We go searching for them, we hug them, we’re often speechless in their presence, but what makes big trees so special? Sally Aitken, a professor of forest and conservation sciences, explains the connection we feel to these majestic giants of the forest. The Faculty of Forestry now runs the BC Big Tree Registry, a database of the biggest specimens in the province.
Why do we love big trees?
They are the largest organisms that we can see, touch and feel. They’re often very old and the idea of something that lives much longer than our human lifespan is interesting. We have trees that were around before our parents or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents were born. These massive and beautiful organisms represent a biological legacy. We’ve harvested a lot of our old forests and those big trees that remain become more precious because there are fewer of them around.
What makes BC’s big trees unique?
The zone that extends from California to BC is one of two places where we find the biggest and tallest trees in the world. Our coastal rainforests harbour some absolutely enormous trees and it has to do with the conditions we find here – mild year-round temperatures and lots of rainfall. We have enormous Douglas-fir, Western red cedar, and Sitka spruce. The province is home to 50 different tree species and for some of those species we have the world’s largest specimens. We have the largest trees in Canada by far, and ours are almost as big as the biggest trees in the world – the redwoods of California.
People are able to nominate trees into the BC Big Tree Registry. Are new big ones still being found?
It’s very exciting that trees are still getting nominated that are champion trees. Recently a group on the Sunshine Coast found some of the largest mountain hemlocks that have ever been observed. The sadder tales are the ones of trees like Big Lonely Doug, the second largest Douglas-fir in the province. [Big Lonely Doug is the sole remaining tree on a clear-cut on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.] A lot of nominations come in from people who work in forestry and in logging. These people find trees in areas that people don’t normally walk through. Of course, there are also a number of people, including those on the Big Tree Committee, whose hobby is finding big trees. Big tree hunters love to go out to areas that haven’t been explored and look for big trees.
One member of our committee said there are big ones that are still out there to find. We want to make anyone a big tree hunter or nominator and we’ve made changes to the BC Big Tree Registry so that anyone can nominate a big tree.
What can we learn from older trees?
We know that the mortality rates of old trees are increasing with climate change. The registry helps us and citizens monitor the health of these giants over time. People will tell us if a big tree blows over, loses its top, or dies. The registry also produces data on the type of ecosystems that these trees are found in, and this information can guide certain research. We need to know where these big trees are so we can conserve them, as a biological legacy of the past, as important members of forest ecosystems today, and for future generations.