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Chemainus River: a last refuge for remaining giant trees in the Municipal Forest Reserve

‘Veterans’ serve as reminder of the past, and inspiration for the future of our forests

A secluded stretch of the Chemainus River — dripping with moss and heavy with humidity — is a last refuge for some of the biggest trees remaining in the heavily logged Municipal Forest Reserve of North Cowichan.

Bruce Coates, president of Cowichan Valley Naturalists' Society, and sixmountains.ca teamed up to explore the banks of the flood-swollen Chemainus River and document several giant trees — with potentially more to come.

The largest included a western red cedar measuring about six metres in circumference at chest height and a Douglas fir about 5.8 metres.

Another cedar tree observed close by might be even bigger, but could not be measured due to high, fast-flowing water.

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These rare and impressive trees are considered “veterans.” Passed over during previous logging, they now stand out in a forest of mostly younger trees.

The coastal Douglas-fir forest is the most imperilled forest type in B.C., with less than one percent of old-growth remaining. Visit: https://cdfcp.ca .

“To come across these veterans clinging to the cliffs and shoreline was particularly stunning during the drama of the Chemainus in flood,” Coates said.

“These grand old trees form a bridge across time. Many species, including numerous ones we haven't even described or ‘discovered’ yet, could potentially have been carried on their backs across that time span of forest alteration by the first logging.”

Measuring the fir proved a challenge because the tree is located at the edge of a sheer bluff, making it impossible to walk around. One person placed the start of a measuring tape on the end of a curved stick and the second person standing on the other side of the tree reached out and grabbed the tape as it came around.

Andy MacKinnon is an author of numerous guide books, including the iconic Plants of Coastal British Columbia. He is retired as a forest research ecologist with the B.C. government and is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

“The term ‘old growth’ is usually used for forest stands or landscapes, not individual trees,” MacKinnon said.

An older second-growth coastal Douglas-fir forest — as exists over much of the forest reserve — is much more valuable, ecologically, with scattered veteran trees, he said.

“The larger, older trees can serve as 'lifeboats' from the older stand to the current stand, maintaining some of the canopy arthropods and cyanolichens that will otherwise be absent in the second-growth stand.

“In an ecological zone (CDF) with almost no old-growth remaining, older second-growth forest with scattered veteran trees is about as good as it gets.”

(Where Do We Stand interview with MacKinnon: https://bit.ly/3knxQlg .

The B.C. government states: “Most of B.C.’s coastal forests are considered to be old growth if they contain trees that are more than 250 years old.”

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North Cowichan forester Shaun Mason said it would require a core sample and count of the growth rings to determine the exact age of the big trees along the Chemainus River.

However, based on the sizes reported by sixmountains.ca, he said these trees would be “amongst the largest diameters that I have encountered and/or heard about.”

Mason noted that the “size/diameter of a tree doesn’t necessarily coincide with age, especially in favorable growing conditions which these trees appear to be in.

“Considering the location near the river and the size/form of the trees, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were indeed true old growth trees….”

David Haley, North Cowichan’s first forester, in 1982, speculated there could be a number of reasons why specific trees were not cut long ago, including defects or difficulty in handling. “All I can really tell is that these are big trees.”

Coates and sixmountains.ca previously documented Douglas firs measuring about five metres in circumference in upper Bonsall Creek in the 5,000-hectare forest reserve.

The presence of these veterans on the Chemainus River serves as a reminder of the past, but also inspiration for the future of the forest reserve.

The UBC Partnership Group has presented council with four potential scenarios — two based on logging and two on conservation — for future management of the forest reserve.

The conservation options are predicted to earn millions more in revenue from carbon credits than logging over 30 years.

The extended deadline is Jan. 31 to fill out an on-line municipal survey about the forest reserve.

Visit https://bit.ly/3CojbMU .

In Hul’q’umi’num,’ the language of the Quw’utsun, the Chemainus River is Silaqwa’ulh, western red cedar is xpey’, and Douglas fir is ts’sey’.

(Photos: Larry Pynn, next to unmeasured Chemainus River cedar; Bruce Coates next to cedar six metres in circumference; Coates next to 5.8-metre Douglas fir.)

(Note: sixmountains.ca is not revealing the exact location of the giant trees due to risk of poaching or vandalism).

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— Larry Pynn, Jan. 18, 2023

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