North Cowichan has a remarkable opportunity to protect BC’s most endangered ‘landscape,’ says prominent plant ecologist

North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve lies within the most endangered “ecological zone” in British Columbia, providing the municipality with a remarkable opportunity to make a major conservation difference, says one of BC’s greatest plant authorities.

“A forest, like North Cowichan has, is one of the most fabulous resources you could think of in Canada,” Andy MacKinnon told sixmountains.ca.

The forest reserve is also known as the Six Mountains — Prevost, Sicker, Richards, Maple, Stoney and Tzouhalem. Council is currently embarking on a public consultation process into the immediate and long-term management of the forest reserve.

MacKinnon is the author or co-author of numerous guide books, including the iconic Plants of Coastal British Columbia. He is retired as a forestry research ecologist with the BC government and is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

“This is the most altered ecological zone,” MacKinnon continued. “We have 16 of these ecological zones in B.C. and this is the zone that has far and away the highest percentage of private land, the least amount of old-growth forest left (less than one per cent over the entire zone) and a relatively low percentage of protected areas."

The forest reserve falls within the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, which includes a narrow strip along southeastern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands. The area is dominated by private lands and logging, which have severely altered the natural landscape. The Mediterranean-style climate continues to draw residents from around Canada.

“As a result of all these, not surprisingly, you’ll find a disproportionately high number of threatened and endangered species and ecosystems,” said MacKinnon. The long list of at-risk species ranges from the northern goshawk and marbled murrelet to the sharp-tailed snake to Garry oaks and electrified cat’s-tail moss.

The coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone encompasses the lower slopes of the Six Mountains, generally merging into the Very Dry Maritime Coastal Western Hemlock zone at higher elevations — a zone with the second least amount of old-growth forest in the province and the second highest percentage of private land. 

The fact is, conservation of both ecological zones is critical, MacKinnon says.

North Cowichan is unique in that it owns 5,000 hectares of its own forest, as opposed to a more typical “community forest” on provincial Crown land that generally requires a certain amount of continued logging, he explained. 

“The community can do whatever they want with them. This is extraordinary. ”

There is much that scientists do not know about the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, he added, and protection of the Six Mountains is a great way to promote further research. “There are things going on that we have no clue about,” he said. 

University of BC forestry experts are working with the municipality to forge a new future for the Six Mountains, including looking at carbon-credit cash in exchange for not cutting our forests. MacKinnon wouldn’t be surprised if carbon credits could replace much of the municipal revenues generated by logging.

He urged North Cowichan to carefully define what kind of ongoing management is required should logging stop in the forest reserve. 

The municipality might also want to consider conservation partnerships to reduce any management costs, including working with other levels of government such as Cowichan Valley Regional District or the province, he said.

Ultimately, in my opinion, what’s required is a forward-looking council that can look beyond short-term politics to create a conservation future for the Six Mountains. The absence of old-growth trees in the Municipal Forest Reserve should give us all pause for thought. 

“If we want old-growth forests we’ll have to grow our own, find some areas and say, ‘ok, I’ll come back in 200 years and this could be looking pretty good,” MacKinnon says.

“That’s what we’re down to.”

 

Larry Pynn, March 15, 2020

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