Ken Wu has been fighting to protect old-growth forests on Vancouver Island for over two decades. In 2007, Briony Penn interviewed him for Focus Magazine. At that time, Wu hoped that the provincial government was on the verge of protecting old-growth on the Island. 15 years later, little has changed.
Ken Wu in 2007 (Photo by David Broadland)
AN ANIMATED KEN WU leans towards me as he describes the awakened consciousness around climate change among the public. “For those of us in the environmental movement, it’s like being on a surfboard with a tsunami coming. A big wave is building and this is our chance to get real institutional changes for the protection of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests.”
We are in a coffee shop next door to the store and headquarters of the Wilderness Committee, of which Ken Wu is the executive director. The rising tide of awareness about climate change, he tells me, has led to an increasing interest in the long-term role forests play in the carbon cycle.
The institutional changes he is excited about are those heralded by the provincial coastal old-growth forest plan, to be released in the fall, a plan that could spell the end to logging of old-growth temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island—the focus of some of the most important environmental protests in Canadian history from Clayoquot to Carmanah and Walbran to Cathedral Grove.
With less than one percent of old-growth Douglas-fir forests left on eastern Vancouver Island and less than a quarter of old-growth temperate rainforest (also called Coastal Western Hemlock forest) on the rest of the Island, the decision to phase out old-growth logging can’t come soon enough for Wu. “Our goal right now is for immediate old-growth closures on the east and south island and all the valley bottoms [where only 10 percent of old-growth rainforest remains], and a phase-out by 2015 throughout the rest of the island.”
Saving the Island’s old-growth forests is a goal that Wu has held central to his convictions since taking the ED post eight years ago in his mid-20s after several years of ecological research and activism in the forest. He’s also convinced of the urgent need to convert the second- growth forest industry to a more sustainable one.
Raised in Saskatchewan, Wu became fascinated with big trees as a child while pouring over picture books about the West Coast and on early holiday trips to the region. It was this love that brought him out to UBC to study ecology where he cut his scientific teeth studying the Pacific giant salamander, a rare amphibian in BC that spends most of its life in the Chilliwack River valley bottom, among the sword ferns of old-growth forests.
Wu’s academic background in ecology is evident in his outpouring of research statistics while building his case for forest preservation: “One big argument for preservation is the role of temperate rainforests in storing carbon. US researchers, Harmon, Ferrell and Franklin in 1990, found that the conversion of old-growth rainforest [to tree plantations] in Washington/Oregon west of the Cascades has resulted in a new influx of 1500 to 1800 megatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in the last century.”
Wu urges me to “compare that to BC’s goal of greenhouse reductions under Premier Campbell’s new climate change plan to reduce emissions by about 23 megatonnes each year by 2020.”
He also cites a 2007 Oregon State University study that showed that over half of the annual fossil fuel carbon emissions of the state were offset by the storage of carbon by state forests, where the harvest rate has fallen dramatically. The Oregon/Washington data is comparable to BC’s rainforests in the degree to which carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere by the huge trees and lush understorey of plants, then stored as carbon from the needles at the top of the canopy through the leaf litter and topsoil to the roots.
In fact, nowhere conjures up a vision of the extraordinary qualities of an old-growth rainforest more than nearby Castle Grove, Wu’s favourite place—and under immediate threat. Located in the Upper Walbran Valley, it is slated for logging within the year by Teal-Jones, a logging company from Surrey. They are pushing a road across the ridge above the grove and are now one kilometre away. Wu is planning to head off to the Grove after our interview to monitor the company’s progress and confirm with professional foresters the measurements of two giants in the forest—the Castle Giant and the Tolkien Giant which are the sixth and seventh widest trees in Canada at five metres (or 16 feet) across.
“Castle Grove is the most spectacular grove of giant cedars in Canada. There are hundreds of near-record cedars in this stand, forming an incredible canopy,” says Wu. Some of the most unusual scientific discoveries of the last 25 years have been found in these canopies, including hundreds of insects new to science; the nesting habitat of the endangered marbled murrelet on the broad mossy branches; and the role of amphibians that have been found to be the biggest predators in the forest in terms of collective weight.
Says Wu, “The multi-billion tourism argument and the need to save this rich ecosystem aside, I’m betting there is more carbon stored in these trees and the soil per hectare than anywhere else in Canada.” He naturally wonders if, given the province’s commitment to addressing climate change, the government is going to grab this “opportunity to curb further emissions” by stopping the clear-cutting of Castle Grove and other old-growth forests.
Carbon, forests and Kyoto
Is it possible that the carbon storage argument is persuasive enough to save BC’s remaining old-growth forests?
No one has thought more about forests and carbon than Natural Resources Canada research scientist Dr Werner Kurz.
Kurz, like Wu, arrived on the West Coast as an adult from a very different landscape, and was no less enchanted. Raised in western Germany, he was introduced to forests by his grandfather, who was the chief forester for an ancient woodland estate in Hessen that had been harvesting its trees for over 750 years. “It was a very different forest than our West Coast ones. It was oaks and beeches with very little understorey. My grandfather knew every tree on the estate—a different experience than Canadian foresters who are expected to manage tens of thousands of hectares alone, with little time in the bush.” Kurz did forestry training in Europe, then came to UBC to do his PhD, where his first research was on the foothill forests of Alberta.
His original research looked painstakingly at the capacity of those forests to store or emit carbon under different harvesting techniques. It demonstrated that slowing the rotation of harvesting, amongst other things, greatly enhanced the ability of a forest to store carbon in the long term. Certainly results one would expect, but until Kurz they had not been quantified down to the tonne.
Now one of the leading lights at the Pacific Forestry Centre on Burnside Road, Kurz has received international attention for his 20- year research into the long-term dynamics of the “carbon stock” (the total amount of carbon stored in a forest stand at any one time) in Canada’s forest—investigating factors of rising temperatures, insect predation and fire.
I ask Kurz if the US study, which Wu referred to, suggests that there is a strong carbon rationale for preserving the island’s old-growth.
“Carbon at present won’t be the clincher for Canadian forests,” answers Kurz. “The difficulty in putting the entire rationale for not logging old-growth onto carbon credits is that it is a highly complex issue that involves a large number of factors.”
Those factors range from what type of forest it is, to the alternatives of using wood. And those factors all play into what Canada has agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol. Canada has currently elected not to include reporting carbon stocks from forest management under Kyoto. Kurz states, “The fate of old-growth forests is only an issue under the protocol if they are deforested.”
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada, as an Annex 1 country, is obliged to report forest carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from both land-use change activities and forest management activities since 1990. The primary reporting requirement in the land-use change category is “deforestation”—defined as “the conversion of forests to other land uses, such as urban or agriculture”—which is a “carbon source” (i.e. more carbon flows out of the forest than into it).
Deforestation accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions, not too far behind the use of fossil fuels for transportation. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in its recent report that preventing deforestation is a top priority in climate change mitigation because it protects both carbon stocks and the capacity of the forest to take up more carbon—carbon sequestration. Everyone agrees, including Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist, that we must stop deforestation both to prevent carbon emissions and for the significant biodiversity, soil and water conservation benefits. Changing land uses like agriculture back to forestry through “reforestation” and “afforesta- tion” (differing by the length of time the land has been out of forestry; and not the same as replanting a forest that has been recently clearcut) is also acknowledged as mitigation through forming carbon sinks (i.e. more carbon flows into the forest than out of it).
However, none of these land-use changes, at least as the Kyoto Protocol defines them, are prevalent on Vancouver Island. According to the rules, only eastern Vancouver Island is experiencing deforestation as our Douglas-fir forests are converted to urban settlement. The conversion of old-growth to second-growth tree plantations does not constitute deforestation, as defined, nor does the replanting constitute reforestation; it is, instead, a “forest manage- ment activity”—defined as a system of practices for stewardship and use of forest land aimed at fulfilling relevant ecological (including biological diversity), economic and social functions of the forest in a sustainable manner.
Under the Kyoto Protocol (the muscle of the UNFCCC), counting the net carbon emissions land-use changes (deforestation, reforestation and afforestation) since 1990 is obligatory, but there is a discretionary clause with regard to evaluating changes in carbon due to forest management (including e.g. both replanting and not logging). Canada elected to opt out of this discretionary clause, which means we can’t presently count the carbon that could be saved from not logging our old-growth forests. I ask Kurz why we did this.
“Because it was apparent that, taken as a whole, Canada’s forests [from the boreal to the rainforest] were shifting from being a sink of carbon to a source, due to the increase in fire, insect predation and other effects of climate change.” When they started to factor in harvesting practices as well, scientists discovered that carbon is leaving Canada’s forests faster than the trees can absorb it. We would be on the hook for those extra megatonnes for the Kyoto reporting period starting next year.
Carbon accounting in the forest
Kurz and a team of scientists are currently developing the National Forest Carbon Monitoring, Accounting, and Reporting System to improve the understanding of the role of Canada’s forests in the global carbon cycle. The two key elements of this system are the Carbon Budget Model—essentially a carbon accounting tool that can be applied to any forest stand in Canada—and a National Forest Inventory. These two elements allow us to determine what our carbon budget would be before and after any forest activity in any given forest stand in Canada’s managed forest. It should enable us to evaluate the carbon benefit of saving our last patches of old-growth.
“Canada’s forests vary in their capacity to sequester carbon for lots of reasons,” explains Kurz; “It really boils down to looking at each particular forest stand and determining what is the best action to benefit the carbon sink.”
The Carbon Budget Model takes into account, firstly, what type of forest it is. Stands like Castle Grove, for example, have much greater carbon storage capabilities over a long period than fire-dependent, insect-ravaged lodgepole pine forests of the Interior, or even the coastal Douglas-fir forest in the rain-shadow region of eastern Vancouver Island.
Different aged stands also have different carbon uptakes. While older trees become less productive than young trees (they grow more slowly and are taking up less carbon on an annual basis), they may well be accumulating large amounts of carbon in their litter, woody debris and soils.
Finally, different forests have different natural disturbance regimes over time and space. For example, fire might go through one type of forest stand every five years and release carbon, while Castle Grove might only get smaller disturbances, like wind, with much less frequency that barely disturb the carbon in the forest soil.
The Carbon Budget Model calculates the carbon stock changes of the forest over time, as well as before and after disturbances, including logging, insect predation and fire. It can show how much carbon is released through the soil and the trees from different harvesting techniques and rotations. This provides a baseline against which to evaluate management options (including leaving it alone) and possible carbon credits.
Clearcuts, carbon release and complexities
The carbon budget models have been showing increasing rates of carbon leaving Canada’s forests since climate change impacts have risen correspondingly. However, the major exception to this trend is BC’s old-growth temperate rainforests, which remain as large carbon sinks.
Ken Wu puts it this way: “Per hectare, old-growth temperate rainforests store more carbon than even tropical rainforests, and they’re not subject to major fires or pine beetles—logging is their main cause of carbon release. Conversion of old-growth rainforest to tree plantations is not only a gross simplification of the ecological system, in terms of impoverishing biodiversity, but also greatly diminishes its carbon stores.”
Referring back to the same US research, he notes that it takes over 200 years for a replanted forest to store the carbon that was released by the initial disturbance (or clearcut) in the coastal temperate rainforests.
“Time is not on our side when it comes to climate change,” warns Wu. Recent studies in China and the US have also shown that conversion of old-growth forests into second-growth forests results in a net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as carbon sequestered in the soil, needles, branches, and trunks of trees is released after logging. A clearcut in a temperate old-growth rainforest has no parallel in natural disturbances and many argue doesn’t “fulfill relevant ecological functions” (as per Kyoto).
But the complexity of evaluating carbon stores and ecological functions of forests and their management options means we’re a ways off from international agreement on an accrediting system.
“You have to have a system that is transferable and verifiable,” explains Kurz. “Someone could come to the carbon market and claim carbon credits for all the carbon locked up in Goldstream Park. But that forest is already protected against harvesting and no one can make the claim that they planned on harvesting it, so why should someone get a credit for not clear-cut logging Goldstream Park? On the other hand, if Joe Blogg’s Timber Company has a timber lease somewhere else and is legally entitled to harvest at a certain rate, but decided...to set it aside or reduce the rate of harvest by lengthening the rotation period, they might under a future carbon trading scheme, collect such credits.”
Governments are still in the process of developing domestic carbon trading or offset rules around forest management, but we don’t know when they will be announced or what these rules will include. International discussions have focused primarily on ways in which deforestation rates can be reduced in the tropics where the land-use pressures are immense—13 million hectares per year are deforested and converted to other land uses.
There’s yet another catch in the carbon argument: International accounting rules assume that carbon removed from the forest is released to the atmosphere, but many argue that a portion of the carbon will be stored in long-lived prod- ucts like houses and some of it could be used for bioenergy to replace fossil fuel emissions.
Kurz and his team are tackling that challenge too by building into their models a “full life cycle analysis” of the harvested material—an obviously complex and time-consuming task.
Then there is the even fuller cost of accounting on a global scale. If we don’t use the wood from the forest, what other options do we have to meet demands for building products, paper and energy? And what would be the emissions from those alternatives, such as concrete and steel? By limiting the wood supply from BC’s forests, are we putting more pressure on tropical woods?
So what to do?
In response to this last point, Wu argues, “The growth in problems elsewhere shouldn’t prevent us from doing the right thing for the environment or social justice here in BC—it means that we support efforts for sustainability and justice everywhere, as opposed to nowhere!”
Much of the argument comes back to the need to create verifiable models to test these assumptions and see which options contribute most to climate change mitigation. If we do want to make educated and quantitative choices surrounding the carbon debate, it all takes accurate data and time.
But even Kurz points out carbon is not the only reason we should protect old-growth forests: “There are other important considerations, such as biodiversity, which can’t be assessed in a model about carbon dynamics, but are of critical importance.” Our telephone interview from his home is interrupted by the cries of his two small girls as they prepare for a trip out to French Beach. “One of the drawbacks of being a modeller is that I don’t spend enough time in the forest with my work anymore. Instead I spend it staring at computers, sitting in meeting rooms and airplanes going to international conferences. In my spare time now I take my family and head out to the west coast.”
Wu agrees with Kurz that it is the twin arguments of carbon and biodiversity that together are “the clincher” in our treatment of coastal forests. “My first motivation to protect old-growth forests has always been for biological reasons,” says Wu. “But what adds to the arguments for keeping them standing is counteracting climate change.”
Wu notes that in New Zealand and southwest Australia logging of remaining native old-growth forests has been banned. There are also some exciting new initiatives, like the New Zealand Emissions Biodiversity Exchange, which gives landowners carbon credits for restoring native forest as a way of combining biodiversity and carbon store objectives. New Zealand, says Wu, “is more progressive than BC in these specific goals, and it could happen here if we bring pressure on the BC government right now.”
The urgency, Wu stresses, is two-fold. Castle Grove could be logged within months and similar stands are being logged at a rapid rate. The other urgency is for public input into the BC government’s coastal old-growth forest plan, before its release this fall. Wu’s organization suggests writing MLA’s, Minister Coleman and the premier (see www.westernwildernesscommittee.org).
Minister of Forests and Range Rich Coleman announced in May that he would be shifting the timber industry’s focus away from old-growth logging toward logging second-growth. Though not available for an interview with Focus, he said in a June Times-Colonist article that his job is to strike a balance between protection and enabling the harvesting of “some old growth on the Island that’s still viable for forestry.” Coleman also said protection of the massive trees at Castle Grove “would be something we would look at,” but stated any details on specifically what old growth on the Island would be protected or harvested wouldn’t be available until well after his Coastal Recovery Plan is released.
Wu is in favour of any plan to phase out old-growth forest logging but notes there need to be specific short-term timelines and targets. “If there aren’t targets and deadlines, then the issue will just keep smouldering and we will still lose all our old growth incrementally over time.”
Unfortunately, the most threatened old growth on the Island is the Douglas-fir forest of the southeastern Island, which is being rapidly converted to urban settlement. It is mainly privately-owned, so Coleman’s plan won’t have much effect on this forest. Still, there could emerge some economic incentives to keep it as forest with a carbon trading system similar to New Zealand’s.
Wu is also concerned that the government has indicated it will increase the rate of cut of second-growth forests by reducing the rotation from 80 years on public lands to 50 (already the case on private lands). The older second-growth forests are the most biologically rich, supporting salmon and many other species.
Arguments for biodiversity have been around a lot longer than carbon arguments, but biodiversity is even harder to quantify, place a value on, and trade. Still, the arguments are even more compelling in the face of climate change.
The ability of forests to withstand more than a two-degree temperature rise is a major question in itself. Says Wu, “For our forests to better survive an unpredictable future, we need to protect their genetic diversity to help their adaptability. The best place to source this genetic diversity is in old-growth forests.”
As my interview with Wu is winding up, we discuss Kurz’s work and the possibility of applying the Carbon Budget Model to the Castle Grove stand. The model would provide some hard data on the carbon stock of the stand. According to Kurz, that would take three days work by a professional forester. The model itself can be downloaded off the web.
As comfortable talking carbon numbers as ecology or policy, Wu’s ready to bring every bit of data to bear on the discussion and is already thinking of which forester to contact to gather the data and work the model. His enthusiasm is infectious and I feel like getting the old surfboard out myself to jump on the wave.
If the provincial government actually does commit to phase out old-growth logging on the coast, and with people like Kurz creating tools to evaluate carbon stores so that carbon trading can occur, the Island’s last old-growth might have a chance. Perhaps even some day, Wu could be out of a job protecting wilderness.
I ask him if he is worried about that and he replies that, first, he would have to make sure there are firm targets and deadlines on the old-growth—and that second-growth logging is sustainable. But if all that panned out, he would be happy. He could get back to his first love— studying the Pacific giant salamander amongst the towering trees.
Briony Penn PhD is an award-winning environmental educator, a naturalist, mother and artist and author of several books.