Researchers have discovered a 408-year-old tree amid a stretch of old-growth forest in Algonquin Park, located in an unprotected zone open to logging, the Star has learned.
The Ancient Forest Exploration and Research group — a non-profit, charitable educational organization — recently made the find west of Cayuga Lake.
It also identified three trees that are more than 300 years old, and five that are more than 200 years old, out of the 10 trees examined.
“Based on mapping we’re pretty sure significant tracts of very old forest have also been logged in the past 10 years, or are currently being logged,” senior ecologist Mike Henry told the Star. The group is now calling on the provincial government to safeguard the area.
“We are confident that there are many more trees older than 200 years located in the Cayuga Lake area” — and likely more that are twice that age, said Peter Quinby, the research group’s founder who completed his doctorate at the University of Toronto studying habitat and vegetation in Algonquin.
The hemlock located last fall is estimated to be more than 408 years old, and “we can only know the ages of the remaining trees by coring trees and counting rings,” Quinby added. “This should be done as soon as possible. We now know that old-growth forests are carbon sinks — so by protecting and restoring them, we can help to maintain our climate.”
In Algonquin Park, roughly 24,000 hectares of old-growth forests are believed to be in zones open to logging. Overall, 65 per cent of the sprawling park in cottage country, about three hours north of Toronto, is unprotected.
In 2000, under Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris, the “Living Legacy” initiative expanded and protected parks, including areas inside Algonquin.
Then, in 2014, the province’s environmental commissioner at the time, Gord Miller, recommended an end to all logging in Algonquin, noting it was the only provincial park in Ontario where it’s allowed.
In fact, Algonquin is believed to be just one of two provincial parks in the entire country where logging occurs.
The Ministry of Natural Resources “should bring the management of the province’s flagship park into alignment with the important role of provincial parks today and afford Algonquin Park the same level of protection as the rest of Ontario’s protected areas,” Miller wrote, adding he “strongly urges (the ministry) to end commercial logging in Algonquin Provincial Park.”
Miller said the Liberal government of the day “should live up to its commitment to the conservation of biodiversity by ensuring that all provincial parks and conservation reserves receive appropriate protection.”
The Algonquin Forestry Authority’s management plan for the park will soon be updated for 2020-30, and several groups will be pressing to expand protected zones.
At the same time, the Ontario government under Premier Doug Ford has begun consultations to “kick-start” the forestry industry, given 51,000 job losses in the past 10 years — although it has said standards will not be watered down. A report is expected this summer or fall.
The ancient forest group says the 408-year-old tree is part of four neighbouring old-growth forest tracts near Cayuga Lake, totalling 1,845 hectares, about half of which are open to logging.
“It’s pretty rare,” said Dave Pearce, forest conservation manager for environmental group CPAWS Wildlands League. “It’s significant old growth.”
His group has lobbied for a wind-down of logging, and says it can be done “with no loss to timber supply.”
Algonquin is an important park because old trees store more carbon than younger forests, and are “incredibly important for biodiversity,” Pearce added.
“A number of species dependent on old-growth are becoming more rare as that type of forest disappears.”
Algonquin is “extra valuable” because it could be a considered a refuge for hemlocks, which have been hard hit in other areas by the woolly adelgid. The invasive pest is not in Algonquin as yet, possibly because of the colder climate.
Algonquin Park is well-managed in terms of separating recreational use from logging activities, “but the whole premise of Algonquin being a park is a joke — parks are places where you don’t log,” Quinby said.
Forests “are not just for cutting trees down to get two-by-fours and plywood,” he said, adding that the typical approach to forestry is not to let trees get any older than 100 to 150 years, when their growth slows.
“We need legislation that says some ecosystems are endangered, and we should protect them.”
Henry said he has cored two hemlocks more than 400 years old — the one in Algonquin and another outside Peterborough.
“There are very few of these old, pristine forests in Ontario,” he said.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy