining in coastal western Canada. Their actions are all illegal of course because the government has given permission to companies to log these large trees, the classic case of ‘we need jobs’. We certainly need jobs, and we need wood, but if you ask the citizens of British Columbia if these very large trees should be logged you get a resounding majority of NO votes. The government is adept at ignoring the majority will here, it is called democracy.

My simple thought is this. These trees are 500 to 1000 years old. Cut them all down and your children will never see a big tree, or their children or perhaps 25 generations of children, since the foresters say that this is sustainable logging because, if left alone, the forest will regenerate into large old growth trees again by the year 2900. A splendid program for all except for our children for the nest 800 years.

The other ecological issue of course is that these forests form an ecosystem, so it is not just the loss of large old trees but all the other plants and animals in this ecosystem that will be lost. To be sure you can argue that all this forest management is completely sustainable, and you will be able to see this clearly if you are still alive in 2900. Sustainability has unfortunately become a meaningless term in much of our forest land management. Forest management could become sustainable, as many ecologists have been saying for the last 50 years, but as with agriculture the devil is in the details of what this actually means. And if the forest management plan to retain old growth is to keep 6 very large trees somewhere in coastal British Columbia, each one surrounded by a fence and a ring of high-rise hotels for tourists of the future to see “old growth”, then we are well on our way there.

Guz, J. and Kulakowski, D. (2020). Forests in the Anthropocene. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110, 1-11. doi: 10.1080/24694452.2020.1813013.

Lindenmayer, D.B., et al. (2020). Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 898-900. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1195-5.

Thorn, S., et al. (2020). The living dead: acknowledging life after tree death to stop forest degradation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18, 505-512. doi: 10.1002/fee.2252.

Watson, J.E.M., et al. (2018). The exceptional value of intact forest ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 599-610. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0490-x.

4 thoughts on “On Logging Old Growth Forests

  1. ian

    Dear charles


    I read the above paper with interest and was unable to contact the corresponding author. I am interested in how much of its territory a mouse might cover in a single day, and whether you have an exemplar figure of such a thing?

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Ian – I regret this work was carried out many years ago in open farmland. Home ranges of small rodents will always vary with habitat, and in habitats like barns with much food available you would be talking about a few square meters of home range. In open farmland the home ranges would vary up to 500 sq meters. In other words they stay in a small territory. If you wish more details I suggest you go to the WEB OF SCIENCE and search for house mice and home range or territory and you will see there is a great deal of literature available in the library of papers going back 60 years. Charles Krebs

  2. Talking Trees

    Oh dear,

    I’m a forester who works with many other foresters, and none of them that I know are saying that it is sustainable because it will be back if you wait 800 or so years. The author is completely ignoring, as do many others, that BC has a significant amount of lands set aside for conservation purposes. We have more parks and conservancy areas than perhaps any other jurisdiction in North America. Likewise, it is completely preposterous that BC would be left with only six large old trees.

    Most of the foresters I know are passionate about forests and communities, and understand the that society is faced with difficult choices and very real trade offs. They hope that these conversations are based on facts and acknowledge that t people have different values and perspectives that are pertinent to making good choices.

    In contrast, like so many polarizing issues in our society, the author seems to think that exaggeration and oversimplification add value to the complex decisions.

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate that it is not the foresters on the ground who are the problem, and their work is essential. It is the policy makers who have let us down. The central question is whether forest harvesting in British Columbia in particular is sustainable. For the past 60 years I have watched I have concluded that it is far from sustainable. If you have to keep harvesting old growth, the industry is not sustainable in my opinion. There is considerable discussion of whether or not we in B.C. have set aside a sufficient area of parks and wilderness to sustain all the biodiversity that lives in our forests, not only the trees but all the other species. Depending on where you live in BC, you might calculate how far you have to drive to show your children or grandchildren an intact old growth forest. Perhaps the next generations of children do not need to see such areas, but if that is to be the case, that is a societal decision not a decision made solely by forest companies or even by the government on grounds of economics. We need the real world out there, and the question is how much and where. So I would argue that this is not a polarizing issue but is like the climate change issue and the Covid issue of our day, and it needs more discussion and collaboration to resolve what is best to do.


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