“Small things run the world.” — E.O. Wilson

The drama unfolding at Fairy Creek is a story of very big things — mammoth trees of great age, a forest that could, according to scientists, date back untouched to the Ice Age. Then there are the protests, surpassing Clayoquot Sound’s as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Not to mention the outsized and violent response of the RCMP, which has had more than 90 complaints made to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, the federal watchdog that holds RCMP to account.

If that’s not big enough, many call Fairy Creek not just a War in the Woods but a fight for the planet itself: against climate change, and those forces of industry and government that refuse to address the crisis adequately as the planet heats and burns.

Yet, according to scientists I spoke to this week, we humans — so prone to the big picture — may be looking at things through the wrong lens. If we want to save the rainforest and get closer to understanding climate change, we also need to look to the tiny, tenacious and incredibly complex organisms that exist within Fairy Creek’s forests.

The lichens.

Old Growth Specklebelly Lichen, a rare species recently spotted in the Fairy Creek area. Photo by Natasha Lavdovsky

One rare species, the Old Growth Specklebelly Lichen, discovered recently around Fairy Creek by artist and citizen scientist Natasha Lavdovsky, could hold keys to stopping the logging — and show us how nature creates wet zones that halt wildfires, protection from the worst ravages of climate change.

Her discovery is, in itself, like something from a fairy tale.

A Princeton-educated artist and citizen scientist, Lavdovsky went into the Fairy Creek rainforest last May, setting up near the “Heli Camp” protest camp to record the soundscape lichens both create and live inside. She recorded marbled murrelets in ancient trees, red-legged tree frogs in the roadside ditch, tent flaps unzipped as protesters rose at dawn to block the road. One afternoon out walking, she noticed a fallen yellow cedar, roots weakened by the logging road. As she came closer, she saw, in its exposed canopy, masses of the rare Specklebelly lichen.

Artist and citizen scientist Natasha Lavdovsky. Photo by Natasha Lavdovsky

For Lavdovsky, it was like finding gold.

“It was beautiful,” she told me. “Blue on top, pale peach below, with sinuous edges and tiny white speckles. A marvel.”

A rare species of lichen recently discovered around Fairy Creek could hold keys to stopping old-growth logging in the area — and show us how nature creates wet zones that halt wildfires. #FairyCreek #Wildfires #OldGrowth

Once she’d seen it, her eyes, as though cleansed, began to see it everywhere — on trees beside a tree-sit, in groves almost completely swathing trunks. Scientist Loys Maingon, a fresh water expert and research director for Strathcona Wilderness Institute, believes she may have discovered B.C.’s — and Canada’s — largest population of this rare species. “It’s not often found,” he said. “There are only seven locations in B.C., and in some locations, only one or two individual plants. But she found one population with about 600 individuals.”

Scientist Loys Maingon stands beside a lichen-covered rock. Photo by Alison Maingon

Bill Jones, an elder with Pacheedaht Nation, whose ancestral lands encompass the area and who authorized biologists to survey it, described Lavdovsky as “very excited” when she came to speak to him about the find. “I told her, we’d better find a way to protect it,” he said. “It doesn’t grow in any place except that special environment.”

Yet almost all of the Specklebelly found thus far in the Fairy Creek area lies in Cut Block 8022, slated for imminent logging (see map). It’s also directly in road-building paths, despite the fact that its rarity dictates it should have a 200-metre buffer zone around each tree on which it’s found. Even BC Timber Sales’ guidelines specify this protection buffer.

Old-growth activists have been camped out in the Fairy Creek watershed since August 2020. Map by Wilderness Committee

As well, according to the federal Species at Risk Act, which blue-lists the vulnerable lichen, an immediate inventory ought to be done to chart, monitor and protect the species.

If the provincial government fulfils its duty as a protector of endangered species, this lichen’s discovery could signal a David and Goliath moment. A lichen that could have the power to stop Teal-Jones, the logging company operating in Fairy Creek, in its tracks. But so far, the B.C. government is not fulfilling that role, and is, in fact, the only provincial government, besides Alberta, not to have created a legally binding framework to protect rare species.

Artist Natasha Lavdovsky's discovery could be the largest population of Old Growth Specklebelly Lichen in Canada, scientist Loys Maingon says. Photo by James Holkko

So right now, the only real protection for the lichen are the protesters blocking the road.

For Lavdovsky, the Specklebelly, as well as being beautiful and of importance “as a being in its own right,” is also a metaphor for community. Each Specklebelly lichen is a complex of multiple beings, she explained, consisting of fungus, algae, yeast and cyano-bacteria.

“They’ve figured out how to live together,” she said, taking nutrients out of thin air, disbursing these to the mother tree. “Unlike colonizing humans,” she added, “who take from the land of Indigenous Peoples and put pollutants into the air.”

There’s a further superpower in this lichen: In this time of wildfires, with tinder-dry forests, there is much to be learned from how lichens cool and regulate temperature.

“Lichens are only unsaturated 30 per cent of the time,” Maingon explained. The remaining 70 per cent of the time they expand to absorb water. This allows them to play an outsize role in cooling the environment. By cutting down the old-growth forest, we interfere with these intricate cooling systems. This increases wildfires and climate heating.

“An old-growth forest is completely different from a second-growth forest,” Maingon said. With an old forest, “its nitrogen is fixed by lichens and mosses, while a newer forest fixes its nitrogen with alder and scotch broom. They do their work, but they don’t hold water.”

Lichen, including this rare species, provide an intricate cooling system that helps forests regulate temperature. Removing old-growth trees and the lichen that grows on them creates conditions for more wildfires. Photo by Natasha Lavdovsky

The upshot? Fewer spongy old-growth forests — far more wildfires.

As for clearcuts, Maingon explained they increase the surrounding temperature even more profoundly.

Then there are the “flying rivers” created by lichen-rich old forests: masses of foggy air that pass across the province, watershed by watershed, bathing the interior. “Water that originates in Pacific Coastal forests is cycled along the boreal forest and across the Prairies,” he explained. “If our forest pumps stall because they are damaged, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba feel the drought, much as we saw this year.

“These complex forest systems are beyond any engineering model for how they capture and produce water,” said Maingon. “Once again we (humans) are destroying things we don’t even understand.”

As for the other “big story” unfolding at Fairy Creek, I asked Lavdovsky what she thought of the protesters facing off right now against the RCMP.

“Most people there have a reverence for the beings that live in the forest,” she said. “They (the blockaders) collaborate, they work together. They thrive by creating a community of support. Actually,” she added, “they’re a lot like the lichen.”

From Natasha Lavdovsky, that’s high praise indeed.

Shaena Lambert is reporting on Fairy Creek for Canada's National Observer. She is the award-winning author of the novels Petra and Radiance and the short story collections Oh, My Darling and The Falling Woman. Read more about her work at shaenalambert.com.

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Hope I haven't overstepped on this one but along with posting a png of the lichen to my facebook page, I also copied a quote from the article. As many people are becoming leary of most if not all media, I had hoped to at least get this extremely important info out there and maybe a few more subscribers.

It is disappointing that I can't share excellent info published in National Observer on my Facebook page as they are only accessible to subscribers.

NO can't be expected to do this work for nothing. It's the price of a fancy coffee per month.

Thank you for your comment and your support, Rob. That's how I see it, too. I regret the time when mass media companies met the advent of the internet by suddenly offering everything for free. The ones who have survived and transformed from print to digital and succeeded are like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times---- they moved to paywalls. There just wasn't any other choice. You can't have good journalism if you aren't willing to pay anything for it. How could that possibly work?

Allan, I'm sorry to disappoint you, and I agree, I wish we could make all of our journalism free. We can't do that, but by offering our subscriptions for only $1 - for a 1 month trial, we know that anyone who wants to read this article can afford to pay that rate. A paywall is really a way of saying, hello, journalism is expensive to produce. Shaena is an extraordinary writer; in her hands, this story jumps off the page to life. But it took much more than Shaena interviewing this wonderful woman and writing this remarkable story. It took Adrienne Tanner, an editor with years of experience, to review it; Dana Filek-Gibson, a brilliant editor to give it a last review for typos, post it, and write the newsletter that brought it to the attention of our readers. Dana spends a full day on that newsletter. Behind National Observer, what you can't see are all the hands on deck making it what it is... all across Canada. From our amazing Managing Editors (Adrienne, David McKie, Dana), Shelley, our copyeditor, to our remarkable reporting team to our outstanding columnists, everyone gets industry-standard payment. And we're part of the Canadian Media Guild and alongside them, we ensure that our workplace is running well, that people have some balance in their lives, etc. $1 is symbolic -- asking people to pay that, given all of the people and vast number of hours that have created this wonderful platform and publication. Please ask your friends on Facebook to read the article, and let them know that although it's worth so much more, they can have it for only $1.

Well, I could…and did…for you!

Thank you so much, Markiana. Subscribers keep National Observer alive, and make it possible for us to make a lot of our content free to other readers. I hope this will encourage more people to subscribe, knowing that for only $1 they can get into read the article and have a month to try out the site without paying more. $1 for work like this seems to me to be a very small price to pay, and one literally anyone can afford. Thank you for posting the image and you didn't overstep. Thank you for being an ambassador for this important work. We need EVERYONE's help in getting more subscribers so we have more resources to produce more work like this. Please urge your friends to subscribe!

National Observer is SOO WORTH supporting with subscription…given all the info each of us can glean for free, I appreciate responsible journalists providing well-researched and written for our learning! Thanks, NO!!

Inventories for all life should be standard before destroy potential treasures. Those treasures are public, but the logging companies are destroying them to make private profits.

Provinces should all have legislation to protect endangered species--- David Suzuki just told me when I interviewed him last week for our podcast (coming soon), Race Against Climate Change podcast, 'The only thing that's final about any of this is extinction.' So well said.

poet laureate of Tofino is in final stages of a chapbook on trees called TREE POEMS. she lives off grid till October so is not aware of this development. love to get this beautiful article to her. but....
so much wonder and deep insight now getting wider spread through places like N.O. Suzanne Simard's FINDING THE MOTHER TREE is the other recent mind expander research ( nb. women scientists) brought to the gen pub.

And of course the wonderful irish biologist who lives in Guelph and brought us the idea of forest bathing and the healing power of forests....
question is, will we grow wise enough to honour forests before we utterly destroy life as it is on earth.....

I would really like to read TREE POEMs. nI'm going to look up Simard's work now. thank you for this.

There is a BC endangered species act and there is a management plan for "Oldgrowth Speckledbelly Lichen". Here is an excerpt for more context (and less hype):
3.4 Ecological Role
Oldgrowth specklebelly may contribute marginally to the nitrogen cycle due to the nitrogen- fixing blue-green algae found on the lobules (COSEWIC 2010).
It grows on the upper side of tree branches in places that are difficult to reach, largely uninhabited and infrequently visited - which might explain why it is not found very often.