Originally published in the Chronicle Herald, November 3, 2017
John McPhee’s article in last Saturday’s paper “Climate change may endanger spruce, fir” is an important story to tell. Yes, many of our trees will die as the climate changes because these trees are adapted to a more northern climate. But McPhee’s article is half of the story. Part II is the unfortunate reality that these vulnerable trees are unnaturally abundant in our forests because of our forestry (mis)management.
In a process sometimes called “borealization,” we have transformed much of our forestland into something more closely resembling the northern Boreal Forest. It’s not that Balsam Fir and White Spruce wouldn’t naturally occur in the Maritimes. It’s just that these species would be much less common on our landscape in the absence of clearcutting and past land-clearing for agriculture.
The reason behind this changed forest is that forests are adapted to different types of disturbances. The Boreal Forest thrives under high-disturbance conditions such as frequent fires and large-scale wind and insect damage, occurring over a period of decades. Our Acadian Forest (found in the Maritimes and parts of Maine and northern New England), on the other hand, thrives under smaller-scale forest disturbances that kill only a few trees at a time. Large natural disturbances occur in the Acadian Forest, of course, but only very rarely, at time intervals measured in centuries.
Do I hear an “aha!”? Our legacy of past land clearing for agriculture and our current use of wide-spread clearcutting has created conditions very favourable to Boreal Forest tree species, and indeed Boreal Forest species have flourished at the expense of our warmer-climate adapted species. We have put our forests in an extremely vulnerable position. Even without climate change, we’ve created forests that are susceptible to greater damage from disease, insect outbreaks and windstorms. Add climate change and we may well witness a ‘perfect storm’ of stresses on large areas of our forest.
This is nothing new. Forest scientists have known about the “borealization” of our forests for decades. Forest scientists have also been predicting the negative impacts of climate change on our forest for at least a decade or two. What is disturbing is that our government consistently ignores these serious threats to our forests and continues to support forestry practices that exacerbate the problem.
How might be manage our forests if the future (and our children) mattered?
We would encourage forest harvesting and silviculture practices that favour trees that are at the northern end of their range (rather than encouraging those at the southern end of their range as we are doing now). This means less clearcutting and more partial cutting methods. It means adopting thinning practices that favour our southern species and forests with a diversity of tree ages growing together. This is not an impossible thing to accomplish. I’ve seen it done by progressive foresters on numerous woodlots in the span of a couple of decades. I’ve had some success within fifteen years on my own woodlot: a diversity of ages replaces the single-aged forest and the abundance of balsam fir and white spruce declines while pines, maples and other more southerly species increase. It’s not difficult; it just requires some forward thinking.
There’s never a one solution fits all in forestry, but our government appears oblivious to the need to change at all. Our politicians and senior Department of Natural Resources staff seem determined to forge blindly ahead with the clearcutting status quo. Hopefully we get some bright lights on the proverbial steering wheel before they drive the truck over the cliff.
Jamie Simpson is a forester, woodlot owner and lawyer, and is the author of Restoring the Acadian Forest: A guide for woodland owners in Eastern Canada, Second Edition, published by Nimbus.