As one of the most unrecognized yet important ecosystem microhabitats, dead and decaying wood is vitally responsible for maintaining the health of Canadian forests. Linking past and future forests, it is in many ways a biological legacy1. Not only does it provide a habitat for a plethora of plant and animal life, it is a source of food for bacteria, insects, and fungi2. Additionally, it acts as a regeneration site for trees, while affording an ecosystem organic matter, moisture, and nutrients. Increasing and sustaining the biodiversity, dead and decaying wood both preserves and helps forests to thrive. This resource is of particular importance to the Great Bear Rainforest, a remote and beautiful region of temperate rainforest extending roughly 32,000 square kilometres from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska3. This ecologically sensitive region is home to abundant plant and animal life, whose biodiversity depends on the environmental benefits created and sustained by dead wood.
The following paper will analyze the importance of dead and decaying wood in Canadian forests in two parts. The first portion of the paper will analyze the way in which dead and decaying wood supports ecosystem biodiversity, which increases forest productivity through a variety of ‘ecosystem services’, thereby improving the total health of forests. The second section of this paper will argue that, due to the connection between dead wood, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the overall health of forests, better conservation procedures must be enacted in order to preserve this environmental resource, using the specific case study of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest to support this claim.
Why Dead Wood Matters The importance of dead and decaying wood in maintaining the health of forests in their entirety cannot be understated. It is a critical component in the efficient functioning of ecosystems because it sustains biodiversity, thereby enhancing the environmental benefits - including carbon storage and increased forest productivity - made possible by this variety in plant and animal life. Biodiversity is critical in any forest, as every unique creature works together in a harmonized pattern to increase productivity and sustain life4. A diverse forest ecosystem provides services which directly benefit human society. These ‘ecosystem services’ are grouped into four main categories, each of which is enhanced by decaying timber5.
The first group of ecosystem services is referred to as provisioning services, namely, the supply of food, fuel, and fibre that humans utilize on daily basis in contemporary society6. Biologically diverse species of plants mean that food crops are better able to withstand disease and recover from a wide variety of disasters caused by invasive species and human mismanagement. While food crops - such as corn and wheat - principally come from managed agricultural ecosystems, forests also provide food for human consumption7. In fact, wild foods from forests are often underestimated as a source of nutrition that is both healthy and delicious. Indigenous peoples have long incorporated these ethnobotanical facets of forests into daily life, consuming the stems, shoots, and leaves of edible plants. Roots, bulbs, rhizomes, wild rice, and tubers act as a source of fibre and carbohydrates, while berries provide the nutrients and vitamins necessary for healthy immune function8. To illustrate: in the Great Bear Rainforest, over twenty-five different First Nations groups have been making use of the ecosystem’s provisioning services for hundreds of years, relying on biodiversity of plants and animals - supported by dead and decaying wood - to make these services possible9.
Medicinal plants found in forests have also been used by both indigenous peoples and the