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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