The Kootenays are home to the world’s only inland temperate rainforest, and its uniqueness attracts everyone from tree huggers to tree cutters. Story by Jayme Moye. Photo by Steve Ogle.
A Kootenay old-growth forest has an unmistakable vibe. It feels moist, even in the summer, with soft, spongy moss creeping over the rocks and curtains of lichen dangling from nearly every bough. Massive cedar and hemlock trees — hundreds if not thousands of years old — stand sentry over the lush understorey, where devil’s club grows nine feet tall and grizzly bear, mountain caribou, cougar, wolf, and lynx still roam.
Scientists know this landscape as an inland temperate rainforest — and the Kootenays have the only one in the world. As the Valhalla Wilderness Society, an organization that’s been working to protect this rare ecosystem for decades, explains it, a rainforest is loosely defined as a forest that stays wet all year. In the Earth’s temperate zone — the area between the tropics and the polar regions — that typically only happens on the coast, like in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. But in the Kootenays, we have a temperate rainforest growing 400 to 600 kilometres (250 to 375 miles) from the ocean, which is why it is labelled “inland.” “Snowforest might be a better name for it,” says Eddie Petryshen, a conservation specialist at Wildsight in Kimberley, British Columbia. “Most of the moisture comes from snow, not rain.”
The North American Inland Temperate Rainforest, as it’s known, used to cover 40 million acres, forming a broad arc that blanketed the entire Kootenay region before dipping south into parts of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Today, due to logging and development, British Columbia’s portion exists in much smaller fragments — some of which are mere remnants, especially in the southern Selkirk and Purcell Mountains, like the 2.6-kilometre (1.6-mile) out-and-back Old Growth Recreation Trail at Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, near Nelson, British Columbia. A 2021 study titled Red-Listed Ecosystem Status of Interior Wetbelt and Inland Temperate Rainforest of British Columbia, Canada, published in Land journal, classified this rainforest as “critically endangered” and stated that ecosystem collapse is imminent in nine to 18 years if logging rates continue at current levels.
In places like Revelstoke, British Columbia, where there are still large tracts of undisturbed inland temperate rainforest, like the Argonaut and Bigmouth Valleys, residents are rallying for the clear-cutting to stop before it’s too late. “We have something really, really special here,” says Sarah Newton, a Revelstoke resident and spokesperson for Old Growth Revylution, an environmental conservation organization. “We’re the only inland temperate rainforest left in the world that’s still somewhat intact.” By late summer 2021, old-growth logging protestors in Revelstoke had swelled to 200 strong and established a full-time blockade on a logging road 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of town to protect the rainforest and beyond. Last October, forest defenders were buoyed when the provincial government announced its intention to defer logging in 2.6 million hectares of at-risk old-growth pending discussions with local Indigenous Peoples. Thirteen of the 14 cutblocks that Old Growth Revylution hoped to protect were included in that deferral. As for that last cutblock, which sits at the confluence of Argonaut and Bigmouth Creeks, Newton and her colleagues are still out there blockading. “We’re not going to budge,” she says. “It’s gotten that dire — every cutblock counts.”