Cortes Community Forest’s First Five Years

By Roy L Hales

British Columbia’s old growth forests fertilize themselves as efficiently as a farmer looking after his fields. The tree plantations that are fast replacing them lack this ability. If this trend continues, the province’s vast forests may be a memory in the next two or three centuries. The inhabitants of one tiny island are trying to change this. In this morning’s program one of the directors, Bruce Ellingsen, tells me about Cortes Community Forest’s first five years of operations.

Cortes Community Forest’s First Five Years Of Operations

Cortes Community Forest’s first five years
Mapping James Creek which flows into Carrington Bay, Cortes Island, in 2009, with Project Watershed biologists from Courtenay. (Island Timberlands still owns the land.) – David Shipway photo

We were sitting around his kitchen table, overlooking the ocean at Smelt Bay. If you listen to the podcast above carefully, you can hear Bruce’s wife trying to be quiet in the background or the hum of the Ellingsen’s refrigerator when it came on. Our interview started with freshly brewed coffee.

Cortes community forest was allotted an annual cut rate of 13,600 cubic metres (CM). In their most productive years, they only take out about 4,000 CM. Ellingsen says that so far the community forest is averaging about 16% of its quota.

“We got the tenure in 2013, so we’re at the end of our first five year cut control, is the way the Ministry of Forests describes it. They came over and had a meeting with us a few months ago and did an assessment of what we are doing and found we are doing a lot less than what we were invited to apply for,” said Ellingsen.

He added that the new District Manager and three other forestry officials recently came over from Campbell River “to get a sense of what’s going on on Cortes.”

Industrial Scale Logging Comes To Cortes

There was commercial logging on Cortes a century ago, but the first industrial scale operations arrived with a Campbell River company in the late 1970s.

Modern logging site – courtesy the WIlderness C ommittee

“Raven Logging engaged the community in the fact that it demonstrated how rapidly the forest landscape could be transformed with modern technology ….. In the previous decades it had been done by little one or two man operations that worked fairly slowly over a few years. Well, Raven Lumber could do a couple of hundred acres in a matter of three months or so and then move on to the next quarter section.”

Observing how fast the remnants of their old growth trees could disappear, some Cortes residents started voicing their concerns.

There were a lot of meetings after MacMillan Bloedel [M&B] started cutting near the Klahoose Nation’s land in 1988 and 89.

“The resolve that was slowly building in the Cortes Community, about being uncomfortable with clearcut logging, really came to a head. When M&B came back in 1990, wanting to carry on with their clearcut operation at Squirrel Cove, there ended up being a two day blockade of the contractor that they had hired.”

Colin Gabelmann, the (NDP) MLA for North Island, negotiated a settlement whereby MacMillan Bloedel agreed to back off until they could come up with an alternative management plan.

“In 1993-1994, [M&B] came back with a proposal to do lens cuts and selective loggings of the balance of the area they were going to operate in. Their goal of taking off 10,000 CM a year was still higher than what the community by that time had generally agreed was too much for the area they were logging.

Current Logging Practises Not Sustainable

The current plantation system of logging is destroying the natural nutrient input system that exists in older forests.

Ellingsen said he is not aware of any forest managers in British Columbia, or elsewhere in the world, that are carrying out sustainable programs.

“They all appear to me to be extracting a lot more from that forest landscape and ecosystem than I expect to be sustainable over time. To start with I was looking at and thinking of terms of well how much can you take out of a landscape? … I was equating that with what you do in your own garden where you plant potatoes. Try and do that three or four times on the same piece of land without putting something back into it. Pretty soon the potatoes are getting pretty dam small. Things don’t grow very well.”

“I am anticipating that what we are doing in British Columbia is going to end up with us having a Mediterranean landscape here over a couple of hundred or three hundred years.”

The Epiphytes In Old Growth Forests

Cortes Community Forest’s first five years
Roy L Hales photo

Ellingsen cited a study by University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin showing that a mature forest, with the mosses, liverworts, lichens, and algaes of a fully developed epiphyte community, is self fertilizing.

“They found that the epiphytes could contribute virtually identical, or the same amount, of nitrogen into the forest ecosystem on an annual basis as to what a farmer would be putting into his fields to grow corn… The lichen and mosses that grow on the trees can take nitrogen directly out of the atmosphere into their tissues .. and as they go through their life cycle they fall to the forest floor and become available for the rest of the forest ecosystem as they are recycled by organisms in the soil.”

“That is a free natural benefit and measure of sustainability to the whole system that exists in older forests that you just don’t get in young forests. [Franklin] says it takes anywhere form 80 to 250 years for close to the full range of epiphytes to reestablish themselves in a young forest.”

“I noticed that on our apple trees out on Reed Point Farm. After about 40 years you started seeing lichen attaching itself to the trunks. Since we didn’t spray them, they just kept slowly growing as lichen do. Eventually they get to the point where they are generating more nutrients than they need themselves, that starts being stuffed out and contributing to the well being of the ecosystem they are part of.” 

Permanent Sample Plots

Ellingsen is pushing for a number of permanent sample plots to be set up across the island. This will give the community forest the ability to measure the forest’s annual growth as time and conditions change.

“Some people suggest that … [as the climate changes] there will be more carbon in the air, it will be great for trees. They will grow faster; stuff like that. Of course there is going to be changes in precipitation and all sorts of other things. There is lots of guesses as to the outcome. We’re just going to wait and find out what it is over time, but that should, over time, also be expressed in the growth rings of the trees we are going to measure in these permanent sample plots.”

Does The 15% Cut Rate Apply To All Cortes?

During its five years of operation, Cortes residents have expressed some concerns the community forest’s operations.

Bruce Ellingsen Cortes Community Forest’s first five years
Bruce Ellingsen – Roy L Hales photo

Ellingsen estimates that the crown lands being logged by the Community Forest spread across about 38% of Cortes Island. The remaining 62% is privately owned. So do we know what the cut rate is for the rest of the island?

“We don’t, and part of the reason for that is it is all private land that we are talking about, so it is totally and legally outside of our jurisdiction. We have no control over whether the people who are adjacent to the community forest lands clear cut, selectively log or have small openings on their properties. And certainly it will in some cases, especially if it is upslope of what is going on in the community forest lands, have an impact on what the growth patterns will be in the in the community forest land base.”

The Most Saleable Logs

Aren’t the most saleable logs the same old growth trees that are most needed to preserve our forests?

“Yes, I agree. [The solution is] the ecosystem based management approach that you are planning overlays on the landscape in the areas you are going to harvest, by retaining some of the dominant and co-dominant trees in a full life cycle. Just let them grow old and die in that landscape. You also got on the non-timber harvesting areas, trees that are going to be left to grow old. All the trees on that portion will probably left to grow old and go through their life cycle.”

Cortes Community Forest’s first five years
One of the cutblocks at Squirrel Cove, before the logs were taken away, as seen from the road – Roy L Hales photo

“You aren’t going to be focusing on the biggest and the best trees, apart from the fact you are going to plan on leaving a portion of them to go through their full life cycle. At the same time the trees that you do harvest, if they go through a 250 to 350 year rotation period, they are going to be beautiful timber for the small mill operators on Cortes to be handling. When you can get one big three, or four, or five foot log on your mill and cut a whole bunch of boards with very little side lumber or slab waste, you can make good money in these little operations on the island. I know that from having done it myself.”

“If we are talking about 250 – 350 year cycles, that is at least two hundred and fifty yers in the future. Although on our community forest land base we are on average probably 60 to 80 year old timber already so we have a jump start on that length of a rotation.”

Meeting With The Ministry

Will the BC government let Cortes Island make such a radical departure from the current forestry practises? Earlier in this story, Ellingsen said the New District Manager and three of his colleagues recently paid Cortes Community Forest a visit.

“At the end of the meeting all four of them said ‘Well as long as we’re here in office and things are going along comfortably for you guys and everybody is happy, we are not going to be initiating any change.’ This is what I have personally felt all along.  They basically wanted to satisfy the desire for community control of the crown forest land on Cortes by creating this invitation for us to apply for a community forest. Once they’ve got that allocated on their books and got that last annual allotted cut of 13,600 cubic metres allocated somewhere in the Sunshine Coast Forest District. Specifically Cortes, where it  had been requested for many years. They were going to wait and see how we managed it and how happy the community was. If everyone appears to be generally happy, I’m quite sure they’ll just let us keep on going. It would be political hot water for them to try top take anything back or demand that we cut n=more than we are comfortable cutting.”

There is much more detail in the podcast above. 

Photo at top of page: Logs waiting to be taken from the Squirrel Cove Cutblock – Roy L Hales photo

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