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Aldo Leopold, a grandparent of the modern conservation movement, remarked that the definition of a conservationist is written better with an axe than a pen. “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land,” offered Leopold.

I think of this as I decide which trees on my woodlot to cut for firewood. My chainsaw bites into one tree, a diseased beech, and I cut it into firewood lengths. I hesitate over cutting a white ash that’s close to death. I decide to leave it and a year later I find that a woodpecker family had taken up residence in the now dead ash. I cut through the bark of another beech tree to kill it, but leave it standing to provide deadwood habitat for wildlife. I cut some poorly formed sugar maple from a clump, leaving the best two with more room to grow. I cut a few white birch trees to give light to a young, vigorous red spruce, and I pause to remark on just how beautiful a young red spruce is, growing beneath the canopy of mature forest, its branches sweeping down from its centre stem, with a gracefully upward curve at their tips.

I take a light approach to my cutting; I nibble away here and there, cutting some of the poorer quality trees. Ideally, my cutting will slowly restore conditions found in mature, natural Acadian Forest: an abundance of shade-tolerant species such as red spruce and sugar maple, and plentiful dead trees to provide homes for wildlife.

In this way, I accumulate three or four cords of firewood to heat my house for the winter, working evenings and the odd weekend. In exchange for some tree felling work, a friend brings her truck to my woodlot in early summer to help me transport the firewood from the forest to my woodshed. It’s a nice excuse to be social. I don’t bother to keep track of the time it takes me to cut my firewood. I do it because I enjoy it: the outdoor exercise, the satisfaction of slowly encouraging a healthy forest, the smell of wood smoke from my stove in the fall. I think, too, of my carbon footprint as I sit beside my woodstove in February – and smile at my local, small-scale energy production. It’s a luxury to be warm without worrying about the price, both in dollars and carbon, of furnace oil or electric heat.

It’s also a luxury to have a daily connection with the forest. There’s magic in spring’s first trillium, in discovering a hemlock I hadn’t seen before, in stumbling across a bear one fall afternoon, in the sound of a hermit thrush at twilight in May. Or in drinking water that comes from a shallow well on the woodlot, water that is clean and delicious thanks, in part at least, to the intact forest surrounding the well. There’s something special in sharing the woodlot with friends who come to hike or ski, and with strangers who seek out the trails for a Sunday walk. My neighbour tells me he tracked a cougar on my property once, and that gives me a little chill if I happen to be in the forest at night.

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“You have to have vision. I started with cut-over woods, and some day down the road there’ll be big red spruce and hardwood here,” remarked a woodlot owner and friend of mine named David Thompson. “I just hope I get to cut a few of them,” he added with a laugh.

Thompson bought his land back in the 1970s, a property covered mostly with thickets of balsam fir that had grown up after clearcutting in the 1960s. With careful, thoughtful management, Thompson improved the quality of his woodlot with each thinning and harvest, gradually decreasing the abundant balsam fir and increasing the red spruce, yellow birch, white ash and sugar maple. “You look at what you’ve got in a particular area and work with it – the woodlot tells me what to do. I concentrate on taking out the balsam fir and poorer quality stems of other species; I leave the good stuff to grow,” Thompson explained.

“The big trick,” continued Thompson, “is thinking a few generations down the road. We see 50-year old trees and think we’ve got a mature forest – even I do that. But we should be thinking about 150, 200 year-old trees.”

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‘Forest time’ is a concept that some woodlot owners and foresters argue we need to get into our heads when thinking about the forest. Forest time spans human generations. There are trees living today that once lived with Mi’kmaq families as their only human neighbours, that witnessed the expulsion of the Acadians, that were present at the birth of Canada. A red spruce or hemlock or sugar maple starting its life’s journey today might be seen alive by our great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.

An old tree continues a role in life for decades after its death. A myriad species of fungi and insects commence a slow but inevitably effective siege against tough tissues that kept the tree standing over centuries. The tree fills with life. Amazingly, the tree will contain more living cells – of fungi, bacteria, insects – while decomposing than it did while living. Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes that they use but a single season, thereafter abandoning them to any of the dozens of other wildlife species that require tree cavities for shelter and raising young. Eventually, nutrients from the red spruce cycle into new life; particles of the tree’s structure, not fully decomposed, build soil structure, improving growing conditions for living trees.

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The arrival of Europeans brought phenomenal changes to Nova Scotia’s native Acadian Forest. Mature forest declined to a fraction of its natural abundance. Old forest species such as red spruce, hemlock and sugar maple shrunk in abundance, replaced by species that thrive on disturbance, such as balsam fir, white spruce and white birch. Early accounts of Nova Scotia’s forest describe abundances of trees 3 to 5 feet in diameter. The average size of trees fell precipitously: there was once, not many decades ago, a rule against cutting any tree less than 10 inches. Thanks to frequent and indiscriminate clearcutting, the average size of a log at a sawmill is now less than 6 inches.

Of course, Nova Scotia was never an unbroken swath of large, old trees; there are areas with poor soils that cannot support big trees, and fires and large windstorms occasionally take their toll. But on the whole, the Acadian Forest is a shadow of its former self. So much so, in fact, that it is labelled as one of the most endangered forest types in North America.

Thinking in forest time, however, gives hope. As the writer Bill McKibben points out, our remaining bits of old natural forest need not be considered relics of former glory, but rather a “promise of the future, a glimpse of the systemic soundness we will not see completed in our lifetimes, but that can fire our hopes for the timelessness to come.” This is the thinking of woodlot owners who work carefully to restore value to their land, guided by a vision that they will not fully realize in their lifetime, yet inspired nevertheless to work towards.

The decision, as a society, to set aside a small portion of the land from logging, mining and settlement, also gives hope. Within these protected areas, covering a little better than a tenth of the landscape, the natural cycles and flows of life will unfold. Forests are dynamic entities, always evolving, so the idea this land will be restored to a past condition isn’t quite right. But with time, these forests will demonstrate the potential of our forest outside of direct human manipulation. Give these set-aside lands 50, 100 or 500 years to develop, and whoever walks through them will see a forest phenomenally different from lands that continue to be managed with current forestry practices.

I think about the 300 acre nature preserve next to my woodlot. At present, this forest is indistinguishable from the surround forest: typical young mixed forest, some grown up on former pasture land, the rest cut numerous times. But even 50 years of uninterrupted natural growth will result in large change. Red spruce and other mature forest tree species will take over the dense patches of already dying balsam fir. The amount of deadwood will rebound, providing homes for increasing populations of birds, small mammals and the microscopic life that builds soil and drives nutrient cycling. A smile spreads when I think of someone walking the same trail as I do, perhaps a friend’s daughter’s daughter, remarking on the massive white pine and yellow birch trees – maybe 3 feet across – that she finds there.

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At the edge of an era of climate change, now is the time to evolve our relationship with the forest. Rather than simplify the forest, rather than reduce its natural resiliency, rather than limit its genetic reserves, now is the time to work with the forest, to reduce the stresses we put on it, to ensure that the forest is best able to respond and adapt to the changing climate.

What will this entail?

  1. Supporting responsible forestry. Anyone who buys wood or paper products must assert her or his preference for locally grown products from well-managed forests. Products coming from forests managed to the certification requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council, thus earning the use of the FSC logo, are usually a safe bet. Governments, naturally, should buy FSC-certified products, thereby using their large purchasing power to promote forestry practices that benefit society.
  1. Public education. Few people know that the Maritimes is home to a unique forest. Few people know that planting trees, as done by the forestry industry and despite claims to the contrary, is ecologically destructive. Few people know that the forest around us today is highly depleted, yet holds, still, tremendous ecological and economical potential if managed well. A widespread awareness of the forest, and what constitutes responsible forestry, would foster an environment conducive to change.
  1. Engagement. As is oft said, the future is decided by those who show up at meetings. Citizens must share their views with decision makers. If not, we become more and more the ‘unconscious civilization’ described by John Ralston Saul is his appraisal of Canadian society, wherein large business interests shape public policy, regardless of the public good.
  1. Honest accounting. Ron Coleman, founder of the Genuine Progress Index Atlantic, a non-profit research group based in Nova Scotia, challenges us to consider and account for the consequences of how our forest is managed. We must evaluate the costs and benefits of forest management on the public well-being, rather than simply on the basis of net profits to industry.
  1. Valued Woodlot Owners. Roughly half of Nova Scotia’s forestland is owned by individuals and families, some of it passed down through generations, some bought as country get-aways, some purchased simply to cut for quick profit. A hopeful future for Nova Scotia’s forests necessitates an active, involved and dedicated community of woodlot owners. Many woodlot owners believe that land ownership brings with it a responsibility for stewardship. At the same time, I also believe that society must place more value on the benefits of stewardship by woodlot owners. After all, my woodlot provides clean air, it captures and stores carbon, it shelters a stream that runs into a nearby nature preserve, it gives habitat to roaming wildlife, and it forms part of an aesthetically pleasing landscape. These are all benefits to society, but nowhere are they accounted for outside of my own satisfaction. In some manner, we need to recognize that the forest is important to society, regardless of who owns it. Ownership should come with an appropriate reward for good stewardship, and disincentives for poor management.
  1. Community Influence over Public Forests. Public forests make up roughly 30% of Nova Scotia’s forestland. Historically, this land has not been managed in the best interest of the public good. A hopeful future requires a new approach to public forestland, one that places society’s values foremost. Such a list might include clean water, local economic development and employment, recreational and spiritual desires, high quality wood products and aesthetically pleasing landscapes. One approach utilized in numerous other jurisdictions is to give local communities an opportunity to participate in management and to derive benefits from the use of public forestland. Foresters and forest technicians are utilized, of course, but decisions are based on the best interests of local communities, rather than foreign corporations.
  1. Knowledge. Responsible forest management requires the time of forest managers, foresters, and forest technicians. Planning a clearcut requires much less expertise and time than a selection harvest designed to improve the quality of the forest. A hopeful future for Nova Scotia’s forests requires many more forest professionals than are currently employed.
  1. A Land Ethic. The writer and forester Aldo Leopold put forth the term land ethic to describe a society-wide, respectfully relationship that recognizes that the land is a living entity. As one woodlot owner pointed out to me recently, society punishes someone who gets caught robbing a bank, yet offers no formal reprimand, and even encourages through government funding programs, to someone who knowingly damages a forest.

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A future of responsible, sensible use of our forests is possible. Many owners of small tracts of forestland are proving that forest harvesting can benefit society and the owner alike. Employment, local economic development, high quality forest products, resilient ecosystems, clean water and pleasing landscapes can all be accommodated. It is highly questionable, however, whether these can be accommodated with demands to maximize profits of large industries and returns to their investors. The fact that the Acadian Forest is an endangered forest, that forest employment falls as more wood is cut, that over 90% of our forest is harvested by clearcutting, suggests that the current approach to forest management needs a drastic overhaul.

Protecting 12% of our forest is a major step forward, a wise move that looks beyond corporate profit to the well-being of future generations. It is, however, a small step compared with the management challenges we face on the remaining 88% of our landscape. It is the decisions we make on this 88% that write our collective signature on the land for future Nova Scotians to judge.red sprucewhite ash gap

Jamie Simpson

Many of us in Nova Scotia depend on the clean drinking water that healthy forests provide. Forests provide this service naturally and freely. But when forests are abused, so too are drinking water supplies. New York City recognized the connection between healthy forests and drinking water: the city is spending some $1.5 billon to protect 80,000 acres of forest land to safe-guard its drinking water. This may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a good deal compared to the $8 billon the city would have to spend to build a water filtration plant to accomplish the same services that a healthy forest provides.

Why are healthy forests and water so intricately connected? Water can be called the ‘lifeblood’ of the forest: clean, fresh, water is an essential ingredient of our native Acadian Forest. All life in the forest needs water to drink. By weight, trees are roughly one-half water, and a hectare of Nova Scotia forest can contain over 60 tonnes of water in the trees alone.

Water in the forest does much more than quench the thirst of lofty red spruce trees. Water provides rich habitat – a close look at a forest stream or pond reveals abundant life, from plants and mosses to salamanders, frogs, turtles, fish and countless insects. Forest ecologists report that some 90% of all wildlife relies on the habitat found in or next to forest waterways.

Trees provide shade that helps keep streams cool. Trout and salmon, for example, suffer when water temperatures rise. Tree roots prevent erosion, keeping sediment from clogging stream beds and smothering fish eggs. Dead trees that fall into streams create ideal pools and shaded hiding spots for fish.

Importantly for drinking water supplies, forests act as giant filters and sponges, removing pollutants and sediments from water, and soaking up and storing vast amounts of water, slowly but faithfully releasing clean water into waterways and underground water reserves.

People who own forest land can help ensure healthy forests, healthy water systems and sustained drinking water supplies.   (1) Let nature take its course. With time, degraded forest and aquatic ecosystems naturally recover. (2) Restore forest cover to the banks of water ways, especially on farmland. All waterways should have at least 30 metres (100 feet) of forest along their edges. (3) Don’t clearcut. Without forest cover, water can move too quickly through the forest, causing erosion, nutrient loss and drought.

While cutting trees on my woodlot for firewood with a friend a while back, he paused and asked “How do you decide which trees to cut and which to leave?” I had gone ahead and marked each of the trees that I wanted cut down, a few here and a few there, and he was curious about my decisions. “Well, I want to promote valuable, healthy trees, to leave it better than when I started,” I said. “And to restore species reduced in abundance. And to provide wildlife trees. And some I’ll leave as ‘legacy trees’.” I quickly realized just how many factors come into play when choosing which trees to cut and to leave.

Here are a few thoughts that crystallized as I thought about his question:

1. Favour old-forest species (long lived and shade tolerant)

Old forest species would naturally dominate most woodlots in the Maritimes. These include red spruce, sugar maple, hemlock, white pine, beech, white ash and yellow birch. Intensive logging and clearing for agriculture, however, have hugely reduced the abundances of these species, and have increased young forest species such as grey and white birch, pin cherry, poplar, balsam fir and tamarack. Not only are old forest species more economically valuable, but they have a better chance of surviving the changes to our forest that climate change will bring.

Old forest species often grow hidden among young forest species. They can very uncommon, perhaps only a few per acre, so it is necessary to look carefully to determine if any are present. When I find an old forest species, I favour them by cutting other trees away from them, ensuring they have room to grow.

Species often reduced in abundance (favour these) Species that are often over-abundant (cut these first)
red spruce

white pine

eastern hemlock

eastern white cedar

yellow birch

black ash

white ash

green (red) ash

red oak

bur oak

black cherry

butternut

basswood

beech (healthy)

elm (healthy)

sugar maple

balsam fir*

tamarack*

jack pine*

white spruce*

red maple*

grey birch

aspen species (poplar)

pin and choke cherry

*These species form mature forest in certain habitats (high-elevation, or low fertility, or excessively wet, or very dry sites) but are generally over-abundant outside these areas.

2. Promote healthy, valuable trees

Assessing tree health starts with looking up. If you’re not tripping over your feet, you’re probably not looking up enough! The upper part of a tree (its crown) shows how well the tree is faring relative to neighbouring trees, and whether it is succumbing to the effects of insects or diseases. Assessing tree vigour can show which trees have potential to increase their growth and live long lives, and which are growing slowly and at risk of death or serious decline.

As shown in the illustrations below, the most obvious sign of tree decline is the death of small branches. For hardwood trees, this results in progressively less dense crowns and noticeable dead branches. Generally, the more leaf surface a tree has relative to its size, the better it can grow and sustain itself. The crown of a vigorous hardwood tree should be roughly two feet wide for every inch of trunk diameter.

For softwood trees, reduced vigour also results in less dense crowns, but is generally seen in crown length relative to the height of the tree. The live crown of softwood trees should cover at least 40% of the total height of the tree.

Other factors being equal, trees that are in poor health, and trees with poor form (forked tops, bark damage, crooked stems) are the ones to cut. Vigorous and well-formed trees are the ones to leave.

3. Leave an abundance of wildlife and legacy trees

Standing dead trees and trees with cavities or dens usually have low economic value, but have extremely high ecological value. Some 25% of all wildlife in the forest finds shelter in dead or dying trees. In addition, thousands of species of insects, fungi, bacteria, mosses, liverworts and lichens find nourishment in deadwood, gradually decomposing the wood as they feed on it. Gradually, deadwood is returned to the soil as nutrients and organic matter, feeding plants and building soil structure. As some folks say, deadwood is the life of the forest.

Legacy trees are large, healthy, dominant trees that are allowed to grow old and die. Alive, they provide structural diversity and a rain of genetically fit seed. When they die, they provide cavity nest sites while standing and a new source of large deadwood when they fall.

Jamie Simpson

A few years ago I found myself tramping over a 400 acre woodlot in Cape Breton, hired by a family to provide advice on what to do with their forestland. None of the dozen or so family members wanted large-scale cutting, but beyond that opinions ranged from ‘just let it be’ to ‘but we have to do something’. Oh, and what about fire risk with all the dying spruce? I quickly realized my role was part forester, part mediator. The family’s key question was what to do with the patches of mature white spruce growing on old pasture land. As with almost all of eastern Nova Scotia, the white spruce were in various stages of decline due to the bark beetle.

As it happened, the family’s woodland provided an interesting case-study in forest ecology, particularly in forest succession. To set the stage a little, about half the property was covered with mature hardwood forest typical for the site: mostly sugar maple, beech and yellow birch. The other half had been farmland, let go to forest at various times over the past half century or so, and had grown back with mostly white spruce mixed with bits of red maple, fir and white birch. Some patches of white spruce had been clearcut 15 years ago, some patches were still reasonably vigorous, and some were well along the path to falling apart.

The patches of falling down white spruce told a rather interesting story of rapid forest succession in action. Pretty darn exciting, I know. As shown in the accompanying photos, seedlings of sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash and beech were well established wherever enough trees had died to allow partial light to reach the ground. Some of the young hardwood were already reaching over my head. These old-field white spruce stands were well along a transition to shade-tolerant mixed hardwood stands.

As I walked along I thought about why the sugar maple and yellow birch seedlings in these areas were growing so well. Anyone who plants hardwood knows that they can be tricky to establish. One plus was the moderate microclimate that the dead and dying spruce provided: not too sunny, not too shaded, not too hot, not too dry. The other plus, I surmised, was that the tangled mess of fallen spruce provided a physical barrier to browsing deer. Interested in this theory, I searched the scientific literature and, sure enough, found a study confirming that a mess of tree tops and branches left on the ground after harvesting helps protect seedlings from hungry deer.

So, what did I tell the family? In my report I explained that white spruce was not the natural forest cover for their land; while the bark beetle is hastening its decline, white spruce wasn’t destined to survive much longer on their land anyway. I suggested that they could indeed do some limited harvesting of some of the still-living white spruce to provide logs for their building projects, and that they had lots of potential to harvest firewood from the hardwood stands. Where the white spruce was already too far gone, I told them no need to worry, because the dead and dying spruce were nurturing the next forest – don’t lift a finger, and enjoy watching a new mixed hardwood forest grow, a forest much better suited to their property. In time, they may consider doing some pre-commercial thinning to help encourage tree species that would be common in old forests, such as sugar maple and yellow birch.

Some might suggest that the property should be “sanitized” by clearcutting to address the bark beetle problem. While such cutting might help to temporarily reduce the local population of bark beetles, it would not do much to stem the bark beetle infestation on a regional scale. The cause of the bark beetle outbreak is the un-natural abundance of mature white spruce across eastern Nova Scotia; the bark beetle problem won’t be solved until these white spruce forests evolve into new, more diverse forests that are less vulnerable to bark beetle.

As for fire danger, I explained that heavy tree-cutting would actually increase fire risk for their forest by putting a large amount of tinder-sized branches close to the ground, without any shade to keep things moist. As well, the fine branches of the dead and dying spruce (the material that adds to the fire danger) fall to the ground gradually, and are quickly decomposed, thereby avoiding a large build-up of dry branches close to the ground. As the young hardwood trees grow, they provide additional shade, thereby keeping temperatures down and moisture levels up, warding off fire hazard.

The areas on the property where white spruce had been clearcut some 15 years previously also told an interesting story. A few scattered young hardwood trees had grown in the clearcut, but were in rough shape. They were heavily branched due to lack of shade and stunted by repeated animal browsing.

With my report in hand, the family and I walked parts of the woodlot so they could see for themselves my key findings. Fortunately, all members of the family felt that their concerns and wishes for the property were respected: there was no need for drastic measures to reduce fire hazard or to renew the forest, but there were also ample opportunities for limited harvesting to meet their lumber and firewood requirements. A few years from now, I look forward to walking this family’s property again to see how their forest, and their understanding of their forest, evolves.