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By Douglas H. Chadwick
Off the west coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island, Bob Van Pelt tramped ahead across a smaller isle named Meares. We were in woods as old, quiet, green, and wet as a forest can be. Even the air felt soaked. It was hard to tell how much of the moisture came from the chilly rain, how much was fog, and how much was steam rising off the burly figure of a bearded Van Pelt, also known as Big Tree Bob. "I'm hot," he said with a shrug. "Big trees energize me."
When we reached a giant that the locals call Big Mother, Van Pelt, a researcher from the University of Washington College of Forest Resources, took precise measurements with a laser and announced that this western red cedar would probably rank among the ten largest known on the continent. A true ancient, 60 feet around at the base, the cedar had a grove of full-size hemlock trees growing out of her sides and shrublands of huckleberry, salal, and false azalea arising from clefts in her bark high overhead. Thick epaulets of moss padded Big Mother's great limbs. Liverworts and ferns piled out of the mosses, and lichens coated and colored everything in between. She was a forest community all by herself, an organic apartment tower, and the closest thing I had ever seen to the fabled tree of life.
You can try to understand the living world with your head, but sometimes the heart is a truer field guide. Here in Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound, a million-acre natural amphitheater where mountainsides embrace a fjord-fingered, island-strewn reach of the sea, you don't have to choose, for every way of knowing nature seems to come into play.
One day I put on scuba gear to descend into another hushed tangle of green not far from Big Tree Bob's Big Mother. I'd been watching mink along the shore, intrigued by the way they swam out to scamper along floating strands of bull kelp. They kept diving like otters among the giant algae to emerge with crab legs waving from their mouths, and I wanted a closer look.
The water was cloudy with plankton, but a strong morning sun made the depths glow. Sliding overboard from my boat was like being absorbed in chilled jade. Before long I was pulling myself from stalk to frond through a submarine jungle festooned with kelp crabs, decorator crabs, helmet crabs, sharp-nosed crabs, and red rock crabs. I felt like a slow-motion Tarzan in the Lost Kingdom of Mink Meals.
Looking up from the bottom through the kelp-forest canopy with its clouds of surfperch and young rockfish, I could make out overhanging branches of cedar and lichen-draped Sitka spruce. As if the interweavings of ocean and land in this place weren't obvious enough, an acquaintance told me of a harbor seal in the lower boughs of one spruce, the animal having settled in when the tide was high and snoozed on long after it went out.
The most prolific parts of our biosphere are not necessarily tropical rain forests, as many people assume. Although coastal rain forests in temperate latitudes are much rarer, covering only a fraction of one percent of the Earth's land surface, they hold twice as much organic material per acre as the tropics. Those kelp forests just offshore in the Pacific Northwest can also grow as much biomass per acre as any tropical rain forest, and the region's river mouths and estuaries are wonderfully fertile as well. In Clayoquot, habitats meet and mingle, swapping species and nutrients. The result is an ecosystem that is extravagantly rich and intriguing.
We often speak of Earth's natural wealth. Modern societies spend more and more time arguing over how to preserve it, in what has become one of the most important issues of our age. But what does natural wealth actually consist of? What are the forces behind it? How does it get put together? And why does it tend to accumulate in certain areas? With a superabundance of life-forms both above sea level and below, Clayoquot Sound seemed like a perfect spot to go looking for answers. I was equally curious about the connections between these wild communities and human ones—especially the native Nuu-chah-nulth bands, who have made their home in Clayoquot for at least 2,500 years—and eager to learn how the local people planned to deal with such treasures in the decades to come.
One sure way to diagnose the condition of an ecosystem is to check on the big predators. If the original array is still around and doing well, then the predators must have a healthy variety of prey species, which means that the underlying habitats supporting lower levels of the food chain are in good shape too. The success of the large, toothy end of the wildlife spectrum in Clayoquot is hard to ignore. Orca fins appear in the channels, locals make a living catching dogfish sharks (sold abroad as Pacific rock salmon), sea lion calls echo across inlets, and Vancouver Island's forests have seen two dozen attacks on humans by mountain lions since the 1960s—more than any other site in North America.
Though it has only 1,400 inhabitants, the small port of Tofino near the sound's southern end ranks as a population center and commercial hub. From it, you can see Vargas Island to the northwest, where wolf packs come and go—paddling across at least half a mile of open salt water each time they do. Black bears and Columbian blacktail deer swim between islands as well. Deer numbers on Vargas have recently dropped, reducing a food source for the wolves. But this being Clayoquot, where biological possibilities appear to multiply along the blurred boundary of land and sea, the wolves are able to stay on by taking gulls plus the washed-up carcasses of other seabirds, seals, sea lions, and an occasional gray whale.
The indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people of Clayoquot currently number around 700, spread among several villages. "You have to remember," a young woman said, "we had ten times the population a couple of centuries ago." Back then, before diseases introduced by white colonists swept through the native bands, a village chief's principal responsibility was to care for his territory and sustain the natural bounty therein. Management of those living resources was inseparable from spirituality. For instance, if someone needed wood from a tree—weather-resistant red cedar for building or yellow cedar for carving—he would first pray to the tree to thank it. Then he would cut what was needed from the leeward side so the tree would heal more readily than if it were exposed to the wind. Since cedars can live for a millennium, to walk in Clayoquot's forests is to be in the company of some scarred old veterans that likely sheltered the Nuu-chah-nulth here throughout Europe's Middle Ages.
Clayoquot hosts the largest collection of ancient woods left on heavily logged Vancouver Island. Although parts of the area were safeguarded over the years—in Clayoquot Sound and Strathcona Provincial Park, at the northern end of Pacific Rim National Park, and in small ecological reserves—most of the old-growth forests lay on Canadian provincial lands open to cutting. Beginning in the late 1970s, lumber companies targeted them in earnest. In 1993 thousands of citizens, many from the mainland, arrived to blockade the roads and bulldozers. More than 850 protesters were jailed. Many say it was the biggest display of civil disobedience the nation had ever seen and made Clayoquot a symbol for the fate of rain forests all along the British Columbia coast.
In May 2000, Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, dedicated nearly 900,000 acres as the Clayoquot Sound unesco Biosphere Reserve. Ironically, because such reserves allow sustainable resource use, logging continued. Now, however, it was done by a new company called Iisaak, a joint venture 49 percent owned by Weyerhaeuser, an international timber giant, and 51 percent owned by Nuu-chah-nulth bands. Iisaak is their word for respect.
If you look north from Tofino, you can see old clear-cuts sweeping up and over the shoulders of mountains near Clayoquot's Catface Range. The structure and multiple ecological functions of the ancient rain forest have been erased together with the canopy. In their place, bare ground and brushfields stand exposed to the elements while creeks run choked with runoff sediments and debris. The contrast with the original woodlands around them is striking. Yet when I flew over those woodlands with Eric Schroff, then Iisaak's general manager, he showed me fresh logging sites within the seemingly untouched ranks of conifers.
"It took a social cataclysm in Clayoquot to shatter the old mold," Schroff said, reminding me that some of the widespread protests that brought a halt to indiscriminate logging were initiated by tribal leaders. After our plane landed on floats near Catface, he led the way on foot to show me the latest version of timber management—cutting units that resembled small openings within the forest caused by natural forces such as windthrow, root rot, or a minor slump of earth on a hillside.
"First, you go out and protect resources by putting streamsides, coastlines, and key wildlife habitats off limits," he told me. "Then, and only then, do you go logging. OK, some trees are gone now. But the forest is still here. We take logs out by helicopter so we don't have to build many new haul roads. Our costs are higher than some commercial operations, but you'll find a lot of support around here for trying to do things right."
Given the public scrutiny focused on Clayoquot, the first sites sawed by Iisaak were intended as showcases. How long such extra selective logging will continue in the face of demands to bump up production is anybody's guess. Nevertheless, it certainly qualifies as one of the best attempts yet to harvest trees from a temperate coastal rain forest while also giving every other living thing its due.
Ten feet of moisture falls out of the sky here annually. Some spots nestled below cloud-catcher peaks see more than 20 feet. That much precipitation translates into a billion gallons of raindrops per square mile in a typical year. "My home is in Tofino," goes a local saying, "but I live in rubber boots." Winter storms through in infinite shades of gray. There are weeks when you don't even think of it as raining until the constant drizzle gives way to larger dollops. While summer skies can be brilliant blue, that still doesn't mean the coast is clear. Ask the surfers at Long Beach in Pacific Rim Park. They don't say August; they call the month Foggest.
The richness of life in Clayoquot's forests is largely tied to abundant water. Here is the reason spruce can rise 200 and 300 feet tall and cedars bulge as big around as living rooms. Water is why the epiphytes, or guest plants, on one of those titans may weigh much more than the tree's own foliage. Along with some alders and cottonwoods, big-leaf maples send roots from their own trunks and limbs to tap the soil that develops beneath all the ferns and mosses and other vegetation thriving there.
Part of the stupendous productivity of temperate rain forests comes from tree-dwelling lichens. Some have the ability to perform the everyday miracle of absorbing nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and transmuting it into organic compounds essential to growth. Eventually dropping onto the forest floor like manna from heaven, the lichens are a key winter food for Clayoquot's deer and herds of Roosevelt elk. At the same time, they can supply one-quarter to one-half of the nitrogen that fertilizes rain forest soils. The tiny, often overlooked players in an ecosystem power much of its grandeur.
More than 500 lichen species flourish in Pacific Northwest rain forests. A number of them were discovered by Trevor Goward, a specialist affiliated with the University of British Columbia. When we hiked the coast together, he pointed out types named lipstick pixie, fairy puke, and seaside centipede lichen, along with dust lichens that painted chartreuse shades over stones, cedar trunks, and even the wooden handrails on a park boardwalk. He told me that scientists have identified more than 700 chemicals made by these organisms and that some show promising pharmaceutical properties. The amount and variety of lichens tend to increase as a woodland ages; parts of Clayoquot's forests have probably flourished intact for three or four thousand years.
Technically, a lichen is a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and either algae or cyanobacteria. "You could call them fungi that discovered agriculture," Goward said during our ramble. "But the result is neither a fungus, plant, nor animal. I think of lichens as a kind of doorway between organisms and ecosystems. Look out one direction, and you see individual things; look the other way, you see processes, relationships—things together. This is the next level in understanding biology."
Rich as a rain forest's epiphyte load is, the cool-climate jungle only gets richer underfoot. Precisely where the ground begins is hard to say, though, because the first few feet are a crisscrossed chaos of moldering wood.
Clayoquot's largest virginal watershed is that of the Megin River, which runs from the crest of the Vancouver Island mountains down through Strathcona Provincial Park to Shelter Inlet in the heart of the sound. During a kayak trip on the Megin's cold, clear windings, I kept going ashore between the rapids for exploratory strolls in the bottomland forests. Except that I never could stroll. Instead, I hoisted myself over logs, sank right into some gone soft as soufflé, and wished I were one of the coast's red squirrels that spends most of its life traveling from branch to branch far above the rain forest floor.
My explorations that day convinced me that there is at least as much life in a huge conifer after it has fallen as when it was standing. A cedar on the ground may take five centuries to disintegrate. During that time, it will accumulate two to three times its original allotment of nitrogen and phosphorus, thanks to all the worms, mites, beetles, and other organisms slurping their way through the wooden carcass. The fallen tree also stores tons of water like a sponge, helping maintain the high humidity and moderate temperatures crucial to the life cycles of so many other species from liverworts to tree frogs.
The cool, moist conditions of this western red cedar/hemlock zone also support a spectacular diversity of fungi—several thousand species of mushrooms and molds. "Our rain forest is like a tropical forest turned upside down," said Bryce Kendrick, a fungi expert overseeing a research project in Clayoquot. "Instead of most of the action being in the plants, it's underground. There are several kilometers of fungal threads in a pinch of soil here." Many form symbiotic relationships with the roots of vegetation. Known as mycorrhizal fungi, they collect moisture and nutrients via their own rootlike networks and pass them along to plants in return for some of their energy laden sugar.
Plants invested in this kind of joint venture grow faster, handle environmental stress better, and enjoy higher rates of survival than those without. Often, the microscopic threads link plants belonging to entirely different species: small trees to larger ones with greater soil resources. In fact, nearly all vascular plants use fungi to tap into food collected by their neighbors. Join this vast, hidden network, and you're tied into the forest in a whole new way—one that makes it harder than ever to say where the individual ends and the community begins.
In natural systems, everything finally partners with everything else to some degree. The more linkages, the faster biological wealth spreads and multiplies. One autumn day I lay among bright stones on the bottom of Kennedy River in the eastern part of Clayoquot, breathing through a snorkel and pondering anew where the forest ends and the ocean begins. Nearby, seals that had swum miles upriver were chasing sockeye salmon through the fresh water pooled in Kennedy Lake. All kinds of nutrients collected from distant reaches of the sea were thrashing upstream and bumping my legs in the form of more sockeyes on their way to spawn. And pound after pound was heading overland as black bears wading on either side of me caught the scarlet fish, took them to the woods to eat, then left the carcasses to compost along with extra nitrogen concentrated in urine and dung.
Out of the corner of my face mask I saw Steller's jays gliding down from cedar branches to wade after loose salmon eggs aswirl in a shallow eddy. I also saw eagles, gulls, ravens, mink, otters, and raccoons dining on the fish or their eggs or both. Deer and ducks would come to nibble the salmon carcasses; even little chickadees and winter wrens have been seen pecking at them. A local guide told me of watching trout bang the sides of gravid female salmon, forcing out eggs to gulp.
In all, more than 130 species of vertebrates eat salmon at some stage of the fish's lives. Many transfer those nutrients into the forest, boosting the growth rate of vegetation. Studies show that recycled salmon can account for an average of 20 percent of the nitrogen in streamside vegetation (up to 40 percent in the case of huckleberry bushes), and 25 to 50 percent of the carbon and nitrogen in aquatic insects and salmon fry. Like a fallen rain forest tree, a spawning salmon doesn't die so much as begin serving the ecosystem in different ways. From that perspective, some of Clayoquot's monumental evergreens embody hundreds of generations of big, sea-grown fish and of the bears, eagles, wolves, and other animals that transport them. Likewise, young salmon embody the forests' roots, leaves, lichens, and grazing slugs that feed organic wealth back into streams and their estuaries.
A separate pulse of nutrients comes from the ocean to the far reaches of Clayoquot's bays each spring when the herring spawn. As recently as the middle of the past century, the schools that swept through left much of the intertidal zone silver with their eggs, pasted to rocks and seaweed.
Overfishing seriously thinned herring numbers. Yet Vera Little, a Nuu-chah-nulth elder I met on Flores Island, told me that family members still place boughs along the shore and haul them up coated with roe. Sold to Japan as a delicacy, eggs are the main product of British Columbia's commercial herring industry today. The gutted fish are used for bait or animal feed.
The sound also supports salmon farming. Farmed salmon are now British Columbia's largest agricultural export, amounting to about 45,000 tons annually, twice the weight of wild salmon caught in the province in 2001. Not that everyone regards having nearly two dozen large pen-rearing operations in Clayoquot as something to be proud of. Critics worry about the buildup of wastes and possible spread of diseases to wild fish stocks.
Clayoquot's wild salmon feed upon the area's silver shoals of herring. The little fish are also a mainstay for the largest predators in the ecosystem, humpback whales. Once hunted by native crews in long canoes, the humpbacks in turn helped sustain the Nuu-chah-nulth, who savored the meat and traded the giants' rich oil for goods from other tribes. But industrial whaling by whites took over and depleted populations of humpbacks until late in the 1960s. On the increase today, these whales once again plunge through the outer waters of the sound, joined in the fish-chase by tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, and other seabirds from breeding colonies on the rocky isles scattered offshore.
Gray whales are more common, having recovered earlier from the commercial slaughter, and they tend to stick closer to the coast. Jim Darling, who has a home in Tofino, is a leading authority on Pacific grays. "The other day," he told me, "I ran across Two Dot Star, a whale I first saw here in 1974. I usually identify 35 to 50 grays in Clayoquot Sound through the summer. This is part of a larger Pacific Northwest population." Most migrate to Mexico for the winter, but now and then a gray will stay around all year. Whale-watching brings an estimated five million dollars (U.S.) annually into Tofino. For the boat operators these animals are practically spouting cash.
Later, we watched the million-dollar mammals plow cloudy trails through shallows where they barely had enough water to float. "These are whales that make much of their living on the beach," Darling commented. "It's just that they use it at high tide." The whales withdrew with the water, and their feeding grounds soon stood revealed as a vast mudflat with waves of migrating shorebirds skittering across it. Thousands of shallow pits the length of rowboat hulls patterned the surface. Each represented a mouthful sucked in by a whale that then used its tongue to force the sediments out through baleen plates, trapping a tasty tangle of ghost shrimp and Mya clams. With every shrimp came creatures that had shared the space inside its muddy burrow—scale worms, more clams, pea crabs, and tiny gobies—plus copepods living under the shrimp's exoskeleton and others clinging to its gills.
Strange how ecosystems and economies work. Grown from a mix of nutrients flowing out of forest rivers and in from the sea, these tiny, gunk-eating, mud-tunnelers and their even more obscure roommates are really the wildlife that help nurture the business folk, from local watermen who have jumped into the whale-watching business to motel owners, bankers, and grocery clerks ashore.
Each organism in an ecosystem is bound to every other in more ways than we can fully understand. Our wildlife heritage lies as much in organic processes and communities as in the individual creatures that tend to catch our attention. The further science probes the nature of things, the closer it comes to time-honored native concepts about living beings transforming into others, a worldview summed up by the Nuu-chah-nulth as hishuk-ish ts'awalk—everything is one.