Old growth forests, which are characterized by stands of large and old
trees, a distinct species composition, a multilayered canopy, and a large
build up of organic matter (Lund 2000), have many positive attributes.
They are a source of high-value timber, contain large amounts of carbon,
harbour a large reservoir of genetic diversity, provide habitat for many
species, regulate hydrological regimes, protect soils and conserve nutrients,
and have substantial recreational and aesthetic value (Marchak, Aycock
and Herbert 1999). Much of the interest in old growth forests stems from
the powerful images which they project of rich biodiversity and timeless
stability. Visitors often sense a form of spirituality and grandeur in
such forests and most people place a high value on them.
Old growth forests once occurred in all North American ecosystems although
it is now difficult to determine their exact extent. Remnant old growth
forests and stands still remain, especially in the Pacific Northwest and
down the Pacific coast to California. The classic old growth forest in
this area contains redwoods, cedars, Douglas fir, hemlock and spruce.
The region probably still contains about half the world's remaining unlogged
coastal temperate rainforest, with the greatest share in British Columbia.
| Decline of old growth forest (percentage
Old growth forests have declined rapidly since
the middle of the 20th century
Source: H. John Heinz III Center 2001
The majority of old growth lost in the eastern and
lower elevations of North America was due to conversion of land to agriculture
and urban environments. In the west (see bar chart) and mountainous regions,
loss has been due to harvesting of timber and conversion to younger more
vigorously growing stands along with recent catastrophic events such as
the eruption of Mount St Helens and the Yellowstone fires (Harmon 1993,
H. John Heinz III Center 2001).
The decline in old growth forest was largely driven by increasing worldwide
demand for timber and high prices in the 1970s (Mathews and Hammond 1999).
In recent years, losses due to timber harvesting have slowed because of
increasing environmental concerns including the desire to preserve natural
forests and to prevent further destruction of critical wildlife habitat
and biological diversity.
Natural forests are still deemed by some to be essential to Canada's
industrial timber supply. Canada harvests about 175 million m3
of timber annually (NRC 2000) from approximately 1 million ha, or 0.5
per cent of the nation's commercial forest base. There is little mature
second growth forest and so logging continues mainly from mature natural
The paradigm shift towards the ecosystem approach to managing North America's
old growth forests reflects the combined power of scientific knowledge,
the action of voluntary groups, public awareness, market pressures on
industry, and governmental response (see box).
| Clayoquot Sound
Clayoquot Sound, a 1 000 km2 wilderness on Vancouver
Island, became the focus of a well publicized debate over old growth
logging. Beginning in 1984, environmentalists and the Nuu-chah-nulth
First Nation protested against clearcutting by blocking logging
roads, among other tactics. During 1989-93, government task forces
attempted to resolve the conflict and large tracts of coastal temperate
rainforest were set aside for protection (MSRM 2002). Claiming that
logging was still permitted on 70 per cent of the Sound, the protesters
continued their actions, and brought national and international
attention to the issue.
In 1995, in recognition that the Nuu-chah-nulth had not been adequately
consulted, public negotiations began on a settlement with the First
Nation peoples. Recommendations were formulated and adopted by the
provincial government (May 1998). A 4 000 km2 model forest
was also established.
Progress was subsequently made in resolving the remaining conflicts.
One of Canada's largest forest products companies announced in 1998
that it would phase out clear-cutting in British Columbia and design
a new strategy focusing on old growth conservation (MacMillan 1998).
An agreement was struck between First Nations and environmentalists
to set aside most of the western coast of Clayoquot Sound and to
promote economic development through small-scale logging, non-timber
forest products and ecotourism. With the January 2000 designation
of Clayoquot Sound as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, industry, environmentalists,
governments and First Nations established a new form of governance
based on shared responsibility for the ecosystem (ENS 1999, Clayoquot
Biosphere Trust 2000).