Our Signature on the Land: How will our children view our forest management?

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.

*

“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.”

*

‘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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

6 comments
  1. David Blackwell said:

    Re your March 26 piece (“Our Signature on the Land…”): Thank you for this one, too, Jamie. It’s so important to have this sort of informed, elegantly written, positive vision of a healthy, life-giving forest, and how to keep it that way, in face of the continuing mistreatment and destruction of what remains of Nova Scotia’s forests and woodlands–treatment more often than not justified by appeals to certification and adherence to professional standards, which, with the exception you mention, are quite inadequate in terms of forest health and protection. An excellent, piece, Jamie. You give encouragement and hope. The references to Aldo Leopold made me wonder if you are familiar with Stan Rowe’s books, Home Place: Essays on Ecology (2002) & Earth Alive: Essays on Ecology (2006). The late Stan Rowe is the author with another Canadian, Ted Mosquin, of the 2004 The Manifesto for Earth ( http://www.ecospherics.net/pages/EarthManifesto.pdf)

  2. Thank you, David! I appreciate your good words very much. I know of Stan Rowe’s works, but have yet to read them… about time to change that! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Mark Ballard said:

    An excellent article. I could see true benefits of creating a workshop for our junior high and high school students based on these thoughts. The difficult challenges we are facing now would be offset by more knowledgeable future generations, as you mention, the future stewards.

    • Hi Mark, Thanks for your thoughts here, and good words. I would be more than happy to chat more about this.
      Best regards,
      Jamie

  4. William McKay said:

    Jamie, are you prepared to let others read the articles? I thought a couple things 1) Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association have a newsletter and they may want to publish them and 2) here in Moncton a local naturalist does a column for the newspaper on the weekend and he might be interested in including them. I ask you first before I approach others.
    It’s good work. The eyes, mind and hearts of many need to ponder your verbal pictures.

    • Hi Bill,
      Yes, I’d be honoured to share them. Please feel free! Thank you for your good words, too. You, of course, are one of the people I’m referring to in the article, when I mention forest time.
      best wishes,
      Jamie

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