by Marco Ovies, Features Editor
The term “old-growth forests” has been popping up all over the news, especially in light of the protests happening at Fairy Creek over the last year. Over 1,100 people have been arrested and mas of September 14. Most recently photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano were also arrested — among 29 others. There is no sign of protests stopping despite logging crews winding down operations for the winter. This leaves multiple people wondering why these trees are so important. Here is a breakdown of old-growth forests, their importance, and what’s happening at Fairy Creek.
What is an old-growth forest?
According to the Province of BC, old-growth forests are defined by how old the trees are (no surprise there), the frequency of “natural disturbances such as wind, fire, and landslides,” and when the forest starts developing “old-growth characteristics.” These characteristics vary depending on location, but it’s generally acknowledged that old-growth forests have more “standing dead trees” and “decomposing wood” than younger forests.
According to the Forest Stewards Guild, old trees “often have relatively open crowns, large diameter branches, flattened crowns, and raised crowns with few or no lower branches.”
About 20% of BC’s forests are technically old-growth. Forests by the coast must have trees over 250 years old and those in the interior must be more than 140 years old.
Additionally, old-growth forests provide an environment for many different flora, fauna, liverworts, large mammals, and even at-risk species. It’s important to keep these species in their natural habitat because these habitats provide all the essential things they need in order to survive. One of these endangered species is the marbled murrelets, which there have reportedly been 240 sightings of in the old-growth forests of Fairy Creek, as of September.
Old-growth and the climate crisis
With the climate crisis right at our doorstep, protecting these trees is more important than ever. “The older and larger a tree is, the more greenhouse gas they absorb from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.” These trees store greenhouse gases as carbon in their “leaves, branches, and trunks for decades and even centuries.” But when these trees get cut down, all this carbon they have stored up gets released all at once.
Additionally, old-growth forests are more fire-resistant than younger forests because they “absorb water, retain moisture, and regulate the climate within the forest, especially during a hot, dry summer.” With the increase in record-breaking temperatures and the increase in forest fires in BC, these old-growth forests are more important than ever in preventing forest fires. Not only that, but some research suggests old-growth trees have more genetic diversity, which can help in adjusting to local climates and also explains why they have lived for as long as they have.
The clear-cutting of forests has a direct connection to the floods and landslides that BC has been experiencing. By cutting down trees, it changes how water flows down slopes and can have dramatic consequences as we have seen over the last month.
In addition to the marbled murrelets, these forests provide a home for many different plants and animals. Additionally, the captured rainwater from these trees feeds into local rivers to support fish like salmon and provide them with an area to spawn.
In an interview with The Star, Sierra Club BC’s senior forest and climate campaigner Jens Wieting said it’s important for these patches of old-growth forests to be connected in order to support these ecosystems. But with the increase in logging, these trees are becoming more disconnected from each other.
In an article Wieting published in Vancouver Sun, she wrote, “Human destruction and disruption of the natural world have sped up the natural rate of species extinction by at least 100 times.” She went on to explain Vancouver Island’s remaining intact rainforests are being destroyed “three times faster than the remaining Amazon rainforest in Brazil.”
Significance to Indigenous communities
“Our forests are our cathedrals,” said Judith Sayers, president of the Port Alberni-based, non-profit Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in The Star. “We often go out and do rituals or prayers or different ceremonies out in the forest and it’s usually in the old-growth area.” Sayers also said many different natural medicines grow in this area.
In regards to Fairy Creek, Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones in an interview with Al Jazeera said “My grandfather implored to us that the Ferry Lake area, and the two creeks there, were our spiritual holy places.” Jones is a residential school survivor and compared the loss of culture and spirituality because of logging to residential schools and “other colonial violence.”
“If the trees are cut down, I think that will be the end of our own hopes of resurrecting our past culture, which in fact, is dead on this reserve,” Jones said. “We will not have any means to address our original, spiritual relationship.”
What’s happening at Fairy Creek?
Back in August 2021, a blockade was established at Fairy Creek after people found out a Teal-Jones subcontractor was planning to develop roads in Fairy Creek. Shortly after, another blockade was set up on the east side of Fairy Creek. Blockades have been createdin multiple areas to stop Teal-Jones from getting to the old-growth forests. Though some of these blockades exist outside of the Fairy Creek area, they are still referred to as Fairy Creek.
In April 2021, the BC Supreme Court Justice Frits Verhoeven gave Teal-Jones an injunction which prevents roadblocks at numerous entry points. Then in May 2021, the RCMP stated they would start to enforce this injunction and establish an “exclusion zone” for protesters outside the area where the injunction is now being enforced. The RCMP said journalists from reputable outlets would be allowed past the checkpoint, but many journalists were denied access.
Premier John Horgan told Fairy Creek protesters to “move along” and respect the titleholders to the land. The Pacheedaht First Nation, whose land consists of the Fairy Creek area, has also told protestors they “do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference by others in [their] territory, including third-party activism.”
The most notable group of protestors called the Rainforest Flying Squad said they have significant support from the Pacheedaht First Nation, which includes elder Bill Jones. Kathleen Code, spokesperson for the Rainforest Flying Squad told Global News, “Elder Bill Jones has invited us to remain in place and people on the ground have embraced that again.”
What can you do?
Alternatives to attending the blockades include signing online petitions like the ones provided by the Ancient Forest Alliance or the petition to stop the logging of BC’s old-growth forests. It is also important to keep up to date on what is happening in your community through reputable local news sources. Lastly, it’s important to keep talking about it. These old-growth forests are vital for BC’s future and we cannot let this conversation fade into the background.