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Some say the fate of British Columbia's old-growth forests rests in the balance

Forest ecologist Andy MacKinnon, talks about an old Grand Fir tree which stands nearly 50-metres tall in the Coastal Douglas-Fir zone at Francis/King Regional Park in Saanich, B.C., Thursday, May 26, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
June 04, 2016 - 7:00 AM

SAANICH, B.C. - The Douglas fir Andy MacKinnon leans against is 40 metres tall. It's likely more than 500 years old and its fire-scarred trunk is almost two metres in diameter.

In most other countries, the tree would be the largest in the land, says MacKinnon, a forest ecologist who spent three decades with British Columbia's government researching old-growth forests.

At Francis/King Regional Park, minutes from Victoria, the park's trees are protected from logging, but about 150 kilometres west of Victoria, old-growth forests with 1,000-year-old trees twice the size of those in the park are being cut down every day, said MacKinnon.

The world's largest trees face dangers similar to elephants, whales and bison that have been hunted to the brink of extinction, he said.

Right now, MacKinnon said it's open season on B.C.'s old-growth forests outside of parks or protected areas.

"You hear debates about how much old growth we'd like out on the landscape and some people will say 'X' and some people will say 'Y,' but I think most people will agree that when you are down to less than one per cent, that's too little," he said.

MacKinnon is behind a push by some communities, business groups and politicians to stop logging in old-growth forests. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed a resolution to increase protection of old-growth forests where they have a greater economic benefit if they are left standing.

Port Renfrew, northwest of Victoria, has reported an increase in tourism in Avatar Grove, a 50-hectare section of old-growth forest named after the Hollywood adventure movie.

The Port Renfrew area is also known for Canada's largest living trees, including a 70-metre tall Douglas fir named "Big Lonely Doug" by environmentalists because it was the only tree left standing after a logging clear cut.

The B.C. government is taking steps to protect forests, including the Great Bear Rainforest protection agreement. It will protect 85 per cent of the world's largest intact temperate rainforest from logging in an area on the central and northern coast of the province.

There are 1,000-year-old western red cedars and 90-metre tall Sitka spruce trees in the rainforest, which is also home to the white kermode bear.

Environmentalists, forest companies and First Nations cheered the deal as a model of compromise after two decades of protests and difficult negotiations.

The environmental applause continued with a new provincial park east of Prince George that's the world's only inland temperate rainforest. Cedar and hemlock trees were slated for logging, but local citizens, First Nations and academics built a series of trails into the area known as the Ancient Forest where thousands now marvel at trees with trunks measuring 16 metres in circumference.

Rick Jeffery, president of Coast Forest Products Association, said 55 per cent of B.C.'s coastal forests are under some form of protection from logging.

The days of leaving one tree in a clear cut are gone, said Jeffery, whose organization represents major forest companies that employ 38,000 forest workers in the province.

"This isn't a jobs versus environment thing," he said. "We can have both if we do this smartly."

Steve Thomson, B.C.'s forests, lands and natural resource operations minister, said the Great Bear and Ancient Forest agreements highlight the government's commitment to protecting old-growth forests.

"It's about protecting important values and making sure we have that balance that continues to provide jobs and employment in the forest sector."

The Ancient Forest is considered a natural wonder, a temperate rainforest inland, hundreds of kilometres away from similar coastal rainforests. The province said it would work with the federal government to declare the forest a UNESCO world heritage site.

"Scientifically, the trees are pretty amazing," said Darwyn Coxson, a plant ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia. "They really shouldn't be there."

Coxson said because the trees take 1,000 years to grow, it's prudent to focus on what is in the forests now.

"We have a finite supply and the ones that are out there are realistically all you are ever going to have."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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