How Mission hopes to recruit an old-growth forest

An old-growth forest takes centuries to create and only a couple years to chop down. Ninety years ago, the focus north of Mission was on chopping. A massive clear-cut sprawled across the area. It was so complete, it helped spur the creation of Canada’s first municipal forest.

By Tyler Olsen | July 12, 2021 |10:30 pm

An old-growth forest takes centuries to create and only a couple years to chop down.

Ninety years ago, the focus north of Mission was on chopping. A massive clear-cut sprawled across the area. It was so complete, it helped spur the creation of Canada’s first municipal forest.

Across Canada, there are around 70 such forests, managed not remotely from a provincial capital, but by and for locals. In the eastern part of the Fraser Valley, the Cascade Lower Canyon Community Forest encompasses much of the land surrounding Hope. Of all of them, Mission’s came first.

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The point of these forests in BC is to offer something different from the provincial approach to tree management. Instead of focusing primarily on harvesting timber, municipal forests exist to find a balance between traditional timber harvesting and the dozens of other ways people use forests and find value in them. The Mission forest is not protected parkland. Every year, about 80 hectares of trees—about 0.7% of the total—can be cut down. The money helps pay both for park-like improvements within the forest, and community amenities in Mission itself. The goal is self-sustainability. But the localized management also bakes in new incentives that influence how a forest is viewed and valued by those in charge of harvesting.

“As a community-run forest, it’s a real balancing act,” says Chris Gruenwald, Mission’s director of forestry. “Everyone associates forestry with timber-harvesting, but there are so many other values that we manage. In Mission, recreation is huge, we have over 40 kilometres of trails. Within the municipal forest we also manage for fire mitigation, wildlife, and water quality.”

The management of a forest changes when trees are seen as having value separate from the market price of their wood. Generally, the largest, oldest trees can fetch the highest prices for their timber. But those same trees are also the most prized by those who like trees for their visual, natural, and spiritual value. In Mission, only about 6% of the forest is “old growth,” and much of that is found at relatively high elevations, where trees do not grow particularly large. When people could find large trees a century ago, they tended to cut them down. Now, Gruenwald says those trees are marked for preservation, with their value delivered to recreational users and the ecosystem.

Gruenwald likes hiking the Roy Kittles Memorial Trail (accessed off of Mccoombs Street) with his son because of a huge, old-growth fir along the route. “That tree is probably 500 years old and it’s a beautiful tree.” The tree had been left standing after a previous spate of logging in the area, and Gruenwald says it is now an example of how the balancing act can tip in a tree’s favour at a certain age.

“That’s a classic example for us. When we find those things, we have no interest in harvesting because, quite honestly, the other values far exceed the timber value for something else like that… That’s an example of how we will be responsive where a company may or may not harvest something like that.”

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Trees like that are relatively rare, though, and the forest is still recovering from the clear-cutting of the past. So while cutting does take place, sizable chunks of the forest are designated as “reserve” areas and slated for trails, as well as ecosystem and habitat growth.

Gruenweld’s department is wrapping up work on a 4-kilometre trail around Devil’s Lake (a floating bridge is one of the last pieces to be installed), 1 of the reserve areas where the trees aren’t technically old growth but are already quite large. Work is also being done on a trail up the mountain on the west side of Stave Lake. The department is building a lookout trail for the very top of a “grind”-type climb that will offer views of the entire area. And they are completing work on a book about the forest that is expected to come out later this year. (The city is also now pledging to consult more with First Nations, an important aspect that was not always a priority as Mission’s community forest evolved.)

Old-growth management is now, by necessity, about more than retention. The goal is for old growth to eventually comprise 30% of the forest, and that entails what officials call “recruiting.”

Recruiting a tree, of course, is not like recruiting a talented prospective employee. One does not approach a nice-looking tree and talk up the potential of achieving old-growth status and a great tree pension. Mostly, one just waits and doesn’t cut the tree down. You can wait a long time—hundreds of years—before a forest gets to be an old-growth forest. But that’s what makes a forest old.

“With these reserve areas, we anticipate our old-growth trees will increase significantly. But it’s going to take time. A 300-year-old forest needs 300 years to develop.”

To see a map of Mission’s municipal forest, click here.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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