Antique Forest Stands in B.C.'s
As Pacific storm systems sweep over
the interior mountain ranges of British Columbia they create a zone of elevated
precipitation. In the watershed of the upper Fraser River this has given
rise to a unique inland
wet-temperate rainforest; a forest ecosystem that combines attributes of both
the coastal wet-temperate rainforests of British Columbia and adjacent boreal
forests of Alberta and the far north.
Although the wet biogeoclimatic zones
associated with the inland rainforest cover more than 110,000 ha in the upper
Fraser River valley, stands that contain ancient Western Redcedars (Thuja
plicata) and associated biodiversity are quite limited in their
distribution within the upper Fraser River valley. These hallmark images of the
inland rainforest derive largely from what scientists now call Antique Rain
Forest stands; sites where the last major disturbance event in the stand, such
as fire, happened well before the current generation of trees established (Goward and Arsenault 2000).
Antique Forest stands are typically
located in wet toe-slope or bench topographic positions, often in close
proximity to the valley sides. The mesic nature and topographic position of
these localized microsites has over time protected them from stand destroying
fires that occasionally sweep across surrounding hill slope positions. As a
consequence Western Redcedars in toe-slope Antique Forest stands can show
exceptional longevity; with many individual trees estimated to be over one
thousand years in age. Recent studies have shown that Antique Forest stands are
important repositories of canopy biodiversity, containing an internationally
significant assemblage of canopy lichen species (Goward and Spribille 2005) . Further, the
structural features associated with large trees in these stands support many
important wildlife habitat attributes.
Unfortunately, the same conditions that favored the development of Antique Forest stands at the base of mountain slopes, i.e. gently sloping alluvial fans or benches, were also prime considerations in the location of transportation corridors in the region. Highway 16 east of Prince George, particularly in the area between Hungary and Slim Creeks, was placed in the middle of what we now recognize were some of the most exceptional Antique Forest stands in B.C. Given the easy access afforded by the highway and the exceptional stature of trees in these stands, most of the toe-slope Antique Forest stands along the highway corridor in this area have been logged over the last half century. Consequently opportunities to view this exceptional feature of B.C.'s inland rainforest are now limited (see High Biodiversity Cedar Stands at Risk?).
Where is the Ancient Rain Forest
The recent construction of the
Ancient Forest Trail on the south side of Highway 16 near Slim Creek now
provides an opportunity to view an Antique Forest stand within BC's inland
rainforest. The trailhead, located 113 km east of Prince George (6.6 km west of
the Slim Creek rest area), is marked by signage "Ancient Forest 1 km ahead".
Pull into the trailhead parking lot (an abandoned gravel quarry) and spend an
hour walking through one of BC's best kept secrets.
What can I see on the Ancient
Rain Forest Trail?
The overwhelming question posed by
first-time visitors to the Ancient Forest Trail is "How can such large trees,
reminiscent of rainforests on BC's west coast, grow within sight of the Rocky
Mountains?" Visitors are right to ask this question. By all rights, the summers
are too hot and dry, and the winters too long and cold. However, it is the
long, cold, and snowy winters which hold the answer to this question.
Numerous small streams indicate the
presence of abundant sub-surface water in antique forest stands
One of the most important elements
supporting the growth of ancient Western Redcedars in toe-slope stands of the
inland rain forest is the abundance of sub-surface water. The large cedar trees
in these stands are literally watered by sub-surface irrigation throughout the
dry summer period. The evidence of a shallow water table in these toe-slope
stands can be seen in the many small seepage areas and streams alongside the
Ancient Forest trail. Crucial to the continued flow of these seepage areas is
ground water recharge from melting of the winter snow pack, both within the
stands themselves, and from melt on adjacent higher elevation slopes.
This link with higher elevation
catchments of the watershed is dramatically evident in the vigorous flow at
Treebeard Falls, on the southern spur of the Antique Forest Trail. Water
cascades over the rock escarpment at the edge of the Antique Forest Stand,
sustaining ground water supply and supporting lush plant growth. The spray
zones of waterfalls within the inland rainforest often serve as refugia for
rare canopy lichens. In many cases the nearest population of these same species
is found in wet-temperate rainforests on BC's west coast and/or in other
Pacific rim west-temperate rainforests (e.g. in Chile or New Zealand). The lush
moss mats adjacent to Treebeard Falls contain several interesting species of
saxifrages and ferns. These moss mats, however, are quite fragile. They can
easily be dislodged by people climbing near the falls.
Buttress roots (shown here on the
"Radies" tree) can extend outwards for many meters at the base of large cedars.
Their presumed roles include providing mechanical support for the trunk and
creating a greater surface area for respiration by the roots, important in
sites with waterlogged soils.
Many of the plants growing within the
Antique Forest stands demonstrate adaptations to growth under wet conditions.
Large Western Redcedars on the Ancient Forest Trail often show picturesque
buttress roots at their base. Buttress roots are more well known in tropical
rain forest trees, where it is hypothesized that they provide both mechanical
support for the tree, as well as enhancing oxygen exchange for below-ground
roots in waterlogged soils. Hikers should take care not to climb on buttress
roots along the Ancient Forest trail. Their bark can be easily damaged by even
Another feature commonly associated
with the presence of large buttress roots in Western Redcedar is the formation
of hollow cavities at the base of the tree truck. These cavities, which can
lead into the hollow trunk of old trees, provide important wildlife habitat for
species such as bears. They are thought to form after the original nurse logs,
on which many of these trees germinated, rot out over time.
The moist soils along the Ancient
Forest Trail support an abundance of ferns and fern allies. Some of these, such
as the Beech Fern (Thelypteris phegopteris), are known indicators of
sites that have rich soils and moist substrates. Others ferns, such as the
Ostrich Fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) or Fiddlehead Fern , are
harvested yearly for their edible fronds as they emerge in the spring. Another
well known edible (and medicinal) plant of the Ancient Forest trail is the Wild
Ginger (Asarum caudatum). The roots of Wild Ginger have a pleasant,
though sharp ginger taste, while the leaves smell strongly of lemon-ginger when
crushed. Perhaps the most utilized plant species in the inland rain forest was
the Western Redcedar itself; which historically was used in many facets of
day-to-day life by First Nations communities in B.C.'s inland rainforest. The
Ancient Forest trail falls within the traditional territories of the Lheidli
T'enneh First Nation.
Tree trunks along the ancient forest
trail glitter in the afternoon sun, reflecting the deep golden hue of gold-dust
lichens (Chrysothrix candelaris), an abundant bark epiphyte in these moist
antique forest stands.
The exceptional longevity of Antique
Forest stands, when taken together with the diversity of canopy substrates, and
humid canopy microclimate in these stands, creates ideal conditions for the
growth of canopy lichens. One of the more visible lichens within the canopy of
Antique Forest stands is that of gold-dust lichen (Chrysothrix
candelaris). The sweeping vertical trunks of ancient cedars are often
painted bright yellow by the growth of this crustaceous lichen. Although
gold-dust lichen reaches its greatest abundance in Antique Forest stands, it is
common on old snags, especially those of sub-alpine fir (Abies
lasiocarpa), in many of the wet montane forests in B.C.
Another major group of lichens along
the Ancient Forest Trail is that of foliose (leaf-like) cyanolichens (lichens
which contain blue-green algae) such as the Lungwort (Lobaria
pulmonaria) and Powdered-paw Lichen (Nephroma parile). These
cyanolichens, much like a crop of alfalfa or legumes, are capable of nitrogen
fixation, and thus play an important role in supporting ecosystem nutrient
cycling. A significant number of foliose cyanolichens along the Ancient Forest
trail are highly restricted in their distribution. Their survival is closely
linked to that of the Antique Forest stands themselves. One of these, the
Cryptic Paw Lichen (Nephroma occultum), has been listed as a species of
special concern with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in
Canada (COSEWIC). Other indicators of canopy biodiversity along the Ancient
Forest trail include the pendulous moss mats that can be found draped over
branches within the lower canopy. These mosses are more typically associated
with very wet coastal temperate rainforests in B.C.
Many of the large Western Redcedars
found alongside the Ancient Forest Trail lean prominently to one side,
reflecting the growth history of individual trees. The upper and lower bark
exposures on these trees support quite different lichen and moss communities.
Caliciod lichens, also known as Pin lichens, prefer the sheltered underside of
these large cedar trunks, where they obtain their moisture solely from
atmospheric humidity. Pin lichens have increasingly been used as indicator
species for the exceptional site continuity of the very old Antique Forest
The presence of decay agents, such as
conks of Echinodontium tinctorium , is an integral part of the dynamics
of Antique Forest Stands in the inland rainforest. Although many of the Western
Redcedars and Western Hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) in these stands show
signs of heart rot, the trees remain biologically fit, and are important
contributors to the biodiversity of these stands. Interestingly, recent
scientific studies have suggested that fungal endophytes (fungi that grow
intimately between the cells of the host plant, for instance, in leaf tissue)
may actually confer protection from other pathogens and herbivores. These
interactions provide fascinating possibilities for future studies in B.C.'s
Given the longevity of cedar trees in
the Antique Forest Stands, the regeneration of these stands by processes of gap
dynamics (where young trees grow in the gaps created by newly fallen old trees)
is a slow and barely perceptible process. Parallel studies on BC's west coast
suggest that cedar seedlings can persist for long time periods in shaded
understory forest floor environments, awaiting the opportunity for growth
afforded by occasional tree-fall events. When large individual cedars
ultimately do fall to the forest floor they create a unique set of
microenvironments. These provide both important wildlife habitat features and
support the growth of many different lichens and mosses. These large structural
elements are an important component of inland rainforest stands.
Please note that trail
conditions may change by season and that ongoing trail upgrades may require
closures or detours on some sections. All hikers should be aware that
conditions on mountain trails can change quickly and that wildlife may be
Trail junctions on the Ancient Trail
are clearly marked, though sometimes obscured by heavy winter
The Ancient Forest Trail provides a
rare opportunity to see the inland rain forest draped in winter
Snowmelt from adjacent valley slopes
plays an important role in sustaining groundwater recharge in the antique
forest stands. Treebeard falls, located at the end of the antique forest trail,
provides a dramatic demonstration of these linkages.
Beech Ferns (Thelypteris phegopteris)
can be readily identified by their lowermost pair of leaflets, which point
The Ostrich Fern (Matteucia
struthiopteris) grows abundantly in wet seepage areas along the Ancient Forest
Trail. Look for the remnants of fertile fronds (the brown stalks visible in the
picture) from the previous year's growth to insure that you are collecting the
"The Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)
grows in moist rich soils in the Columbia Mountains and Fraser River valley .
It can be used as a ginger substitute in cooking and is an attractive component
of native gardens when used in landscaping.
Antique forest stands in BC's upper
Fraser River watershed are internationally renowned for their high levels of
canopy lichen diversity. Many of these lichen species, such as the lungwort
(Lobaria pulmonaria) and powdered-paw lichen (Nephroma parile) have the ability
to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia (nitrogen fixation) and consequently
play an important role in nutrient cycling within these forest
Pendulous canopy moss mats are better
known from wet temperate rainforests in wet coastal areas such as the Olympic
Peninsula in Washington State. In the B.C. interior they are limited to the
most humid sites, where they are indicative of high canopy
Echinodontium conks are commonly
observed on hemlocks within antique forest stands. They play an important role
in creating structural features, such as hollow trees, that support major
wildlife habitat attributes.
Large fallen trees along the Ancient
Forest trail provide specialized habitats for many different plants and
The many hollow trees along the
Ancient Forest trail provide nesting cavities for birds such as the Three-toed
Woodpecker (Photo C. Coxson).
The Ancient Forest Trail provides an
ideal outdoor classroom for secondary and post-secondary students.