Old-Growth Western Redcedar Forests in Coastal British Columbia

Lori D. Daniels


In coastal British Columbia, western redcedar-dominated, late-successional forests are structurally complex with deep multi-layered canopies, large trees that are >250 years old, and abundant coarse woody debris. These forests are presumed to be “old-growth” forests in which fine-scale gaps are the dominant disturbance regime, accounting for their structural diversity. In this study, I have used tree-ring analyses to investigate western redcedar regeneration dynamics in these old-growth forests. Western redcedar dominates canopies of many stands, but is rare in the understory although it tolerates shade. The traditional interpretation is that western recedar depends on catastrophic disturbance to regenerate and that it is replaced through succession by western hemlock and Pacific silver fir, which are abundant in the understory. Dominant trees are perceived to represent an even-aged, post-disturbance cohort and the lack of regeneration indicates a population decline in absence of catastrophic disturbances.

In this paper, I investigate four assumptions underlying this interpretation:
(1) Tree size indicates age.
(2) Populations establish as even-aged, post-disturbance cohorts.
(3) Abundant coarse woody debris represents recent mortality.
(4) Regeneration is insufficient to maintain canopy dominance.

Using tree-ring evidence, I show that population dynamics of western redcedar are a combination of gap-phase establishment and a continuous mode of recruitment from the subcanopy to the canopy. Specifically, size is a poor surrogate for tree age. Age distributions from 15 sites revealed uneven-aged populations, rather than single post-disturbance cohorts. Both logs and snags of western redcedar may persist >270 years; they do not represent recent mortality that is disproportionate to the number of live western redcedar in the canopy. The regeneration niches of western redcedar and western hemlock overlap. For both species, gap-phase disturbances result in substrate suitable for successful seedling establishment. Preliminary results from dendroecological analysis of radial growth rates of trees in the subcanopy and canopy strata suggest that western hemlock and Pacific silver fir depend on gaps to recruit to the upper canopy, while recruitment of western redcedar may be independent of canopy gaps. I propose that differences in mode of recruitment to the canopy may explain the differences in population structures between western redcedar, western hemlock and Pacific silver fir in the old-growth forest.

These results provide an ecological precedent for use of a range of silvicultural systems, including clearcuts through single-tree harvesting and protection forests, when managing western redcedar in coastal British Columbia.