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Remember that big tree on the truck? Why it couldn't be saved under B.C. rules

Wednesday, June 23rd 2021, 3:09 pm - 90m-high trees aren't necessarily protected under B.C.'s protections, which determine protection by diameter

A massive spruce trunk photographed being transported down a Vancouver Island highway last month might not have been big enough to warrant saving under B.C.'s new protections for big trees.

The image of the giant section of spruce on a truck sparked international outrage, causing the Ministry of Forests to clarify that the tree had been cut down months before new regulations came into force.

But experts say it only underlines the shortcomings of protection for giant, old trees.

"This photo is actually a shocking example of the size of trees that can still be legally logged," said Jens Wieting, Sierra Club B.C.

He believes the province goes too far to protect the industry, which employs 50,000 people, according to the Ministry of Forests.

Tree hauled away nanaimo bc Lorna Beecroft CBC This image of a massive tree being hauled north of Nanaimo, B.C., sparked an outcry across the world in May. (Lorna Beecroft/via CBC)

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Wieting said he was surprised at the outcry over this specific tree, because it's not a "unique" incident and not the largest tree being felled right now in B.C.

"This is happening every day in B.C., not once a year." said Wieting.

In May, forestry authorities confirmed that the spruce had been cut down between March and mid-August of last year and then transported by Western Forest Products. That means the tree had been felled before Special Tree Protection Regulations came into effect on Sept. 11, 2020.

The ministry says old growth — which it defines as older than 140 years in the Interior and older than 250 years on the coast — covers 13.7 million hectares of B.C., but only 27 per cent of that area is open for harvest, according to the province.

However, according to the new regulations, protection is determined by a tree's diameter, and the minimum diameter of a tree deemed worthy of protection depends upon the species. For a sitka spruce, that number is 2.83 metres.

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Ira Sutherland, who chairs the Big Tree Committee at the University of British Columbia, estimates the spruce on the truck was about 2.7 metres in diameter at its widest point to fit on the truck.

"Unless [this tree] was cut quite high off the ground, no, I don't think it would quite make the threshold of protection," said Sutherland, adding that the oldest trees aren't always the widest.

In an email to CBC News on June 15, a Forests Ministry spokesperson said it was not possible to tell because "an examination of the stump would determine whether this tree would have been protected. However, this examination did not take place because the harvest took place before the new regulation was enacted."

Only the very largest trees of 12 species are protected under the B.C. Special Tree Regulation put in place in 2020. This figure illustrates that many of the largest known trees in the province would be too small to receive protection. This graph tallies trees listed on UBC's Big Tree Registry, a list of the largest known trees in the province nominated by citizens and verified by experts. . (Ira Sutherland/UBC Forestry Program) Only the very largest trees of 12 species are protected under the B.C. Special Tree Regulation put in place in 2020. This figure illustrates that many of the largest known trees in the province would be too small to receive protection. This graph tallies trees listed on UBC's Big Tree Registry, a list of the largest known trees in the province nominated by citizens and verified by experts. . (Ira Sutherland/UBC Forestry Program)

The province says the regulations are expected to offer protection to 1,500 giant trees throughout B.C., along with a hectare of their surrounding forests.

But the protections are not extended to all species. Western hemlock, for example, is excluded, Sutherland says.

Wieting is calling on the province to expand protections to include at least all the trees on the Big Tree Registry, which is kept by UBC's faculty of forestry.

He said only about 11 big trees in Stanley Park are listed on the registry, but none are technically big enough to get protection under the provincial rules.

Sutherland and other forest researchers would like to see policy that protects old-growth groves, not single trees, and widens the definition of a "big" tree.

"We are not protecting the tallest trees in the province. The big trees in B.C. can grow up to 90 metres tall — as tall as a 25-storey building — but if it's not of a certain diameter it's not protected," said Sutherland, a PhD student with UBC's faculty of forestry.

While "special trees," once designated, must be protected along with surrounding forest, there is latitude with how that can be achieved, Sutherland says.

He said there is a lack of confidence that the rules will be used to truly protect old-growth groves.

"To a large degree, the fox is guarding the hen house — it's a concern whether this policy will truly be robust and well respected.

"It's just how forestry works in B.C. It's just not a very transparent system. A lot of it is left up to the people in the bush planning the cut block."

This article, written by Yvette Brend, was originally published for CBC News.

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