The Rainforest Trail, near Tofino, is much more than a simple path through the woods. Massive western red cedars and western hemlocks tower over visitors as they follow the twisting boardwalks through an enchanted landscape full of the ferns, lichen and fungi typical of an old growth ecosystem. The oldest inhabitant of this stand is a red cedar that was reputedly a sapling when Marco Polo set off for the Orient in 1271. This means it is about 950 years old today. A series of information plaques transform the +2 kilometre hike into an educational experience.

Image credit: Standing beside the ‘Ancient Monarch,’ a 950-year-old red cedar on the Rainforest Trail – courtesy Roy L Hales

One of them explains how BC’s  rainforest came into being. Giant conifers spread across the landscape 15 million years ago, during a time of global cooling. Prior to that, they were largely restricted to alpine environments. However the landscape was changing. Clouds of volcanic ash blocked out the sun.  The rise of coastal mountains changed local weather patterns. Summers were cooler and wet, winters were mild.

Looking up the trunk of the ‘Ancient Monarch’ – Photo by Roy L Hales

Another describes the rich soil, which plays host to the rainforest today:

“The soil — a world of perpetual night where miniature life forms roam a maze of roots, soil particles, and rotting wood. The surface layer, a thick mat of decaying plant and animal matter, is the food bank of the rainforest community. But it doesn’t release its wealth easily. Material rots slowly in this acidic soil and heavy rains carry nutrients deep beyond the reach of many plant roots. Soil fungi thrive in acidic conditions. A thimbleful of soil may contain several kilometres of microscopic fungal threads. These are grazed on by mites and springtails, consumed in turn by larger organisms. The health of the entire forest depends on this ballet of interaction beneath our feet.”

Some of the moss and lichens – Photo by Roy L Hales

If they are allowed to remain, fallen trees play a vital part in soil creation. Ants and beetles carve out elaborate channels in the bark. Fungi and bacteria follow. The branches rot within five years, the bark sloughs off in ten years. The rotting wood becomes home to a vast variety of organisms, including saplings. Around 10% of the saplings can be expected to grow into trees.

A ‘nursery log’ on the Rainforest trail provides nutrients for new growth – by Roy L Hales

Of course industrial logging changes this scenario. Much of the timber which would have fertilized the forest is removed. A fraction of the nutrients remain in the form of branches and other debris. Instead of living for hundreds of years, trees are harvested when they are between 40 and 80 years old.

(1) Outer bark holds in moisture & wards off insects; (2) Inner bark – a pipeline that transports food manufactured in the needles to other parts of the tree; (3) Cambium cell layer: produces new bark and new sapwood; (4) sapwood: a pipeline for water and minerals moving from the roots to the crown; (5) heartwood: thick walled dead cells that provide strength and rigidity – plaque on Rainforest Trail
Chart of Heartwood vs Sapwood ratio in a Douglas Fir – Courtesy David Shipway, Quality Forestry Always Takes Time

According to David ShipwayVice President of the Cortes Community Forest Cooperative, “In a very young tree, most of the stem is sapwood, whereas in a mature tree, most of the trunk is heartwood. In trees that are now being cut on so-called “economic” rotation silviculture regimes, it’s at best about 50/50. In other words, half the “wood” harvested isn’t even real wood yet, it’s compost. What sort of “economics” does such pre-culminate liquidation really create?”

Links of interest:

Top photo credit: Walking along a boardwalk in Rainforest Trail – Photo by Roy L Hales