Forests in BC

Years ago, the Northern Pacific Coast was dominated by immense forests. Such "old growth" forests characteristically contained large trees that were 200 to 800 years old. Today, only a few portions of these old-growth forests remain. In the Pacific Northwest, most logging operations now focus on "secondary growth" that is comprised of smaller trees that have re-grown following earlier logging operations. Nonetheless, a few stands of old growth forest are still being targeted for new logging, and this prospect is the focus of a considerable conflict between some conservation groups and the lumber interests.

photo M. Noonan

We feel that old growth forests are extremely important for a number of reasons. First, they are areas of immense biodiversity. Within an old growth forest, there are thousands of different species already identified and scientists are still discovering new species as studies progress. These ancient forests are now known to provide homes to many living things that are found nowhere else on earth. For example, the spotted owl typically nests only in old-growth forest. As the ancient forests are cut down, homes for many species of animals disappear.

photo M. Noonan

Old-growth is also important because of its role in recycling nutrients. When you walk through an old growth forest you can't help but notice that the forest floor is "messy". But, as far as forests go, a messy forest is a healthy forest. The debris found in an old growth forest serves as the "capillary bed" of the forest. The forest ecosystem is able to recycle nutrients by using this fallen debris primarily via with the fungus that grows on the decaying matter. Thus, not only does fungus aid in the decay that occurs in the forest, it also helps the forest to grow. Trees that have fungus associated with them actually grow faster and more vigorously than those that lack much fungus.


Moreover, decay itself is necessary for a forestís survival because of its critical role in renewing and recycling nutrients. It has been calculated that there is actually more life in a fallen tree than in a living one. As you can see in the picture at right, a young tree is growing out of a decaying, fallen tree. This is what is known as a "nurse log". The fallen tree provides nutrients that the sapling will depend on during its first decades of life.

photo M. Noonan

Out in the Pacific Northwest, a great deal of the life that we studied depends upon salmon. Because of this, these fish are called a "keystone species" for this ecosystem. Thirty five species of vertebrate animals alone are known to feed upon salmon.

photo M. Noonan

Salmon are born, or spawned, in freshwater streams surrounded and nurtured by forests. The young salmon then swim downstream and venture out into the ocean where they feed and grow for many years. Once they are large and old enough, adult salmon return from the ocean back to the same stream where they were born to mate and produce more young for a new generation of salmon.

photo M. Noonan

In other words, there is a strong link between salmon and the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The immense forests help to bring the precipitation upon which all life on land is based and then the leaves, mulch and roots serve as huge biofilters that purify the water. It is funneled off the land through trickles into streams that are then rich in enough organic nutrients to support a thriving riparian ecosystem. In other words, the forests can be said to nurture the streams to which the salmon return to each year to spawn. The forest streams provide critical habitat for the spawning salmon.

And the returning salmon in their own way also serve the health of the forest. Recent studies have shown that each Fall, during the night, large numbers of black bear feed on salmon from the streams. In this process, they drag innumerable salmon carcasses into the forest and often the bears will leave behind parts of the fish to rot in the forest. In fact, this occurs so frequently that about 4000 kg of salmon are left behind in each hectare of forest. Nitrogen from the decaying salmon soaks down into the soil and is then drawn into the trees via their roots. In fact, it has been recently been estimated that up to 55% of all the nitrogen used by the trees in the old growth forests comes from the ocean via salmon. Thus, the salmon play a key element in the nitrogen cycle of the forest.

The salmon in the Pacific Northwest are now facing a decline, in part due to deforestation. Logging, particularly as it was formerly practiced, often destroys the riparian, or river, habitat that the salmon depend upon so critically in order to reproduce. Logging around streams and rivers increases the water temperature by exposing the water to the sun. Clear cutting also allows excessive sediment to collect in streams. This sediment can decrease the oxygen supply in the stream and thus kill developing salmon eggs and fry.

photo M. Noonan

The killer whale, the focal species of our studies, is among the 35 species in the Pacific Northwest that depend upon salmon. We have learned therefore that when we recycle paper and thus reduce the need for additional trees to be processed via pulp into new paper, we are helping Killer Whale conservation! We are proud that our own families actively recycle and that our school is also more and more efficient in its paper use. All of us should do our best to reduce the demand for paper, lumber and other forest products and we encourage you to do the same.

As forests are cut down, not only are the trees lost. Logging also decreases habitat for other organisms, decreases the amount of nutrients in the ecosystem, and decreases the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Another problem caused by logging is fragmentation of habitat. At times, loggers have cut down such large areas of forest that only small "islands" of undisturbed habitat remain. The problem with such "islands" is that they decrease the inhabitable forest area significantly. Too much of the remaining forest consists of "edges", areas that are not suitable for species that depend on central forests. Moreover, members of certain species are isolated within these "islands", making critical inter-breeding impossible.

Past logging practices have also been criticized for introducing monoculture. Once loggers cleared an area of the trees, they often replanted the area with only one species of tree. This, it has been argued, significantly decreases the biodiversity of the area. Remember, a "messy" forest is a healthy forest.

photo M. Noonan

We have learned however, that modern logging practices are changing for the better. Today loggers do their best to create corridors to connect any "islands" created by logging. Also, a new practice called variable retention has been introduced. In this practice the forest being logged is not entirely clear-cut. Instead, stands of older trees are left behind so that some of the original forest structure will remain so it can contribute to the diversity of the new forest that will follow.

And there is additional good news to report. We have learned first hand that the lumber industries themselves also recognize the importance of maintaining the wild salmon stocks. Commercial loggers now practice much more environmentally friendly forest harvesting. For example, in order to preserve the riparian habitat upon which salmon depend, areas of forest immediately surrounding drainage zones and streams are often left alone. Moreover, streams that were once adversely affected by past logging are now being restored.

We of the Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation also want to emphatically state that the world is not divided into conservationalists on one side and loggers on the other -- or at least it shouldn't be. All of the people who work in the forest products industry that we met are just as interested in environmental preservation as anyone else we know. We and they recognize that we are all citizens of the Earth and that we all bear the same responsibilities.

Logging occurs because of the wide-spread demand for forest products (lumber and paper). We all live in homes made of wood and we all utilize paper products on a daily basis. We therefore collectively bear the responsibility for deforestation. We Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation utilize forest products and every reader of this web page utilizes forest products. We ourselves will never complain or imply that the loggers are somehow bad people who are bent on environmental degradation. The loggers we met stand side by side with us in being concerned about environmental health and preservation.

It is we consumers who bear the responsibility to reduce our demand for new forest products and to support those companies that adopt environmentally friendly practices. The good news is that there is more and more recognition of this collective responsibility and there are positive changes underway. There are things we all can do to move in the right direction. By doing so, we will all help to preserve the magnificent forests of the Northwest, the Killer Whales, and all of the myriad other species that intertwine in the same ecosystem.

photo M. Noonan

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.