Wally Knott on saw and his partner Red Meyers at Meades Creek Oct. 1945 by W.H.Gold PhotoMOFM Logo
Bruce Devitt

Bruce DevittMy dad wanted me to go to university and be a geologist. When the time came in September 1950, dad ‘picked me up at work by the scruff’ at 4:30 PM. We caught the 5:00 PM “gas car” at Shalath. Twenty-two miles later at Lillooet we drove off the flat car– then drove all night down the Fraser Canyon. That next morning I was out in a line-up at UBC registering, so that’s how I arrived at UBC.  In the back of my mind, I really didn’t know if I wanted to be a geologist, but dad wanted me to! It was the career he wished he had taken but did not.

So there I was, a first-year university student coming from a little rural town.  UBC’s population was about 5,000 in those days. Mind you, I’d spent two years in Vancouver for eleventh and twelfth grade.  But what really got me into forestry was my summer job. I went to the employment agency at UBC where they were hiring for BC Forest Service inventory work.  A lot of people got jobs that way when they were at university– it was a good training ground.  So in 1951, I went to Green Timbers and joined the crew heading for Cranbrook.

I had just finished my first year which was like senior matriculation.  Alot of the fellows I worked with that summer were the last of the world war II veterans going through university.  Some of them went on to become well-respected foresters within the government and the industry. I worked for and with some of those people during my career. Their enthusiasm was contagious and the mentorship I received from people like Grant Ainscough and Don Munro helped direct me into forestry. Coming from a rural area and being outdoors all my life, it was a natural fit. I worked two more summers doing inventory work with the BC Forest Service while I was at UBC.

I first came to the Cowichan Valley as a summer student in 1954 to work for British Columbia Forest Products (BCFP). I worked with Es Preus and Edo Nyland on a base line crew in the Maclure Lake area out of Caycuse Camp. Later we went down to Harris Creek Camp in the San Juan River Valley near Port Renfrew.

In 1955 I returned as a student to Cowichan to work for BCFP as a compassman-topographer cruising timber above Lake Cowichan in Block 106 and later in the summer we cruised the North Cowichan Municipal Forest Lands.

In 1956, again as a student, I cruised timber for BCFP up at Seymour & Belize Inlet, mainly an inventory search for timber and later did operational cruising at Williams Creek adjacent to the Bear Creek Camp.

My mentors during these summers were Gerry Burch, Web Binion and Bob MacMillen. The fellowship and friendships gained working with other forestry Grosslegs logging nr blk106 1955students was also a most important factor in my career.

It was all railway/truck re-load operations then. There was still a railway down into Nitinat Lake. I remember in 1954 arriving at Tuck Lake with Bob Howard and he made us tea off the steam pot yarder before we headed out to do regeneration surveys. A railway also went from Bear Creek Camp down into Port Renfrew and then back up into Harris Creek Camp.  A bus took you from Duncan via Shawnigan Lake to Bear Creek. Those summers, particularly that of 1955, is when I fell in love with the Island and the Cowichan Valley. I developed a strong desire to live and find work in the valley.

However, when I graduated in 1957, it was a recession year and difficult to find jobs. BCFP had a job timber cruising but I had had enough cruising. In total it had been six summers if you add my BC Forest Service Inventory years.

I had specialized in silviculture my fourth year at UBC and I wanted to work in that field. There were two positions available in the BC Forest Service, one in the Research Division and one in the Reforestation Division as a result of the 1956 Sloan Commission Report. Sloan recommended more research and reforestation be done in the logged over areas as natural reforestation was taking too long. There was a need to get on with it and get the job done.  I was fortunate to get the reforestation position.

I had wanted to come back to live in Duncan, and work in the Cowichan Valley. I reported to the Reforestation Division Victoria office, it was on a Friday, by 10 am I had filled all the paperwork, then  Alf  Bamford , who was to be my boss and become another important mentor, said, “Come on get your gear, my wagon is outside we’re going to Mesachie Lake.”  Well, I couldn’t believe it! To me it was a miracle - a dream come true.

I’d been to Caycuse, Youbou and around, but I hadn’t really been into camp… but I knew where Mesachie Lake was.  It was actually called The Cowichan Lake Experimental Station (CLRS) then, but everybody in Reforestation used to call it Mesachie Lake Camp.

The very first job we had to do was plantation ‘survival plots’– we had to find out how many trees survived and how they were growing!

And then we started looking for potential Seed Production Areas (SPA’S) – as there was no quality tree seed in the coffers. 

Dr Allan Orr-EwingThis was a major obstacle to planting at the time; there just wasn’t any decent seed!  That is when Dr. Alan Orr- Ewing, involved with his genetic tree improvement program at the Station, showed that it wasn’t just the geographic source; it was also the quality of the ‘mother’ trees that was important. 

The very first attempt to get seed was in seed production areas. Later the geneticists frowned on SPA's as the tree population was too small and seed orchards came into being. The first SPA was located on Mt Prevost and the second on Mt Benson. Most of the work was done in 1958 and in 1959 we had a good ‘cone crop’. 

From 1957 through the 1960’s, the big push was to get seed.  We couldn’t grow more trees if we didn’t have the right seed!  Fortunately, we had a really good cone crop in 1959 on the Coast. That was the first good Douglas- Fir crop on Vancouver Island since 1945.

The next big seed year was 1966– we made the largest province wide seed collection ever made in the province.  It was somewhere close to fifty thousand bushels. We collected the seed-cones by every means possible! It was mainly a BC Forest Service collection, but the industry also did collecting as well. All the cones from every forest region - had to be trucked into Duncan.  That is when the Tree Seed Center in Duncan came into it’s own. The extraction plant was actually built to handle the 1959 cone crop – it was expanded after that just in time for the 1966 cone crop.  There were cones stored everywhere at Duncan, even in the Cowichan Exhibition Buildings.

All these cones came in, and Dr. Orr-Ewing’s work included a seed classification record program. So the seed got classified as to genetic quality and identified as to where it came from; the elevation, the species, etc. And was identified on cone collection record cards and they were assigned a seed lot number. Those numbers followed that seed through the whole process: extraction, storage and into the Planting 1959nursery and back out to the planting. That was a major change! 

The seed laboratory at the Seed Centre did all the germination tests to ensure viability of the extracted seed, to know how much of the seed would germinate and then grow, so we could calculate how much seed to use in sowing.  In the early days a lot of seed research was done there, extraction techniques had to be explored, and some seed de-winging techniques. It took from October 1959 to Spring 1960 going 24 hours a day to extract, clean and test the crop.

Prior to 1957, the main reforestation focus on the Island and lower mainland was to reforest the old logged and burned sites.  For example, the big 1938 fire near Campbell River that went all the way from Sayward to Courtenay. The BC Forest Service, in the main, was responsible to do that on both public and private land. There was very little industry planting.

In the spring of 1959 I along with Neil Marshall and others began the first planting of the Hillcrest Lumber Company cut-overs, under section 156 of the Forest Act. We started in “19” Creek in the Robertson valley in an area that Alan Lamb and I mapped out in the fall of 1958. There was over 10,000 acres of clear-cut-over to be planted.

The first forest nursery was a little research nursery established in 1927 in Victoria on Shelbourne St., where they experimented with different growing trials to develop nursery practice techniques.

The first production nursery was established at Green Timbers in 1930-31, just outside of Surrey. The original site had a stand of very big trees– a mile square block of really nice old growth.  It was called Green Timbers for a reason, because the land all around it had been cleared for development… for agriculture, houses, and so on. Well, in the late twenties, Abernathy and Lougheed got the license to log this square mile. There was a huge controversy!  In fact, it was probably the first old growth controversy in the province. To solve the controversy, the government said that after the area was logged, they would put a nursery there.

Then the 1938 fire meant they needed a nursery up in Campbell River, and the Campbell River Nursery came into being around 1940.  Shortly after that, in 1946 the Duncan Nursery. - Its purpose was to supply seedlings for the cut-overs on the South Island.

The Duncan nursery superintendent was Jack Long–  another mentor who helped me during my career.  The Koksilah Nursery was added in 1967. In those days, it was all bare root– the seedlings were grown in dirt to produce bare root seedlings. 

The beginnings of research for the container nursery program began in the mid 1960’s. The container seedlings, which can be grown in greenhouses or in the open, allowed us to grow more species, because we could control growth better.  For example, as bare root we could only grow Douglas Fir, maybe Sitka Spruce, and every once in a while some Grand Fir and Hemlock. So in the bare root system we could only grow Douglas Fir well but as logging moved up slope we needed the other species. 

I also remember that many of the bare root seedlings, by the time they got to the planting site, were dead. The survival rates in the field were not good - the provincial average was lower than 50%.Once the container program was in place, we could grow more species and stock types, because we could control how to grow it, but of course we had to learn how to do that. This was a big technological change; 1959 Plntg 35 years oldbecause it increased the number of  species and our reforestation tool kit became more diverse. It also increased survival. The provincial survival rate now is got to be around ninety percent!  And it gave us a chance to grow a specific target tree for a specific site.

The role of the seed center was really important, even with the technology changing because we knew that what was being planted into the site was the appropriate seed lot for that particular site. The pioneering research that was done in the ecological and soil mapping and provenance research done by the research branch was another important factor. Much of which was initiated early on at the CLRS.

Tree spacing was a major issue. At the time it was a transfer from Britain.  They were planting six by six foot spacing in Britain, but there they followed it up with early thinning… here it didn’t make much sense.  It wasn’t until it got too expensive to plant at six by six that we went to eight by eight feet.  Now people are planting whatever… based on the number of ‘plantable’ spots.  So we end up planting whatever is appropriate, at the time, on the site.  The whole business was a learning thing. George Warrack put in spacing trials at the CLRS and elsewhere for this purpose. I was fortunate to be able to help him with this work. There were a lot of arguments about spacing.
Up to 1955 there was very little industry planting, the government still continued to grow the trees and do most of the planting (80%).  It wasn’t until after the war, when a lot of the veterans came back and graduated from forestry and got into industry and government that there was a major transfer of silviculture knowledge. The perception provincially before this was that all the reforestation and regeneration would happen naturally.  But studies showed that it wasn’t happening, mainly because of the size of the cut-overs in those days.  Studies also showed that there was also a lot of natural seed loss, with the deer-mice eating the seed.  Then the frequency of cone-crops was an issue: the gap between when cones were produced in years was so large and erratic.  We were looking at a regeneration period of  over twenty years, and everyone thought it should be done faster, and in a shorter period of time. 

So, there was a huge transfer of knowledge, and increase in the growth of knowledge.  There was much cooperation between industry and government, people that were involved.  We also went south to Western Forestry Association meetings - an American forestry organization that had working committees in almost every aspect of forestry: reforestation, planting, genetics and seed, growth and yield, fire protection and so forth. Western Forestry extends to California and includes Idaho and Montana to the east. The forest types down in the States are very similar to ours.

The work in the early days included this need to increase our knowledge-base as well as to do the job as recommended by Sloan. There was a big explosion of co-operation, in order to understand what we had to do, and how to do it. 

Up to now provincially, artificial reforestation was being done by the Reforestation Division for the whole province.  But, the centralized Victoria organization couldn’t handle it on a province-wide basis. So, it was all handed over to the forest regions in the mid sixties.  Also by 1963 industry was planting about 75% mainly on tree farm licenses.

Bruce Devitt at the Robertson River Valley 1957The Reforestation Division then became an organization that coordinated planting, operated nurseries, extracted, registered, stored and tested seed and managed operational seed orchards. The seed registration program was still kept within the Silviculture Branch, and for very good reason: That was we had to make sure that the quality and right seed went into the right place on public lands.

Reflecting back on this period I can say that the Cowichan Valley with the CLRS and the Duncan Nursery and Seed Centre and the people who worked there played a significant role in the early growth of the provincial silviculture program.

My wife Celia and I were married in 1958. We and our 3 children, Susannah, Brenda and John, resided in Duncan from 1958 to 1972. We moved when I was put in charge of the provincial tree seed and forest nursery program to Victoria. My career benefited greatly from their support as I was often away from home during these years.

In 1973 I left the Forest Service and joined Pacific Logging as forestry manager so while living then in Victoria I was again involved with forestry operations in the valley. Pacific had since acquired the Robertson Valley and the Hillcrest lands and this included my original 1959 plantation. However that is a forestry story for another time. I was made Chief Forester for the company in 1976 and later for the combined Tahsis Company operations at Gold River retiring in 1991. I then spent the next 4 years as executive vice president of our professional Foresters Association in Vancouver - finally retiring in March 1995.