Hiking alpine areas in the West Chilcotin prompted columnist Jim Hilton’s weekly opinion piece. (Jim Hilton photo)

FOREST INK: B.C. Interior alpine provides three distinct zones

From Williams Lake to Tatla lake on Highway 20 you encounter a number of ecological zones

Last week I was fortunate to be able to spend a couple of days in one of the many alpine areas of the West Chilcotin. It was even more special when I shared the experience with others who also appreciated alpine plant communities.

As described in the governments publication “The Ecology of the Alpine Zones. For tens of thousands of years the alpine zones have provided Aboriginal people with spiritual value, food, and clothing. Located high in the mountains of British Columbia, the alpine is a rugged, treeless environment, today treasured by skiers and hikers. This is a harshly beautiful land of ice, snow, and rock mixed with tundra and colourful flower meadows. Three distinct alpine zones occur in B.C., which share the common characteristics of short, cool summers, and winters too tough for all but sturdy ungulates such as mountain sheep, mountain goats and caribou.” Of the three zones: 1.) Coastal mountain-heather alpine, 2.) Interior mountain-heather alpine and 3.) Boreal altai fescue Alpine. I will discuss the Interior alpine community.

During the drive from Williams Lake to Tatla lake on Highway 20 you encounter a number of ecological zones with the lowest and driest bunchgrass zone along the Fraser river. The Interior Douglas fir zone occurs in the higher elevations adjacent to the bunch grass communities. Most of the trip west of Alexis Creek will be in the sub boreal pine-spruce on the plateau and Montane spruce zones as you gain in elevation. During our hike we encountered the Engelmen spruce subalpine next to the alpine tundra.

READ MORE: Douglas fir forests fight back from fir bark beetles, defoliating insects, wildfires

Vegetation in the alpine (including stunted shrubs, forbs, grasses and sedges) can be lush near the treeline but becomes sparser with elevation. The treeline is not well defined as, the interface between the subalpine parkland and the true alpine, occurs as a mosaic of stunted “krummholz” tree patches and meadow or alpine tundra. We observed a treeline of primarily spruce and subalpine fir, with whitebark pine and lodgepole pine. As described in the government publication the alpine vegetation is variable, with mountain-heathers typical in snowier climates and mountain-avens typical in the driest climates. “Snow depth is one of the most important factors influencing plants in the alpine. Topography leads to differential erosion or deposition of snow and even a few centimetres difference in topography can have a pronounced effect on factors that influence plants — soil temperature, moisture, depth of thaw, and exposure to wind.”

After an hour of hiking through the forest we encountered the colourful alpine herb meadows including low shrubs, grasses and sedges along with showy flowers and lichens.

The alpine area where we hiked had a small creek starting in the upper dry areas apparently from a spring since there was no visible snow pack at the middle of August. It would be interesting to see if the creek continued to run until freeze-up. It is a real treat to be able to fill up your water bottle with the cold clear water of an alpine stream. The lush meadows no doubt trap a lot of the snow melt and slowly release it throughout the summer and fall which provides a more consistent water flow in the lower streams and rivers.

I think most people don’t want to see any commercial logging in the upper portions of these short slow growing forests as they provide a buffer between the commercial forests and alpine communities. Any mechanized vehicles could cause long-term damage to these delicate plant communities which provide so many positive values.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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