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B.C.'s Oldest Forest Conservationist Reminds Us How Much The Wild Has Changed

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Earlier this week, B.C.'s oldest forest conservationist, 104-year-old Dr. Al Carder -- who is older than most of B.C.'s second-growth trees -- received the 2015 Forest Sustainability Award from the Ancient Forest Alliance. The award honours his decades of service to document, research, and promote the conservation of B.C.'s old-growth trees. (As Dr. Carder is currently ill with pneumonia, his children, Judith, Mary-Clare, and Andrew, received the award on his behalf.)

Al Carder was researching and raising awareness about B.C.'s biggest trees years before old-growth forests became an issue of popular concern. Along with his books, Carder is perhaps best known for his work to protect the Red Creek Fir, the world's largest known Douglas-fir tree found in 1976 by loggers near Port Renfrew. It was measured and highlighted by Carder. Today the Red Creek Fir is within a Forest Service Recreation Area, and is also listed in B.C.'s Big Tree Registry.

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Dr. Al Carder

I first heard of Carder when I was a teenager in the early 1990s through the late, great conservationist Randy Stoltmann, who spoke highly about Carder's work and who worked with him to document the province's largest trees. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to meet Carder in person for the first time. Carder is hard of hearing and plagued with various ailments as you'd expect after living for over a century, so I was impressed with his continued enthusiasm for big trees.

With help from his daughter Judith, he spoke about how he remembered taking a train through the Fraser Valley near Cloverdale and Langley back in 1917. Today those suburbs of Vancouver are known for their box stores, residential neighbourhoods, and farmland. But back then the railway went through a forest "like Cathedral Grove," lined with towering ancient Douglas-fir trees, including a felled specimen that Carder and his father measured to be over 340 feet (100 metres) tall!

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A young Carder

It's amazing to think about what B.C.'s southern coast would have been like a century ago when Carder was born in 1910. Ancient forests, vital for sustaining endangered species, climate stability, clean water, wild salmon, tourism, and First Nations culture, would have dominated the forested landscapes, carpeting the valley bottoms up to the mountaintops and over to the adjacent valleys, unbroken for millions of hectares. This would have included vast stands of old-growth coastal Douglas-fir trees, which today have been reduced to just one per cent of their former extent.

Grizzlies would have roamed the Lower Mainland around Vancouver in those days, while more than 1,000 breeding adult spotted owls were estimated to have inhabited the region's ancient forests. Today, less than a dozen spotted owls survive in B.C.'s wilds.

The unique Vancouver Island wolverine -- a 27-kilogram, wilderness-dependent mustelid that can fight off a bear and that once feasted on the Vancouver Island marmot -- hasn't been seen since 1992. Many thousands of mountain caribou would have once roamed the inland rainforest of B.C.; today, only 1,500 remain. Coastal rivers and streams, once overflowing with spawning salmon, are now sad remnants of their former glory, degraded by logging debris and silt.

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Not only have native ecosystems been collapsing as a result of the resource depletion policies of successive governments, but so have forestry-dependent communities. The overcutting of the biggest and best old-growth stands in the lowlands that historically built B.C.'s forest industry has resulted in diminishing returns as the trees get smaller, lower in value, and harder to reach high up on steep mountainsides.

Today, 75 per cent of the original, productive old-growth forests have been logged on B.C.'s southern coast, including over 90 per cent of the most productive old-growth forests in the valley bottoms. The ensuing second-growth tree plantations, harvested every 30 to 80 years on the coast, fail to support the old-growth dependent species, the tourism industry, the climate, and traditional First Nations cultures in the same way that our original centuries-old forests do.

In a report for the B.C. Ministry of Forests (Ready for Change, 2001), Dr. Peter Pearse described the history of high-grade overcutting: "The general pattern was to take the nearest, most accessible, and most valuable timber first, gradually expand up coastal valleys and mountainsides into more remote and lower quality timber, less valuable, and costlier to harvest. Today, loggers are approaching the end of the merchantable old-growth in many areas ... Caught in the vise of rising costs and declining harvest value, the primary sector of the industry no longer earns an adequate return ..."

B.C.'s coastal forest industry, once Canada's mightiest, is now a mere remnant of its past. Over the past decade, about 80 B.C. mills have closed and over 30,000 forestry jobs lost.

In his 2001 report, Pearse also stated: "Over the next decade, the second-growth component of timber harvest can be expected to increase sharply, to around 10 million cubic metres ... To efficiently manufacture the second-growth component of the harvest, 11 to 14 large mills will be needed."

Today, more than a decade later, there is only one large and a handful of smaller second-growth mills on the coast, and very little value-added wood manufacturing.

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Dr. Carter and Ken Wu

The B.C. Liberal government's myopic response to their own resource depletion policies has been to open up some protected forest reserves and to relax environmental standards in parts of the province. It's like burning up parts of your house for firewood after you've used up all your other wood sources: it won't last long, and in the end you're a lot worse off. To try to defer the consequences of unsustainable actions with more unsustainable actions is precisely what has brought this planet to the ecological brink.

The B.C. government has a responsibility to learn from -- rather than to repeat -- history's mistakes.

Unless the B.C. government reorients the coastal forest industry toward sustainable, value-added second-growth forestry -- rather than old-growth liquidation, unsustainable rates of overcutting, and raw log exports -- the crisis will only continue.

It's in the memories of our elders like Dr. Al Carder -- a conservationist with a deep connection to the natural world from his earliest days -- where we can recall our histories and learn the wisdom to make a better world.