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A case for old-growth forests

Taking a scientific view of how much to save and exactly where to save trees



About 40 people turned out to the Monday morning session of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) symposium on old-growth forests on Oct. 15, with presenters and audience members running the gamut from loggers to scientists to conservationists.

While that once might have sounded like the setup for a loud debate on forestry — like the confrontations over forests at Clayoquot Sound and the Elaho in the late 1990s/early 2000s — the tone has changed to one of mutual respect and accommodation between groups. Both sides agree on the need to base decisions on science rather than emotions, and the realization that both timber harvesting and conservation have a place in B.C. and in the Whistler region.

As well as looking at the important, and often subtle contributions that old-growth forests make as a provider of habitat, biomass, carbon storage and ecological diversity, the AWARE symposium also looked at the question of how much old growth needs to be preserved in a given area before those values are lost.

"Back in 1981, 1982 we were all operating on the assumption that all the old growth would be gone by now, and replaced with a few thrifty species of second-growth trees," said Whistler biologist Bob Brett, who presented the results of his ongoing research on tree dating on Monday. "Now, we all agree that some (old growth) should be protected, though we don't always agree on how much."

With a grant from the Community Foundation of Whistler, Brett recently did a study of core samples in the Callaghan Valley on behalf of AWARE to determine the age of the trees there. One yellow cedar in the Hanging Creek area provided a sample with 1,017 rings. Given that the centre of the tree was rotted out, Brett estimates that the tree is at least 100 to 200 years older than that — and possibly as old as 1,500 years based on comparisons in diameter to other trees — making it the oldest living tree recorded in the Whistler area.

That tree is located on the edge of another cut block, in an area that is one day slated to be logged by the Cheakamus Community Forest (CCF). According to Brett, the stand that tree is in is classified as being between 149 and 250 years, and therefore would not be considered old growth. Brett said the find underlines the need to have more accurate mapping and classification systems for forests — as well as the fact that Callaghan forests are far older than previously thought.

The CCF is a partnership of the Resort Municipality of Whistler and local First Nations that was established in 2009 to give the partners more control over logging on Crown land in the area. Under the agreement, the CCF has to log roughly 40 hectares per year (averaged out over a five-year period) or risk losing the tenure.