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 first of two articles.
We haven’t gone 20 paces in the woods before Greg Watson stops abruptly and bends to examine a fungus growing on a decomposing log.
“As soon as the wood hits the ground, the micro-organisms take over to start breaking it down and you start storing carbon in the soil,” he says, almost to himself.
I’m still struggling to catch up with him, juggling an audio recorder and camera as we negotiate the steep wooded hill.
By the time I get there, Watson has turned his attention to a plucky little sapling poking through the leaf litter. He touches it as one might a newborn kitten, saying he loves the softness of the needles on tiny hemlocks. He keeps his eyes open for new growth, the next generation of trees that will inhabit this forest.
Watson, a professional forester, has been manager of the North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative for 15 years. Today, he’s brought me to the Colchester County woodlot of one of the co-op’s 400-plus members to show me the damage post-tropical storm Fiona has caused, and to explain what he thinks a good cleanup entails.
Watson is unequivocal: it does not involve clearcutting.
“Both trees standing and trees down are good,” he says. “So nuking sites, just cutting them because they blow down and not leaving anything is problematic for the future.”
‘There’s no waste in the forest’
“We’ve been taught so much about ‘waste’ in the woods,” Watson adds. “Sometimes it’s hard to get a logger to leave things behind. They think it’s going to blow down, so it’s a waste to leave it.”
“But waste is just a human term. We call it waste if we don’t get to utilize it as humans,” Watson says. “There’s no waste in the forest.”
Watson moves further up the hill to a ridge where, before Fiona hit, there was a healthy hardwood stand of mostly sugar maples, with some ash, beech and yellow birch. He says this mixture is typical of Nova Scotia’s Cobequid uplands.
Now, post-Fiona, many of the trees have been laid flat, their root systems upturned and exposed.
From these uplands, looking through the trees left standing, I catch glimpses of the Northumberland Strait several kilometres to the north. The worst of the Fiona winds along this shore came from that direction, flattening trees in their way, especially on northwest-facing slopes like this one.
Watson says the question for private woodlot owners, whom he refers to as “land stewards,” is whether to even try cleaning up the Fiona blow-down, and if so, how best to do so. He offers these thoughts:
Doing the salvage is the same as doing ecological forestry in standing trees. You’re still doing ecological forestry. It’s just that the trees are down now and we’ve got to find a way to do a salvage operation that’s economical, and that leaves the site healthy. But there’s no waste. There’s never any waste. It’s just understanding the balance of how much we need to leave behind and how to make the operation viable.
“The problem right now is that two of our biggest [saw]mills were doing upgrades when Fiona hit and then the upgrades didn’t work really well.” Watson says. “There were some delays. And so all of a sudden we’re cleaning up all this hurricane damage and shoving it into them. So it’s depressed the price.”
Woody debris good for future forest
For this woodlot, Watson says the clean-up operation will focus on salvaging only the economically valuable trees that have blown down, ones that can be turned into timber:
There are trees broken in here from the hurricane that are not really worth grabbing with a harvester so why go chase them? About 7% of our forests blow down or dies every year anyway, without a hurricane, and we don’t go try to clean every little bit of that up.
“Our instructions [to the contractors] will be to leave all standing trees,” Watson says. “Because hardwood tops are big and gnarly, there will be lots of coarse woody debris left when we’re done.”
Watson points out that woody debris is essential to enrich forest soils for future regrowth.
Watson says hurricanes have shaped Nova Scotia’s forests for centuries, and that when trees are uprooted, this creates “pit mound topographies and microsites that make for good new growth.”
Watson refers to the Saxby Gale, a hurricane that struck the Maritimes in 1869, causing a great deal of damage to forests. But, he notes, that hurricane damage also spawned regrowth. Some of that is still standing today, at least where Nova Scotia forests haven’t been felled to clear land for farming or clearcut for pulp or timber or biomass.
But Watson says that Fiona with its gusts of 186 kilometres per hour, and extreme winds that lasted 12 hours, really hit northern Nova Scotia’s woodlands hard. He has been working in woodlots from Pugwash to Pictou, and has seen stands of trees 30 to 140 years old that he says Fiona “completely devastated.”
Although even healthy forest stands were decimated, Watson believes the scale of the Fiona damage can also be blamed on human activity, not just globally with climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, but also locally in Nova Scotia.
“Our past [forest] management practises, and with clearing for agriculture, basically broke up our Northumberland lowlands,” he says. “I call them ‘postage stamp forests’ left from clearcutting and agriculture. The trees really didn’t have a chance.”
On his own woodlot in New Annan, south of Tatamagouche, Watson says only about 30% of the trees came down, rather than 70 or 80% on other woodlots he’s visited. Watson says from what he’s been able to observe, the stands of trees that withstood Fiona best were multi-aged ones with trees of different heights and structures.
Forest fire hazard
Since Fiona, I’ve attended three meetings — one in Wallace, another in Pugwash, and one in Tatamagouche — held to discuss the effects of Fiona on private woodlots and cleanup options. Watson was the main speaker at two of them, and present at a third held to link woodlot owners with contractors who could do cleanups on their land, and with agencies handling provincial government funds for the Fiona cleanups.
At all three meetings there were comments that the blow-down from Fiona has to be cleared out because it poses a forest fire hazard. I ask Watson what he makes of those comments:
I’ve been dealing with that too. There’s some truth to it, but it’s also a scare tactic so that people will agree to cut their woods down. It’s only a hazard because of humans; 99% of the fires will be started by humans, not by a lightning strike. So yeah, the hazard’s there, but if the humans regulate themselves and be good, we are probably not going to have any fires … We can go in and clean up sites [with Fiona blow-down] and reduce the fire risk without salvaging everything.
Besides, Watson notes, fresh clearcuts are also a fire hazard for a year or two afterwards. “There’s slash everywhere,” he says.
“Ten-year old stands of softwood that have regrown are also a fire hazard,” Watson points out. “If fire gets in there on a windy day, it’s going to go right through the stand.”
Watson says there are about 50,000 All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) in Nova Scotia, which means a lot of people can go just about everywhere very easily. He says even this spring, which has been dry and with all the Fiona blow-down, he has seen firepits on the sides of backwoods roads frequented by people on ATVs.
That worries him.
Government funding Fiona cleanup
According to the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR), so far the government has allocated $7.1 million for Fiona cleanup on private woodlots. That includes $3.45 million “for commercial tree cleanup and for the Association for Sustainable Forestry to oversee this financial assistance,” and $2 million “to make industrial private woodlots eligible for assistance.”
In an email to the Examiner, DNRR said that to date, “more than 700 private landowners have requested assistance and 150 claims are being paid out totalling $800,000 on more than 2,000 hectares.”
“We have approved 4 claims from ‘industrial’ landowners,” according to AJ Ross of the Association for Sustainable Forestry. In an email, Ross wrote:
Industrial claims can only be paid out to the contractor who cut the wood, not the landowner themselves. From a definition standpoint: Industrial landowners are those who have a working mill and are actively procuring wood.
Ross added, “We have about 10 funding claims coming in per week at the moment. We are hoping that our recent advertising push will urge landowners to contact us and learn more about the program.”
The industry group Forest Nova Scotia is managing $2 million of the provincial government funds for the “private land road clean-up assistance program.”
‘One in ten want us to cut everything’
Watson says this government support has been helpful, but not everyone agrees on how Fiona cleanup should be done.
When members of the North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative request a cleanup in their woodlots, Watson says the co-op’s forestry professionals advise on how best to do so, but the decision lies with the landowner:
I’d say nine out of ten [members] are interested in a strategic approach of leaving standing trees and diversity, and keeping the stand structure, like keeping trees and coarse woody debris. Probably one in ten wants us to cut everything.
But North Nova members account for only a small percentage of landowners in Nova Scotia. Many thousands of private woodlots were damaged, and many are being cleaned up. Says Watson:
I don’t know what percentage of [Fiona cleanup] harvests have the supervision of a forest professional. I think the majority of it is loggers or other people in the industry making decisions. I see people doing good work. But I also see woodlots that weren’t blown down completely, and people just cutting them all down.
Watson worries that Fiona didn’t just damage forests; it may also have set back a small but growing trend towards ecological forestry on private lands. The Lahey Report recommendations for a new ecological forestry paradigm in Nova Scotia were only for Crown land, and the report noted that 99% of harvesting on private land is clearcutting.
However, Watson says before Fiona many landowners were putting a great deal of thought into what outcome they wanted before they allowed any harvesting on their land.
“It wasn’t clearcutting,” Watson tells me. Rather, landowners were increasingly looking to improve their woodlots and wanting any work to meet ecological standards.
“Fiona basically changed the game for a lot of landowners,” Watson says. They had to decide whether to leave the blow-down in place, or let someone come in and harvest it. However, he notes, there are not enough people to do all the harvesting. So in his view, landowners looking to clean up after Fiona do not have much choice of contractors.
“If somebody wants to cut your land heavy, even if you don’t want that, you might not be able to get anybody else,” Watson says. “So people are in a bit of predicament.”
Fiona cleanup can still be ecological forestry
Watson is adamant that cleaning up after Fiona doesn’t require clearcutting:
You can still do ecological forestry in hurricane cleanup. Ecological forestry is just a thoughtful approach … When you start planning and thinking about water features and wildlife and how best to promote regeneration, that’s all ecological forestry and outcomes-based forestry.
We weren’t doing it all that well before the hurricane, but since the hurricane, although some people are still doing a good job, there’s other stuff that I see that is not thoughtful forestry.
I think most people care about their land. Just some people see the facts differently, and the opportunities differently. And they make their decisions. When you make the wrong decision in forestry the problem is it takes decades or centuries to fix.
In his early years working as a forestry professional, Watson says he was involved in clearcutting, planting and herbicide spraying, but he didn’t like it. He worried about the long-term environmental and economic impacts of such forest practices, and whether they would leave forests in any condition for his own children and future generations to enjoy them, or make a living from them.
“People always talk about what’s gutted rural Nova Scotia,” Watson says. “Once the forests are depleted and there are no economic opportunities in the forest anymore, then that’s what guts rural Nova Scotia.”
End of Part 1. The next article in this two-part series looks at how Tom Miller, who has been practising ecological forestry for decades on his land in northern Nova Scotia, has been managing the cleanup of Fiona blow-down in his woodlands.
 Full disclosure: my spouse is a woodlot owner and a member of the North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative.
 The forestry contractors who organized the Tatamagouche meeting declined an interview with the Halifax Examiner.