Wildwood and Merv Wilkinson
Anthology by Jay Rastogi published in 2007 in Wild Foresting.
Lessons from the old growth: Merv Wilkinson and Wildwood Forest
“Our forest managers have studied economics, but they haven’t studied the forest ecosystem, which is the basis of this whole thing.”
Merv Wilkinson has shown people what is possible with forestry in British Columbia and beyond. Thousands of people visit Wildwood each year to experience the forest and benefit from the lessons Merv has learned over his tenure here. Merv spent most of his life stewarding Wildwood, a 77 acre forest on the edge of Quennell Lake on southeastern Vancouver Island (plus other properties in the vicinity).
Merv began managing the forest in 1938 after a year and a half stint at a pulp mill. “I was looking for an escape plan,” he says referring to the difficult circumstances of working in a non-unionized industrial setting in the depression years, “and this was it.” “Growing up here I saw my friends across the lake farming and figured I might do the same.” Hoping to raise poultry or livestock but not knowing much about it, “I decided to take a non graduating course the province offered at UBC (University of British Columbia). There I met Dr. Paul Boving. He had asked us all what our land was like and when I told him he said, ‘Good Lord, you need to study forestry!’ A few weeks later he asked me to stay behind after class and said he had just received the most recent forestry course from Guttenberg and that it was a good one. Was I interested in taking it? Well, going to Europe was out of the question for me, but he said he would translate it and help guide me – it wouldn’t be official, but I’d get the main points. So on one side of my desk I studied agriculture and on the other forestry. For the practical bit I would mark out roadways or select trees and he would come over occasionally on the weekends, go fishing and would look it over. He always asked, “Now, why did you select this tree and not that one?” and he wanted a good explanation – because often times it doesn’t matter too much if you select this tree or that one – as long as you don’t take both. At graduation time his wife made up a beautiful certificate and when he handed it to me he said the wisest thing I think anyone has ever said to me. He said, ‘Don’t think this has made a forester out you. It has given you the tools to become one.’ ”
The system of forestry Dr. Boving taught was single tree selection or what Merv has sometimes called “sustainable selective forestry.” the underlying guiding principle being one of sustained harvest (sustained yield). “Sustainable means that you don’t destroy the forest in order to harvest trees. You need to be sure you don’t cut over the annual growth or else you drain the bank account.” The standing volume of the forest is seen as being equivalent to the capital in a bank account and the annual growth as interest. This analogy is helpful, however it is not completely correct. The forest has needs which need to be met for ecological processes to function. “Much of this I didn’t realize until foresters and ecologists started visiting. I was always interested in and believed in working with Nature, so I always wanted a multi-age, multi-height and multi-species forest, but it took forty years for me to see that dead wood on the ground was necessary for soil building, moisture retention, habitat for fungi and insects and other ecosystem functions. Without healthy soil, you can’t have a healthy forest – it is the real resource.”
“It is important to realize that relationships exist between all things and no one thing can exist in the forest alone – and that includes us. The forester has a legitimate role when he’s working with nature. He’s an illegitimate bum when he’s trying to kill nature. We’ve got too much of that. Rows of trees represent blind stupidity and a one track mind.”
Pileated Woodpeckers also played a role in encouraging Merv to incorporate ecological criteria into his decision-making by illustrating the relationships and connections in Nature. “When I realized how important they are to keeping insect populations in balance I decided I better leave some snags for them to nest in so that they would always be around. I also leave cedar trees with carpenter ants because that is a favourite food.” We now view all indigenous organisms as being important and view their welfare and the maintenance of ecological processes as our primary goal. Therefore before any harvest critical ecosystem elements are identified first so that they can be retained in the stand. These include: wildlife trees and downed wood, seed trees and tall trees.,
Wildlife trees and downed wood
Any tree or group of trees with more than average wildlife use should be retained. Dead and dying trees are particularly attractive to fungi, insects, birds and small mammals. In addition to providing food and habitat, downed wood releases nutrients and moisture slowly, moderates temperature and moisture fluctuations and builds soil. In this way (in our region), over the long run they also reduce the intensity of any potential fires and in times of fire and drought provide fungi, bacteria, insects, amphibians and plants with potential refuge.
Even after valuing wildlife trees Merv “used to think (leaving) dead trees on the ground was wasteful, but in fact they have an important role to play and for 15-20 years now I’ve been leaving some to go back to the soil.”
One method for increasing downed wood is to retain wind thrown trees on the ground. This also has the beneficial effect of retaining small hummocks where the trees have been uprooted. These areas create micro-site differences in moisture holding and nutrient pooling and the exposed soil increases the probability of Douglas-fir regeneration. Where possible trees downed trees should be left full length as they don’t desiccate and decompose as fast as smaller sections. Trees decomposing over a longer period of time tie up the least amount of soil nitrogen (a limiting nutrient). Thus the benefits of downed wood are expressed over a longer time period.
Creating snags by girdling some trees is also valuable (especially in small groups. Pick areas where you want more light (i.e. Areas with bare ground, but no tree regeneration or under-story shrubs; or pick dense areas with a lot of inter-tree competition).
If the risk of fire hazard from human use is high, branches on downed trees could be cut and dropped to the forest floor. Most fires Merv believes are caused “by carelessness – smoking or using equipment in the wrong season. Fire in the hands of our aboriginal people was a useful tool, but white man doesn’t know how to use it properly. There hasn’t been a fire here in my lifetime but you can still see charcoal on the older trees. By burning they got better berry crops and also more deer.”
Natural seeding is preferred because locally adapted genes are retained in the stand. It is also inexpensive. The dominant trees are good candidates to consider as seed trees. At the end of their lives they also become good wildlife trees. Merv feels “a good forester manipulates the canopy, opening it up to light when necessary.” This benefits the trees that remain and also lets new seedlings get started. “By simple observation you learn to recognize what is a normal growth rate and when a tree is suppressed or has too much light. The rule of thumb is: enough light to make a tree grow; enough shade to make it reach for the light.” In addition to providing light competition, which promotes the lower limbs of trees to self-prune, the surrounding canopy also protects younger trees from snow damage and especially wind damage. A tree grown in an open area “is shorter, is bushy – has a lot of knots, has a lot of taper and crowns off too soon. They are only good for pulp. I choose to leave my best trees for seeding. The ones the squirrels like the cones of always have the best germination.”
“When I went out East ten years ago, I found they had a rule of thumb to never cut your tallest trees. Only in areas of uniform canopy heights should co-dominants be considered for harvest.” Retaining the tallest trees in the stand is beneficial in reducing wind velocities and therefore damage to tree leaders (particularly those approaching the top of the canopy). The tallest trees are often the best seed trees as well. Retaining the tallest trees means the stand height will remain high or get taller – thus better economically in the long term, and also better ecologically because more habitat opportunities exist.
Candidates to harvest:
Our understanding of ecosystem functioning is not sufficient to say with certainty what can be maintained for hundreds (or thousands) of years. But “any time you cut more than the growth you are in a deficit position. Because of the forests needs I now realize the cut cannot be the growth rate, because your soil will wear out. How much below the annual growth rate one has to go I don’t know. It takes a long time to build soil back up, but trees like alder are good for that.”
It is desirable to allow sufficient light to reach the forest floor (in a patchy fashion) to allow for the regeneration of the desired plant species. This criterion will have to be balanced with the desire to keep the stand sufficiently dense so that the trees lose lower limbs and develop less juvenile wood. A helpful way to decide which trees to remove is to consider what in the stand would be next to die naturally. This may include some (but not all) diseased or suppressed trees. Typically trees with less than 25 percent of their length in live foliage have a higher probability of dieing next. Lack of foliage density and a poor (yellowish) colour are also indicators of our native conifer trees in decline. In Douglas-fir as the tree grows its red inner bark becomes exposed. Those trees showing a lot of red between the grooves of bark are faster growing. Those trees showing little red in the grooves of bark are slower growing and could be considered for harvest. One should keep in mind that some of these trees should be left for wildlife use and nutrient cycling. Also, diseases are a part of the forest too and should not be eliminated. Many diseases are fungal and play an important role in recycling nutrients. “I no longer worry about diseases. In 1945 I cut trees in an area with root rot. But some trees didn’t show any signs of disease, so I left them. For some reason they weren’t vulnerable and now I think of them as good seed trees for that area.”
“Wildwood is a managed forest, where I’ve lent a helping hand. My interference is minimal and I’m learning all the time that the process of growing a forest is very complex. Forests operate on a very different time frame than do governments and businesses. Clear-cutting reduces a forest to zero. It will be hundreds of years at best before that area will be close to being a real forest again. But the balance sheet of a company does not consider hundreds of years. The refusal to do a proper job in the interests of foreign investors is criminal. Unions and operators have blinded the worker and the public to this. B.C. forestry has always been corrupt.”
The 1980’s and 1990’s in British Columbia saw considerable conflict around views on the values of forests and the publics’ role in guiding the development of forest planning policy. Merv’s contempt for industrial forestry, his outspokenness and his willingness to allow access to Wildwood illustrated that another way was possible. Merv’s involvement in this debate also benefited him with an injection of ecological knowledge from experts which contributed to changes in his stewardship practices – and which continues to influence Wildwoods trajectory today.
Merv also was involved in large civil disobedience actions at Clayoquot Sound (blockading a public road used for transporting logs out the area) and was among the 850 arrested and charged with contempt of court for ignoring a B.C. Supreme Court injunction against the blockage. A logger, protesting logging methodology, representing himself at trial and being called “magnificently unrepentant” by the sentencing judge proved captivating and thus propelled Merv and his work at Wildwood to greater prominence. Merv continues to refer to that action as the “proudest moments” of his life. “Nothing is ever accomplished without some form of popular action. Here we had bad laws, a bad cabinet, a bad premier, attorney general and a disgusting justice; all the ingredients for civil disobedience. It happened and the reaction was global. I would have been a traitor not to have challenged an injunction which gives industry the right to destroy. It’s simply not necessary. You don’t need to destroy the forest to get timber – it’s a matter of method and greed. Rather than seeing my operation as an advantage they were viewed as the enemy. We need more people and fewer companies involved in forestry. We have people that would and could do what is needed. The reason industry doesn’t practice alternative forestry is because then they would be admitting they know how. It was not acceptable to save trees to cut later. I was laughed at, ignored and threatened but I was not dislodged. But that is in the past.”
With increasing age and declining physical condition it was becoming a concern to a small group of friends and academics that the example would not continue beyond Merv’s lifetime if plans could not be made to purchase Wildwood (now in an area of rapid residential development). TLC- The Land Conservancy (a charitable land trust) and the Ecoforestry Institute became involved and purchased Wildwood with the primary purpose being to serve as a learning site for those looking to bridge the gap in our culture between humans and nature and for those wishing to explore other models of forest stewardship which do not degrade forest associated ecosystems. “We need to understand our relationship with the planet on which we live,” says Merv. “We have to live with the earth. The earth does not have to live with us.”