Old Growth Rainforest—What Still Stands is More Valuable Than Ever

British Columbia’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Credit: Dan Klotz.

No matter where I have traveled in the world, I have found that the many of the larger stretches of primeval forests can only be reached by logging roads. Consider the old growth stands of Sitka spruce and red cedar in the Carmanah Valley, on a remote part of southeast Vancouver Island.  Canada’s tallest tree, 313 feet high, grows in this valley, yet you won’t find throngs of tourists having their picture taken next to it.

In fact, you won’t find any tourists next to it. British Columbia’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, which encompasses this valley, is only reachable by a rough three hour drive on a gravel road that is the domain of logging trucks, not tour buses and rental cars. The valley had been marked for logging until an activist campaign convinced British Columbia’s government to establish the park.

“Deforestation”—removing trees from the landscape, either for their wood or to make way for pasture or crops—accounted for 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2000-2005. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and then store it as carbon; when trees are burned or decompose, they release that carbon.

The old growth trees of Carmanah Walbran comprise a temperate rain forest, receiving up to 55 inches of rain every year, that is amazingly effective at storing carbon—more effective than any other forest type in the world. Researchers estimated that Carmanah valley and the other old growth rainforests of the northwest U.S. and Canada store are also much better at storing carbon than younger forests.

The Heaven Tree in Carmanah Walbran, 252 feet high. Credit: Dan Klotz.
The base of the Heaven Tree in Carmanah Walbran, 252 feet high. Credit: Dan Klotz.

You can see the value of the northern Pacific rainforests in the science news last week. While California’s redwoods are in the midst of an enormous growth spurt, the amount of carbon absorbed by European forests has slowed thanks to deforestation, a decline in the volume of trees, forest fires and other acts of nature.

Cutting down old trees releases the stored carbon and takes away the ecological system that would absorb that excess carbon. Yet much of the Pacific old growth rainforest remains under constant threat of logging.

The Governor of Idaho still issues statements decrying a decision made more than 20 years ago by the first Bush Administration to prevent an old growth forest from being logged so that an endangered owl can survive. The president of a British Columbia forestry association writes to the regional newspaper insisting that unprotected old growth forest is “part of the working forest and should be harvested.”

When it comes to logging old growth, we need to keep the big picture in mind.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has increased more than 40 percent since the industrial revolution began, and it could even double well before the end of the next century. As a result, sea levels could rise by as much as three feet by 2100.  While more than 40 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced by rainforests,  less than one hundredth of one percent of coastal redwood ecosystems—the most efficient rainforest—remains in the world. All of the other rainforests are also imperiled.

Old growth forest—or what is left of it—is very much a working forest. It is past time to keep it intact and consider harvesting the smaller, younger trees instead.

The living stump of a Sitka Spruce. Credit: Dan Klotz.
The living stump of a Sitka Spruce. Credit: Dan Klotz.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.