Clearcutting our forests has polarized people into tree huggers versus corporate culprits. Labels aside, what’s wrong with clearcutting anyway?
Classified as “Acadian,” most naturally growing forests in the Maritimes contain a broad mix of trees with leaves (hardwoods) and with needles (softwoods). Each tree species has preferences regarding soil, moisture and available light. Young sugar maple, yellow birch, hemlock, red spruce and others can grow on the forest floor in the moisture and shade found under taller trees. Eventually an old tree falls, and a younger tree replaces it. Trees that grow in forest shade may live as long as 450 years, and eventually become the dominant species. The wood of these species has high economic value for humans.
Trees obtain nutrients from soils that have been accumulating organic material since the last ice age ended, about 11,000 years ago. Needles and leaves on trees act like solar collectors, producing energy for trees. Favourable site conditions—including room for roots in the ground—give each tree a chance to thrive. On hot, sunny days a healthy forest offers shade, and keeps water cool in the forest floor.
One tree can have the cooling effect of 10 home air conditioners operating 20 hours per day.
A brief history of forestry
Forestry started gaining momentum in the Maritimes in the 1700s. Land clearing for settlements and farms, shipbuilding and lumber exporting, began making significant changes. Enormous white pines were marked and reserved as masts for English sailing ships.
In the 1800s, sawmills used vast quantities of original hardwood and softwood from Acadian forests.
Some 300 years and repeated harvests later, the same sites are being swept clean for pulp, lumber or biomass. (For centuries, biomass referred to wood harvested to burn in homes for heating and cooking. Lately, the term has been expanded to include clearcut remnants, wood-processing byproducts, such a sawmill wastes, and wood harvested to use as fuel to produce electricity.)
The industry-preferred, cheap harvest method is clearcutting. A clearcut can be defined as a site where essentially all trees have been removed in one operation, leaving a large, open area that no longer has the forests’ protection from high temperatures and drying winds. The increase of clearcutting over eastern landscapes holds many consequences for soils, wildlife populations, waterways, climate and humans.
Leaving occasional, see-through clumps of trees on the landscape, or thin ribbons of trees along waterways, does not maintain an ecologically healthy environment.
How clearcuts compromise
- They offer a habitat for short-lived species such as poplar, wire birch, fir and white spruce, which take over the open ground. Sure, something grows back—but not the same forest. The original trees require dappled sun, shade and moist soil; the trees that grow in a clearcut tolerate open sun and dry ground.
- The resulting forest is even-aged, has fewer tree species and is more vulnerable to insects and disease.
- Clearcuts make soil nutrients vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain. Nutrients important for tree growth (like phosphates and calcium) are taken away with harvested wood, washed out of the soil or blown away.
- The hot, dry conditions on clearcuts kill small soil inhabitants that break down and recycle forest nutrients from dead wood.
- The pulp industry values softwood forests. Trees that are planted on clearcuts may require herbicides to kill hardwoods and promote softwood growth. (This has been taxpayer-subsidized for decades.) Softwood needles make soils acidic, compromising the soil fertility for other types of plants.
- In dry periods, forest soils can regulate stream flows by gradually releasing water into brooks and rivers. Clearcut brooks flush like toilets after heavy rainfalls, drying up in summer with widened, eroded channels. That difference can mean life or death for salmon and trout, frogs and other aquatic life. Humans also need cool, clean water—our water tables are affected.
- Erosion from clearcuts washes silt into brooks and rivers, filling spaces between the rocks where aquatic life takes refuge. Silt smothers trout and salmon eggs that are laid in autumn and overwinter in gravel bottoms.
- Trees that grow on clearcuts do not provide as many habitats essential for the survival of the wide variety of animals, plants and lichens found in Acadian forests. Inhabitants displaced by clearcutting rarely, if ever, find new homes nearby.
- Trees growing on recent clearcuts do produce food that white-tailed deer and other animals can reach, butsprouts on a red maple stump do not have the same nutritional value as a twig that grows from seed.
Blue-sky forestry future
Many insist that clearcutting the forest every few decades is not a problem—it will magically reappear. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, there are plans to increase harvests over larger land bases, and to channel more of nature’s energy into fewer tree species, ignoring the ecological consequences this will have for wildlife and nature as a whole.
If our forests are not rehabilitated, the land deteriorates to scrub or heath. Once a forested country, Scotland, for example, now has only three per cent of its land base in trees. Half of that three per cent is plantation. The issue of disappearing forests after cutting is a concern now in southeastern Newfoundland.
There are harvesting approaches that let nature grow healthy, new forests. Trees are removed using “partial harvest” methods, which mimic natural gaps in the forest canopy, creating a more suitable environment for long-lived species of hardwoods and softwoods. Such harvests can maintain most forest communities of wild plants and animals.
To be healthy, nature needs ecologically sound forest management on at least 60 per cent of the forested land base.
The current practice of clearcutting mixed Acadian forests does not sustain them. For the health of the land, forestry planning needs to be more in tune with nature’s ways. It’s time for woodland owners, First Nations People, scientists, naturalists, boaters, folks at river or watershed associations, fish and game groups, and people who just love the woods to stand together for ecologically healthy, working forests.
Want to get involved?
Here are a few organizations with varying forestry interests: NS Woodlot Owners and Operators Association; Nova Scotia Public Lands Coalition; Nova Scotia Nature Trust; Conservation Council of NB; Nature Trust of NB; Island Nature Trust; Sierra Club Atlantic; Community Forests International.