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Ancient cedars weren’t the mystery Doug Larson was seeking to unravel when he first rappelled down from the edge of the Niagara Escarpment in search of cliffside forests.
He wanted to know how these hardy trees prospered, clinging to the side of the rock face — he never expected they’d been doing it for a really, really long time.
Larson, an ecologist, had been dissuaded from continuing his previous work studying lichens: “It’s just rock scum, nobody cares,” one critic told him. So, he was out on the rocky ridge of the escarpment, in Halton Region west of Toronto, to instead study cedars he saw as “basically like big lichens.”
“What we thought and what we expected was that European colonists had literally nuked the forest vegetation of Southern Ontario,” he said. “We thought that everything on a cliff face as well as everything on the cliff edge was all new growth, secondary forest. Well, why would we think otherwise?”
The team had taken climbing lessons and learned to use fixed ropes to dangle close to the gnarly trees. The biggest among them were a few metres tall, while the smallest were hardly larger than a dinner plate. Larson and his team started taking core samples from the wizened cedars in 1988, drilling into their centres to take pencil-sized cross-sections without killing the trees. When they began counting the trees’ miniscule rings under a microscope, the researchers realized they had found something considerably more long in the tooth. Verification from another lab confirmed what they saw: the oldest among those early finds had been alive for about 700 years, far predating the invention of the printing press.
“You know how your guts get all squirrely when you’re afraid of something, or when you’re excited?” said Larson, who is now retired.
“What you’ve got is an undisturbed habitat that people didn’t know was there, even though you can see it from (Highway 401). And for three days, I couldn’t sleep. Because nobody else knew this.”
The cliffs of the escarpment, a ridge formed by glaciers, are a harsh place to live. These bizarre vertical forests are exposed to the elements, rooted in scant gaps in the limestone. In their efforts to survive the rockfall and unrelenting weather, many eastern white cedars have twisted themselves into strange shapes, some growing upside down. It’s weird, but it works. The cliffs were ideal for helping cedars avoid the widespread deforestation that felled most of their relatives, along with the wildfires that are natural to the ecosystem.
Eventually, Larson and the team would go on to find cedars over 1,000 years old. The oldest one found alive is over 1,300 years old, beginning its life in AD 688. Some dead ones had once lived even longer: one found preserved under a rock overhang had lived over 1,800 years, once.
“As far as the trees are concerned, it’s paradise,” Larson said.
No one knows exactly how many old-growth trees are left in Ontario. Some, like the ancient cedars along the escarpment, may be hiding in plain sight. Others stand in mighty tracts of forest. What’s certain is that there are far fewer of them than there used to be before the 1800s, when settlers logged much of what is now the province, dramatically altering the natural environment in service of agriculture and a timber trade that produced enormous wealth.
The question now is how to protect what we have left, something critics say is more urgent amid threats from the climate crisis, invasive species and human encroachment. Most of the cedars on the escarpment grow in conservation areas in Ontario’s Greenbelt, but many old-growth forests in Ontario don’t enjoy the same level of protection. Long-lived forests sequester carbon, of course. And the most ancient trees, like the cliffside cedars, also contain a treasure trove of information about the history of the world in their lifetimes.
“From a climate change standpoint, studying how these trees continue to grow, it’s an active area of research,” said Hassaan Basit, the CEO of Conservation Halton, which is responsible for protecting lands along the escarpment that are home to many of the ancient cliffside cedars.
“They’re living labs. So it’s very, very important from a scientific standpoint to preserve them.”
Few things in our world persist for so long, said Peter Kelly, an ecologist and expert in aging trees via their rings. He worked with Larson’s team and co-authored a book with him about the ancient cedars.
“All of the urban infrastructure and the roads and everything, none of that was here,” he said. “There’s not a lot out there that was here 1,000 years ago, other than literally the rock face, right?”
Old-growth trees in Ontario haven’t made as many headlines lately as their towering counterparts on the West Coast. Throughout 2021, attempts to log old-growth forests in B.C. sparked blockades, leading to over 1,100 arrests.
But it wasn’t so long ago that eastern old-growth was at the centre of a similar battle in Temagami, about two hours’ drive northeast of Sudbury. In the late 1980s, as Larson and his crew were determining the ages of the escarpment’s ancient cedars further south, the Teme-Augama Anishnabai — whose territory encompasses Temagami — and environmentalists had begun blockading logging roads there in efforts to save towering white and red pines over 300 years old. Then-Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae, who would later go on to be premier, was one of those arrested at the protests.
“If we don’t protect the old forest now, it’s clear that it’s going to go,” Rae said at the time.
As public concern mounted, the Ontario government did protect some of the old-growth in Temagami, conserving just under half by 1996. It also formed an advisory committee of experts, who helped write a 2003 policy to guide protection of Ontario’s old-growth forests. That policy led to the development of forest management guides and plans for Crown forests, the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry said in an email. The guides lay out how to evaluate old-growth conditions, while the plans include targets for how much old-growth industry should maintain in any given forest.
Some of Temagami’s unprotected old-growth has been logged since, and tension remains. Last year, the provincial government established the Temagami Forest Management Corporation, meant to bring Teme-Augama Anishnabai, settler communities and logging companies together to jointly manage the area’s forests. Municipal officials have praised it, but Temagami First Nation Chief Shelly Moore-Frappier told CBC last January that she isn’t so sure it’s going to fix decades of disagreement: “It’s kind of hard to comment on those relationships and that time and comparing it to now.” (Neither representatives of the First Nation or the larger Teme-Augama Anishnabai community were able to speak to The Narwhal by deadline.)
Part of the trouble is, old-growth is a thorny issue. As a baseline, it’s tricky to define. Some people think of old-growth as anything that predates European settlement, but even some regrowth is now hundreds of years old. Others think the word should refer to entirely untouched forest, which is increasingly rare in Ontario, and gets complicated when looking at tracts that have been selectively logged with older trees left intact. The province’s definition of old-growth includes 59 sub-definitions of the term for various different types of trees. Its policy, which dates back to 2003, takes a two-pronged approach, calling for the government to maintain functional old-growth ecosystems while also allowing a “sustainable harvest.” For certain species, for example, this means logging can’t deplete the old-growth forest beyond its 1995 levels.
“The problem is, it’s always going to be messy because you’re trying to define something that isn’t really definable,” said Michael Henry, a Peterborough, Ont.-based forest ecologist who, among other work, keeps a running list of the oldest trees in the province and wrote the book Ontario’s Old -Growth Forests.
The uncertainty has left room for disagreements to continue. One is playing out in the woods by Catchacoma Lake in the Kawartha Highlands north of Peterborough, where a hemlock forest with some trees as old as 350 years is slated for logging.
“New research is showing that this is potentially a very significant forest,” said Katie Krelove of the non-profit Wilderness Committee, which is pushing the province to turn the area into a conservation reserve. “Maybe it should not be logged.”
Hemlock forests are on the decline in Ontario, and this one is particularly large. Krelove said that research suggests that it’s home to species-at-risk like the cerulean warbler, a tiny blue songbird, and the hognose snake, which has a distinctive, upturned snout.
The Bancroft Minden Forest Company, which holds logging rights in the area, has countered that it doesn’t believe the area is untouched old-growth at all, as it was previously logged in 1988. As well, selective harvesting allows the company to remove the less robust trees and leave healthy hemlocks that are hundreds of years old standing for the overall benefit of the forest, wrote the company’s general manager and professional forester, Svetlana Zetan, in a letter to the Peterborough Examiner in 2020. (Zetan did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Ian Dunn, the president and CEO of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, said in an email that he doesn’t think it makes sense for forests like Catchacoma to stay untouched amid the climate crisis. He argued that since human activity is already contributing to invasive species and increased wildfires, forests need the active management that comes with logging. Though he said he agrees older forests are on the decline in Ontario, he also said establishing more old forests wouldn’t be a good thing.
“Forests depend on ecological succession and disturbance (natural or human) to maintain ecological integrity, reinforcing the need for more active management, not less,” he said.
Maintaining the right balance is difficult, Henry said. He thinks logging still goes too far, and that old-growth should be left alone, but he’s not against forestry altogether. Though there’s room for compromise, he said humans need to stop acting like we’re the only species that matters.
“Everything’s complicated,” Henry said. “It’s hard to come up with a simple narrative.”
In its 10-year forest management plan released in 2021, the Bancroft Minden Forest Company labelled two blocks in the Catchacoma forest as “contingency,” which means they’re less likely to be logged. And in response to pressure from environmentalists, the Ontario government protected 19 hectares of old-growth from logging last year and placed a one-year moratorium on logging in all blocks of the forest, which expires in Sept. 2022, Krelove said.
But in a broader sense, protection remains a patchwork.
Even on lands within the bounds of Ontario provincial parks, questions around old-growth protection aren’t necessarily settled. In 2018, Henry and a group of other researchers found a 408-year-old hemlock in an old-growth tract of Algonquin Provincial Park that remains open for logging, though it hasn’t been allocated for harvest yet.
In its lifetime, Isaac Newton was born and discovered the laws of gravity. It predates European deforestation of Southern Ontario. It’s technically possible that selective harvesting would leave that particular old tree intact, if the area was ever logged. But although there’s no doubt about the tree’s age and significance, it’s still not protected, Henry said. Algonquin is the only provincial park to allow commercial logging.
All the while, the climate crisis is changing the trees’ environment — old-growth forests may have a better chance of adapting because they have more genetic diversity. Invasive species also remain a significant threat to their survival, and governments must do more to stop them from entering the environment, he added.
Giving old-growth trees a higher level of legal protection can present another set of challenges, Kelly, the tree-aging expert, said. Most policies are passed to protect entire species that are at risk. But take the eastern white cedar for example: because the species is common, it doesn’t qualify for existing species protections, even though its old-growth is rare.
“I think there’s an informal protection now, and that informal protection is that people have fallen in love with them,” Kelly said.
In an email, the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry said municipalities have the power to create their own by-laws to protect old-growth. The ministry also said it encourages private landowners to conserve forests on their land through tax incentives.
Looking back at his years studying the ancient cedars on the escarpment, Kelly remembers a constant sense of wonder. No matter the hardships of hacking through dense brush, or enduring bout after bout of rashes from poison ivy, which often grows at the base of the escarpment — “Oh my god, I always had poison ivy,” Kelly said — it was worth it.
“I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize when I was looking at them,” he said. “Once one of the cedars gets to be over that age (of 300 to 400 years old) they’re all different. No two trees are the same. It’s just crazy. They’re so gnarled and twisted and shaped by the elements.”
The team would collect core samples in the warm months, then spend the winter analyzing. He still remembers the first chilly day in the lab where he counted over 1,000 rings on one of the cross-sections.
“I just kind of screamed,” he said. “I found it a really special time in my life … I feel extremely lucky that I got to spend time around these trees.”
And although Kelly, Larson and their fellow researchers catalogued many, there are likely more. Their efforts in Ontario were concentrated along the escarpment, near where they worked at the University of Guelph. But there are trees everywhere in Ontario that haven’t been studied in the same level of depth. Though the boreal forest further north tends to burn more often, researchers have found pockets of older trees, Henry said.
To spot an ancient one in the wild, Henry suggested looking in places that are difficult to log: ravines, swamps and cliffs, for example. Other hotspots could be found on lands that used to be part of the estates of wealthy families, including, ironically, former lumber barons. It’s impossible to know a tree’s exact age without analyzing its rings, but sometimes their environment is a handy clue. It also helps to let go of the idea that the biggest trees are the oldest ones, he said.
“Size and age don’t always equate,” Henry said. “Sometimes the slower something grows, the longer lived it is … You find these kinds of harsher growing conditions in the forest, you’ll often find the older trees there too.”
Though the fate of old-growth elsewhere in the province is uncertain, Basit said Conservation Halton has found a good path forward for protecting cliffside ancient cedars.
When Larson and his team found out the ages of the ancient cedars, some were already damaged. Rock climbers had for years secured ropes around them, unaware of their ecological significance. As it turns out, the area is home to 124 trees that are older than 500 years, and 10 trees that are older than 1,000.
Once Larson’s team determined their ages, Conservation Halton acted. It worked with the climbing community to install 400 bolts and anchors on the cliffs, establishing permanent routes so people could climb safely without disturbing the trees.
“We could have just banned it, you know. Banned wrapping ropes, banned rock climbing,” Basit said. “But instead, we actually worked on installing all those bolts and anchors, right? So it becomes a solution that everybody can be a part of.”
Conservation Halton also altered hiking trails to protect the trees, where necessary.
“We’re at a critical juncture to protect these,” Basit said. “Nobody’s being asked to make massive sacrifices to protect these species. We’re just being asked to be responsible.”
Updated on March 8, 2022 at 5:05 p.m. ET: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Katie Krelove’s name.
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