Unlike most other Canadian provinces where the Crown owns most of the land, in Nova Scotia just 29% is designated Crown land. Much of that private land is in the hands of 30,000 private woodlot owners.
Since post-tropical storm Fiona, the provincial government has allocated millions of dollars for dealing with the damage the winds caused in woodlots. The Association for Sustainable Forestry is managing most of the Fiona cleanup funding and it provides guidelines for how it should be done ecologically.
But what does that look like on the ground? The Halifax Examiner went into the woods to find out from forestry professionals and woodlot owners how they are handling the blow-down without destroying what is left. This is the second of two articles.
“We don’t have any parts of our forest that haven’t been impacted by Fiona, from small, to medium-aged, to old stuff,” says Tom Miller. “It all got hit; it was just too much wind.”
It’s a cold spring day, alternating between snow and rain, with a few short periods of sunshine tossed into the mix. Miller and I are headed to one of his two woodlots in northern Nova Scotia, this one 250 acres near Earltown in Colchester County, to see what post-tropical storm Fiona wrought, and how he’s been cleaning up the mess.
Miller is 72 years old and just getting back on his feet after being declared tumour-free in December 2022. Last year he underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Miller tells me he’s been working in the woods for half a century, and in his own woodlots since the 1970s.
“We lost our best softwood,” he says. “Some of the trees must have been 100 years old. I mean white pine and red spruce like this.” Miller stretches his arms in front of him, as if embracing a giant ball.
“It was a small patch in our woodlot. We always took people there. You’d be walking in deep moss, with nice regen [regeneration] coming, small red spruce and hemlock through it,” Miller tells me.
“It’s funny how you get to know your place and individual trees.”
As we head up the rutted mud road leading to his Earltown woodlot, Miller says this one wasn’t as badly hit as his other 250-acre woodlot that surrounds his home in Greenhill, Pictou County. That one he and his wife Lori Miller bought in 1979. Today Miller works on both of them with his son Matthew, a professional forester about whom he speaks with pride.
Miller was still undergoing cancer treatment when Fiona struck in September 2022, so he wasn’t able to get out immediately to survey the damage to the woodlots he’d been nurturing for decades, selectively harvesting and trying to restore health and biodiversity of the Wabanaki-Acadian forest that is indigenous to the Maritimes.
In 2005, the World Wildlife Fund categorized the temperate broadleaf and mixed Wabanaki-Acadian forests of the Maritimes, parts of Quebec and New England, as “endangered.”
Related: The borealization of Acadia: Due to climate change, warm weather-friendly trees should be dominating our forests; instead, cold-weather species are taking over. We now understand why — thanks to a phone call from the Irving company to lean on a professor’s dean.
‘They’re wiped out’
But if Miller couldn’t get out on the morning of September 24, 2022 to take stock of what Fiona had done to their Greenhill woodlot, his son could.
“Matthew came back from the woodland totally distraught,” Miller recalls.
We lost so much. Matt and I talked, and I’d ask him, “What about that tree? Remember that little oak?” He’d say, “Gone.” And I’d ask him about different trees that we both knew. And he’d say, “They’re wiped out.” It was tough. The only time I go to the desperation is when I’m down there walking around looking at how much there is to do, and how slow I am at being able to get any of it done.
When people asked him what he was going to do about all the blow-down in his woods, Miller replied that he was going to keep doing the same thing he’s always been doing.
All they can do, Miller says, is to try clean up the woodlots as best they can. But by “cleaning up,” he doesn’t mean clearcutting, as some landowners and contractors are choosing to do.
“It’s not the Acadian forest’s fault that the wind was 170 kilometers an hour,” he says. “If you think you’re going to do something that’s going to mitigate against that, what the hell are you talking about?”
Becoming ‘the ecological guy’
Miller says when he began his career in forestry, after attending the Maritime Forest Ranger School in Fredericton in 1976, he was a “nice, tidy park-like kind of guy,” who thought a monoculture plantation of red pine was a “beautiful” thing.
That kind of forestry involved clearcutting, planting, spraying herbicides to kill hardwoods so that softwood trees, many for the pulp industry, would grow up unimpeded and could be harvested on short rotations.
Miller eventually became disenchanted with this approach.
Miller tells me everything changed for him after he visited Windhorse Farm, now Asitu’l
isk, in southwest Nova Scotia. There, the Wentzell and later Drescher family cut six million board feet over 150 years, and still had two million board feet standing on their 200 acres of forested land, the same amount they calculated was originally there.
After seeing that, Miller says he became “the ecological guy.”
In 2005, the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources named Tom and Lori Miller the province’s woodlot owners of the year. He’s been a member of North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative since 2015, but before that he was a member of other forest co-ops, which are now gone.
Blow-down to nourish the soil
On his woodlots, Miller says he always “thinned thickly,” leaving healthy and diverse stands of trees when he harvested, carefully selecting every tree he wanted cut or left standing.
Fiona flattened many of the trees he had been nurturing for decades, and Miller tells me he’s been trying to get as much fallen wood out of his woodlots as possible before it’s lost its value for timber or firewood.
“But here’s the rub,” he says. Miller’s tells me his son and the literature tell him to let a lot of the blow-down stay right where it is, on the ground, to nourish the soil so that the next trees that grow will be even better.
“I’m not cleaning up my woods to be like a park,” Miller explains as we walk down a rutted path through a hardwood stand where the North Nova Forest Owners contractor has taken his machine, picking up the fallen trees that Miller has marked.
Miller aims to salvage the very best of the trees that were blown down.
“We’re not going to get it all, even pushing as hard as we can with our old skidder, and an old man running it,” he says. “There will be wood that we will lose. But I’m willing to accept that. We just have to try to get as much as we can. And we’re going to be leaving a lot of heavy tops and a lot of heavy material on the ground. So even though we haven’t left it all there, although in some places we will, the next crop will benefit from that.”
Miller recalls someone once asking him if his approach to forest management was efficient. “I said, ‘I think efficiency is highly over-rated.’ If you’re going to be efficient in the woods, you have to clearcut as fast as you can. That’s peak efficiency, putting the wood on the side of the road as fast as possible and moving on to the next lot.”
If he went by industry notions of efficiency, Miller says his woodlots would have been “flattened years ago for money.”
Why are NS woods full of ‘low-grade material’?
I ask Miller about arguments I’ve heard at meetings since Fiona that brought together woodlot owners, forestry contractors, and industry spokespeople in northern Nova Scotia, that they need the Northern Pulp mill back in operation. Without it, some said, they had no place to send the waste or low-grade wood that Fiona blew down.
“Here’s the question to ask them,” Miller replies. “Why, after 50-plus years of what they call ‘scientific forest management’ [that came with the pulp mill], are our forests full of low-grade material?”
In his view, the province decided decades ago to go with “pulp mill forestry” that involves shorter and shorter periods between clearcuts, replacing natural hardwood stands with softwood plantations, and smaller and smaller trees.
“If we had sawmill forestry, we’d have no problem,” Miller says. “Our woods would now be full of timber. Where you could go in with a power saw and pick through the trees and make a decent living off your land.”
Growing ‘huggable’ trees
I follow Miller along a forest path to a stand of hardwoods beside a small wetland, where the contractors have cleared out much of the blow-down.
“This area is going to be a long time coming back to what I’d like to see,” Miller says. “But there’s going to be some yellow birch and some maple. It doesn’t look like much right now because it really isn’t, but this is going to be real nice sometime.”
He points to the next generation of trees coming up around us, which to me, I confess, looks like a bunch of indistinguishable little twigs. Miller can identify every one of them even though none has any leaves yet this season.
He points to a sturdy tree just in front of us. “That yellow birch right there was just a little whip when I would have been first in here,” he says.
Miller explains that there is much more to a forest than the trees. He counts the layers to edify me — the overstorey that is “the roof,” the understorey in the middle, the shrub and herb layers, and the forest floor with its “duff” layer of leaves and sticks and other decomposing organic matter.
And that doesn’t even take in the soil, Miller notes, which is another ecosystem all on its own.
“I’ve said this enough times to knowledgeable groups, and nobody has contradicted me, and I bet a panel of the top four scientists in the whole world would agree that there’s more we don’t know than we do know about the forest process,” he says.
For now, Miller says he will just keep on doing what he’s always done in the woodlot, Fiona or no Fiona:
I’m trying to grow higher value trees. Each tree that I leave standing, I want to be able to see some stem that’s when it’s five times that size it’s going to be a huggable tree. You know, you’re trying to measure it and you can’t even reach around it. Well, then it’s ready to cut. And now you’ve got clear timber. Then the rest of it wants to be messy and dirty and dead trees standing and dead trees on the ground, and leaving lots of material behind for wildlife and the biodiversity.
‘Leave some for best year’
Miller says there is no need to plant trees; in his woodlots there will be lots of regeneration.
In his Greenhill woods, he says when he cuts it comes back in red maple. “That’s a tree of the future as far as climate change is concerned,” he says. “And there will be white birch and white ash.”
“There’ll be a lot of everything because we’ve got a lot of seed sources and that’ll pop up,” Miller explains. “And over time we can get working with removing the poorer stems, letting the other stuff grow, thinning thickly.”
Miller says “it’s really hard to make money” when your interest is the health of the forest rather than getting all the wood cut and piled on the side of the road as fast as you can. Nor does it help, he says, that the price he gets for studwood, logs between eight and ten feet long, from his woodlots is almost the same he was paid in 2005, despite the fact that his costs have all doubled and tripled.
But Miller is philosophical about the way he manages his woodlots, and Fiona has not done anything to change his outlook:
If you’re going to try growing a forest, you probably need at least a hundred years to see some of the things you want. After 150 or 200 years of working, you can cut wood all the time, if you don’t cut it all at once. That’s what Wendell Barry said. He’s got a poem that says ‘Cut your winter wood but don’t cut it all in the same place, leave some for next year.’
 I asked the owners of a forestry contracting company for an interview, as they organized and hosted a meeting in Tatamagouche in January 2023 for landowners to speak with forestry contractors and industry representatives about Fiona cleanups and government funding for it. They are also members of Northern Pulp’s Environmental Liaison Committee. They declined an interview.