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Small lifeforms make us appreciate the big ecological picture of the Six Mountains

Clearcutting in Chemainus River watershed seen as key contributor to downstream flooding

When we hike in our Six Mountains, we often think about a chance encounter with a large mammal — a black bear, Roosevelt elk or, the longest shot of all, a cougar.

But so often it is the small and unexpected lifeforms that leave us in wonder and awe of the natural world.

Such was the case a few days ago when I spotted a spectacular explosion of fungi growing on a Douglas fir.

The species is commonly known as false turkey tail (Stereum hirsutum), and, according to the guidebook, the Mushrooms of BC, by Andy MacKinnon and Kem Luther, grows in shelves on rotting wood.

About a week earlier, another small fungi captured my attention — questionable stropharia (Stropharia ambigua), with its delicately fringed parasol cap, sprouting from the forest floor.


This fall has produced a bumper crop of mushrooms in our Six Mountains, and their ecological importance should not go unnoticed.

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, organisms that grow underground and are critical to forest growth and health.

“If there wasn’t fungi, there almost certainly wouldn’t be life on earth,” says MacKinnon. “Some are helping the trees grow. Others are decomposers. They are the ultimate recyclers in forest ecosystems. Without them, everything would grind to a halt.”

Beyond the ecological role played by wild mushrooms, humans value them for their beauty, taste and even for dying fabrics.

We are fortunate to live among among the Six Mountains— Prevost, Sicker, Richards, Maple, Tzouhalem, and Stoney Hill — that make up the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve.

But we cannot take them for granted.

The coastal Douglas-fir forest (CDF) is the smallest and most at-risk forest type (biogeoclimatic zone) in BC, and home to the most species at risk. The Forest Practices Board has described it as “imperilled.”

Logging and private land development are leading threats.

The BC Forests Ministry is among 40 conservation groups and levels of government committed to “promoting and protecting” this forest type and its associated ecosystems.

But the CDF’s future in North Cowichan remains an open question.

The results of the second and final phase of a public consultation released last March showed 76 percent support for two ‘conservation’ management options.

The “passive conservation” option would let the forests develop with minimal human intervention, while “active conservation” would permit 1,300 cubic metres per year for purposes such as restoring and enhancing ecosystems, biodiversity.

Just 17 percent of the public supported a status-quo option to log 17,500 cubic metres of timber per year.

Those results mirrored the first phase of public consultation, which in February 2022 showed that the vast majority of people supported the forests’ ecological values. Asked what citizens valued most about the forest reserve in that first round, revenue to the municipality ranked 12th out of 14 choices, just above forestry jobs.

The next step is up to North Cowichan and First Nations.

In August 2021 Quw’utsun Nation and North Cowichan signed a memorandum of understanding to discuss the future of the forest reserve. Talks have continued longer than anticipated.

Quw’utsun Nation is comprised of Cowichan Tribes and Stz’uminus, Penelakut, Halalt, and Lyackson First Nations.

The public has received no hint of what is being discussed, but I gleaned small insight on Dec. 4 at a public meeting at the Halalt First Nation on flood issues on the lower Chemainus River.

Several speakers — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — cited clearcut logging further up the Chemainus watershed as a major contributor to chronic flooding. Climate change is only exacerbating the problem.

After the meeting I asked Halalt Chief James Thomas what the message was in terms of the future of the forest reserve.

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“Not clearcutting,” he responded.

But he also said he supports selective logging that helps store water, while the timber can be used to create local jobs rather than being shipped offshore as raw logs.

Selective logging can have many definitions, from, say, thinning to improve the overall health of a forest, to the slippery slope of logging the best timber for the highest profit.

How the Municipality ultimately melds the wishes of North Cowichan taxpayers with those of First Nations is the big outstanding question.

As for fungi, the foundation of our forests, what we do know is that once the trees are gone, the ecological damage lasts decades.

(Photos: false turkey tail; questionable stropharia; Halalt Chief James Thomas and fish biologist Cheri Ayers).

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— Larry Pynn, Dec. 13, 2023


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