They tower over our heads and inspire thoughts of prehistory. Big trees are a quintessential feature of the West Coast, stretching nearly 100 meters into the sky, and sometimes aging over 2,000 years.
Their sheer size makes old-growth trees not only a spectacular sight to behold but also a wellspring for cultural practices, ecological diversity, climate regulation, clean drinking water and timber. However, within the past two centuries in British Columbia (BC), they have also become rarer as they helped build thriving communities and drive economic activity in the province.
“Big trees are a culturally, economically and ecologically important component of our forests,” says Ira Sutherland (BSF’12).
As the landscape shifted with logging practices and development, many people have taken on the task of documenting the largest remaining stands in the forest. In the 1980s, BC naturalist and conservationist Randy Stoltmann started a register of big trees as a way to raise awareness and encourage people to visit and conserve them.
Stoltmann’s careful records of the locations of giant Douglas-firs and western redcedars passed hands a few times before finding a home at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry in 2010. Now known as the BC Big Tree Registry, the online portal houses data on the size and location of the biggest trees around the province, as discovered and measured by community members and the forest industry.
“We’ve built the registry to be inclusive so that anybody who wants to participate and nominate a tree can do so, but we also carefully verify each measurement,” says Ira Sutherland, who chairs the BC Big Tree Registry Committee and is pursuing a Ph.D. in historical ecology at UBC Forestry under Assoc. Prof. Jeanine Rhemtulla.
“We’re really trying to operate as a community science-driven initiative to improve information about the distribution and sizes of special trees across all of BC.” The number of trees in the registry has doubled in recent years, with many new giants of numerous species identified, measured and cataloged.
“Since 2014, the registry has grown from about 250 to 600 trees,” says Christine Chourmouzis, registrar with the Big Tree Registry. “In 2021 alone, almost 200 trees were nominated. Last year, the registry received nominations for seven interior trees that are the largest of their kind, including champion ponderosa pine, western redcedar, grand fir, subalpine fir, subalpine larch, western white pine and western hemlock.”
Technology has also moved the dial on identifying big trees, Ira adds. “Airborne laser scanning (ALS) can now give us a fairly precise estimate of tree height. We recently accepted nominations for many exceptionally large trees that were identified by Western Forest Products on Vancouver Island using ALS data, and who knows what the future may hold.”
Part of Ira’s vision for the registry involves bringing more stakeholders to the table.
“My big project right now is to create a bridge between entities that are doing tree monitoring, including industry (e.g., BC Timber Sales), environmental non-governmental organizations, (e.g., Raincoast Conservation Foundation), the BC provincial government and First Nations,” says Ira. “The goal is to form a network that will connect all the different people out there who are trying to find big trees.”
An important task of the network is to discuss how to define big trees or otherwise special trees that warrant protection under the province’s new Special Tree Protection Regulation, which is part of the Forest and Range Practices Act.
“Currently, big trees, or specified trees as they are referred to under BC’s Special Tree Protection Regulation, are defined based on their diameter at breast height (DBH), which is set based on analyzing the size distribution of big trees,” says Ira. “Trees that exceed that size can qualify for special protections.”
“However, the thresholds are set very high and most site conditions are unlikely to produce such large trees. This means that the largest stands on those sites would never be protected.”
For example, Ira notes that the threshold for protecting a coastal Douglas-fir is 2.7 meters DBH, “but there are relatively few locations and site conditions in BC where we find such large Douglas-fir.”
“There’s a huge information gap about big trees, and the registry can support setting and evaluating science-based policies about which trees should qualify for specified tree status.”
Ira also believes more emphasis should be placed on understanding the cultural and social value of big trees. In the future, he would like to create more opportunities within the registry or through other networks for people to share why big trees are important to them.
Led by our very own Development and Alumni Engagement Office, and shaped by valuable feedback from our alumni community, the Spring 2022 issue of Branchlines showcases the dynamic and multifaceted fields of forestry.