Black western thatching ants trudge along an ant highway leading to their swarming metre-high ant hill. These industrious little insects clean the forest by eating insect pests and dead animals; their burrowing aerates soils and promotes water absorption, improving and retaining ground water. In Wildwood Ecoforest, south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, the ant hills are but one example of how an old growth forest helps create healthy groundwater.
Wildwood is unique in the Pacific Northwest for being commercially logged since 1945. On its 77-acre patch of old growth forest, Douglas firs soar into the sky, the rat-a-tat of pileated woodpeckers echo through the trees, and emerald-green moss blankets the ground. The forest illustrates the diversity of nature, where myriads of species have intermingled and evolved over millions of years to form an incredibly complex web of life. It is in stark contrast to the moonscape clearcuts of modern industrial forestry. At Wildwood, nature rules – while also yielding a harvest for human use.
I visited Wildwood for three days to find out how this win-win achievement is accomplished. On the first day I wandered through the forest with Barry Gates, one of Wildwood’s managers, to select trees for harvesting, and to learn about old growth forests and ecologically sustainable forestry.
“You have to understand this vast interconnected network that forms an old growth ecosystem well,” Barry said, “to harvest it properly.” He explained that coastal old growth is at least 250 years old, with big trees, a multi-layered canopy, snags (vertical dead trees) and logs (horizontal dead trees). Together, these features support a profusion of life far richer and more complex than what is found in younger forests.
Fallen logs, I noted, are nurseries for new life. As a log decays, its spongy wood holds water for a profusion of plants and trees that grow along its top like a Mohawk haircut. Barry plucked a piece of wood and squeezed it. “These logs hold water even in a drought,” he said, water oozing between his fingers.
Perched, or canopy, gardens, are unique to old growth forests because it takes 150 years or more for soil to develop on branches, which support different species than the forest floor. The endangered marbled murrelet, for example, makes its nest high in ancient trees. Some vole species spend their entire lifetimes aloft.
Merv Wilkinson constantly refined his practices to produce a healthier forest. He shunned pesticides and fertilizers, allowed woody debris to accumulate on the ground and did not burn slash. Most importantly, Merv always harvested less than the annual growth rate.
At Wildwood, I sensed the spirits of the rocks, trees and plants. Little wonder, for old growth forests are one of the richest and most diverse places in the world. With four times the biomass of tropical forests, they are the ultimate in nature, the zenith of forests. Old growth excels at oxygenating air, filtering water and providing excellent habitat for a wide range of living creatures.
Water for human use depends on healthy forests. In old growth forests, large accumulations of leaves and decaying fallen trees filter and absorb rain water. A vast intertwining of roots as well as ant burrows, for example, filter, store and improve groundwater.
Wildwood is in the upper portion of the Quennell Lake watershed. Mapping and studying the watershed has started recently, with a view to promoting logging by sustainable methods, as opposed to damaging industrial forestry.
At a clearing containing a portable sawmill, we cut several long boards. Because Wildwood’s trees are older than modern plantation forests, the lumber has fewer knot holes and a finer grain. The sawyer can also readily cut custom lumber. Because of this, Wildwood lumber fetches good prices. I sensed a lesson: perhaps BC’s timber industry should strive to make premier products from premier wood.
I returned to the homestead where I would be staying, alone but for the ghost of Mervyn (Merv) Wilkinson. In 1945 he began to cut timber using a logging method that provided him an ongoing income while preserving the forest’s natural character. He harvested every five years. When he passed away in 2011 there was more timber growing on the property than when he started, and Wildwood was still a beautiful old growth forest. Today the Ecoforest Institute Society carries on Merv’s work.
I strolled forest paths until dusk turned to darkness and bats flitted overhead. I thought of the trees as living time capsules with a biological memory stretching back many human generations. If only we could learn to think and plan on their time scale, the ancient trees would be honoured and preserved, not logged into oblivion.
My admiration for Merv grew as I learned he wanted his forest to provide lumber and retain its character in perpetuity. He constantly refined his practices to produce a healthier forest. He shunned pesticides and fertilizers, allowed woody debris to accumulate on the ground and did not burn slash. Most importantly, Merv always harvested less than the annual growth rate.
Merv’s wisdom was widely recognized. Representatives of more than 21 countries have visited Wildwood to study his ecoforestry methods. David Suzuki called Merv a Canadian hero. Jane Goodall applauded his work. In 2002, Merv was honoured with the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada.
Yet the forest industry in BC, with full government support, cuts down monumental trees, vigorously, and permanently. Old growth forests have huge ecological, spiritual, recreational, and emotional values, which far transcend the economics of their wood fibre, yet these values are ignored.
Before leaving, I sat underneath a giant Douglas fir deep in the forest. High above, sixty million needles harvested sunlight and cleansed the air. It was spiritual and moving. I hoped there would always be places like this in British Columbia.
A former environmental consultant/scientist and adjunct professor, Hans Tammemagi has also penned ten books and hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers.