The Tallest Spruce Trees In The World: Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park

My first visit to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was summer of 2006. It was a slow, rough drive into the heart of Vancouver Island's once-magnificent coastal forest. Our route took us from Sooke to Port Renfrew, past Cowichan Lake, and on to Nitinat Lake. The last services of the route are here, then the road climbs on toward the park. A sturdy vehicle, emergency supplies, and a good driver come in handy. A back roads map is essential.

While bumping along Rosander Main logging road past Nitinat, we were treated to vistas over the green mist-cloaked hills to the distant Pacific Ocean. Not far away is the West Coast Trail, but it is inaccessible from this side. We continued following the small provincial park signs sensing that we were getting close to Vancouver Islands tallest trees.

In addition to the coastal forest landscape you will witness "off-road" logging trucks carrying old-growth logs - only four or five huge columns of wood to each giant vehicle. This is a harsh and unforgiving forest environment and the road and industrial activity do not make it any safer. But without these roads most of this area would be largely inaccessible. Drive defensively - industrial traffic has the right of way and you must yield to them.

Knowing that in the mid-1980's the Carmanah valley was slated to be harvested makes it worth dodging logging trucks on roads riddled with potholes and stretches of washboard that will rattle your old fillings out. The park at the end of this road is unlike any other you have seen, or are likely to see anywhere else. It is a gargantuan green cathedral of mist-filtered light and stillness.

Carmanah valley was once considered too remote for profitable logging to take place. Then Randy Stoltman found the oldest, largest Sitka spruce trees in Canada, and the world. In the 1980's the B.C. government, without public consultation or notification, gave MacMillan Bloedel permission to clear cut the area.

Fearing a repeat of previous logging fiascos that ended in protest and protection, the logging company moved in quickly to harvest the valley. Randy Stoltman, tireless big tree defender, along with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, mounted a campaign to protect the area's natural assets from destruction. In 1990, after sustained protests, Carmanah Park was formed.

At the end of your jarring ride you will find a pristine valley full of some of the world's largest trees. Today you will only see trees like these in small patches along the west coast of North America, and the forest of Carmanah Walbran holds some prime examples in a relatively large area. If you are not humbled here, you are not paying attention.

After passing through large clear cuts, one which extends right to the park gate, we arrived at the parking lot at the end of the road. I gazed up the trail at two tiny hikers dwarfed by the surrounding giants. I thought that the destruction of these trees to make plywood would be similar to going to the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, "harvesting" its 5000 year old columns (21m tall, and over 3m diameter), and crushing them to make gravel. Large Sitka spruce can be only a few hundred years old, but Western red cedar can grow for thousands of years. There are many large cedars in the park.

Canada's tallest (known) Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), the Carmanah Giant, towers 95 metres (315 ft) over the lush valley of Carmanah Creek. Its 9.4 meter diameter makes Karnak's columns look like toothpicks. However, visitors are not encouraged to hike the deteriorating trail to visit this record tree for fear of compromising the areas ecological integrity. It is good enough for me just to know that the Giant exists.

The third largest Sitka spruce in the world with a wood volume of 298 cubic meters (10,540 cu. ft.). It is 58.2 m (191 ft) high with a diameter of 5.39 m (17.7 ft.) at 1.37 m (4.5 ft.) above the ground. (Van Pelt, Robert, 2001, Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, University of Washington Press.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QuinaltSpruce_7246c.jpg

The park is in the Very Wet Hypermaritime subzone, an area that is intimately affected by the nearby ocean, and can be wet any time of the year. When we visited it was drizzly, but the real problem was the cloud of mosquitoes hunting us down. Our meals were eaten with one hand shoveling the food in, and the other hand waving the mosquitoes away. When even that became too much the only option was to run through the parking lot taking hasty stabs at our food.

Mosquitoes may be the most obvious wildlife here, but they are not the only wildlife. The old growth forest here maintains a rich web of life that can not exist in the second and third-growth forests that have replaced the original forest on much of Vancouver Island. This is a special place.

Spotted owls, marbled murrelets, wolves, trout and salmon, black bears, bats, pileated woodpeckers, red-backed voles, salamanders, banana slugs, flying squirrels. All of that and more is here to be discovered, enjoyed, and protected.

Carmanah Walbran Park is isolated and difficult to get to, and once there you will find no comforts of civilization. This park is about wilderness, and in that regard it delivers. However, encroachement continues. Without a buffer zone, clearcuts extend right up to park boundries. As we hiked and camped in this magical place we watched helicopters swinging giant columns out of the surrounding forests to staging grounds. Their thundering rotors resonated in our chests, or was that our hearts going out to the destruction of the 10 000 year old forest and the creatures that used to live there?

If not for Randy Stoltman, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and thousands of regular big tree supporters, Carmanah valley and the largest Stika spruce on the planet would have been reduced to a ravaged landscape.

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For now it remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. If the government works for us, and we want big trees saved, then why is the government backing the logging companies and the temporary jobs that old growth harvesting represents? What will they do when all the old growth is gone?

Visit Carmanah Walbran and try not to become a big tree enthusiast. This is the kind of place that can change your life. It did mine.


When A Tree Falls In The Forest...It Becomes Large Diameter Woody Debris

When I taught grade six science my favorite unit to teach was Trees and Forests which was all about the importance of forest eco-systems. While discussing old growth forests I had to teach my students about major characteristics of these ancient places, such as Large Diameter Woody Debris. Even though this term never failed to elicit giggles and snickers from students, they soon came to see how it holds great importance for the forest environment.

I often scour the forested hills surrounding my home for large diameter woody debris. LDWD is a tell-tale sign of an older, undisturbed forest. These large trees can be standing dead trees (snags), or fallen dead trees, or healthy trees downed by windthrow. They provide irreplaceable habitat for a host of forest life. On one recent trip I followed the Galloping Goose trail into the Sooke Hills Wilderness.

Just before Sooke the western section of the Galloping Goose trail turns north and heads into the Sooke River watershed . The trail traverses a 1918-built CNR rail line that once saw wood-powered Shay locomotives hauling massive trees out of the pristine forest. Now it provides access for people recreating, including those seeking out big tree wilderness.

The trail's western terminus, about 12km from where it leaves the coastal plain below, is 14 hectare Kapoor Park Reserve. This undeveloped park contains the remains of Leechtown, a 20th century gold rush and lumber town. Anything that remains has been reclaimed by the ceaseless growth of the forest, not to mention the invasive Scotch Broom. The Galloping Goose trail ends here, but the old line pushed north through the forested hills to Cowichan Lake.

Along this section of the trail there is a high frequency of scattered Douglas fir veterans that soar over 45 m/150 ft and are hundreds of years old. The tops of these trees emerge from the smaller forest around them, and announce their presence. Douglas fir typically live about 750 years with documented cases of well over one thousand years old.

The old tree's trunks stand out from the background of toothpicks of 2nd or 3rd-growth trees. Often the trunks show evidence of fire across the deeply furrowed, fire-resistant bark. Before fire suppression started, wildfires occurred on a regular basis. Such fires kept down smaller trees and underbrush, leaving an open forest dominated by 122 m/400 ft ancients.

Every winter storms slam into this region, and their power and fury is recorded in old tree's twisted limbs and broken tops. Occasionally storms topple trees and the big ones come down with a crash... if there is someone in the forest to hear it, that is. Sometimes they are uprooted (windthrow or blowdown), and sometimes trees snap off up the trunk (windsnap).

Imagine standing next to one of these 10 story tall trees while it is oscillating back and forth during a gale-force wind. Soon you hear wood snapping and cracking, then during a strong gust, the dangerously leaning tree keeps on going until it crashes to the ground at your feet. You hear it. You feel it, too. This tree, perhaps 400 years old, has just become large diameter woody debris, a very important part of this ecosystem.

Standing veteran trees are ecosystems unto themselves over the hundreds of years they live and provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals. From the mosses and lichens growing on their bark to the marbled murrelet in its branches or the heartwood decaying fungus slowly hollowing out the inside of the trunk, such a tree harbours a complex self-sustaining system. When such trees die and/or fall to earth the micro-hoards of decomposing creatures begin the relentless process of recycling these giant columns of biomass back into the system.

Many species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles use LDWD for a variety of purposes. Birds such as the Pileated woodpecker (the largest type of woodpecker, used as a model for Woody Woodpecker), visit downed Douglas firs to hunt for carpenter ants or excavate cavities to live in. Unlike headbangers, Pileated woodpeckers have a cushion built into their brain to reduce the damage from all that beak slamming into solid wood. Ancient snags are hollowed out as nesting sites, and after primary cavity nesters move out owls, other birds and small mammals move in. The shedding wrinkly bark also gives shelter to bats.

Black bears, martens, fishers and bobcats all use suitable downed LDWD for denning sites. Sharp-tailed snakes, endangered in B.C., are residents of the vanishing coastal Douglas fir forest and live in and around downed trees. A salamander can live its whole moist life in a single log; everything it needs is there.

Over decades, as the log melts into the forest floor, new trees take advantage of the rich nutrients it provides. One day one of these small trees may fill the hole left by its fallen ancestor. The same ancestor that nursed the young tree to its youth.

The whistle of the logging locomotives is not heard any longer in these parts, but veteran trees continue to fall. From the old rail bed I can see where recent clear cut logging has taken out some of the remaining 1% of original low elevation Douglas fir forest on Vancouver Island.

Such clear cuts raze the forest right down to the ground. Extra woody debris (and there is often a lot of it) is burnt in large piles, or is salvaged by outfits further down the chain, much like the vultures that pick on the remains of dead animals. But as vultures prefer the carcasses of herbivores, the same with post-clear cut salvage outfits. They prefer the high value cedar more than anything else.

Large diameter woody debris may be funny, but it is of supreme importance to the things that live in and around it, including humans. You can educate your family and friends AND provide humour at the same time - just mention LDWD.

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