Atlantic Forestry November 2016

This is getting old

    My father-in-law took the family out for supper at a nice restaurant during a weekend visit this fall, and noticed Chicken Cordon Bleu on the menu. He asked the waitress, “Is that a full cordon, or just a face cordon.” 
    It’s always a pleasure to spend time with people who share your love for the woods, especially when their perspective varies somewhat from your own. Jay enjoyed checking out our woodlot, whose composition is pretty different from his land in the Ottawa Valley, and he was duly impressed with an unusually old and stout ironwood down by the brook – a specimen I may have to submit as my own nomination to AFR’s Great Tree Challenge (though it is not near as stout and likely not as old as the oak in Dean Butterfield’s photo on pg. 46 of this issue).
    As a fan of hemlock, he was sympathetic about the fact that past harvesting pretty much eliminated this species from our woodlot, but he was keen on the fact that good hemlock lumber is available locally. As it turned out, I was in the process of laying a hemlock floor, which is perhaps a bit of a curiosity. 
    I chose two-inch flooring just because it was cheaper – neglecting to consider that it would take considerably longer to install than wide boards. But this was a small room, so I didn’t even bother renting the pneumatic nailer, and doing it by hand proved not to be too arduous. Most of the flooring came in long pieces, and there were only a couple that exhibited some surface shake, which I graded out. I wondered if the hemlock might be inclined to splinter when nailed, but this turned out not to be a problem. The finished job has the formal appearance of traditional hardwood flooring – not exactly what we were after, but it looks great. It gives you a different perspective on the market potential for this species.

    Attendees at the recent Old Forest Conservation Science Conference, held Oct. 19-21 in Debert, N.S., heard a number of different perspectives on forests. The Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute lined up a great roster of presentations on topics such as disturbance regimes, dendroarchaeology, conservation policy, the role of lichens and fungi, and old-growth indicator species such as the Northern flying squirrel. 
    It’s understandable that some people who make their living from extractive forestry would question why we should maintain more than a token few museum-like stands of old-growth. Such sites might be seen as a luxury, a playground for the Gor-Tex-clad leisure class, a resource whose value is largely aesthetic; although no one uses the term “decadent forest” anymore, there is a persistent view, in some quarters, that conservation is essentially wasteful and elitist. But the more we look at old forests, the more we learn about the biological processes behind tree growth and regeneration – the processes we depend on for our future timber supply. A jurisdiction that loses its old forests becomes an ecological North Korea, with the historical record erased and no meaningful benchmark for diversity and abundance.
    The lead speaker on Friday, Mi’kmaw poet and ecologist Shalan Joudry, from Bear River First Nation, offered a new way of seeing forests – not just in cultural terms, but through the lens of stark historical fact. She said the sight of a 150-year-old tree elicits an emotional response because it dates back to a time when her ancestors were being forced off their land. And she pointed out that even seemingly pristine old-growth forest has been influenced by human habitation. 
    Joudry cited the example of a lakeside campsite used seasonally for 4,000 years, resulting in high soil fertility and the attendant changes to forest structure. Similarly, seeds or nuts were occasionally dropped along traditional portage routes, altering the plant community. “For me, as an indigenous person, you can’t separate people from the land,” she said, urging conference delegates to reconsider popular notions of wilderness. “Please stop saying that because the forest looks beautiful it’s ‘untouched.’”
    It’s pretty cool to imagine the land I now refer to as our woodlot being used by aboriginal people in past millennia – not that I was under any illusions about the forest being “untouched.” It bears the marks of previous owners’ harvesting activities: a mishmash of rutted skidder trails, stumps of trees that would have been borderline old-growth when cut, plantation sites that were herbicided and subsequently decimated by porcupines, and more than a few refuse piles. This fall a friend returned from a day of hunting on the woodlot, and asked, “Did you know you’ve got a ‘56 Chev in there?” I had to confess I did not, although I’m aware of several other derelict vehicles. Clearly I’m spending too much time at my desk.
    We got talking about the regulation of activities on private land, and the fact that he has to obtain a license to harvest a single deer, even on his own woodlot. This exercise of state control has little to do with safety, as it applies even when you use a bow, which can be purchased at Canadian Tire on your way home from work, without a permit; the license requirement for hunting deer exists under the pretext that DNR is managing the provincial deer herd. And yet, as a private landowner, I have the right to cut all the timber (save for a strip along the brook and a few symbolic “wildlife clumps”) and remove all vegetative matter from the harvested area, regardless of slope or soil conditions or the inevitable effects on wildlife – and in this instance DNR wouldn’t dare to infringe on my personal liberties. It just seems kind of inconsistent. 
    I’m not saying I want to see private harvesting regulated, but the government should not pretend that it’s impossible, which seems to be the stance taken in Nova Scotia’s recent five-year progress report on the 2011 Natural Resources Strategy. The preferred approach would be to use the available levers and incentives to improve industrial-scale harvest practices. After putting the wheels in motion five years ago – hardly a perfect solution, but at least a clear sign that something was being done – DNR is now slamming on the brakes. “Times have changed. We’ve learned more,” reads the report. “We have now developed tools that ensure that all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands.” This happened in the last five years? I don’t think so. It looks more like a bureaucratic power shift has happened, and it runs counter to public opinion. 
    Neither am I saying the public is always right about forestry. As the bureaucrats are too fond of saying, it’s complicated. But if we want citizens to stop raging about clearcutting, maybe we need to be more honest about the condition of our forests – the trends in age class structure, species composition, and timber quality – and demonstrate that there is a plan in place to move things in the right direction, with due consideration for climate change resilience, long-term soil health, and changing markets. Articulating what we want our forests to look like in the future is partly a question of coming clean about our history. DL