The community of Whistler needs to decide on a long-term plan for its old growth forests, says a pair of local forestry experts.
Professor Ken Lertzman from Simon Fraser's School of Resource and Environmental Management, and Bob Brett, a forest ecologist with Snowline Research, made a presentation on old growth forests to council during a Committee of the Whole meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 7).
Old growth is commonly recognized by the Ministry of Forests as a tree over the age of 250 for the North and mid-coast, and 180 for the South Central Coast. These are arbitrary numbers the ministry uses to more easily manage timber supply that most ecologists feel doesn't adequately represent the age variability of old growth forests and the nature of the ecosystems they are a part of.
Whistler has numerous areas with old growth like the Ancient Cedars, parts of Whistler Mountain, the Cheakamus Community Forest (CCF) and the largest area of remaining old forest, said Brett, in the Callaghan Valley, where he estimates the average tree age to be around a thousand years old.
Old growth forests are important to preserve and maintain because they are essential components of the local ecosystem, and can offer numerous economic, recreational and ecological benefits to a community.
"The ecosystems that develop and the species that live here expect to find habitat in landscapes that have a lot of old forest," said Lertzman.
Old growth forests are especially vulnerable in and around Whistler because of provincially-mandated logging regulations and the community's lack of second growth forests, younger wooded areas that are still showing effects of a past major disturbance, like a fire or flood.
"We've got quite a bit of forest under the age of 80 years old and it's not merchantable until it's 80. We've got very little forest between the ages of 80 and 200 years old, and we've got quite a bit of forest that is over 200 years old. Because of that, and because of this requirement by the Ministry of Forests to log (20,000 m3) of forest every year, we are in the position of having to log old growth, so that's a problem," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who sits on the CCF board and made it one her campaign promises to eliminate old growth logging in the community.
She said that Whistler needs "a 20-year reprieve" from logging requirements for commercially viable growth to return, a sentiment that was echoed in part by Brett.
"We should have a transition strategy for the next 20 or 30 or however many years, by first off taking the pressure off the old forest by lowering the cut and then secondly, figuring out ways to achieve other goals in the young forests through restoration forestry," he said.
Younger forests can more quickly develop into healthy old growth stands if the right conditions are present. Many ecologists promote an ecosystems-based approach, which aims to mimic the conditions of a naturally developing forest by ensuring a specific tree age and species variability.
Lertzman feels it's important for communities to determine the primary value of their forests, and what role those forests should play in shaping municipal policy decisions.
"Different communities make really different kinds of decisions," he said. "Certainly for Whistler, the role that forests play more broadly in the economy should be a fairly serious issue, beyond forestry specifically. The people involved in these decisions need to look really carefully not just at forests and forestry but at how valuable the jobs or other economic aspects of forestry operations are."
For her part, Mayor Wilhelm-Morden thinks "the value of our forest lies in its recreational value Because we are a destination resort, because we attract so many guests from around the world for our beautiful natural setting, I think it's very important for us to recognize the forest as an integral part of that setting."
Recreational activity poses a unique challenge for old growth forests, said Brett, because, unlike logging where forests are cut and then typically left undisturbed until future logging operations years later, local ecosystems are regularly disturbed by the recreational usage of motorized vehicles.
"We're not only affecting the land base because of logging, but also the opening up of roads increases access there and also degrades the habitat value of that area by continual motorized use," said Brett, who plans to continue identifying and mapping Whistler's old growth areas over the coming year.
Many local governments are plagued with thinking of forest management only in the short term, said Brett, which negatively affects the development of old growth areas.
"We need to have a better plan of what we want our forests to look like in 50 or 100 years. Right now, I think we're working extremely reactively. We're just reacting to what the province tells us to do this year or within five years, and we're not getting the long view yet," he said.
The 33,000-hectare CCF was established in 2009 under a joint 25-year tenure held by the RMOW and the Lil'wat and Squamish First Nations with B.C.'s Ministry of Forests.
The community forest is to be maintained using ecosystem-based management guidelines, which takes an integrated approach that seeks to balance ecosystem health with sustainable human usage. Under this approach, human activities and disturbances are limited so that a forest's ecosystem can maintain and thrive.
"For a community forest enterprise, it should be moving forward with a good understanding of what the community actually wants," said Lertzman, who acknowledged the specific challenges facing the CCF considering its various stakeholders.
"Being involved in a community forest is a choice to be involved in forestry, but it's also a choice that gives the community more control over what's happening with that land base.
"I don't think people should assume there's a cookie cutter approach to what happens in a community forest," he said.
The province approved a project in principle in September that would allow CCF to sell verified emission reduction credits, commonly referred to as carbon credits, to companies wishing to offset their own emission levels.