“Progressive” forest management: Do you think so?


This article is written to rebut statements in the Chronicle Herald by Minister Lloyd Hines, as well as two DNR supporters, plus “Forest Nova Scotia” who published Dec 16. Such supportive articles on DNR’s forest management have angered many people and baffled others who now wonder who to believe.

It’s hard to know who to believe regarding the forest situation in Nova Scotia. Some folks say we need not be concerned about clearcutting because our government is using “progressive”, “ecosystem-based” forest management practices on Crown (public) lands. Others (like me) suggest that you need to be concerned, very concerned. The images above portray an unbiased truth. The clearcut expanses from only the 13 years until 2014 will allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Satellites do not discriminate the causes of forest loss (e.g., clearcuts, high intensity fires or blueberry operations). They detect a rapid rate of forest depletion; entire landscapes denuded with the exception of thin buffers along waterways, or young residual stands. Lofty claims recently published by ‘Forest Nova Scotia’ assure us that “trees grow back”, and they actually “care more about Nova Scotia’s forests” than you and me. Really?
Forests take decades, and in some cases centuries, to grow back, especially tree species of higher value that prefer shade and naturally achieve large sizes. Clearcut regrowth means forests are even-aged and often nutrient-stressed, crooked and full of limbs. Our rural economy is not assisted by having entire forests removed at once, despite Forest Nova Scotia assuring us that forests are “much healthier and sustainable” than before. It’s best to use your filter when those who speak are catering to industry. This month, take time to reflect on these denuded sites when wildlife are seeking shelter from icy winds and freezing rains.

Forestry terms being used like “comprehensive ecosystem management approach” or “progressive management” will fool some, but not most of us. Fancy government jargon and intricate justifications can be baffling, but the outcomes remain the same according to satellite images. By 2014, 42 per cent of the operable forest land base had been clearcut in only 25 years. If this is the result of “progressive” ecosystem management, we don’t want it.

Downplaying the environmental impacts of clearcutting is generally the rhetoric of those who prosper from our forests, who have loyalties to forest corporations, or to NS Department of Natural Resources (DNR). DNR has lost public trust, especially with its top foresters formerly tied to foreign national companies. The release of a Five-year Progress Report updating the publicly supported Natural Resources Strategy essentially outlines the loss of key commitments. We assess “progressive” management with increasing clarity: DNR has allowed the liquidation of too much of our forest.

How else might one decide whether or not there is over-harvesting? A telling feature is forest age. We rarely see continuous stands dominated by large, old trees anymore. We know from harvest records that large, mature trees once dominated our landscapes. We’ve tried to obtain age class information from DNR, but it is not readily accessible. There is a lack of government transparency. While volunteering on the Forest Panel during the Natural Resources Strategy, I was bluntly informed that I didn’t need to know such things; that all the required information was on their website. But stand age information is not there. Our tax dollars pay to update forest inventory information, including stand ages, on a 10 year rotation.

DNR has set up timber models that suggest 55-year rotations. Most long-lived tree species will never achieve their full growth potential, or their maximum economic value. When did this become acceptable for our forests and wildlife?

Examining DNR’s science, glowing statements that “ecosystem-based forestry” will make everything right are wearing thin. Some of the new tools used by DNR reflect good work. I respect some of the knowledgeable staff who contributed to them, but it’s difficult to look past some of DNR’s entrenched, out-dated forestry practices and its simplistic focus on fibre production.

It’s best to read the ‘fine print’ before accepting claims that “science” (and not industry) is guiding more “progressive” management of our public forests. If DNR was truly using science-based forestry they would immediately stop all clearcutting on poor soils, since this ultimately results in further depletion of soil calcium and other essential nutrients required for healthy tree growth. Acid stressed, low fertility soils, such as those in southwest NS dictate that ‘partial cuts’ (the removal of trees in small amounts over decades) are the only way to sustainably harvest forests, whereby a canopy remains to shade forest soils and protect the organic carbon layer and nutrients. If blow down seems likely, a larger portion of the residual stand must remain to break the wind. If profits cannot be made from partial harvests, then wait until prices rise and long-lived trees become more valuable. I’ve heard all the arguments for why partial harvests can’t work, but the truth is that we’ve done it in the past, and other places are doing it now. We can, too. Put “progressive” science to good use.

Science indicates that clearcutting lands in southern NS will increase the acidity of waterways and eliminate any remaining trout and salmon populations. “Progressive ecosystem management approaches” surely include consulting the aquatic scientists who research the waterways that flow through forests. But this science is ignored, similar to the piles of research on stream buffer widths that concluded widths must be wider than 20 m.
We’ve exceeded any quota for clearcuts based on known scientific justifications. There are no natural disturbance agents that would have incurred such frequent stand replacement destruction to our highly diverse, multi-aged Acadian forests. DNR’s natural disturbance report has been highly criticized by scientists, and it misinterprets our wildfire history. Yet the report continues to be used to justify clearcuts. The Medway Community Forest would be forced to conduct two thirds of its harvests by clearcutting (against its mission and objectives) if it were to fully emulate “natural” disturbance regimes, as described by DNR, as well as the timber models. More scientific research with proper peer review is required on natural disturbance regimes to build a solid basis for ecologically-based forestry.

I’ve been trained in Forest Ecosystem Classification (FEC), and Pre-Treatment Assessment (PTA), two of the key tools being used as evidence of “ecosystem-based” forestry. The PTA model helps foresters choose a suitable harvest prescription, but all too often it points toward clearcutting, and it does not encourage the restoration of late successional, valuable tree species. If a forest stand is already poor due to past abuses, it will be given no chance to recover. The PTA will subject the site to repeated clearcuts. Built into the PTA is the risk of blow down; a factor that directs harvests toward more clearcutting. (But blow down risk is not considered in wildlife clumps and narrow stream buffers.) Risks from acidic soils, nutrient depletion and watershed considerations are not built into the PTA model.

A final test of whether DNR is using progressive science may be the case of the Northern Goshawk that nested last year in remote forest next to Kejimkujik’s park boundary, now slated for clearcutting as per the PTA outcome. DNR’s ecosystem-based science allocates a meagre 200 m buffer around the nest. When it returns next year, it must somehow find sufficient prey items and raise hungry chicks under the remaining forest canopy. And what of other rare birds, or mammals, or lichens and understory plants that require forests? DNR has failed to meet its legislated requirements to conserve some of our species at risk, such as mainland moose.

Nature loses with no one to speak on its behalf. Will you speak for our forests and our wildlife? More information on forestry issues is found at: “Healthy Forest Coalition” website or Facebook.

Crown lands are YOUR public forests.

Donna Crossland, MScF, is a board member of Medway Community Forest Cooperative

Satellite images of Nova Scotia Crown and private woodlands: Pink coloured areas indicate ‘forest cover loss’ in 2001 and in 2014. These are cumulative forest losses from unsustainable forestry over a brief 13 years. (The blue-grey area is Cloud Lake protected area.)  (Global Forest Watch)

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