OPINION: Spending our forest capital

December 5, 2016

By: Chronicle Herald

As a retired Nova Scotia forester, I’ve long enjoyed Mike Parker’s colourful books, especially his Woodchips & Beans, which I once reviewed.

So I was surprised to find his recent article about clearcutting (May the forest be with you, Oct. 29) so thin on history and thick on rhetoric. I’m no fan of big clear-cuts either. But let’s not ignore history, ecology and human demand.

We North Americans are, per capita, the world’s worst paper hogs. We use roughly 227 kg (500 lbs) per person per year. A single Sunday edition of the New York Times strips some eight hectares (20 acres — equal to several city blocks) of prime softwood. Compared to us, Europe and Japan, two equally developed nations, are models of thrift and recycling.

Men with chainsaws can no longer keep up. The only way to feed such a huge appetite is by mechanically harvesting large blocks of mature timber, preferably uniform in size and age and close to your paper mill. No one makes such a costly investment without an assured long-term market and plenty of wood nearby.

That market is us: you, me, Mike and the rest, especially readers of printed matter. True, online news is making inroads there. But cardboard packaging for online shoppers is also making inroads. Plus the market for throwaway sanitary products like baby diapers and Poise pads (for aging Boomers) is mushrooming.

Sorry, Mike, but clearcutting will continue until we change our spendthrift ways.

Then there’s the role of forest ecology. Simply put, past harvest practices can dictate what we do today. If your Daddy clear-cut the family woodlot, likely you’ll have to clear-cut too. That’s because our moist Maritime woodlands mostly restock themselves in short order — no need to plant.

And when the harvest is done all at once, rather than piecemeal over decades like grandpa did, your new forest will likewise come back quickly. The result is even-aged stands where most trees are within 10 years of each other and pretty uniform in size.

And once the fir and spruce shade out your cherry, wire birch and poplar nurse trees, you’re left with a pulpwood forest.

A prime example is the half-million or so hectares of abandoned farmland on the province’s eastern mainland. That land was cleared in the mid-19th century by displaced Highland Scottish immigrants. When 19th century industrialization and railroads lured their offspring away to mining towns like Sydney and New Glasgow and Upalong, it restocked mainly to white spruce — perfect for paper-making.

Likewise, across the Canso Strait on the Cape Breton Highlands, we had and still have another pulpwood forest, a natural sub-boreal monoculture of balsam fir and black spruce that seeded in after the last outbreak of the native spruce budworm in the early 1900s. These outbreaks recur every 35 years or so; we’re about due for another.

More history. In the 1950s, when oil heat started to replace coal with all its smog and soot, the Stanfield government, needing new work for hundreds of jobless miners, invited Sweden’s Stora Kopparberg and America’s Scott Paper (think Kleenex) to build mills to utilize these even-aged, easy-to-reach, at-risk fibre sources. The mills came, the miners got jobs, the politicians smiled. In their shoes we’d have done the same.

But why clear-cut? Why not use “selective” cutting, aka the selection method? A few trees here, a few there, spread over decades?

But even-aged trees, standing close together, rely on each other for support during hurricanes and heavy snows. So selection cutting soon leads to a tangle of blown timber that’s useless for anything but firewood.

So you clear-cut. It’s simpler, faster and, because for pulpwood any one block is harvested only once in a lifetime, road upkeep, a major cost, is reduced.

The catch, as Mike and others have pointed out, is the gradual decline in productivity. Apart from damaging wildlife habitat, you invite soil erosion, humus burn-off (carbon loss), acidification and loss of soil biota.

Germany, which invented forest management in the late 1700s, learned this the hard way after several generations of cut-and-plant forestry. Forest ecosystems, like gardens, are living entities. When outtake exceeds input, they run down.

To prevent this, Mother Nature arranges for temperate region forests to alternate between hardwoods and softwoods.

These stages are called forest succession because light-loving, short-lived pioneer species like birch and aspen are typically succeeded here by longer-lived, shade-tolerant spruce-fir mixtures, all about the same age.

Conifers especially need that early deciduous nurse-crop stage. Aspen leaf-fall is known to counter acidic soil, which in turn helps replenish all-important soil organisms, especially fungi. And Swedish forest managers now plant alders to restore lost nitrogen.

German forester Peter Wohlleben in his 2015 book, The Hidden Life of Trees, underscores the vital role of these communal root/fungi networks. Not only do they nourish their host trees, they help them “communicate” electrically from root to root, much as our nervous systems do.

He also claims that forest trees sense danger from pests and alert downwind trees by means of aerial pheromones. Oak and beech actually repel invaders by turning their foliage bitter!

But enough of that. Nova Scotia is still three-fourths woodland. Most of it is in small private woodlots, of which there are over 20,000. Picked over during several generations for domestic use, they aren’t in great shape.

Yet there still exist, scattered on rich alluvial lowland sites, groves which escaped the worst of wind, wildfire, pests and human impacts. Thus protected, they’ve reached, after a century or two or three, the all-aged condition we foresters call climax forest.

Hereabouts it’s a blend of dominant shade-tolerant species like sugar maple, red spruce, hemlock, white pine and yellow birch—the original Acadian forest type.

Note: Beech once comprised 60 per cent of our deciduous species, but was decimated after 1890 by a lethal bark disease carried on European beech donated to Halifax’s Public Garden by Queen Victoria. The disease has since spread across eastern North America.

Such old-growth stands can persist for generations. But because of natural disasters like lightning fires and hurricanes, they were never as plentiful as we like to think.

Also, ancient Mi’kmaq routinely torched such deep woods to foster berry crops and wildlife and to make hunting easier.

Then came the settlers: Acadians, Scots, Irish, Empire Loyalists, freed American slaves and the rest of us.

Yet today, after 250-plus years of forest use and abuse, after our fling at wooden shipbuilding (we once led the Commonwealth), after years of take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest lumbering, after pit-prop exporting for First and Second World War mines, never mind firewood, we’re now down to clear-cutting Crown lands for pulpwood.

And — God forbid — for biomass to make electricity to squander the way we squander paper.

For writers like Mike and me, it’s a stirring but sorry tale.

Yet a few decades of TLC can work wonders. Biologist Bob Bancroft has proved this on the run-down woodlot he’s been coaxing and coddling for 40 years near Antigonish. We can use more of that.

But first we need a no-nonsense public commitment to reduce, re-use and recycle wood and paper the way the Japanese and Europeans do.

At heart we Canadians are still half rugged pioneer, spending our forest capital like there’s no tomorrow, acting like the resource is infinite.

It’s a human flaw. Give us safer highways and we cancel the benefit by speeding. Give us CFC or LED lights and we leave ‘em on all night.

Sometimes I think we’re nuts. But no, we’re just human.

Thanks, Mike Parker, for reminding us. Only, next time, not so holier-than-thou, please.

Forester Gary L. Saunders is a former Department of Natural Resources manager of education services. His 2015 book, My Life with Trees: A Sylvan Journey (Gaspereau Press), won the 2016 Evelyn Richardson prize for Non-Fiction. He lives in Clifton.

By: Chronicle Herald

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