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Prehistoric Trees Could ‘Future-Proof’ Forests Against Climate Change

A tiny island on Canada’s West coast is planting trees that thrived millions of years ago, when temperatures were much warmer than they are today. It could save their forests from climate change.

This is Part 1 in a series about experimental forestry on Cortes Island. Click here for Part 2.

Cortes Island: A Living Laboratory

When I first travelled to Cortes Island, off the coast of British Columbia, in 2012, Oliver Kellhammer was one of the first people I met. Kellhammer is a landscape artist and permaculture instructor. He splits his time between New York City, where he teaches at the New School, and working in his garden on this small island in the fjords between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C.

Kellhammer has described Cortes as a "mostly overlooked, densely forested blob of rock," so idyllic and seemingly far from the real world that it can feel like inhabiting "the label of a Celestial Seasonings tea box." The small island is also a living laboratory of innovative forestry projects.

While Cortes Island's forests were largely high-graded by loggers in the early 20th century, "a fierce culture of environmentalism," as Kellhammer puts it, ensured that the majority of the island's second-growth forests have had decades to regenerate. There are small pockets of old-growth left, where one can experience the state of these forests prior to European contact.

A view from Cortes. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

As you walk through the landscape, you pass through a patchwork of forests that were logged at different times. You may go from bushwhacking through a dense thicket of young fir trees that were planted in the 1970s, into a stand of mature second-growth, where moss-covered Douglas fir, Western red cedar and Sitka spruce loom over a more spacious understory.

Huge stumps—the remnants of ancient giants—are scattered throughout, marked by notches where hand-loggers would have inserted their springboards to fell these enormous trees with nothing more than axes and handsaws.

Old growth forest on Cortes. Image: Daniel J Pierce

Hidden away in remote pockets are ancient forests overlooked by loggers. There is a distinctly different feeling in these groves. There are no stumps. You find a diversity of age-classes and species, from young hemlocks latched onto fallen trees like octopi; to gnarly red cedar, with their flared buttresses and candelabra tops; to towering Douglas fir trees, with their deeply furrowed bark.

The understory is spacious and lush green. Sword fern and skunk cabbage grow in deep black mud. Water springs out from the ground, forming ephemeral wetlands and streams that roll over rocks and logs before disappearing into the Earth again. The smell of decay is thick in the air, as ancient networks of mushroom mycelium break down coarse woody debris, turning it into healthy soils and transporting nutrients, even data, from tree to tree, all throughout the forest floor–like Earth's organic Internet.

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Cortes, like everywhere else in the world, is experiencing the pressures of climate change. Native trees that have adapted to grow in cooler, wetter conditions, such as the Western red cedar and the Sitka spruce—some of the most iconic trees on the West coast—may not be able to adapt to the warmer temperatures, which could cause mass die-offs, Kellhammer told me.

He hypothesizes that the trees growing on Cortes millions of years ago, when conditions were much hotter, might be ideally suited to thrive here again in the next century, as temperatures continue to climb. Kellhammer is investigating it now, growing a forest on the island that might be resilient to climate change.

Oliver Kellhammer in his 'Neo-Eocene' forest. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

Climate Is A Moving Target


Climate change is an existential threat to a community like Cortes, which not only defines itself by its relationship with its forests, but depends on functioning ecosystems for water filtration, tourism and its burgeoning eco-forestry economy.

Humanity recently crossed its latest milestone on the steady march toward an all-out climate meltdown, when we permanently surpassed 400 parts per million in global C02 levels.

"The problem with the pace of anthropogenic climate change is that it's happening so much faster than past climatological events," Kellhammer told me.

As a result of the Paris Agreement in 2015, most countries agreed to limit global warming to 2oC. But some models predict that the world is on pace for as much as 6oC warming in the next century. That got Kellhammer wondering about what sorts of trees might thrive in a place like Cortes Island in coming decades.

An Eocene fossil. Image: Oliver Kellhammer

He delved into the fossil record from the Eocene Epoch, when the Earth was as warm as what some models predict is possible in the medium-term future. "There were alligators in Alaska, palm trees in the Canadian north," Kellhammer said. "Baffin Island [in Canada's High Arctic] would have looked like Southern Louisiana."

From the fossil record, he was able to determine that the trees that would have grown millions of years ago on Cortes Island were totally different than the ones here today. In the Eocene, one would have found coast redwoods and giant sequoia, which grow today in California and Oregon; black walnut, which grows all over the eastern United States; as well as Metasequoia and Gingko, which are native to China—quite different from the Douglas fir, Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock that dominate the landscape here today.

"We've been experimenting with growing trees [on Cortes] that have been extinct here for 50 million years and are still found in other parts of the world," Kellhammer told me. "It's an experiment to gauge whether the redwood, say, could be a replacement for the red cedar."

Planting Metasequoias. Image: Oliver Kellhammer

Growing A Prehistoric Forest

Kellhammer had been planting Eocene trees in his garden on the island since 2002. In 2008, he got the chance to scale the project up when his friend, botanist Rupert Sheldrake, along with a co-operative of Cortesians, purchased a 60-acre clear-cut on the island.

Kellhammer pitched the idea to Sheldrake, as he explained it to me: "Here we have an opportunity, Rupert, of a barren piece of land that's been terribly abused. Can we try to restore the land in a way that speaks to the future and to future climatic conditions?" Sheldrake was on board with the idea and agreed to bankroll the reforestation, according to Kellhammer.

"Yes, we are playing God"

A team of tree-planters was hired to plant hundreds of "formerly native" species across the property, alongside the modern native trees that had been re-planted by the logging company (predominantly Douglas fir and red cedar).

"It may be that in a hundred years, this valley on the east side of Cortes Island will have these beautiful groves of towering redwood trees and walnut trees and sequoias," Kellhammer told me. "But they will coexist with what remains of the former ecosystem."

The Case For Assisted Migration

In Vancouver, professor Sally Aitken from the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry studies the impacts of climate change on the province's forests. She is researching genetics to find strains of trees that will be better suited for future climates.

Hikers on Cortes. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

Aitken confirmed that climate change is not only going to have "widespread implications" for the Canadian forest industry and forest-dependent communities, but we are already beginning to see its effects on the landscape.

"We've seen big outbreaks of mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle, two bark beetles that have gone into epidemic outbreaks. And we've also seen some effects of recent droughts. For example, the summer of 2015 was exceptionally dry, and you can see trees that have died most likely as a result."

Read More: How British Columbia Is Moving its Trees

These hot, dry conditions can also aggravate forest fires, like the one that devastated the Alberta community of Fort McMurray earlier this year.

"We're working on understanding the genetic differences between populations of trees," Aitken continued, "so that we can better match the trees that we plant to new climates."

Cunninghamia, one of the Eocene trees, growing in Kellhammer's garden on Cortes. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

Kellhammer and Aitken are both doing their own version of what's called "assisted migration"—where humans actively move species of trees from one area to another—but while Aitken is focused on moving genetic variations of existing species across the landscape, Kellhammer is introducing entirely new ones (in modern terms, anyway) to Cortes Island.

"It's a fascinating idea for a project," Aitken said, when I asked for her thoughts on what Kellhammer and his collaborators are attempting on Cortes. "Will it translate into massive movement of those species in a reforestation context in B.C.? Not this decade, not next decade, but down the road? You never know what we'll be planting in 50 years," she said.

What Are The Risks?

It's easy to imagine a Jurassic Park-type scenario where Kellhammer loses control, unleashing prehistoric trees across the island. Is this not the definition of playing God?

The forest. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

"Yes, we are playing God," he told me. "But we've already played God. The human species has changed the climate. I'm in the 'You broke it, you fix it' school, and we're trying to fix it."

Aitken agreed that there are risks to widespread assisted migration—namely the risk of invasive species—but there are also risks to doing nothing.

"Doing nothing is doing something. I mean it's a decision. And there are risks to doing nothing," she said.

According to Kellhammer, the intention of this project was to start a conversation about how far we are willing to go to help forests adapt.

"Do we let giant swaths of the landscape die [because of] things like the pine beetle? I thought that by starting this project, people would start asking what the appropriate response should be."

While some people feel inclined to let the forests migrate on their own in response to the changing climate, we are on pace to see 50 million years' worth of planetary warming in about a century. Forests don't move that quickly.

"I mean the trees aren't just going to jump on people's cars and hitchhike up to B.C.," Kellhammer said. "It would take thousands of years."

Ecological Services

Although we all depend on healthy forests for survival, on a tiny island like Cortes, water is an especially important consideration.

A hiker on Cortes. Image: Daniel J. Pierce

"A lot of the water that people use comes from rain," Kellhammer said. "Forests are a slow release mechanism for the water table. So if we want to have water, we've got to have forests."

Forests are also allies in fighting climate change. They pull carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in trees, plants and soils. By allowing them to die off, we risk turning our carbon sinks into carbon bombs. That's what happened when the mountain pine beetle decimated the province's Interior pine forests from the early 1990s to late 2000s. Aitken said these decaying forests "became a source of carbon dioxide instead of a sink for some period of time."

"We can't just sit back and hope it all works out. It's not working out," Kellhammer said. "I think we need to be moving species from more southerly latitudes to higher latitudes if we want them to survive."

He's beginning to see the results of this experiment. Many trees died in the early years, as Cortes Island had several dry summers. The young Western red cedars were particularly hard hit. But many survived. The Douglas firs, which are native to the island, are extremely hearty and will keep going for a very long time.

As for the Eocene trees he's planted, some of them also appear to be thriving.

Seeing these strange trees grow on Cortes is a powerful reminder of just how much the climate has already changed. But it's also a reason to be hopeful. "The best candidates are the coast redwood and the giant sequoia. Those two are, hands down, very happy on Cortes Island," Kellhammer said.

Daniel J. Pierce is producing a documentary about forestry in B.C. called Heartwood. As of 2016, he lives on Cortes Island full-time.

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