Whistler, British Columbia, is one of the famous ski hills in North America. Just north of the town of Whistler, above Green Lake, is a 4.5 km logging road that leads to the Ancient Cedars Trail, a 5 km round trip to see an old growth stand of several hectares of western red cedars (Thuja plicata). The red cedars are enormous, perhaps 700-1000 years old, and well worth seeing. But what disturbed me as I walked this trail is that this type of old growth forest with its rich diversity of tree species is what much of the forested world of coastal British Columbia and south-eastern Alaska used to look like, and I wonder what are we leaving in this part of the world for our great-grandchildren.
Trees are dollar bills in another form, and so the forestry industry thrives. But this is mostly crown land, not private land, and what do we the public get for this continual ravaging of the landscape? A strong economy to be sure, but is it sustainable? Forestry is sustainable if it allows ecosystem renewal at a time scale that is relevant to a human lifespan. Is modern forestry in British Columbia sustainable? We are told continually that it is.
Perhaps the paradigm is that we should log everything that can be converted into dollars, leaving a few hectares for the ancient cedars to remain. Then once we have logged up to the Arctic Ocean, we can come back south and start again. But will a logged forest ever recover as part of a forest ecosystem? And if it does will it take 300, 500, or 1000 years? If it takes that long, forestry is a mining operation, and from the point of view of our grandchildren the forests are destroyed not renewed.
The key issue for an ecologist is whether the forest ecosystem ever recovers after logging. It certainly does for some species but it is highly probable that other species are lost to the ecosystem. Part of this is because the forests that replace old growth are too often tree monocultures designed for optimum yield rather than for biodiversity maximization. So I think we should be more questioning when we are told an industry like forestry is operating sustainably. If it is sustainable, why are we logging old growth forests? If it is sustainable why are we logging 25° and 30° slopes? And what do we mean when we say that we are developing a forest harvesting plan when the time to recovery from logging is 200-300+ years? That is perhaps 3-4 generations of humans, more than we would like to tell our children. At a time when biodiversity conservation is being seen as more and more important, we are rushing ahead with logging old growth, hoping to get the dollars out before we find out that it was a mistake in management.
In the end we need to ask over and over again – what are we leaving for our grandchildren? And if you go walking in the coastal forests of western North America you need to look and then ask yourself what “sustainability” means, and whether the landscape is being managed sustainably. Perhaps many of our old growth forests in Canada are too important to be left to the management of the forest industry.