Salal dieback seen across the Island this spring is caused by multiple factors, including a coastal forest ecosystem stressed by climate change, says the chief forester of Mosaic.
Domenico Iannidinardo, vice-president forest and sustainability with Mosaic Forest Management — which now oversees the operations of TimberWest and Island Timberlands — said the phenomenon is an indicator of forest health in general.
“It’s all the way up the Island as far north as Port Hardy on the east side,” Iannidinardo said, confirming that he’s also seen the dieback in Port Alberni. “Basically, you have freeze-dried salal.”
Salal dieback means more fuel on the forest floor as the province heads into its third consecutive wildfire season, having already weathered a prolonged drought. Dried-out debris left by last fall’s severe windstorm adds to the forest fuel load in some areas.
A common evergreen shrub, salal thrives in the forest understory. The dieback, more substantial than anyone can recall, is hard to miss along forest roads and trails. Reports started appearing on web posts earlier this spring. Some scientists theorize the trend is caused by weather and that it is quite possibly climate related.
From a forest health perspective, the dieback means ecosystems are stressed in their adaptation, “showing their perception of climate change,” Iannidinardo said.
“It was clearly the unusually cold temperature, low precipitation and humidity, a confluence of events in 2019,” he added.
In a sense, it was a perfect storm. Cold and dry in particular caused desiccation of parts of the common shrub at a time of year when it normally springs to life.
“It will come back. It will certainly recover, but it’s concerning.”
Iannidinardo said the salal dieback is instructive.
“From a forest health perspective, when we see something like this, it’s a reminder that we have to prepare in forest planning for more and drier periods. Planting has to take into account longer drought stretches … perhaps plant a little more Douglas fir and a little less cedar.”
Others feel the vine-like shrub — which has supported a boutique industry on the Island, supplying florists all over for 50 years — is telling a different story.
“We’ve had a few impacts on the industry,” said Albert Folster, owner of Ladysmith Evergreens. Folster has commercially harvested salal for 30 years, one of 30 or 40 contractors on the Island. He said the cause of dieback is varied and depends on location. Salal is reliant on moisture retention in the soil, affected by removal of the forest cover, he said.
“That could be due to deforestation as well,” Folster said, blaming some of the dieback on an accelerated pace of logging that leaves too little time for the forest ecosystem to recover.
Bob Brown of Port Alberni began harvesting salal more than 50 years ago. Dieback this spring is the result of successively dry seasons, not cold temperatures last winter, he believes. Last year was especially taxing.
“That salal was already brown last winter. The damage was done when the water got sucked out of the soil in spring and summer,” Brown said.
He also feels intensive logging on privately held lands — compounded by the impact of weather events and climate change — is to blame for the compromised state of forest health. A recent drive to Victoria was an eye opener, revealing extensive dieback among western red cedar.
“I’ve never seen it quite that bad,” Brown said.
Dieback presents another challenge for salal contractors on the south Island. They remain in a dispute with Mosaic, which has not renewed their contracts.
“The southern half of the Island has been locked up,” Folster said, explaining that they have to go north to harvest. While his business has doubled recently, some are struggling as a result.
Mosaic said the dispute is a matter of safety. Contractors need to have certification from the B.C. Forest Safety Council and comply with WorkSafe BC regulations, Iannidinardo said.
“We had four contractors four years ago and we have zero now, and it’s all for safety reasons,” he said. “We remain open to harvesting. We’ll look at qualified proposals,” he added.
Mary Ann Shievink of Flowers Unlimited, who uses salal for floral arrangements, said her local harvester couldn’t find any when he went looking the other day.
She agrees that climate change seems to be a culprit and notes that cedar boughs used in Christmas arrangements are showing more rust, a fungus.