Old growth in the boreal forest: A dynamic perspective at the stand and landscape level.
Daniel Kneeshaw, Sylvie Gauthier.
Old-growth forests have been identified as a potentially important stage of stand development for maintaining biodiversity in the landscape, yet they have also been targeted by the forest industry in their drive to regulate the forest. We will attempt to propose a definition of old growth, applicable throughout the North American boreal forest, that takes into account the dynamic nature of forest development and that could be useful for management and conservation purposes. We define the start of the old-growth stage as occurring when the initial post-disturbance cohort begins dying off, concurrent with understorey stem recruitment into the canopy. We propose that species longevity and the regional fire cycle can be used to assess the extent of this phase in different regions. Using published data on fire history, we show that the amount of old growth expected to occur in western and central Canada is less than in eastern Canada, where most stands (in area) escape fire for periods longer than that necessary to incur substantial mortality of the initial cohort. At the stand level, we show that the old-growth stage is characterized by small-scale disturbances that engender gap dynamics. Until recently, this process had not been studied in the boreal forest. The old-growth index we present suggests that the relationship between time since the last major disturbance and old-growth status varies most in areas that have not been disturbed for long periods. Both management and conservation strategies have to take into account that old-growth forests are dynamic. To be effective, reserves should contain all stages of development and should be sufficiently large to encompass rare but large disturbances. The abundance of old growth in many boreal regions of North America also suggests that forest management strategies other than even-aged, fully regulated systems have to be developed.