What’s So Special About Our Old-Growth Forests?

Written by Roxci Bevis, DRBIPA Program Coordinator – September 25, 2020

Big trees, little trees, stumps, snags, and fallen trees. Every type of tree in our forested ecosystem is so important, especially the dead and dying trees. Forests help combat floods, drought, landslides, and forest fires. Trees are for sure one of the most important things on Earth! A healthy planet needs healthy forests.

Approximately 30 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in all different types of forests, according to Elizabeth Mygatt, environmental researcher and author of the article, “World’s Forests Continue to Shrink.” Mygatt explains how forest ecosystems play a huge role in maintaining a healthy planet and provide essential ecosystem services, such as regulating water flows, influencing weather patterns, providing a habitat for wildlife, as well as supplying wood and food.

Our forest ecosystems at Derby Reach and Brae Island are very diverse, from bog to old-growth and second-growth forest, riparian forest, meadows and wetlands. We sadly do not have many old-growth areas left in Metro Vancouver and the southern coast. According to Ancient Forest Alliance, our remaining productive old-growth is 860,000 hectares, only 26% of original productive old-growth. We can’t go back in time to undo the damage of mass clearcutting but we can work together to ensure that our remaining old-growth areas are protected. And that new long-term forested areas be considered here throughout the City of Langley and beyond. Protecting forested areas, large and small, is imperative for the future health of our planet.

“Old-growth” forests are ancient forests that haven’t experienced unnatural changes, reaching maturity without having their growth cycles interrupted. These forests include a mixture of very old trees and younger ones, replacing the trees that have died naturally. Old-growth forests are complex ecosystems. An old-growth forest has multiple species of old trees, young trees, as well as dead and dying trees. The world’s remaining old-growth forests are those few that have not been impacted by industrial logging.

It was once thought that only young forests captured carbon from the atmosphere while they were growing, and that ancient forests only stored this carbon. Dr. Janet Trotter explains how more recent studies have shown that intact ancient forests still absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Researchers have found that as trees continue to grow and age their leaves also keep growing – this creates more uptake of carbon. Now it is commonly understood that bigger trees absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and that the oldest trees in a forest capture the most carbon from the atmosphere. Yay for clean air! But this is not the only reason to protect old-growth forests.

Older trees create valuable biodiversity because they support a wider range of species than younger trees. For example, snags are standing dead trees also known as ‘wildlife trees’ due to their value in providing food and shelter for wildlife among the cavities of the snag. Before and after a snag becomes a fallen tree, or log, its many stages of decay appeal to different birds, insects, and sometimes mammals. Old-growth forests are full of fallen trees, these logs are the “hot-spots” of the forest ecosystem. They provide nesting sites for insects, birds, and amphibians. They are an ideal starting point for fungi. They make for great ‘highway’ routes for smaller mammals as they trek through the forest floor. Plus, they promote versatile plant growth by providing rich nutrients for new plants to take root.

Not only do trees provide oxygen, food, and shelter for many organisms, including humans, during heavy rains, trees reduce the risk of flooding. Trees allow water to be drained into the ground and they prevent soil erosion along waterways. This is why DRBIPA is working with Metro Vancouver Regional Parks to build and maintain living retaining walls to help combat erosion along the coast of Brae Island. A strong forested wetland system provides natural watershed services, including water purification, groundwater and surface flow regulation, plus land loss reduction.

It is easy to take the benefits of our forests for granted when we don’t realize the dangers our forests face. We know we are lucky to live along the west coast, seemingly surrounded by canopies of trees. We are taking time to appreciate each and every tree we see, new and old. We can look to groups likes Ancient Forest Alliance, Sierra Club BC, and the David Suzuki Foundation for more information and the best ways to preserve and protect our old-growth forests. It really does matter.