Warming up to it
Things are looking merry and bright for Christmas tree producers in the Maritimes this fall. Demand is strong, and a relatively low Canadian dollar holds the promise of tidy profits on exports. I talked to a grower in Lunenburg County – yep, still the Balsam Fir Christmas Tree Capital of the World – who said he was going to be tempted to over-harvest his lot, though he welcomed the opportunity to get rid of some lower-grade trees. He pointed out a few far-from-perfect specimens that would soon be cut and packed into a shipping container, destined to bring holiday cheer to some not-very-discriminating customers in Panama.
For high-grade trees, this guy said a local wholesale buyer was offering $11 each. That was a delivered-in-the-yard price – but the yard is just down the road, so the grower can zip over there hauling a trailer-load behind his farm tractor. He figures he can cut 150 or so in a day, working alone. The tree lot is mere steps from his back door. No problem going home for a hot lunch. Sounds like a pretty good gig (if you can forget all those years you felt like you were doing it out of pure Christian benevolence). Sure beats trying to sell a load of pulpwood.
The only down side, going into harvest season, was the warm weather, which made Christmas tree growers a bit nervous about needle retention. In Nova Scotia, September temperatures were a couple degrees above the 30-year average, and the trend continued in October. (In the absence of anything resembling a hard frost, the ornamental crab-apple tree in my front yard produced a tentative blossom – and by the beginning of November, having suffered no adverse consequences as a result of this risky botanical behaviour, it displayed a couple more decidedly un-autumnal pink flowers.)
The long run of t-shirt weather was probably nice for Christmas tree workers who were cutting and dragging and baling, but it was cause for concern among buyers and shippers. Folk wisdom says conifers need some cold weather prior to harvest, to “set” their needles. I’m not sure that’s backed up by science, but common sense would tell you that felled trees (or brush harvested for wreath-making) will not fare well under a blazing sun. Just a couple days stacked in the yard or loaded on a truck can have a significant drying effect, under those conditions.
This extraordinarily mild fall happened to coincide with the publication of a new scientific report on how climate change may affect the composition and productivity of the Acadian forest. Led by Dr. Anthony Taylor, a Natural Resources Canada researcher at the Atlantic Forestry Centre in Fredericton, N.B., it’s the first such study to focus on the Maritime provinces, so it is, for starters, a useful reminder that our woodlands are unique. The report notes that stand-replacing natural disturbances, such as wildfire, were historically rare here, so the pre-colonial forest comprised more than 50 percent old growth (older than 100 years) – whereas old growth makes up less than five percent of today’s forest, due to the effects of European settlement.
As for composition, this region is “part of an ecological transition zone occurring along the United States-Canada border area that links conifer-dominated boreal forest to the north with temperate deciduous forests to the south,” says the report. “Such transition zones are considered particularly susceptible to changes in tree species growth and other drivers of stand-level competition because many species that coexist in these ecosystems are close to their extreme southern or northern climatic limits.”
In other words, our forest is a pretty complicated ecological balancing act, and climate change could really throw a wrench in the works. Under a “business-as-usual” scenario, where humanity fails to turn around global warming in the next few decades, the researchers predict a “substantial reduction in the abundance of Balsam fir and Black and Red spruce by the end of this century.” While that may sound like bad news for Christmas tree growers, the effects are likely to be most profound not in plantations, but in natural woodlands, due to changes in the competitive relationships among species – with temperate species like Red maple and Red oak gaining the upper hand. The report refers to this trend as “deborealization” of the Acadian forest – though we should bear in mind industrial management practices have borealized the heck out of our woodlands, so climate change may actually be pushing us back toward a more natural compositional balance.
Of course temperate hardwoods hold plenty of commercial potential, but the transition period could be rough. “Our results support a growing body of evidence,” says the report, “that traditional commercial reliance on boreal conifers along North America’s boreal-temperate transition zone may become unsustainable in the near future and that adaptive forest management strategies, such as assisted migration or pre-commercial thinning treatments that favour temperate species, may have to be considered.”
So, can we adapt? Can we change our way of thinking? Of course we can. People do it all time. There are some interesting field trials going on right now in Annapolis County, within the license area of the Medway Community Forest Cooperative (MCFC), to test alternative harvest treatments intended to promote natural regeneration of Acadian forest species including Red oak and White pine (temperate species projected to fare well in a climate-change scenario). This research is being conducted in collaboration with the provincial Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and WestFor Management Ltd.
The 20-hectare research site, in MCFC’s East Branch/Medway Lake region, comprises 90-year-old spruce-pine stands which currently have little natural regen. Crown licensees are required to follow harvest prescriptions based on DNR’s forest management guides, which – on the poor sites in question – call for commercial thinning, shelterwood harvests, seed tree cuts, or clearcutting. The idea is to modify the guides, to allow more flexibility, in the hope of steering such sites away from becoming spruce climax forests.
The alternative treatment proposed by MCFC is a non-uniform patch shelterwood, tailored to specific site conditions, involving some individual tree marking. This treatment and others were conducted in the summer, and post-harvest assessments were conducted in the fall. Regen assessments on the trial sites will be done in the fall of 2018, and again at the five-year mark, in 2022.
The Medway Co-op itself is a good example of a shift away from a model that many view as flawed and outdated, with the aim of providing more public involvement and accountability – especially at the local level – in the management of Crown lands. Officially, MCFC is still operating as a pilot project, with an extension running until the end of 2018, but the group is confident it will soon get a 10-year renewable contract, which is more conducive to the kind of long-term planning that is fundamental to forest management. “We’re continuing business as usual, on the assumption we’ll be operating well into the future,” says Mary Jane Rodger, MCFC’s general manager, noting that the co-op is working on a business incubator program, and trying to develop some eco-tourism opportunities.
WestFor, the mill consortium established to macro-manage Crown lands in the western region, is also hoping for a 10-year contract, but Nova Scotia is not issuing any long-term licenses until the completion of an independent review of forestry practices – a stalling tactic announced by the provincial Liberals in the leadup to the May election. (As many others have pointed out, Nova Scotia forestry policies and practices have already been reviewed up the wazoo, through extensive consultation with experts, stakeholders, and regular citizens.)
This sparkling new review, launched in September, is being led by Dr. William Lahey, a law professor currently serving as president of the University of King’s College in Halifax. He’s supposed to submit a final report by the end of February. Dr. Lahey is, by all accounts, a man of great intellect and high principle, but there’s no way he can become fully conversant with the topic at hand – especially while running a university on the side. So who will be the trusted advisors to this philosopher king? We don’t know. We can only hope that Lahey leans more toward the long-term view, toward forest diversification and resilience. DL