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‘Culturally modified trees' offer link to historic Indigenous use in North Cowichan

Douglas-fir bark used for campfires and other purposes

For decades, North Cowichan’s approach to its 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve — unique in Canada — has been clearcutting for profit.

But, now, the documenting of culturally modified trees (CMTs) on Maple Mountain provides evidence of historic Indigenous use of the forests that left the trees intact.

University of BC forestry professor Peter Arcese and his partner, Amanda Rodewald, a Cornell University professor, went for a walk the other day on Maple Mountain and discovered an old Douglas-fir stump showing evidence of bark removal. They were searching for large arbutus and sites amenable to restoration of rare coastal Douglas-fir forests.

Based on their discovery, visited the area and found what appeared to be another CMT involving bark removed from a living Douglas-fir not far away.

The exact locations are not being revealed to protect the CMTs, although the Municipality has been provided with coordinates and is following up with the BC government. Cowichan Tribes has also been contacted by, but has not yet provided comment.

Arcese notes he is an ecologist/conservation biologist in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at UBC — and not an archaeologist. But he has investigated numerous CMTs on the Gulf Islands and southern Vancouver Island over the years.

In this case, Arcese suggests a rectangular scar on the old stump is evidence of an Indigenous person with a modern axe removing a patch of bark, perhaps for a campfire, 150 to 200 years ago. Above that prominent scar, he said, is “a much older scar” suggesting the use of pre-contact tools perhaps 300 years ago.

The stump was created from the tree breaking several metres up from the ground rather than from logging.

What do others think of the findings?

Thomas Murphy, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Edmonds College, has experience documenting CMTs in western Washington state. His “preliminary thoughts” based on photos of both the stump and living tree are that the “rectangular shape, location on the tree, and apparent cut marks on the upper edges of the scars on both images are all indicative of a cultural origin.” The circular holes in the bark scars are made by sapsuckers and woodpeckers.


According to the government handbook, Culturally Modified Trees of British Columbia, 2001, bark from species such as Douglas-fir were “used extensively for such diverse purposes as food, medicine, dye, fuel, binding material and, in some cases, small emergency canoes.

“In some cases, the bark may have been removed for the collection of pitch. At one time, CMTs left from these activities must have been very common, but it is not likely that many are still alive.”

Western red cedars are longer lived, slower to rot and more likely to still show signs of ancient Indigenous use.

Of 16 major biogeoclimatic zones in BC, the coastal Douglas‐fir zone (which overlaps the Municipal Forest Reserve) is the smallest, contains the least amount of old growth, and is the least protected and most encroached upon by urban areas, according to one research paper.

The 2008 paper — co-authored by Darcy Mathews, currently an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria — added that Douglas-fir CMTs “have the potential to tell us a great deal about precontact lives and livelihoods but are barely understood…."

Arcese is part of the UBC forestry team that has been helping North Cowichan with a long-term management plan for the forest reserve.

The Municipality and First Nations are engaged in closed talks on the forest reserve after reaching agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding, while a separate public engagement process is about to resume. North Cowichan has no legal obligation to engage First Nations, but is doing so in the spirit of reconciliation. First Nations so far have not publicly expressed their vision for the forest reserve.

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(Amanda Rodewald photo of Peter Arcese examining Douglas-fir stump. Larry Pynn photo of living Douglas-fir.)

— Larry Pynn, Sept 30, 2021

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