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Municipal Forest Reserve once touted as Christmas tree capital, according to 70-year-old report for North Cowichan

Scheme viewed as a faster way to earn revenue than waiting for poorly harvested forest to recover

Can you imagine North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve stripped of its trees, slash-burned, then replanted with a monoculture of Christmas trees extending from one mountain top to the next?

Strange as it seems today, that’s exactly what a 1952 report for the municipality entitled “Preliminary Municipal Forest Survey” called for.

Until now, there hasn’t been much forest history posted on North Cowichan’s website beyond this: “The Municipal Forest Reserve lands were acquired from non-payment of taxes during the 1930s and 40s. In 1946, the Council of the day set these areas aside and established the areas as a Municipal Forest Reserve.”

The other day I asked municipal forester Shaun Mason if he knew more — and he posted the 1952 report.

And what an eye-opener it is.

According to the author, forester F. J. G. Johnson of Vancouver, North Cowichan inherited a badly abused forest in which the best trees had been “creamed” off.

Of the trees that remained, including hardwoods, much of them were only good for cordwood and pulpwood.

“The remaining forest is ragged and the small values produced at the time of harvest are soon exceeded by losses in wood production while the forest struggles within itself to repair the unnatural conditions caused by the logging.”

But Johnson had a solution.

Cut what’s left of the forest, burn the slash, and start all over — with Christmas trees.

“Convert all Municipal Forest Lands to intensive Christmas tree farming as advanced second growth matures harvest mature trees and put land into Christmas tree production.”

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Johnson says: “If proper forest management is given to the 10,000 acres (approximately) of municipal forest land during the next ten to twenty years, the result should be that the municipality will have: 2,500 acres of young timber (second growth) growing from age 20 to 60 years; 7,500 acres of Christmas tree farmland.”

Christmas trees were in high demand for export to the U.S., and Douglas fir was the species of choice.

A 1947 report from the BC Forest Service — “BC’s new plan of farming: Christmas trees” — estimated 2.1 million trees were shipped out of BC in 1946 at an estimated value of about $400,000.

In fact, the market was so hot that people were harming the Crown forests in their rush to harvest Christmas trees.

The BC Forest Service report reads: “From observation it was found that, with few exceptions, harvesting methods employed were destructive and improvident; in other words, the Christmas-tree lands of the Province were being ‘mined’ instead of ‘farmed.’"

Johnson’s proposal to convert North Cowichan’s forest reserve into Christmas trees was presented as a way to capitalize on demand and bring revenue to the municipal faster than waiting for merchantable trees to regrow.

He suggests that the public be keep out of certain areas of the forest reserve to limit the potential for wildfires.

Of Mount Tzouhalem, he says: “Keep the area closed to the public; there is nothing of public interest on this area, and fire will be main menace in the future. Where the general public go in the forest so goes high fire risk.”

In the previous decade in North Cowichan, 935 acres had burned.

“Campers caused 15.2 percent of the fires and burned 75.2 percent of the area. Smokers caused 28.9 percent of the fires and burned 12.4 percent of the area.

“By closing the Municipal Forest areas to the general public, it is therefore, theoretically possible to avoid - 44.1 percent of the risk and 87.6 percent of the area being burned.”

Stoney Hill had been “logged over once or twice already,” leaving a “scrubby and ragged”mess — “a good example of poor logging practice.” The report cautions that a “heavy or hot burn will be disastrous on the area of thin top soil.”

On Maple Mountain, “selective cat logging has left some areas in poor condition,” adding that logging operations had been “looking for immediate financial returns only, and little or no regard for the future has been noted.”

On Mount Prevost, the report says: “Present selective logging areas should be completely clearcut, the small material utilized for poles and pulp, the snags felled, and the resulting slash burned.” However, the report says the mountain top “should be improved to give tourists and picnicers (sic) some area to safely have their lunches.”

A big question remains with this report: What was council’s response to the forester’s recommendations?

Mason said he believes that the "intent was to have a portion of the MFR set aside specifically for Christmas tree production. It appears they re-evaluated the management of the Forest Reserve in the late 70s which resulted in a new management plan” in 1981.

He rightly concludes: "The 1952 report is a very interesting part of the MFR history.”

Read the report: https://bit.ly/3jcS3da

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— Larry Pynn, Dec. 23, 2022

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