An update on B.C.’s Darkwoods, Canada’s largest privately-owned wilderness tract.
As the global population expands, humans need nature as a respite from any number of threats—and nature certainly requires refuge from us. In North America, the United States maintains National Wildlife Refuges and Preserves, and Canada likewise boasts many Reserves, Conservancies, or Conservation Areas owned and managed by federal or provincial governments, and sometimes private trusts.
Alongside Kootenay Lake in southeastern British Columbia lies Canada’s largest privately-owned tract: the ominously named Darkwoods Conservation Area.
The Evolution of Darkwoods
From 1967 to 2008, one man—German Duke Carl Herzog von Wurttemberg—owned this enormous parcel of mountain wilderness. At the height of the Cold War, the duke purchased this slice of the Selkirk Range as a family refuge in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany, and his forestry company, Pluto Darkwoods, selectively logged the land. In 2008, then into his seventies and looking to sell, the duke still wanted to keep what was now known as Darkwoods (a nod to the Black Forest of his native land) intact and well-managed. He found a suitable buyer in the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), which snapped up the entire 55,000-hectare parcel.
In 2018, the federal and B.C. provincial governments announced funds towards purchase of an additional 7,900 hectares, an expansion of 14 per cent. This chunk—the Next Creek watershed—fills a “donut hole” in Darkwoods, connecting a key section of Inland Temperate Rainforest (ITR) that includes stands of ancient cedar and hemlock.
Wildlife biologist Richard Klafki, Director of the NCC’s Canadian Rockies Program, points to the scope and significance of the ITR. “It stretches from northern Idaho to central British Columbia, following a band along the Columbia Mountains [of which the Selkirks are a subrange]. Some refer to the ITR as a ‘snowforest’ due to its very high snow load.”
Snow isn’t crucial just to the forest’s ecological character (massive spring melts deliver moisture on par with coastal rainforest) but also to the region’s most threatened denizen: mountain caribou. “Deep snowpacks allow the caribou to eat lichen [a dietary mainstay] off the trees and keep predators from pursuing them.”
Klafki also speaks to the primordial integrity of this ecosystem. “Some of these forests have never really burned. Only when trees die and fall down are gaps created in the forest canopy for young trees to establish. That’s the major disturbance regime. Researchers have also found coastal species of lichens in these interior forests—evidence these processes have been going on for thousands of years, creating this diverse and highly productive habitat.”
Low-Impact Tourism in Darkwoods’ Future?
While research continues, the NCC is hammering out a management plan. “It will likely entail some form of road access,” says Klafki. “Darkwoods has an extensive network of roads because about 30 per cent of it has been logged in the last 30–40 years. We’re also trying to develop a couple of spots to highlight old-growth forests and we’re in the preliminary stages of laying out trails.”
More low-impact tourism could help drum up public support for the plan. “The ITR itself isn’t yet understood as a tourist destination,” says Candace Batycki, a program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Batycki compares the ITR to California’s redwood forests, stands of which have long been protected. In contrast, only a fraction of the underrecognized ITR is set aside, mainly in Darkwoods, the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, Mount Revelstoke National Park, and Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Provincial Park. “True ancient ITR is harder and harder to get to because of ongoing logging—we’re losing these forests quite rapidly,” warns Batycki.
Klafki believes that as humans continue with headlong development that exacerbates climate change, many of these forests will become climate refugia for species at risk. Given current trends, it’s not unreasonable to speculate those species could someday include humans.
This article originally ran in the 2019-2020 Mountain Life Annual.