Wild About Ancient Forests

This week, explorers from the Ancient Forest Alliance discovered one of the largest trees ever found in British Columbia, a giant western red cedar more than 150 feet tall and likely more than 1000 years old. Known as ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis or ‘The Wall’, this tree is located in old-growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, a place that has long been ground zero in the battle between conservation and extraction. Under current land management agreements, the tree will be managed and protected by the Ahousaht First Nation.

A person wearing a red jacket looks up at a massive tree that towers over him.
Explorer TJ Watts stands at the base of ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis. Photo by TJ Watts/Ancient Forest Alliance.

When we think of old-growth forests, trees like ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis are the ones that come to mind—large trees growing in dense rainforest that tower over the landscape. But ancient forests come in a variety of species and sizes and the definition of old-growth tends to be malleable depending on the intent of the person using it. Whatever the definition, ancient forests are found around the world, from the Araucaria Forest in Chile to the Takayna/Tarkine woodlands in Tasmania to the world’s best known ancient forest: the Amazon.

A large tree grows upwards through the dense jungle.
Dinizia excelsa are the tallest trees in the Amazon. Gorgens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From an ecological perspective, ancient forests sequester carbon and provide habitat for an array of species that are specifically adapted to undisturbed forests. For forests like the Amazon, which plays a role in regulating the Earth’s climate, the value of maintaining that ecosystem may be key to maintaining a liveable planet.  

Beyond their tangible importance, ancient forests provide us with the intangible benefits of awe. While not all ancient forests are made up of mammoth-sized trees (there is also longevity found in diminutive species), the size and age of ancient forests makes us feel small in the universe, taking us out of ourselves and expanding our sense of wonder

Our desire to measure ourselves against these ancient trees goes back hundreds of years, if not more. We photograph ourselves in front of massive trees. We stare longingly into their canopies. We stretch our arms around them. Whenever we find them, we are fascinated by them. In some cases, such as the tragic story of the Golden Spruce, that obsession can consume us. 

The oldest confirmed tree in the world is a 4,584 year old bristlecone pine in California, known as Methuselah. Like ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis, Methuselah’s exact location is kept secret to protect it from harm. Bristlecone pines are gnarled, rugged trees that cling to high elevation slopes in the mountain ranges of Nevada and California. Their preference for inaccessible habitats and their twisted forms undoubtedly saved them from the pressures of commercial forestry. 

A twisted pine tree grows on a rocky slope.
Bristlecone pines are some of the oldest trees in the world. Matthew Dillon, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the discovery of ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis shows, we are still finding new ‘giant’ trees. On its own, one tree may be statistically interesting, but by itself, it lacks the ecological benefits of an entire forest. One tree does not make a forest. Except when it does. Research shows that Pando, the Trembling Giant, a 106-acre stand of aspen trees in Utah is a single organism that is estimated to be 80,000 years old. While it’s impossible to hug a 100-acre forest, the size and age of this tree should be no less awe-inspiring. 

A forest of aspen trees turn yellow against a blue sky.
The 80,000 year old Pando apsen forest. J Zapell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the form they take, giant trees and ancient forests are under threat from climate change. In Canada, this year has seen record-destroying numbers of wildfires, which are exacerbated by climate change to chew through more than ten million acres of forest. While fire is one of the most visible threats to our ancient forest, drought and increased pathogens cause risks that we may not notice until it’s too late. 

The loss of our forests is an ecological loss, but it also represents a loss of our connection to the natural world. Without these aged giants, our ability to marvel at the wonder of the world is compromised. Now more than ever, we need that connection to sustain us.  

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