A push to protect rare ancient forests

This year, Marie-Eve Roy will venture into the forests of rural Quebec to find something very rare in Canada’s largest province: old trees.

“When forests are not accessible we can find ancient forests,” said Roy, a postdoctoral student who has worked for the Quebec government on the protection of rare species. “Sometimes, to try to find those places, we have to canoe to very remote places.”

Ancient forests, undisturbed by humans and the natural elements, are very few in Quebec. Those recognized by the government represent just 0.06 per cent of the province’s public forests and are often inaccessible due to wetlands, islands and steep peaks.

This means that only about 477 square kilometers of forests managed by the Quebec government are considered old growth, a strip of land smaller than the island of Montreal.

The primary forests of southern Quebec were historically severely affected by colonization and urbanization, while those in the north have been largely affected by invasive insects and fires. Forestry researchers worry that logging, public ignorance and the limitations of Quebec’s old management system mean these centuries-old ecosystems will continue to disappear.

Old trees help absorb climate-warming carbon dioxide and store it as they grow to their full size. The woody debris that litters these forest floors provides unique and important habitats for wildlife, including salamanders, woodpeckers, squirrels, pine martens, tree nuthatches, and the at-risk Barrow’s goldeneye ducks.

Despite the biodiversity in these ecosystems, Roy said foresters often lack ecological awareness about how to address old growth.

“A million years of evolution could have created that,” he said. “You see all the old plants living together. It is the balance between things.”

Roy said old growth exemplifies what healthy forests should look like. He hopes that society can “form a generation” dedicated to protecting the ancient.

In Quebec, only 0.06% of government-managed forests are old-growth forests. These ecosystems store CO2 and offer a unique habitat, but experts are concerned there is a lack of awareness and long-term management in the province. #OldGrowth #Quebec #Forest

Under Quebec’s Sustainable Forest Development Act, old-growth forests on public lands can be recognized and protected as exceptional forest ecosystems (EFEs).

The Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests (MRNF) has spent more than 20 years developing criteria to identify EFE as mature trees. It has been based on provincial forest mapping and inventories, research by experts and presentations from forestry and First Nations stakeholders.

One of Marie-Eve Roy’s children smiles in an old-growth forest near Ripon, Que., in the Outaouais region, on Oct. 1, 2018. Photo by Marie-Eve Roy

In 2003, there were only 70 verified ancient sites covering 60 square kilometers. Now, Quebec’s forest subdivision system has mapped and classified around 160 old EFEs, and the MRNF said it recognizes 290 across Quebec.

Patrick Gravel, botanist and president of the Forestry and People’s Cooperative located in Montpellier, said Quebec’s old growth consists mainly of hemlock-infused yellow birch and more biodiverse sugar maple.

In some places, these trees have lived for more than four centuries and reach a height of almost 40 meters. Quebec also has ancient white pine trees that reach up to 50 metres, almost as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Changing forest management

Critics argue that Quebec lacks a protocol for identifying old-growth forests, meaning some forests are not classified due to inconsistent assessment criteria for determining age and environment.

But for Christian Messier, professor of forest management at the University of Quebec in Outaouais (UQO), it’s not just about categorizing ancient sites.

More work should be done to protect ancient landscapes, not just trees, Messier said by email. He would also like the MRNF to assess how vulnerable these sites are to drought, wind, fire, heat, invasive species and disease.

Messier, who is Canada’s research chair in forest resilience to global changes, said setting aside Quebec old growth sites as protected EFEs will not be enough to preserve the uniqueness and improve the climate adaptability of these ecosystems.

Advocates say these forests, especially compared to the much larger ancient sites in British Columbia, often still fly under the public’s radar, despite their EFE classification.

“It’s less visible to ordinary eyes and people,” Gravel said. “People look for cool things. “They like to be impressed.”

Old yellow birch fills the sky in a forest near Ripon, Que., on May 22, 2019. Photo by Marie-Eve Roy

But Roy, who is conducting his postdoctoral research at UQO on carbon sequestration in ancient forests, hopes to draw more attention to these rare forests.

“We need an argument for people to love the ancient forest,” he said. “It’s not because they don’t care. It’s mainly because they don’t know.”

Future conservation work

In addition to being extremely rare in Quebec, ancient forests have a different ecological composition depending on the region and other unique environmental factors that can make them difficult to classify together.

“One problem with old growth is the very definition of such ecosystems,” Messier explained. “An ancient forest in northern Quebec, where fires are frequent, is not the same as an ancient forest in southern Quebec.”

And although the largest sites are in the north, Roy said western Quebec has the most extensive old growth in the province. The Outaouais region, which he has visited repeatedly for his research, has 14 ancient EFEs covering 20 square kilometers.

Notable sites include one next to Lake Lyon in the Papineau-Labelle Wildlife Reserve, which has 370-year-old yellow birch trees nearly a meter wide. And about 27 kilometers north of Gatineau, Lac de l’Écluse has a 400-year-old forest spanning 7.5 square kilometers.

In addition to birch and maple, Outaouais also has important old-growth pine forests. One site next to Lake Antostagan has 230-year-old trees.

The Gravel cooperative is working to have the ancient Outaouais sites recognized as EFE and has already managed to protect two in Mulgrave-et-Derry, 30 kilometers northeast of Gatineau. Gravel said three of the five sites he identified in the region have faced threats from logging and also from land swaps between private companies and the Quebec government.

“There is no place where you don’t see traces of logging,” Gravel said, adding that loggers often start sawing without biologists inspecting forest sites.

Messier agrees that logging threatens old growth, but says it also creates an opportunity to enrich and protect old trees by planting newer, better-adapted ones nearby. Keeping ancient forests isolated from human activity may no longer be enough to preserve their unique qualities, he noted, and the MRNF may need to take a more active approach to managing these sites.

An old-growth forest covered with sugar maples, yellow birches and white pines fills the landscape near Ripon, Que. Photo by Marie-Eve Roy

“In most cases, even when [old-growth sites] are not directly on the reservation, the indigenous [Peoples] they should be consulted and be part of the management of these sites,” Messier said.

First Nations may have special views on forest management, including the use of prescribed burns, which must be “accepted, respected and presented,” he added.

Outaouais has a 200-year history of logging, according to Erik Higgins, who manages natural resources and wildlife for the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. Still, even people in the timber industry “care a lot about old growth,” he said.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in protecting old-growth forests,” Higgins said, noting that these sites are mostly “patches here and there” across Quebec.

“I think there’s just a lack of general knowledge about ecology among the public.”

When asked why the public knows little about Quebec’s former growth, the MRNF said in an email that it “regularly presents its work on EFEs” through conferences and media reports.

“Maintain these unique characteristics [of old-growth] in Quebec forests is of great importance to ensure the maintenance of forest biodiversity and the fulfillment of Quebec’s commitments,” stated the MRNF.

To date, Quebec has engaged 2.4 billion dollars to protect biodiversity and promote good environmental practices.

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