What you need to know about old growth trees in B.C. — and the threats facing them

Old growth trees — one of British Columbia’s most iconic natural symbols — are once again grabbing international attention as hundreds of protesters are willing to be arrested rather than see the trees cut down for their economic value.

These massive trees have long been an important part of the province’s forestry sector. But the logging of old growth trees, some of which have stood for 800 years or more, often comes with criticism that their harvest harms B.C.’s biodiversity and ability to deal with climate change.

Currently, the trees at the heart of ongoing confrontations between demonstrators and RCMP are in the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island.

Here are five things to know about old growth trees in B.C.

What is considered an old growth tree in B.C.?

Old growth trees vary in size and age, but the most common image is of a massive tree erupting from the earth stretching 60 metres or more into the sky. The trunks of these trees are covered in dense bark, and a family of four people would struggle to hold hands and encircle one.

Conservationists and loggers both say it’s significant when trees like this — such as yellow cedars, Sitka spruce or Douglas firs — are discovered in forests, often at the bottom of lush valleys where rainfall and access to nutrients help them grow.

The province defines coastal forests to be old growth if they contain trees that are more than 250 years old, while forests in B.C.’s Interior are considered old growth if the trees are at least 140 years old.

Why are old growth trees logged?

The province says old growth trees are “vital” to supporting the industry because of their value and quality. Wood from old growth trees is often desired for high-end and specialty products such as fine furniture, musical instruments, specialty finishing products and shake and shingle manufacturing.

In the last fiscal year, the province said $1.3 billion in revenue was linked to the forestry sector, which employs more than 50,000 British Columbians, including 5,300 Indigenous people who are directly employed in the industry.

Typical coastal old growth sites can yield as much as 1,500 to 1,800 cubic metres per hectare, according to industry experts. In comparison, they say second-growth forests — trees that grow after the original trees were cut down or destroyed by natural disturbances like wildfires — yield around a third of that because they are harvested at younger ages.

Also in many areas, like Northern Vancouver Island, more old growth is logged because second-growth forests haven’t yet grown big enough to be harvested.

Speaking in April at a convention for the BC Council of Forest Industries, provincial forestry minister Katrine Conroy didn’t say how old growth would factor into the future of the sector. But Conroy was clear her government was committed to ensuring forestry remains an economic driver for the province.

“B.C.’s forest industry is, and will continue to, provide opportunities and benefits for British Columbians for decades to come,” she said at the time.

How much old growth remains in B.C.?

The province says there are currently 13.7 million hectares of old growth in British Columbia, and 10 million of those hectares are protected or not economical to harvest. For reference, the entire province is roughly 95 million hectares in size, with approximately 57 million hectares of forested land.

Around 20 million hectares of public forest in B.C. is available for harvesting, according to the province, of which 3.6 million hectares is old growth.

Each year, 200,000 hectares of forested lands in B.C. are logged. The province says 27 per cent of this annual harvest comes from old growth.

But for the past decade, conservation groups like the Ancient Forest Alliance, the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club B.C. have all used provincial data to argue that old growth trees in the areas where the trees grow biggest are being cut down at an unsustainable rate. 

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