One Cool Island: There’s no more ‘us and them’ when it comes to our forests

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BY ANDREA PALFRAMAN

Transition Salt Spring

A German ex-regal turning a vast swath of Salt Spring’s forests over to developers. A woodland that’s been logged for 50 years, still standing tall. A nude Lady Godiva riding horseback through downtown Vancouver.  These are some of the colourful chapters in the history of forestry — and forest protection— on Salt Spring Island. 

With world leaders pledging to end deforestation by 2030 at the UN climate summit this week, it’s clear that a new era of cooperation is upon us.  

What if, apart from the deeply divisive “war in the woods,” we charted a course that saw forestry and forest conservation, not as mutually exclusive interests but as part of a web of life that could sustain livelihoods, ecosystems, AND a stable climate for future generations? 

Sustainable forestry is part of that new way forward. A blend between craft, culture, and science, the approach envisions forests being allowed to reach their full potential — not only in terms of timber to harvest but in terms of ecological and social values. 

Such “close-to-nature forestry” practices place the emphasis on the management of a whole and healthy natural ecosystem, with timber production carried out in a way that’s compatible with natural regeneration and many other cultural, environmental and recreational values in each part of the forest. Generally, this means no clear-cutting; instead, sustainable natural forest regeneration becomes the guiding principle, with less reliance on replanting and more on thinning trees. This form of forestry also encourages healthy trees by cultivating a mix of forest species to nourish a vibrant understory and fungi-rich soils. 

It is being used in communities in B.C. to establish community forests that are grounded in community involvement, and with special emphasis placed on First Nations governance. It’s an approach that recognizes that botanical uses of mushrooms and medicinal plant gathering can flourish alongside walking trails, conservation areas and — yes — sustainable timber harvesting. 

The current debate about the Islands Trust bringing in new bylaws to address unregulated logging is being painted, on the one side, as an attempt to trample the rights of property owners, and on the other, as a necessary strengthening of the Trust’s ability to fulfil its mandate. 

While Salt Springers have mobilized — through protest, land acquisition and parkland creation — to protect forests, one only needs to look to Denman Island, where despite having passed a suite of bylaws, the Islands Trust was ultimately powerless after the B.C. Supreme Court allowed clearcutting of 10 per cent of the island in 1999. Galiano, meanwhile, was able to enshrine the protection of Coastal Douglas-fir forests into law through the creation of a development permit area focusing on ecosystem protection over halting forestry operations. That distinction may be key in showing a way forward for Salt Spring, precisely because while Denman’s approach was seen as an attempt to stop clearcutting, Galiano’s approach emphasized the importance of careful forest management. 

What does sustainable forestry look like in real life? One long-standing local example is Seven Ravens Eco-Forest, located at the crest of Lee’s Hill. Eco-forester Michael Nickels has been logging his 38.5-acre farm for 30 years; there is now more forest cover on the property than there was when it was acquired.

“For every tree cut at Seven Ravens, on average 25 vibrant mixed-species trees get planted for future generations,” says Nickels.  

With an organic tree nursery and eco-forestry operation, the farm turns a profit through sales of milled wood for timber framing, flooring, furniture and fine finishing. 

Says Nickels, “Initially I spent hundreds of hours pruning trees in the forest to lift the lower branches to five metres. This in turn would add huge value to the trees and the health of the forest for years to come. The forest, fields and any unused land were thickly planted with a multitude of different species of trees which are now bearing fruits, seeds for sale and valuable furniture-grade wood.”

B.C.’s vast forests are significant carbon-storing ecosystems. Cut those trees, and they emit all the C02 they’ve been storing. The loss of this canopy increases drought, evaporation and allows heat to accumulate — it was far cooler in a forest than out in the open when the heat dome sat over Salt Spring Island this summer. It’s a horrific feedback loop that we can avoid by retaining forests and taking a balanced approach to forestry that avoids the extremes of clear-cutting on the one hand and outright logging bans on the other. 

Salt Spring’s forests are our greatest natural asset for climate change mitigation and adaptation; in addition to acting as sponges to soak up water, our Douglas-fir forests store 5.6 million tonnes of carbon. Our native plants and trees are also fire resistant. The imperative to protect these forests has never been more urgent. Developing an ecosystem-based approach can sustain the values and benefits of forested ecosystems. A strategic mix of protected areas, sustainable forest management areas, zoning for small milling operations and the legal frameworks necessary to prevent clear-cutting offers opportunity beyond the “log it or love it” polarities. 

Recently, Bill Henderson, who anchored a well-attended webinar on Oct. 27 co-produced by Transition Salt Spring and the Salt Spring Island Conservancy, walked the land of an island logger with two of Transition’s directors. Ruth Waldick, a biologist by training, was astounded by the diversity of life on the forest floor, the sponginess of the soils and the diverse forest canopy, all achieved using selective techniques on this land for many many years.  

“This looks better than many of the conservation areas on Salt Spring,” Waldick enthused. And while the owner of these lands is proud of what he does and may not call what he does “eco-forestry,” the hallmarks of exemplary forestry management are all there — a prioritization on selective harvesting, and the strategic placement of branches from sawn timber directly on the forest floor to promote rapid decomposition.  

Compare that with clear-cuts and slash piles which are the leading cause of forest fires in B.C., and the differences are clear: healthier trees of mixed ages that are more fire resilient in mixed forest stands create resilience in times of drought, and support resilient livelihoods.  

“People need to see that there is a lot of money to be made not just in timber but in the maintenance of healthy productive forests,” says Waldick. “On Salt Spring, there are a lot of jobs we need to create in order to help our forests survive the hotter, drier times that are already baked into climate projections for this region.”   

Salt Springers have some stark choices ahead. Do nothing and watch our forests become drier and more unstable while we continue to bleed jobs and working families, or give forests some protections that ensure they continue to provide medicines, support biodiversity and the wood resources we all rely on. Working together, we can help ensure that  “sustainable forestry” becomes a key part of Trust policy and sustains and creates new forms of forestry jobs while helping our forests and watersheds survive the hot times ahead. 

We can no longer afford the politics of division at this critical tipping point for humanity. We’re all in this canoe together.  For the rough waters ahead, the only way through is to overcome superficial differences and join forces based on our common love for, and dependence upon, our forests. 

To view or download publicly available forest stewardship resources go to transitionsaltspring.com.

Register now for Transition Salt Spring’s upcoming One Cool Island Climate Action Coach webinar called $ave Big with Home Energy Assessments, Insulation and Draft Sealing on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. Register at https://bit.ly/3bP9KZb. The $10 cost directly supports the development of programming just like this.  

One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring on how we can all respond to the climate crisis–together. Andrea Palframan is a member of Transition Salt Spring, and volunteer communications contributor. To support our work and read the Salt Spring Island Climate Action Plan go to transitionsaltspring.com.


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