Modern clear-cutting is too convenient a target
Columnist Jim Vibert’s recent piece on clear-cutting (Last chance...” - Aug. 25/17) fell short of his usual high standard. Besides scapegoating the government and its foresters, he resorted to almost Trumpian alarmism: “Grab your kids and go see wilderness before it’s too late!”
Last time I checked, Nova Scotia ranked near the top in Canada’s percentage of protected provincial territory. We can still canoe Keji or kayak wilderness islands, we can hike the Highlands and explore the Chignecto Sanctuary. And weeks ago, when I flew over eastern Nova Scotia, the land was still well treed.
Granted, today’s woods differ greatly from the lush Acadian forests Champlain saw in 1604. But to blame modern clear-cutting for that is simplistic. After all, our forests were logged for nearly 200 years before we ever had a pulp-and-paper industry.
Still, like Jim, I’m no fan of largescale, cut-and-plant agri-forestry. At best it degrades soil, reverses normal forest succession from complex to simple, and favours short-lived species like fir.
At worst it disrupts wildlife and invites erosion and siltation.
Then why is it still allowed? Well, it’s cheap and profitable, but three better reasons come to mind.
First, two-thirds of N.S. forests (and the best of it) are privately owned, mostly in 30,000 small family holdings not easily legislated into line.
Second, selection forestry – piecemeal harvests spanning decades, the populist alternative to clear-felling – works best with long-lived, multilayered, shade-tolerant Acadian species now in short supply. Besides, tracking output by volume is trickier and often leads to over-cutting and high-grading.
Third, let’s not forget massive 18th- and 19th-century land-clearing by thousands of refugee American Loyalists and disbanded soldiers (U.S. War of Independence), displaced Scots (Highland clearances), and starving Irish peasants (potato famine).
By the late 1800s most of those hard-won farms lay abandoned and derelict. Their owners, lured by the new railway to Upper Canada, fled in droves. Thousands more headed south to the “Boston States.” And within a decade most of that land – what wasn’t later developed for towns, highways and airports – had re-seeded itself, mostly to softwoods.
Then there were huge wood demands for building a society and for wooden shipbuilding – we once led the Commonwealth in per-capita output – never mind firewood for heating and cooking, charcoal for iron smelting, and the rest. And, of course, hurricanes, wildfire and pest outbreaks left their mark.
Speaking of which, Jim fails to mention the decimation of our beech, once our commonest broadleaf, by the Asian Nectria fungus and bark aphid after 1900. (Ironically, the fungus arrived on European beech saplings donated by Queen Victoria to Halifax’s Public Gardens in 1897, her Diamond Jubilee, and spread across eastern North America from there.)
Nor does he mention the mysterious birch dieback, likely caused by industrial pollution from New England plus early climate change, which killed or deformed much of our prime yellow birch in the 1940s and ’50s. A similar malady hit sugar maple, though less severely.
It’s a wonder we have any forest left.
All these impacts, coupled with an amazing natural ability, thanks to our moist climate, to rapidly self-regenerate, have skewed our forest composition and age structure toward even-aged softwood monocultures. To reverse this would take massive ongoing silviculture inputs spanning generations.
Meanwhile, we still need wood and paper. The fact that Canadians rank among the world’s most wasteful paper users doesn’t help. Nor will it help to ignore history as we feel our way forward. We’re all in this together.