The root of it all

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Seeing healthy trees that you have planted is a great legacy.  Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking the whole idea of treeplanting. In 2019, Justin Trudeau promised that if elected, his government would fund the planting of two billion trees by 2029. A good thing, right? Unfortunately, the idea is keeping me up at night.

I’ve ranted against tree plantations for decades, and no longer feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. Yet the promise of federal money spurring the planting of billions of trees without proper analysis is what got us mired in conifer plantations in the first place. Recently, noted academics and practitioners in the region have also been critical of plantations.

Dr. Tom Beckley, a professor in the UNB Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management, drew the wrath of the Irvings when he spoke about the borealization of Maritime forests—that despite the coming climate change, we continue to plant species such as black spruce, white spruce, and eastern larch that clearly will not perform well in our future forest.

In an article in The Examiner, Beckley was asked why people should care about this. His answer: “Resilience, particularly in the face of climate change. If you are doing plantations that are 90% or more of one particular species, that is genetic simplification. Like in the conditions we are having right now, a June drought that is not typical… if you have 25 different tree species in your stand, each providing different benefits… that forest has a much better chance of remaining.”

Nova Scotia’s renowned wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft had a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle Herald titled “Forest Plantations Defy Science.” He wrote: “Clearcutting followed by even-aged softwood plantings on former hardwood and mixed hardwood-softwood sites severely degrades these sites over a short period of time. The resulting ecological imbalance promotes pest infestations, disease, vulnerability to strong winds and stresses caused by hot, dry weather.”

The only reason for using the plantation approach on public (Crown) lands is entirely economic—quick and easy fibre extraction for short-term, private profits. Such a fast return is sanctioned only when economic goals remain a focus unfettered by ecological literacy. What makes it possible are public subsidies that include nursery production, planting, herbicides, thinning treatments and even road-building. Ecological expenses are ignored, while the legacy of severely impoverished sites persists for generations.”

Planting millions of trees just because there are Federal dollars flowing will only get us more and more conifer plantations. Our present practice of planting 1000 trees per acre is an easy way to build up numbers if you don’t care about the health of the forests.

But there is another way to plant millions of trees without degrading Island forests. Plant a mix of native tree species on the tens of thousands of acres of degraded woodland in the province, as well as on land that could be growing trees instead of grasses.

You’d target land controlled by those committed to keeping it in forest, including the provincial government, Parks Canada, schools, the Island Nature Trust, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Macphail Homestead. Then work with watershed groups, Island Trails, and private landowners to plant land with protective covenants.

The planting will be more expensive, and will need to be well planned and use trained planters. But think of all the benefits that proper forest enhancement can bring—not only for ourselves, but for future generations.

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.