What Lies Beneath the Walbran
by Charly Caproff
The Walbran Valley is one of the last remaining intact old growth red cedar forests on southern Vancouver Island. This ecologically diverse area contains impressive stands of coniferous trees that are thousands of years old. During the ‘war of the woods’ over a decade ago, the Walbran Valley was the center of heated protests between industry and conservationists. Recently, it was revealed that the logging company Teal-Jones intends to clear-cut sections of this pristine environment, which has ignited organizations, such as the Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club BC, the Ancient Forest Alliance and The Friends of the Carmanah/Walbran to speak out and fight for the protection of this forest ecosystem.
Karst is a landscape that is formed from the underground erosion of soluble rocks like limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. The erosion forms underground openings, caves, and streams that support unique ecosystems. Karst landscape can be easily damaged by activities such as logging and road building.
If the old-growth forest underlain by karst is logged, the area could become a desolate landscape, compromising the water quality of the drainages.
A scientific report by Ford and Harding, examined the effects of deforestation on karst landscapes using volcanic bedrock as the control (non-karstified) landscape. Ancient forests and second growth forests were examined in the study and it was found that “karst was more adversely affected, displaying considerable loss of soil, moss, and litter, especially where cutting was followed by deliberate burning.”
It is important to note that forests underlain by karst have higher productivity in comparison to forest ecosystems on non-karst terrain, which makes these areas more attractive for timber harvesting.
In 2010, Vancouver Sun’s chief environmental reporter, Larry Pynn, investigated the destructive impacts of old-growth logging on karst lands in the Tahsish River Valley. The section of old-growth has become barren indefinitely due to the initial clear-cut logging, which removed the thin layer of soil covering the karst bedrock and a subsequent forest fire, which further devastated the once thriving forest ecosystem.
Logging on karst landscapes can also lead to disruption of the hydrological systems that have been in place for thousands of years. Removing the gigantic trees infiltrating the epikarst, (the thick, weathered mass of porous bedrock immediately beneath the soil or exposed at the surface) accelerates the rate at which water infiltrates through the subsurface environment. In the Philippines, deforestation coupled with slash-and-burn agriculture on karst lands is believed to have led to a 40% decline in the discharge from karst springs over 20 years. The unusual hydrological characteristics of karst systems provide an important ecological function in the maintenance of aquatic habitats, fish populations and potable drinking water source for humans.
With 137 active forest fires raging across the province this summer, the need to preserve this ecologically significant stand of old-growth forest is even more urgent.
Teal Jones also holds timber rights in the Avatar Grove, a stunning forest characterized by immense, gnarly coniferous trees. Karst formations were discovered in this majestic forest ecosystem, which could warrant protection of the area under the provincial Government Actions Regulation (GAR) order. While there is currently no legal protection that solely protects karst and caves in British Columbia or the rest of Canada, the GAR order identifies and creates protocols for managing resource features, such as karst, in specific forest environments. Zoe Blunt, of the Forest Action Network, was quoted stating protection of the grove “could include filing legal action if the ministry and the logging company violate the provincial order for the protection of karst.
Searching for the Karst
Rick Coles, president of the Canadian Cave Conservancy (CCC), is planning a trip to explore the landscape in the near future. He has worked with Teal Jones on several cutblocks previously and states he has a “good working relationship with [the company]” (personal correspondence).
According to Martin Davis, Coordinator of the BatCaver Program and founder of Island Karst Research, there have been reports of “caves and many karst features in some of the proposed blocks”.
Reid Robinson, otherwise known as the Karst Man, has extensive knowledge of limestone formations in temperate rainforest environments and is often called upon to provide tours of karst lands for decision-makers. Based on preliminary research, he strongly believes there is a huge potential for exposed limestone units in the Walbran Valley with well-developed karst systems and resources.
The South Island Forest District (SIFD)’s GAR Order requires licensees, such as Teal Jones, to “satisfy the annual reporting requirements for karst resource features as per Forest Planning and Practices Regulation s. 86 (3)(b).” Robinson was instrumental in the addition of language to the appendix of the SIFD karst resource feature Order that stipulates licensees are legally responsible to annually report previously unknown karst areas. By adding this requirement, it assists the District Manager in the effective management and protection of the public interest.
However, upon speaking with a SIFD Resource Manager recently, it was discovered that she was unaware of any reporting of karst in timber harvesting areas within the past five years. This alludes that changes may be required in the current management of karst.
The next step is to survey the area and determine if there are distinguishable karst features in the area. If karst caves, significant surface karst features and karst resources developing in highly vulnerable karst ecosystems were discovered in the cut block, then karst resource features could be provided legal protection under a GAR karst Order only if the resource features were well-defined in the body of the text as well as being in compliance with all Forest Planning and Practices Regulation (FPPR) requirements.
Charly Caproff is an Environmental Resource Management (ERM) student at Simon Fraser University. Her interest in karst was sparked a couple years ago during an environmental science class, and her concerns that there are no laws that specifically protect karst prompted her to research and help improve public awareness of this ecologically important environment.