Looking for the greatest
From the summit of Mount Carlton, New Brunswick’s highest point (2,693 feet, or 820 metres), one can see 65 kilometres on a clear day – a view that encompasses 13,273 square kilometres and 10 million trees, according to literature from Mount Carleton Provincial Park. It’s a great place to reflect on the immensity of the world and the smallness of oneself.
To the everyday outdoor enthusiast, looking out on a virtually unbroken sea of rolling green hills, it’s an impressive sight. To the inquisitive forester on a Great Tree quest, it’s a reason to contemplate not just the web of forest life, but all the human communities tucked away in unseen glades whose futures are tied to the healthy growing forest laid out at our feet. I also think about that number – 10 million. It doesn’t seem high enough, and I wonder where it came from. It equates to a tree density of a scant 7.5 trees/hectare, which is clearly not accurate.
It’s hard to come up with a firm average on the number of trees on a given area of forest land. Counts can range from upwards of 10,000 stems/hectare in dense young stands such as those that regenerated following the Christmas Mountains blow-down, to less than 500/hectare in mature stands. Dr. Thom Erdle, a forestry professor at UNB, charted more than 10,000 sample plots and found that the density of young regenerating stands fell from about 8,000 stems/hectare to about 3,000 stems/hectare by age 50. After age 50, stand density leveled off at about 2,300 stems/hectare, and fluctuated around that number until about 150 years of age, rising slightly thereafter as mature stands started to open up and new trees got established. The target density for industrial thinning and planting operations is about 2,000/hectare, which is 266 times more than the unofficial park estimate, resulting in a total of approximately 2.6 billion trees.
Finding the largest, tallest representative of each of New Brunswick’s 32 native species is a daunting task, but somewhere within that big chunk of forest within the viewscape of the province’s highest peak, there are several Great Tree nominations. About 50 kilometres out, at Adam’s Gulch, a small tributary to the Restigouche, is a massive Yellow birch, one of the largest of its kind we’ve seen. Just outside the 65-kilometre radius of Mount Carlton, on rich, silt-laden bottomland along the St. John River, where the Ostrich ferns and Stinging nettle grow chest-high, is a mighty Silver maple that surpasses any of its species that have been measured. The tree is 35 metres tall and 118 cm in diameter (dbh).
Then there are the trees not measured yet, including a Black ash in the Upsalquitch Forks Protected Natural Area, 33 kilometres from Mount Carlton; a Large-toothed aspen at 35 kilometres; and 35 kilometres to the east in the Nepisiquit Protected Natural Area, a copse of ancient Red pines, the oldest of that species in Atlantic Canada – found by dendrochronologist Ben Phillips, and aged at 300 years.
We had come to Mount Carlton to follow a lead on a large White birch, growing halfway up the hill on the Headwaters Trail. There were some nice ones, for sure, but nothing in the trophy category. What we did find, however, were some very large specimens of Mountain ash, which normally doesn’t grow tall enough to qualify as a “tree” and is not on the list of native species we have been working from. (Oddly enough, another grove of big ones was found a week or so later, along the Fundy shore at Mary’s Point.) On the way down from the summit, we spotted a large Balsam fir along the side of the trail. It rose 22 meters above the forest floor, and had a diameter of 57 centimetres – a lovely tree for sure, but slighter than some we had already measured.
Northern New Brunswick is still sawmill country. Within 100 kilometres of our viewpoint are six good-sized spruce-fir mills. There is Fornebu’s mill back in the woods on a rail siding to the southwest of Bathurst; the Chaleur sawmill at Belledune, a relatively new operation noted for its high efficiency; and the Twin Rivers sawmill on the Tobique River at Plaster Rock.
Then there are the two Irving sawmills: the former Deniso-Lebel mill in Kedgwick, a scant 40 kilometres from our hilltop vantage point; and JDI’s flagship mill at St. Leonard, in full view of every passerby on the Trans-Canada Highway. The latter must be a source of pride to the Irvings, and deservedly so; it runs like a charm and is as neat as a pin. Every pile of lumber is neat and orderly, the wood yard is well-stocked and superbly organized, and a nifty pond and fountain add a nice domestic touch. I’ve been told it regularly produces 650-700,000 board feet per shift, and once even topped 800,000! According to JDI, the mill produces 340 million board feet annually. That’s a lot of trees. At an average of 15 per 1,000 board feet, it equates to an annual requirement of more than 5 million trees.
The last of the group of six sawmills is the upstart North American Forest Products operation, the little mill owned by the Parent family that rose from the ashes following a prolonged shutdown, after selling its allocation to JDI. Located on a back street in St. Quentin, it couldn’t be more different from its main competitor, the JDI mill only 12 kilometres away in Kedgwick. It runs on 100 percent private wood, whereas the Irving mill operates on 90 percent Crown. Here’s the irony: for every stick of lumber that Parent sells in the U.S. market, they are slapped with a 19.88 percent tariff, whereas the Irving mill pays only 3.02 percent.
All of these mills have one thing in common: their wood supply is threatened by the Spruce budworm. Gazing north from the summit of Mount Carlton takes one almost to Quebec, where hungry budworms have been chomping through the Gaspé forest for several years and are now massing on the border. This is the front line of the battle to contain the Spruce budworm before it becomes a serious outbreak. What began three years ago as a targeted exercise aimed at a number of hot spots is now morphing into a larger-scale operation. There were 80,000 hectares sprayed in 2017, and although researchers are still hopeful that the infestation can still be stopped or at least slowed, there is now an inevitability to its advance. DP