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“Burn a tree, grow a tree. It’s simple, Jamie!”

So said an exasperated Natural Resources minister to me once. On one level, his argument sounded sensible. The carbon released into the atmosphere by burning one tree should be offset by carbon taken up when a new tree grows and takes its place – or so it might seem. Based on this premise, governments around the world – including Nova Scotia – have introduced policies to encourage biomass energy, buoyed by the hope of reducing carbon emissions.

It’s important to note that nowhere in the world is forest biomass electricity development driven by the energy market; the feasibility of these projects so far depends on support from government policy. When representatives for Nova Scotia Power Inc. (NSPI) were asked whether the company would pursue the Point Tupper biomass project if not for the province’s renewable energy requirements, the answer was a definite “no.” Why not? Cost and risk, of course. The government’s regulated targets for increased renewables provided an opportunity for NSPI to shift that extra cost and risk to Nova Scotian rate-payers.

So hold on. Given that Nova Scotias are picking up the tab, and given that forest biomass electricity hinges on government support, what do Nova Scotians get in return for these costs and risks? And what are we trading for the negative impacts to our forest resource and wildlife habitat, and sacrifice of our higher-value hardwood industries? What about the migrating songbirds, retuning to Nova Scotia in the spring, only to find biomass clearcuts where they once nested and raised their young? If the government’s intention is to reduce our carbon emissions, then Nova Scotians have a right to know whether Point Tupper actually delivers carbon reductions, given the damaging side-effects of burning our forests for electricity.

As it turns out, the assumption that forest biomass electricity reduces carbon emissions is rather brittle. The way forests grow and store carbon, and the way that energy is generated from burning trees, is not as simple as the “burn a tree, grow a tree” argument. Burning trees to make electricity can put more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal, at least for the next few decades. Burning trees to heat buildings, however, may reduce carbon emissions.

A Critical Climate Accounting Error

So what’s going on here? There are three key issues at play. The first thing to consider is the time it takes a forest to soak up carbon from the atmosphere after biomass is harvested and burned, and whether the forest is even able to soak up an equivalent amount of carbon. The lag time between biomass burning and carbon take-up is important, because we need carbon reduction now, not decades down the road. Scientists tell us that if we can’t get a handle on carbon emissions in the near term, future reductions may not provide much benefit.

A Princeton University scientist named Timothy Searchinger, along with 12 of his colleagues, wrote about this way back in 2009, in an article in the journal Science, titled “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error.” They made the point that land used for biomass fuels may, over the long term, store less carbon per hectare than it did before biomass harvesting. The upshot is that burning forest biomass results in immediate carbon emissions which may or may not be taken up by the forest decades in the future.

Burning trees for Electricity is Inefficient

Burning wood to heat buildings can be 80 percent efficient or even a bit higher. Burning wood to generate electricity, on the other hand, is far less efficient, in the neighborhood of 21.5 percent.

Some biomass electricity facilities can put waste heat to use, thereby increasing their efficiency. By supplying some thermal energy to Hawkesbury Paper, its pulp mill neighbor, Point Tupper, when operating under its best case scenario, can achieve 36 percent efficiency. In other words, of the 50 truckloads of wood delivered to that plant daily (yes, 50 truckloads a day!), 32 to 39 truckloads are wasted, quite literally, up the smokestack.  (Of course, the carbon from all 50 truckloads goes into the atmosphere, regardless of how much energy is produced.)

Furthermore, the carbon footprints of fuels are not equal. For example, electricity from natural gas is far cleaner than coal, and coal is cleaner than wood, on the basis of carbon released at time of burning per unit of energy produced.

A team of forest biomass energy researchers in Massachusetts found that under a best-case scenario (low-impact forest harvesting; use of biomass for heating rather than electricity; and replacing the dirtiest of the fossil fuels), forest biomass can become carbon neutral in as little as 10 to 20 years. However, under a worst-case scenario (clearcutting; burning wood for electricity; and replacing the least dirty of fossil fuels), the researchers found that forest biomass would not become carbon neutral within a century.

To put these results in perspective, the researchers offered a snapshot of estimated carbon emission levels in 2050 (assuming that the forest actually does eventually sequester all of the carbon released). Replacing electricity from coal with electricity from biomass would result in a three percent net increase in emissions by 2050, and replacing a natural gas power plant with biomass would result in a 110 percent net increase in emissions. Replacing an oil-fired heating system with a biomass heating system, on the other hand, could result in a 25 percent net reduction in emissions by 2050.

Researchers in Ontario ended up with similar results. Jon McKechnie and his fellow researchers found that replacing coal-fired electricity with forest biomass electricity would increase carbon emissions for some 16 to 35 years. These researchers also investigated converting trees to ethanol to be used as a substitute for gasoline, and they found that this would increase carbon emissions for more than a century.

Repeat Cutting

A researcher in Norway, Bjart Holtsmark, noted that previous studies had failed to account for the impact of repeated biomass harvests. He found that when multiple biomass harvests on the same piece of land are factored in (based on the forest reaching economic maturity), net carbon emissions from forest biomass electricity remain higher than coal-fired electricity for some 250 years.

There is also research pointing to reduced productivity in certain soils following some types of harvesting. Once the productive capacity of soil is compromised, the forest loses some of its capacity to sequester carbon. This appears to be the case in Nova Scotia, according to research commissioned by the provincial Department of Natural Resources. Unfortunately, DNR has yet to release the results of this study.

Signs of Change

So far, most governments have clung to their policies that make biomass electricity projects economically viable. Under Nova Scotia’s Renewable Energy Standard, biomass electricity still qualifies as renewable, regardless of its actual impact on carbon emissions and our forests. But there are signs of a shift. The European Union has recommended that existing biomass energy facilities should emit 35 percent less greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they replace, and that new facilities release 60 percent less by 2018.

Massachusetts has gone further by actually changing its energy policy based on our new understanding of carbon accounting in relation to biomass. The state introduced a minimum efficiency requirement of 50 percent for biomass energy projects, a minimum of 60 percent efficiency for projects to receive full renewable energy subsidies, and the further requirement that a proposed biomass facility will reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent over its first 20 years of operation relative to a new natural gas facility. If such requirements were in place in Nova Scotia, the Point Tupper plant would not qualify for the special treatment which enabled NSPI to build it and have electricity customers pick up the tab.

Listen to the Science

What should we do? Nova Scotia’s Department of Energy needs to take a hard look at the science of forest biomass energy and carbon emissions, and adjust its Renewable Energy Standard accordingly. If Point Tupper cannot meet a 60 percent minimum efficiency requirement, perhaps it should no longer qualify as a source of renewable energy. Small-scale biomass heating projects, on the other hand, should be further explored for their potential to reduce carbon emissions while reducing our reliance on fuel oil and electric heat.

Furthermore, Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources should introduce forest harvesting regulations to ensure that carbon storage in Nova Scotia’s forests is increasing over time, rather than decreasing. This would also help avoid the detrimental effects on biodiversity which result from clearcutting for biomass fuel.

Given the negative impacts of forest biomass electricity, it’s time for Nova Scotia to reassess the costs and benefits. Let’s look at the scientific evidence and start making the difficult but necessary decisions. Surely our forests and the wildlife they support are worth it.

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.

Jamie Simpson

Nothing says spring is coming like a chorus of frogs looking for love.   Mating calls of frogs – the ringing of spring peepers and the guttural bass of wood frogs – echo through each spring that I can remember, their first calls before the last of the snow, before the first leaves, before the first fiddleheads.  It’s a promise of a shift in the seasons emanating from woodland pools and wetlands everywhere.

Few might realize that these springtime puddles – or vernal pools as they’re known – are among the richest wildlife habitats in our eastern forests, and may in fact be integral to the health of our forest ecosystems. Come summertime, however, these pools that teem with life in the spring shrink in the summer heat, sometimes drying up altogether, making these valuable habitats rather easy to overlook. While many landowners wouldn’t think of cutting down an ecologically valuable habitat tree, these same landowners might inadvertently destroy a vernal pool by cutting the forest around it just for lack of seeing it. The easiest way to find a vernal pool is to locate it in the spring or early summer, with the tell-tale frog calls, masses of eggs deposited in the pools or swimming tadpoles. In summer, identifying pools can the tricky if they’re dried up, but the presence of darker-than-normal, water-stained leaf mats in low depressions can be a good indicator.

The fact that vernal pools are generally not connected to other watercourses, and may dry out in the heat of summer, ensures that they are free of fish predators that would otherwise devour amphibian eggs and young.  Wood frogs, yellow- and blue-spotted salamanders and numerous other species hatch out in these pools, and live the first part of their lives there as tadpoles in these food-rich pools, before morphing to a life on land.

Unlikely as it may seem, these woodland puddles are so productive that in some eastern forests, the mass of amphibian life nurtured in vernal pools, largely unseen, outweighs the combined weight of all the mammals and birds in these forests.  These frogs and salamanders, in eating and being eaten in such abundance, are far more fundamental to the forest ecosystem than scientists had realized.  As well, vernal pools are used by numerous other species for finding food or as temporary habitat, including species-at-risk such as Blanding’s turtles and ribbon snakes, and common wildlife such as turtles, ducks, snakes, herons and many more.  Some 500 species of invertebrates have been found in vernal pools of eastern forests.

Despite their importance to wildlife, only one jurisdiction in the eastern forest region, the State of Maine, has rules to mitigate the loss of vernal pool habitat.  With an impressive effort, Maine has identified vernal pools with high wildlife significance, which is roughly a quarter or fifth of all vernal pools documented in the State.  These are pools that host an abundance of amphibian life, or species of special conservation concern.  Developers are not permitted to build within the immediate area of the vernal pool depression itself, and are required to maintain at least 75% of surrounding forest intact, within 750 feet of the pool.

Maine’s rules are based on research showing that the forest surrounding vernal pools is just as critical to vernal pool life as the pool itself.  For example, one researcher documented the effects of a development that protected a vernal pool, but which destroyed 90% of the upland forest near the pool. The wood frog population plummeted by 94% in the first year following the development, and within three years there was no evidence of a breeding population left. When reassessed after six years, the researchers still found no evidence of frogs returning to the pool.   Protecting the pools themselves, without protecting some of the upland forest, was woefully inadequate in this case.

Maine’s vernal pool regulations, however, do not apply to forestry operations.  While cutting that maintains deadwood and tree cover can be compatible with amphibian life, researchers find that clearcutting and especially whole-tree cutting for biomass tends to kill frogs and salamanders and fragments and degrades the habitat they need to survive.  While the bodies of amphibians born in water change to allow them to live on land, it is, in a way, only a partial transition to terrestrial life.  Although they migrate out of the pools and live their adult lives on land, their bodies still require moisture to breath, and only a damp forest enables them to move about to feed and migrate to their upland forest habitat and new vernal pools.  Scientists have found that without the cool, moist climate that a forest and deadwood provide, many amphibian species simply die from exposure.

Guidelines for forestry work around vernal pools have been created in Maine, and are a good resource for anyone who wishes to carry out forestry in a way that is minimally damaging to vernal pools and the wildlife they support.  The guidelines recommend first identifying any vernal pools on the property, especially those with an abundance of wildlife, and then ensuring that the forest canopy is maintained to provide a cool and shaded habitat.  The pool area itself should be left undisturbed completely, and at least 75% forest canopy, plus an undisturbed forest floor and abundant deadwood, should be maintained within 100 feet of the pool.  The zone from 100-400 feet from the pool should be kept with at least 50% canopy cover, with ground disturbance minimized and deadwood left undisturbed.  Search the internet for Forestry Habitat Management Guidelines for Vernal Pool Wildlife to read the complete Guidelines. Those interested in learning more can also visit Maine’s website on vernal pools, which includes a video about vernal pool life: http://www.umaine.edu/vernalpools/index.htm.

While there are no measures to protect vernal pools in the Maritimes, Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) recently launched a Vernal Pool Mapping and Monitoring Project to document Nova Scotia’s vernal pool habitat. Dr. John Brazner, Wetland Program Coordinator with NSE, is asking landowners to check their properties for vernal pools, and asking those who find pools to record basic information about them and to pass this on to the Department. The NSE website has information about vernal pools, photos of various species found living in vernal pools, and a data sheet that can be used to record information about vernal pools found on landowners’ properties. (http://www.gov.ns.ca/nse/wetland/vernal.pool.mapping.project.asp).

Dr. Ron Russell, a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, is also working to understand life in Nova Scotia’s vernal pools. He and some of his students have been monitoring some 200 wetlands for more than a decade. “Our work with these wetlands shows that vernal pools enable certain species of salamanders and frogs to move across the land,” explains Dr. Russell. “So when vernal pools are lost,” Dr. Russell continues, “we likely lose many populations of these species, even if larger wetlands are protected, because it disrupts their ability to migrate to find food and new breeding habitats.” Loss of wetland habitat is not an abstract concern for Dr. Russell; he and his students have seen the loss of nearly a third of their research wetlands to development and road construction during the last decade. Even when roads don’t entirely destroy a wetland, Dr. Russell has found that road de-icing chemicals can kill amphibian eggs in some sites they’ve studied.

With the efforts of Dr. Russell and his students, and Dr. Brazner and Nova Scotia Environment, we should soon begin to have, at least, a sense of Nova Scotia’s vernal pool resource. As more people come to understand the critical role vernal pools play in our forest ecosystem, hopefully we’ll be less likely to bulldoze over them, fill them in, or clearcut around them, and the spring-time chorus of frogs will continue to delight winter-weary Maritimers.

Nova Scotia’s Wetland Policy and Vernal Pools:

Nova Scotia’s Wetland Policy does not apply to wetlands less than 100 square metres. As vernal pools are often smaller than 100 square metres, wetland alteration permits are usually not required for developments that destroy vernal pools. Furthermore, the Wetland Policy does not apply to forest cutting or to roads that are less than 10 metres wide or less than 600 square metres total (such as forestry access roads), so there is no protection for the upland component of vernal pool habitat .   A wetland alteration permit is required for a development (for example, a subdivision or an industrial park) that would impact a vernal pool (that is, fill it, drain it, excavate it, etc) if the pool is greater than 100 square metres. According to Dr. Russell of St. Mary’s University, this policy falls short because it lacks enforcement measures, and because it does not address wetlands less than 100 square metres, which includes most vernal pools.

Landowners who wish to protect amphibians and their habitat can identify vernal pools on their property in the spring or early summer, and ensure that any forest cutting maintains a forest canopy, deadwood and minimal disturbance to the forest floor within a few hundred metres of the pool. The key to protecting amphibian habitat is to protect both their vernal pools, as well as the forest around the pools so that they can move across the land to find food and new breeding habitats.

Originally published in Atlantic Forestry Review

Giving a Darn about Protected Areas

Jamie Simpson

“Why should someone in the timber business give a darn about protected areas?” My friend wasn’t making a rhetorical point. He wondered, reasonably, why people who depend on the forest resource for a living, many of whom spend their working hours in the woods, should want to protect nature get-aways for office workers.

The question reminded me of a time working for a harvesting contractor. He operated the cable skidder and I worked as hard as I ever had to make sure there was always a full twitch worth of trees on the ground by the time he returned for the next load. As the skidder grunted to a halt, I’d run the cable out, choke the trees I’d just cut, and would catch my breath as I watched them snake up to the back of the skidder.

At lunch, we’d sit in his truck with our sandwiches and coffee. I quickly realized the small comfort of getting out of nature for a few minutes, a brief respite from the bugs and elements. At the end of the day, the last thing either of us wanted was a walk in the woods.

The answer to my friend’s question, I think, is that the recreational value of protected natural areas is only one of many reasons why we protect land from development and extractive industries, and a minor one at that. We don’t protect some of our ecosystems just to ensure we can go for hikes in the woods.

Rather, we protect land for three fundamental reasons. First, there is the unabashedly utilitarian value. We benefit from healthy forests, soils, rivers and lakes. Forests scrub harmful pollutants from the air, moderate flooding, reduce temperature extremes and keep erosion at bay. Forests provide habitat for the diversity of life that moderates insect and disease outbreaks. Forests keep rivers healthy places for fish to live. Forests slow rainwater, allowing more of it to enter the soil and replenish underground water reservoirs. Natural forests also have the species and genetic diversity to best resist and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate.

Protecting forests also reduces our carbon emissions to the atmosphere. World-wide, forests are being cut at a rate that results in a release of carbon into the atmosphere (roughly a fifth of our net carbon emissions comes from forest cutting). With some creative marketing, perhaps Nova Scotia could tap into financial rewards for the carbon that its new protected lands sequester.

Still on the utilitarian benefits, who knows what medicines and other chemicals are waiting to be discovered within our forest’s natural complement of biodiversity? Some promising anti-cancer drugs originate in forest plants and fungi, Canada yew and reishi mushrooms, for example. Forests are veritable warehouses of undiscovered and potentially useful chemicals. Future generations might thank us for keeping that biodiversity around. And keeping biodiversity around means keeping and restoring old forest. Many plants, ferns, mosses, fungi and other forest floor species decline precipitously in cut areas. Many species of lichens don’t grow in managed forests, so their presence helps identify truly old forests. Likewise, numerous forest songbirds (blackburnian warbler, brown creeper, and ovenbird, for example) – those birds that help to moderate populations of insects like spruce budworm – prefer old forest habitat.

Second, we also protect portions of each of our different types of ecosystems for their educational value. Any good experiment has its control group. Protected areas are essentially our control groups in a large land-use experiment. They are our benchmarks of how ecosystems tick, outside of major direct human impacts such as clearcutting and road building. When we want to improve our forest management techniques, it’s useful to see how the forest operates on its own. After all, our forests have been growing along for some ten or twelve thousand years – they are working, sustainable systems that have lots to teach us if we care to learn. And as climate change introduces new stresses to our forests and agricultural lands, it will no doubt be useful to study and learn how natural systems resist, respond, and adapt.

Finally, there’s the notion that we shouldn’t put our mark on every single acre. I suppose we already have, virtually, in the Maritimes, so the notion is more that we should step back from a portion of the land, and simply let it do what it does. Forests and other ecosystems have been growing, changing and adapting here since the glaciers retreated, and letting at least some of them continue to grow, change and adapt in their own way for another ten or twelve thousand years just seems like the right thing to do. I guess it’s a way of honouring the rest of life around us, and honouring the hopefully long line of human generations to come. By stepping back a little, we’re giving to the future forest and future biodiversity, as well as to future generations of Maritimers.

Of course, questions come to mind when we think about the practicalities of establishing a protected areas network. First of all, how much is enough? For me, the answer depends on what’s happening on the remaining unprotected land. If it’s clearcuts and whole-tree harvests, road and residential development, then we need to protect a lot more than we are now. Some biologists recommend 50% protected areas for landscapes that are otherwise intensively managed. But, if unprotected land is used in ways that tend to conserve biodiversity, such as ecosystem-based land use, then perhaps Canada’s target of 17% by 2020 is adequate.

Another potentially thorny question is which lands to protect. Ideally, protected areas protect portions of each of the ecologically different areas in a given province. Further, protected areas should include remaining ecological hot-spots – those areas with high conservation value such as old-growth forests, habitat for species at risk, and rare ecosystems. Of course, there is a temptation to meet protected area targets by protecting all of the bogs, barrens and otherwise unattractive lands for logging. Much of Nova Scotia’s previously protected lands fall into this category, such as the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, which has a high proportion of barrens and low productivity forest area, relative to the rest of Nova Scotia. There is also the reality that governments can protect Crown lands far more easily than private lands. Thus, regions with little Crown land might see a lot of that Crown land protected, in an attempt to ensure that protected areas adequately represent the diversity of ecosystems in a province.

A word about old forests: A patch of old white spruce growing on abandoned farmland, half falling down as bark beetle chews through them, is not old-growth forest. Natural old forest is made up of tree species adapted to old-forest conditions, such as red spruce, hemlock, white pine, sugar maple, yellow birch, beech and ash, to name a few. Old forest also has lots of young trees growing under the shade of the forest canopy, waiting for an older tree to die and open up light and space for them to grow. In other words, natural old forest tends not to just fall over and die, but rather is a dynamic, vibrant, stable ecosystem, constantly renewing itself.

The majority of forest in the Maritimes was once old-growth forest, but old-growth is now a rarity, found only in small, scattered, remnant patches. By protecting some of the better tracts of older second-growth forest, we will gradually restore some old forest to our landscape, along with, hopefully, the diversity and abundance of life that natural forest supports.

I think of my own woodlot, which shares a boundary with a 500-acre protected area. I’m glad it does. I know that my woodlot is healthier for that protected area. I know that if some portion of biodiversity on my relatively small woodlot is lost, then chances are good that it will be replenished from the protected area. I also know that larger areas of intact forest support a greater diversity of wildlife, so with the combined area of my woodlot and the protected land, I have more biodiversity on my land than I would if I were surrounded by other land uses. I’m glad that the ecological benefits of that protected area will flow, indefinitely, out into the surrounding lands, including my property. Even if I’m too tired at the end of a day cutting firewood to hike on that protected land, I’m still thankful it’s there, for me, and for the generations down the road long after I’m gone.

Originally published in Atlantic Forestry Review, July 2014

A Beech Tree and a Rare Genetic Trait

Jamie Simpson

While walking in the Lambs Lake Nature Reserve, near Annapolis Royal, I spied a large, old-growth beech tree. Its massive girth caught my eye first (I could reach only about half way around it), but its smooth bark is what made me look twice. In that tree’s genetic make-up, I knew, there lay a rare and special genetic trait.

Beech trees were once more common throughout the Maritimes. In the early 1800s, beech were noted to cover roughly half of Prince Edward Island, for example. Aside from land clearing for agriculture and timber, beech were hit by a disease accidently introduced to Halifax from Europe in 1890. The beech bark disease, consisting of an insect and a fungus working in concert, spread rapidly throughout the Maritimes and into New England, drastically reducing populations of beech trees. While many beech are able to live with the disease for a time, they are marked by gnarled, cankered bark, resulting from the tree’s attempt to fight the disease.

As luck would have it, not all beech trees are affected by this disease. A few trees, roughly one to four percent, have a genetic trait (or traits) that makes them resistant to the disease. So it was with this massive beech tree that I spied near Lambs Lake. There, among dozens of cankered fellow beech, this tree with its lucky genetic make-up stood with clear, smooth, healthy bark, its branches forming a full crown high above. As in times past, this beech tree had taken its place as a dominant species in this forest. (Note, a few beech trees in the coldest parts of its range may be preserved from the disease by exceptionally cold winters, but this hasn’t been observed in Nova Scotia.)

I thought, as I put my hand to the tree’s smooth grey bark, about the importance of genetic diversity. Before the disease hit the Maritimes, this rare trait (or traits) had no obvious benefit. And that’s the thing about genetic diversity. It’s not so important for dealing with present problems; rather, genetic diversity helps populations of species to survive and adapt to new problems, to changing environments. This tree wouldn’t have been remarkable before the disease rolled through the Maritimes. Now it stands tall among its brethren of diseased beech: a lucky genetic twist of fate.

I can’t resist a good climbing tree, and healthy beech trees, with their smooth bark and many near-horizontal branches, are perhaps our finest climbing trees. The first branches on this tree were some twenty or so feet up, so I used a nearby smaller tree as a ladder into the big beech. I climbed up through the tree’s canopy, noting the layers of tree branches from close to the forest floor to the very top of the tallest trees. Old forests have lots of vertical diversity not easily seen from ground level.

At the top of the tree I poked my head through the canopy, blinked as my eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, and looked out on an abundance of beech nuts. I noticed some broken branches, too, likely the work of a feasting black bear, who climb beech trees for their fat-rich nuts. Beech nuts are favoured by many species of wildlife, but are now much reduced in supply due to the disease. I opened a couple of nuts for myself, hoping for a snack after my climb, but I was too early and the seeds were far from ripe.

I thought about my lucky find as I continued my walk through that forest. Unfortunately, healthy beech are even rarer than they should be. Many woodland owners and foresters are not aware that some beech are resistant to the disease, and resistant beech are cut without thought to sparing them for their benefit to wildlife, and their rare disease resistance. While beech will not come to dominate the landscape again as they once did (at least, not any time soon), it’s worth identifying and protecting healthy beech, for the food they provide for wildlife, and for the possibility of one day seeing a few more healthy beech in our forests.

A bright note in the beech story is the results of research conducted by the Canadian Forestry Service, in Fredericton, NB. Over several years, a team of researchers successfully propagated beech trees that were resistant to the beech bark disease (I team that I was part of in its early days). Although the federal government cut the project, the young healthy beech were distributed to a national park in each of the Maritime provinces. Perhaps, one day, these orchards of healthy beech will be sources of beech nuts containing the genetic resistance to the disease. I’d like to plant a few on my property. Maybe a black bear or ruffed grouse would someday fill its belly with their nuts. Maybe a kid would someday climb high into their branches.

Originally published October 17th, 2014, Chronicle Herald