The wonder of ancient forests that once blanketed the Pacific Northwest


Second of two parts


The cedar’s broken, silvery top pierced the forest canopy and its trunk flared into a magnificent fluted column.

The trunk was so large around that a cavity at its base could easily accommodate four adults crawling inside to marvel at a cozy bear’s lair.

There was a time, and not too long ago, that trees like this covered the northwest coast, from southeast Alaska to British Columbia, to Washington, the Oregon and Northern California. But since the time of European colonization, approximately 72% of the original old-growth coniferous forest in the Pacific Northwest has been lostlargely through logging and other developments.

The preservation of forests, here and elsewhere in the Northwest, has a new urgency. Scientists and researchers call for the preservation of ancient forests and to grow more in leaving mature trees alone in natural forests — a crucial defense against global warming which poses catastrophic risks for humanity and all of biodiversity as we know it today.

“The Pacific coast produces these magnificent forests,” said Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.

Due to their low elevation, coastal location, and mixture of species, these forests are among the most productive in the world, growing long-lived species such as Douglas fir, western red cedar, West and spruce to an immense size. Fire is rare. Temperatures are mild. And a sea soaking of mist and rain floods the land.

“That’s why we call them rainforests,” said Simard, taking his soil-sampling shovel for a hike last fall in this rainforest, where huge mother trees, like Simard calledsome standing as long as 1,000 years or more cast a deep shadow even on a bright late autumn day.

Now mostly outside parks and other protected areas, the last of these forests are at the center of a battle that has been going on since the summer of 2020 to save what is left.

The conflict that has erupted for the past two summers — and which is brewing again this spring — actually began a long time ago, with the settlement and logging of primary forests everywhere, including in Washington state.

It’s not even the individual trees, like the roughly 1,000-year-old bear cedar near Port Renfrew on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, that are so remarkable. These forests are best understood as communities of beings in the billions, interconnected in a constellation of life above and below ground, all nourished and sustained by these trees.

“It’s Gold”

The wild forest that must be mined here is not a place to walk, but rather slowly traversed on its terms, including crawling on all fours over the wide backs of fallen logs, or rolling down slopes so steep that ‘they can’t even be goats. -Marlet.

Pools, streams and springs flow and seep and drain. The waters sparkle with clarity and are terribly cold. The humidity freezes the rocks with an ineffable brilliance. The air is scented with humidity, the tread softens from it. Tiered branches and filtered light create a realm of soft sound and the feel of a living dream of green, blue and brown, one forest ridge and hill fading to the next.

There are trees from shoots to old ones that have acquired an appearance reached only in old age. Their bark peels and crumbles, and the trunks soar to an apse high over the centuries.

The ground is darker than coffee grounds, inky, soft and reminiscent of fruiting forest funk.

“It’s Gold” Simard saidas she crumbled the soil in her hands and separated the filaments, finer than a human hair.

They are fungal threads. Simard discovered during pioneering research that they meander through these soils in a network of tree-to-tree connections, share nutrients and water.

25 years ago, working on little more than a hunch, she wandered into the woods of British Columbia, packing plastic bags, duct tape and radioactive carbon dioxide. She injected the gas into the bags placed on the tree seedlings and, while dodging a grizzly bear and its cub, what she picked up on her Geiger counter was evidence that the trees were transmitting nutrients underground in mycorrhizal fungi connecting the roots. Forests, she found in other research, are not just collections of individuals in competition with each other, but also cooperative societies of some sort. Larger trees act as hubs, connecting trees in a complex system.

In addition to competition and even hostile interactions, Simard and others revealed that trees can also recognize their own relatives in seedlings to which they preferentially transport nutrients, via the fungal network. In research published in the New Phytologist in 2016, Simard et al demonstrated that carbon transfer – a crucial nutrient – was three to four times higher in parents than in non-parent pairs of Douglas fir seedlings. Relatedness increased both the likelihood of establishment of a symbiotic relationship between relatives linked by a fungal network and its robustness.

His understanding continues to expand, with work revealing connections beyond trees, even to other species, including salmon and bears.

His team has detected that the fungal web carries a pulse of ocean nutrients, as bears drag spawned salmon back from the sea through the forest to their home rivers. The vascularization of the fungal network in the soil transports this food away from the sea towards the trees.

BC Timber refers to the forest that Simard roamed as Tree Farm License 46 – a strip of forest cut into cut blocks.

The soil there was so deep that with his shovel, Simard could not find the bottom. Here’s a chocolaty-rich parfait that took time to create. Trees that take centuries to grow take even longer to die. Their wood slowly melts into the ground, as a large community of decomposers decomposes the wood, nurturing a new cycle of life.

The amount of carbon stored in the soils, roots, trunks, branches, leaves and needles of mature forests is unmatched in young, even-aged industrial plantations.

In addition to their ability to store carbon, it is the complexity of these forests that sets them apart, a mixture of species and ages and structure that boosts biodiversity.

The understory is a tangle of life. The roots are bumpy and reach the rocks. The grizzled upright snags are chipped and drilled and ceded with nests and dens for everything from birds to bears. Devil’s club, huckleberry and ferns pile up in sunny open patches and damp seeps.

Unlike a timber plantation, a wild forest like this is anything but. a thing. They are big old trees. Young trees. Understory. Dense, Gothic, shaded redoubts. There is also a mosaic of species: fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce. Deciduous vine and bigleaf maple. And more.

This is especially the case in old-growth forests. With their branches and broken tops, the canopies of these forests form tiers and voids, where the ancients have fallen and where sunlight pours down on the forest floor.

There, saplings wait for their chance to finally be let loose to spring into the light. The soils are fed by nitrogen dripping from the lichens in the canopy under heavy rain in one of the wettest non-tropical places on earth, with about 5 to 11 feet of rain per year.

These forests are also weather factors, combing the mist of westerly winds and soaking up rain, and sending clouds of moisture back into the air from billions of needles and leaves as the trees create their own food from fine air by photosynthesis. They also recycle moisture by retaining it and bringing water to the surface through the hydraulic thrust of their roots.

In this cool, damp forest feeds a fairy tale of mushrooms, which glisten in the damp undersides of logs, nooks and crooks of branches. The bark is fringed and bearded with lichen, and the trunks are illuminated with a glaze of mold, slime and moss.

Some of the species communities here are found nowhere else, from the rare speckled-bellied lichen that provides nitrogen to these soils, drained by rainwater through the canopy, to marbled guillemots, a seabird rare that nests only in old growth forests.

“Endless Roughness”

Western Washington was once covered in primary forests like this as well. Citizen scientist Tom Schroeder of Poulsbo in a series of white papers on the pre-colonial forests of Puget Sound and southwestern Washington attests to the struggle of early surveyors to bring order with sun compasses and a measuring chain. of a green chaos surveyor they met.

A visceral panic and even horror is revealed in a sample of surveyors’ notes from Willapa country in Grays Harbor County in the mid-19and century, where they encountered “…endless irregularities, rugged and mountainous character…everywhere steep and rugged, every stream, great or small, cut a very steep and steep gorge…sharp dorsal ridges stretching in every direction …exceptionally difficult to survey…not worth a Continental Dollar per township…so dense that the sun never reaches the ground…always green and moist…the undergrowth cannot be described…”

They were wrong of course.

Far from not being worth a continental dollar, these forests, some now cut three times in the productive lowlands, helped to build the new economy of the region, as settlers and colonizers arrived.

One of their first acts was to begin clearing with a rapacious appetite the forests previously burned and lightly cut by the first peoples of the Northwest. The newcomers brought first-hand, horseback logging and then industrial-scale, mechanized clear-cutting to these forests, fueling a global timber market that still voraciously consumes the forests.

Unprotected tall tree forests are still under threat, some with 10% to less than 1% of their old historical growth remaining. The provincial government has has offered to postpone the harvesting of some of its remaining unprotected ancient forests. But the postponements are still under discussion. And deferrals do not offer permanent protection.

Not far from where Simard drove in his shovel, the forest was razed.


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