The Life Of A 350 Year Old Coastal Douglas-fir

Old Douglas-fir on the new urban/forest interface
I was investigating a new residential development near Thetis Lake Park in the city of Langford, BC recently to see what the new urban/forest interface looks like. This land on the side of Mill Hill is only one of many places where the rapidly developing city is expanding into forest land still in its natural state.

The population of Langford increased 20% between 2001 and 2006 alone. The hills of the city that have been richly forested with big trees for 10,000 years are being blasted into submission and covered with ticky-tacky boxes that all look the same.

While witnessing the completely terraformed landscape I spied one of the remaining large trees at the highest point of the development. I stopped, amazed that it has survived as long as it has, especially through this most recent wave of development which has come within 10 meters of the wide, furrowed trunk.

I considered this tree's long life, about 350 years. It is a time period that saw the arrival of Europeans, and the beginning of the departure of the primeval forest. Along with people from away came an insatiable lust for lumber, land, and profit that continues to this day.

Timeline Of A 350 Year Old Coastal Douglas-fir

900 - The Millstream watershed is in the traditional territory of First Nations belonging to the Northern Straits Salish language group. Some of the groups who reside in the area included the Saanich, Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Numerous archaeological sites indicate the area has been used for at least 3000 years. In all this time, although First Nations used forest resources extensively, they were never a threat to the overall health of the ancient forest.

1661 - a Douglas-fir seed germinates on the bank of a small stream in the forested hills bordering the Salish Sea. The stream is in the Millstream watershed which empties into what is now Esquimalt Harbour. The biggest threats to the seedling (that could grow to the year 3161) are storms blowing off the ocean and browsing mammals. Annual height increment is relatively slow the first 5 years.

1676 - the tree can produce its first viable seed-bearing cones.

1681 - Tree begins growth spurt - Coastal Douglas-fir grows the fastest between 20 and 30 years of age, but some add height at a substantial rate for more than 200 years.

1691 - Height growth peaks at an average of 61 cm (24 in) per year.

1700 - in January of this year the tree survives the Cascadia earthquake, a walloping shaker that comes in at magnitude 9 plus.

1761 - Tree has reached its first 100 years. Height growth has slowed to an average of 15 cm (6 in) per year.

The Douglas-fir has an intact top and is growing vigorously
1774 - Juan Perez sails to the Northwest Coast from the south. Trades with the Haida of Haida Gwaii, and the Nootka of Vancouver Island. The trees in the forest begin to feel uneasy when they see the Spaniards trading buttons, nails, iron and tin for valuable sea otter pelts.

1788 - Captain Cook lands at Nootka sound (about 350 km up the west coast from Victoria) and cuts ships spars, becoming the first recorded European to harvest trees on Vancouver Island.
- John Meares harvests timber to build the forty-ton North West America, the first European-style ship launched in B.C.
- Captain Meares left the island with a load of ships spars bound for China, becoming the first recorded export of BC timber. The coastal forest can see where this is going, and the trees are trembling.

1843 - Fort Victoria is built (out of trees).

1848 -  Hudson's Bay Company builds its first saw mill on what is now known as Millstream Creek in Langford. The area's forests are logged to feed the mill, and the towering Douglas-fir begin to fall. Our Douglas fir, a youthful 188 years old, can hear axes hitting wood not far away. Civilization approaches, posing the most serious threat so far.

1849 - First recorded export of Vancouver Island lumber to San Francisco starting a tradition that built their docks (more than once, due to fires). Ancient Douglas-fir become piers, buildings, and railroad bridges, providing the materials required to build the infrastructure of the west coast.

1850 - James Douglas signs treaties with most of the First Nations groups in the Victoria area, obtaining proprietorship of the land in exchange for bundles of blankets and the promise that they could continue to hunt and fish “with the same freedom as when they were the sole occupants of the country.” 

1851 - Captain Edward Langford establishes one of four HBC farms close to where the hillside tree is located. More ancient forest is cleared to grow food for the European population based in near-by Victoria.

1855 - a more robust steam-powered mill at Craigflower Farm replaced the mill at Mill Falls - summer water levels were insufficient to power the mill. Tree falling is stepped up to feed the more efficient mill works at the new mill.

1861 - Our tree is 200 years old and begins peak cone productivity which will continue for another 100 years. During this time the tree could produce 20 to 30 times the number of cones per hectare than second-growth stands 50 to 100 years old.

1880 - a fire started on a recently logged area spread from present-day Thetis Lake to the Millstream estuary, and also burned the north side of Mill Hill Regional Park. The 10 cm (4 in) thick corky bark of the old tree protects it from the fire.

Development encroaches only 10 meters away
1911 - The Douglas-fir has reached a height a height of 33 m (108 ft) and a d.b.h. of 90 cm (35 in).

1962 - Tree is now 301 years old having survived decades of logging and exploding population numbers.
- the remnants of Typhoon Freda hit Vancouver Island on October 12 with wind gusts up to 140 km/h (90 mph). Many trees are blown down.

2000 - Langford is entering a decade of unprecedented growth after some years of stagnant economic times. The city is pro-development, and demand for new homes is high. The urban/forest interface is spreading outwards as forest lands are lost to residential development.

2006 -  The tree survives the worst winter storm since Typhoon Freda. Wind gusts on the night of December 16th hit a record 158 km per hour (almost 100 mph). Thousands of trees are knocked down along the coast and in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

2009 - Development starts on new neighbourhood near Mill Hill Park. The hillside area requires clear cutting of what little remains of the forest here, and extensive blasting of bedrock. A steep cliff is blasted out of the hillside just meters from the base of our tree, the largest Douglas-fir remaining in the area.

2011 - The new neighbourhood is ready for home building, and at the edge of it all our tree remains standing. It has attained a height of about 46 meters (150 ft) and a d.b.h. of about 120 cm (47 in). The tree has an intact leader and appears to be healthy.

From seed to maturity, Douglas-fir is subject to serious damage from a variety of agents, and yet this tree has survived them all.

The tree's seeds have been scattered by the wind, and the old growth trees of the future are maturing around it. Will they be able to grow to old age here, or will the next wave of development take them and the grandparent tree down, replacing more wild forest with the permanent imprint of civilization?

The ancient Douglas-fir has a new view

Are Ancient Trees In Langford Afforded The Protection They Deserve?

Does the city of Langford have a tree protection bylaw that might protect this ancient tree, and trees like it all over the city? I checked their website:
"The City of Langford does not have a general tree cutting bylaw. It controls the cutting of trees and the removal of vegetation in designated environmentally sensitive and hazardous Development Permit areas contained within the city's Official Community Plan.
These include, for example, areas of steep slopes, sensitive ecosystems, areas around lakes and streams, areas of potential wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and zones of high or extreme interface fire hazard.

If there are no designated areas on a property then the property owner is free to remove whatever vegetation they wish." - City of Langford website

This "vegetation" could include 350 year old Douglas-fir and other ancient trees.

Location of Tree

View Langford 350 Year-old Douglas-fir in a larger map

1 comment:

  1. thank you for taking the time to write this story. I was just up there, from Vancouver WA for the Big Leaf Maple Syrup Festival in Duncan and loved how beautiful it was. We stayed in Langford, and saw so much development happening. We have many Doug Firs here and to lose them would devastate all of humanity.... I pray that people will find a way to live in harmony with trees and cherish them. Your article shows your heart. My son has 5 acres and many many doug firs on his property. He will never let them go, nor will he subdivide. We went searching for a big leaf to tap, but think the only one we found on his property is too mature. Still, it has a forever home along with all the others. I will come up again, just to visit the trees and I pray it stays full of those magnificent giants and younglings.


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