No “waste” wood

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Evan Young (Macphail Woods) surveying Hurricane Fiona damage

We often hear people talking about “waste” in forests. We’ll use “waste” wood for biomass. Or that a fallen tree is being “wasted.” Or even that Fiona laid “waste” to our forests.

This point of view comes from the fact that we so poorly understand what makes up a healthy forest and how it has come to be healthy. 

Since this region had glaciers creeping across the landscape 10,000 years ago, our soils have slowly built up organic matter, nutrients, and water-holding capability by having plants grow and die. This started with lichens and mosses growing on rocks and the cracks between them. As plants grew and then died, tiny amounts of soil would be created which allowed other, larger plants to grow.

Eventually we get to trees, the result of thousands of years of plants dying and falling to the ground. These dead trees become food and water reservoirs for the next generation of plants. This doesn’t mean that trees should only be left to grow and die. When I was learning about forests, I was taught that we can look at tree growth and potential harvest rates as the interest in our bank account. If we are careful and wise, we should be able to safely harvest the interest—the amount of extra wood that the trees grow each year.

You should never dip into your principle, just keep skimming off the interest. That is a very different vision than emptying your entire bank account and hoping that it will somehow come back.

Much of the land that suffered the greatest damage from Fiona had an agricultural interruption. It was a forest for thousands of years, then the European colonizers cleared the trees and farmed the land for centuries. Agriculture is—for the most part—hard on soils. This became especially apparent when we started using chemical fertilizers (which added no organic matter) instead of manure or seaweeds (which added lots of organic matter).

When many of the fields were abandoned in the 1920s and 1930s, the soils were in poor shape. Because of the soil condition and the availability of nearby seed sources, most grew up in white spruce. These stands are relatively short-lived, shallow rooted, and susceptible to windthrow.

This is why when I visit stands that have suffered a lot of blowdown, I think it might just be nature’s way of getting more nutrients, organic matter, and water back into these impoverished ecosystems.

When White Juan hit in 2004, I visited a stand on the Macphail Homestead and surveying all the trees that had fallen. My initial reaction was that now there was a lot more work to do cleaning up the trails and dropping trees that could fall on visitors. But shortly after that, I began to understand that the storm had actually done me a favour.  

Instead of an old field white spruce forest with a few large trembling aspen and little undergrowth, there was now more organic matter on the ground that would store water, add nutrients to the soil, and create excellent habitat for certain species of wildlife. It also had diversified the forest floor. Instead of a quite even, flat area (the result of centuries of farming) it now had “pits” where the trees had been upended and “mounds” where the roots and logs lay above the ground. And more light now reached the forest floor, allowing for lots of new plant growth.

We all need to learn that wood on the ground is not being wasted—it is adding to the health of our future forests.