The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place
Page 1: Coastal Temperate Rain Forests
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The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place was originally published in 1995 by Ecotrust, Pacific GIS, and Conservation International. Edward C. Wolf, Andrew P. Mitchell, and Peter K. Schoonmaker, Ph.D. wrote sections of the report, and maps and technical analyses were completed by Andrew Mitchell, Randall Hagenstein, Lisa Lackey and Marko Muellner, with research assistance by Silas Beebe. The Prospect Hill Foundation and Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust provided project funding for the atlas, and Sun Microsystems, CalComp, Tektronix, Hewlett-Packard, and Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., donated hardware and software that made the project possible.
People and place — indigenous cultures and an extraordinarily rich forest and marine bioregion — developed together in the coastal temperate rain forests of North America in the millennia following the most recent Ice Age. The unusual diversity and abundance of fish, shellfish, wildlife, and forest resources that characterize this bioregion supported one of the densest populations of non-agricultural peoples known anywhere on earth. Native languages proliferated and distinct cultures arose up and down the coast partly in response to the local variations in resource abundance.
The south-to-north sweep of the western industrial economy that followed settlement has diminished both indigenous cultural and ecological integrity. Languages, art, and an irreplaceable legacy of cultural knowledge of the environment have been lost as fast or faster than plant and animal species. Today both Native and non-Native coastal communities, and the ecosystems that sustain them, face new challenges. The relationship between people and place, once synergistic, is now at risk.
Forest cover, the defining feature of the coastal temperate rain forest and a principal focus of this report, is one of many features of regional interest. Conservation of the environmental resource base is an important objective, but not the only concern of coastal residents. A bioregional information system based on the integrative capacity of computerized geographic information systems (GIS) and incorporating social, economic, and cultural — as well as ecological — information would enable further exploration of the links between livelihood and landscape. This effort will start us down the path to restoring a sustainable relationship between people and place.
People live in places with distinct histories and opportunities. A regional picture serves them only if it is accessible to them, and only if it relates in a meaningful way to the local particularities that shape their lives. The information age has the potential to strengthen the nexus that connects each locality with its region. As local detail accumulates, data from the community level can be used to update and refine regional knowledge. Over time, participation in gathering, sharing, and considering such information can help bring a bioregional community into being.
The Rain Forests of Home reports the first results of an effort to assemble such a bioregional portrait. It presents information on forest cover and indigenous languages as first proxies for forest integrity and cultural diversity throughout the entire North American coastal temperate rain forest bioregion, summarized in maps produced by a GIS. This report offers the first comprehensive picture of the rain forests of home, one that reconciles scientific definitions and administrative boundaries with the natural watershed boundaries of the coastal landscape. The holistic perspective that it provides can help identify opportunities and priorities for conservation-based development.
This approach to understanding the coastal temperate rain forest of North America offers residents of other bioregions an example and an impetus for gathering new information. It establishes the first strand in a web linking people who live in, or are concerned with, the rain forests of continental margins. It offers a context — bioregional understanding — in which conservation and development can support one another.
This work seeks to increase the likelihood that contemporary civilization will, like the First Nations of the Northwest Coast, enter a relationship with nature marked by deliberate reciprocity. We still have much to learn about permanence from the cultures that have nurtured, and outlasted, the longest-lived trees of these rain forests of home.
Coastal Temperate Rain Forests
The coastal rain forests of temperate latitudes are a study in contrasts. Separated, in some cases, by more than fifteen thousand kilometers, coastal temperate rain forests around the world possess remarkable ecological similarities. Home to large and long-lived trees, as well as some of the most productive timberlands and coastal fisheries on earth, they also shelter resource-dependent communities faced with rising unemployment and uncertainty. Containing few metropolitan centers, they support some of the world's most significant experiments in conservation-based development.
Recognition of the uniqueness of the coastal rain forests of the temperate zone is quite recent. Although scientists have recognized temperate rain forests for over fifty years, the term "coastal" temperate rain forest has a scientific currency of less than a decade. But knowledge of these forests and interest in the bioregions where they stand are growing rapidly.
Once found on every continent except Africa and Antarctica, coastal temperate rain forests have been modified throughout much of their range. Nonetheless, the relatively small extent that remains contains large contiguous blocks of natural forest still substantially free of human influence. In addition to the obvious significance these forests hold for conservation and scientific research, they can help us to understand the relationships and connections that our economic activities must respect to achieve true sustainability.
Along rugged coastlines in both hemispheres, forests possess striking similarities in structure and ecosystem function, despite wide variation in species composition and history. These forests, standing for the most part in watersheds that empty directly into saltwater, are shaped by the cycling of water between the land and sea. In a 1990 survey, ecologists Paul Alaback and James Weigand proposed four features to distinguish coastal rain forests from other temperate forest types: proximity to oceans, the presence of coastal mountains, cooler summer temperatures, and high rainfall levels with significant precipitation occurring in all seasons (Weigand 1990). These conditions lead to a unique set of dynamic links between terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In effect, the high tide line does not bound the coastal rain forest ecosystem. The forest influences the abundance and distribution of coastal sea life, and a number of animal species return the favor by carrying marine nutrients back into coastal watersheds.
Worldwide, coastal temperate rain forests are scarce. Only thirty to forty million hectares (2–3 percent) of the world's estimated 1.3 billion hectares of temperate forest can be classified as coastal temperate rain forest, scarcely one-thousandth of the earth's land surface. Tropical rain forests once covered roughly forty times more land. Though both forest types have been drastically reduced, at least 36 hectares of tropical rain forest currently stand for every intact hectare of coastal temperate rain forest.
Tropical rain forests contain a diversity of plant and animal species vastly disproportionate to the area they occupy — perhaps 60 percent or more of all life forms. Coastal temperate rain forests contain a similarly disproportionate share of biological production. They accumulate and store more organic matter than any other forest type (including tropical forests) — as much as 500–2000 metric tons of wood, foliate, leaf litter, moss, other living plants, and soil per hectare. Some individual trees in temperate rain forests have grown for two millennia and surpass six meters in diameter. The adjacent waters are productive as well. The upwelling zones and cold-water currents that bathe the edges of coastal temperate rain forests account for a substantial share of the biological production of the oceans. The productivity of these marine ecosystems is enhanced by the nutrients and organic debris washed out of coastal watersheds.
The largest contiguous coastal temperate rain forest traces the northwestern maritime margin of North America, from Kodiak Island in Alaska south through British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest to California's "fogbelt" redwoods. Elsewhere in the north, Norway contains small fragments of coastal rain forest, and scientists speculate that Japan may have some areas of rain forest as well. The forests formerly found along the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, parts of Iceland, and in a narrow crescent along the eastern shore of the Black Sea are long gone. Chile contains the Southern Hemi-sphere's largest remaining coastal temperate rain forest. Significant areas of coastal rain forest also stand on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island and on the Australian island of Tasmania, where broadleaved rain forests harbor the most ancient constituents of the Australian flora.
Throughout that original range, the fecundity and relatively mild maritime climates of coastal temperate rain forests have invited heavy exploitation. Coastal rain forests were among the first landscapes logged when Euro-Americans settled North America's Pacific Coast in the l850s. Clearcut logging of old-growth conifers remains widespread in this region today, and many rain forest valleys are industrial tree farms from which trees have already been harvested three times. Monocultural plantations of introduced tree species have also replaced large areas of the native forests of southern coastal Chile and New Zealand, and heavy logging continues in their natural forests. The once-extensive coastal rain forests of the Scottish Highlands are gone, replaced by non-forested heaths and plantations of introduced Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine.
Industrial exploitation of the lands and waters of the coastal temperate rain forest has meant secure profits for a relative handful of corporate enterprises but insecure livelihoods for thousands of residents. Communities dependent on logging, mills, and coastal fisheries have seen their prosperity wax and wane with the boom-and-bust cycles typical of raw materials economies. In virtually every stretch of the eight thousand kilometer coastline that supports these forests around the world, residents are seeking to diversify local economies and to capture more of the value of the raw materials harvested and exported from the rain forest fringe.
The growing importance of recreation, tourism, and environmental services in the economies of many coastal areas, and the recognition that conventional resource extraction depletes natural capital, are forcing a reappraisal of resource-based industries and the landscapes they leave behind. New insights into the interdependence of land and sea in the coastal rain forest zone offer further challenges to traditional management practices. The connections between forestry and fisheries offer an obvious example: logging's true contribution to local economies is exaggerated by the extent to which associated road building alters flows of nutrients and sediment and thereby reduces the production of coastal fisheries. The research that can guide communities seeking to understand such tradeoffs is in its infancy.