White spruce naturally colonizing in an old field [photo: courtesy Macphail Woods]

Creating more problems

The Nature of PEI | Gary Schneider

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Storing carbon continues to be in the news, as it should be. Last year’s report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted an appropriately dismal picture of what we need to do to avoid an environmental catastrophe as temperatures continue to climb. For those not familiar with the IPCC, it represents 195 nations and addresses the issue of climate change in a scientific but politically neutral way.

The IPCC states that forests definitely have a role to play in capturing carbon, but that afforestation—creating new forests—is less important than stopping deforestation.

In Prince Edward Island, we are not stopping deforestation. If anything, it continues to run rampant, either through clearcutting forests for wood or biomass, or clearing land (and burning the brush) for agricultural purposes.

We are doing great things in this province to support and promote active transportation, electric vehicles, efficient appliances, home insulation, solar electricity, wind power, public transportation—the list goes on, and these are certainly addressing some problems.  

But on the forest front, we’ve got a long way to go. In fact, some of our policies seem like a step backwards. We are taking a major step towards creating more and more conifer plantations, instead of healthy forests. The policy of planting rows of conifer monocultures was a problem when it began in earnest in the 1970s, and remains so to this day.

Let’s look at the carbon capture plantations that have been taking place under the guise of sequestering carbon. Eighty percent of the trees planted are white spruce, a species that really needs no planting at all, given that when farmland was abandoned in the past, it mostly grew up in white spruce. Most of our forest industry deals with “old field white spruce,” the term given to stands of unplanted white spruce that grown up on abandoned fields and start to die after 60-70 years. The plantations are either pure white spruce, or they have had small amounts of white pine and eastern larch added. Planting one or even two or three species of conifers has nothing to do with a healthy, long-lived Acadian forest.

The author Fritjof Capra wrote that “A diverse ecosystem will also be resilient, because it contains many species with overlapping ecological functions that can partially replace one another.” Diversity and complexity builds resilience. A good example is when you look at a healthy Acadian forest, with a mixture of trees, shrubs, ferns, wildflowers, and other plants. If an insect or disease threatens yellow birch, or hemlock, or white ash, that can be tragic, but because the systems are complex, they remain as forests.

The carbon capture plantings are not a path to long-lived, healthy forests. If they were, we’d be planting a mix of species that would increase the biodiversity in both the short and long term. Adding more red oak, white and grey birch, red maple, and a myriad of shrubs that are so important for wildlife would be a great start.

Climate change is only one of the stresses that will affect these plantations. Insects and diseases are all too common in monocultures. There is also the threat that these plantations will be cut whenever money or products are needed. There are no conditions on these plantations—though it is funded by taxpayers, a landowner can cut the trees when he or she pleases.

I worry that we’re taking a step backwards, spending money on monocultures when it could actually be put towards helping Islanders grow back their Acadian forests.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.