A new study shows that since European settlement, the rich mix of deciduous and conifer trees in the temperate forest — known by settlers as “Acadian” forest — of the Maritimes, New England, and southeastern Quebec has undergone “borealization,” meaning there has been “widespread replacement of temperate tree species by boreal species,” which are common in the circumpolar boreal forests around the world north of the 50th parallel.

The study by Joshua Noseworthy and UNB professor Tom Beckley, which will be published by Environmental Reviews in September, also shows that the cause of this change is human, and it is driven by:

… logging and high-grading, natural reforestation of abandoned farmland, industrial clearcutting, anthropogenic fire, and boreal conifer plantations.

The phone call that began it all

Ironically, the study might never have been done had it not been for a phone call from J.D. Irving (JDI) to the dean of the University of New Brunswick’s faculty of forestry and environmental management.

That call is what prompted Tom Beckley to undertake the study, which concludes that borealization is real, the very thing the JDI caller was questioning.

Speaking to the Halifax Examiner, Beckley explained that the phone call came after he was interviewed in March 2018 by Terry Seguin, host of Fredericton CBC’s Information Morning show.

Dr. Tom Beckley Photo: Jeff Crawford/UNB
Dr. Tom Beckley Photo: Jeff Crawford/UNB

Beckley said he had been invited to speak with CBC about a Statistics Canada report that showed declining numbers of forestry-dependent communities in Canada, and what that meant for the rural economy in New Brunswick. In the course of the interview, he found himself musing to Seguin about the future of the forest sector in general.

This meant Beckley expressed concern that climate change would favour more temperate species of trees, whereas common silviculture practices favoured a handful of boreal conifer species over the mixture of more temperate deciduous and conifer trees typical of Acadian forests that had covered the region for thousands of years.

Red pine is a boreal species widely grown in plantations like this one in northern Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter
Red pine is a boreal species widely grown in plantations like this one in northern Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter

This is how Beckley recalls the interview and what happened afterwards:

I used the term “borealization,” assuming that borealization was established among forest ecologists and the study of landscape dynamics. And a few days later, I got a call from my dean saying that someone had called him to kind of challenge [me]. He [the JDI caller] said, does “Beckley have any proof of this borealization hypothesis?”

The privately held JDI group of companies has operations in just about every everything under the sun — agriculture, construction, consumer products and food, retail, shipbuilding, transportation, and last but far from least, forestry and forestry products.

JDI’s woodland division owns 3.2 million acres and manages 2.8 million more acres of Crown land in New Brunswick. For perspective, that means JDI owns or controls a chunk of New Brunswick that is almost half the size of the province of Nova Scotia. The Irving family is also the sixth largest landowner in the United States, and it has substantial land holdings in Nova Scotia as well — about 54,000 acres according to property online records, close to twice the size of Halifax Regional Municipality.[1]

So whatever kind of forestry practice that JDI endorses and promotes can have far-reaching effects. And a phone call from the company to a professor’s dean is not small potatoes either, although Dean Van Lantz downplayed it in an email to the Examiner:

I did receive a request from a JDI employee asking if Dr. Beckley had any peer reviewed literature that supports the term “borealization” that he used in a CBC interview. I let Dr. Beckley know about this request. Dr. Beckley said that he didn’t have peer reviewed literature on hand. He took it upon himself to review the literature and write a paper.

Lantz said that request by the JDI employee was not a “challenge.” Rather, “it was a request for information and facts.”

Nevertheless, the call was made not made to Beckley himself but to his dean, and it did come from JD Irving, a company that is reportedly not shy about intimidating critics.

Irving responds

The Halifax Examiner emailed JD Irving to ask about the phone call to Dean Lantz, and whether the company does on occasion call university deans when members of their faculties present views in the media or at public gatherings with which JDI may not agree, to challenge those views.

Jason Limongelli, JDI Vice President of Woodlands, LinkedIn
LinkedIn page of Jason Limongelli, JDI Vice President of Woodlands

This is part of the reply from Jason Limongelli, Vice President of Woodlands for JDI:

We did reach out to the Dean of Forestry at UNB to ask for the peer reviewed science so we could better understand the issue. Our question regarding whether Dr. Beckley’s research has undergone this level of peer scrutiny was/is not exceptional. It is curious that Dr. Beckley would take exception to this standard academic practice. Peer review, in our estimation, is a level of scrutiny that separates opinion from fact.

Dr. Beckley used the term “Borealization” during the CBC interview in March 2018. This is not a term that we are familiar with as trained foresters and as of this writing we are not aware of any peer reviewed science that demonstrates “Borealization” of Acadian forests.

Following our request the Dean reached out to Dr. Beckley for the peer review of the research and none could be produced.

JDI uses the best available peer reviewed science to guide our forest management and decision making and therefore we are interacting with Universities frequently. It is not uncommon for us to be speaking with the academic world.

Beckley takes to social media for scientific support

Beckley wasn’t about to let the matter rest. He told the Examiner that he was taken aback by the call and questions about whether borealization “was a thing.” At that point he took to Facebook, tagging people who were well-versed in forest ecology.

Beckley’s post read:

Facebook friends, particularly those with experience (science or otherwise) with the Acadian Forest, I need your help! I was on the radio Tuesday and made the claim that the Acadian Forest in New Brunswick has been and is in the process of being “borealized” through thinning preferences, planting preferences for conifers. I know in 2009 … [the] government of the day increased from 11 to 28% the amount of Crown land in the province allowed to be in plantations. I don’t believe that has changed and I don’t believe that there are many yellow birch or sugar maples in the planting mix. I thought that this borealization process was common knowledge. I have seen evidence on forest certification trips in years past. However, I was called on this question, or rather someone called to complain to my boss the Dean (this being called out is pretty routine for NB). Anyway, someone (I am still trying to find out who) wants me to back up the claim. Can anyone shoot me some articles that would do this?

Beckley says that Facebook post may have been the best use of the social media platform he ever saw. It garnered 60 comments from forest ecologists, researchers, and forestry practitioners throughout the Maritimes and beyond, who offered Beckley a long list of articles and people whose work might be of use to him.

He says it was like “crowd-sourcing for a bibliography” for a paper that was just waiting to be written.

A week after that, Beckley recalls that his former student, Joshua Noseworthy, walked into his office with a book he had produced with the Nature Conservancy of Canada on restoring the Acadian forest. Beckley took advantage of the occasion to ask Noseworthy if he was interested in working on a review paper about borealization of the forest. He was. Together they collected about 100 articles for the review.

What does borealization mean?

Map by Joshua Noseworthy of the Acadian Forest region

To establish the “baseline” for comparison of current and past forest composition and structure, the authors looked at 30 species of trees native to the temperate Acadian forests, including those also found in boreal forests.

They found:

  1. evidence of a significant decline in temperate tree species that once dominated the landscape, such as Red Spruce, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, Eastern Hemlock, Beech and several other species considered rare or uncommon today
  2. evidence of a significant increase in boreal tree species, including Balsam Fir, White Birch, Jack Pine, Black Spruce, Trembling Aspen and White Spruce

The authors note that while logging and high-grading (take the best trees and leave the rest) of the forests have been going on since Europeans since landed on these shores, the commercial- and industrial-scale clearcutting began in the mid-1900s:

If harvested again in the post-WWII era, it [the forest] was likely clearcut and allowed to regenerate naturally. If harvested again in the last 50 years, clearcutting was likely followed by one or more silvicultural treatments that favoured boreal conifers, such as planting, thinning or herbicide application. Each successive wave of high-grading, clearing and/or harvesting had the compounding effect of both promoting the regeneration of boreal species, while simultaneously decreasing the available seed source of temperate tree species (with notable exceptions, such as Red Maple and Large-toothed Aspen), 
and thus limiting their ability to recover.

Clearcut near Fundy National Park, New Brunswick. Photo: Joan Baxter
Clearcut near Fundy National Park, New Brunswick. Photo: Joan Baxter

Noseworthy and Beckley concluded that based on these criteria, borealization has occurred over the past 400 years. They also observed that borealization is in “direct contrast to the predicted impacts of climate change,” that would favour more southerly temperate species over northern ones.

That is not all.

The authors also found that the short harvest rotations in the forests — 60 years or less — which came in with large-scale pulp and paper industries of the 1930s, the woodlands are now in a “perpetually young state” that they term “forest infantization.”

Whereas temperate forests are typically multi-aged and diverse in species composition, borealized forests have fewer tree species and the trees are more similar in age, leaving them more vulnerable to fire, pests and wind events. “Old forest is rare,” they wrote. And that is “widely recognized as a conservation concern.”

The authors also observe something they call “forest bifurcation,” which they define as “a transition in the landscape away from natural mixed wood communities toward pure hardwood or softwood.” Where there has been high-grading of softwoods such as White Pine, Red Spruce, and Eastern Hemlock, they conclude that this leads to pure stands of hardwoods. Where there has been silviculture designed to promote conifer growth — planting, thinning, and spraying with herbicides — this has led to pure softwood stands.

All of this has led, they conclude, to “more simplified forest structure and composition.”

Does it matter that forests are borealized?

The Examiner asked Beckley why this matters, why people should care that Acadian forests are being borealized.

“Resilience,” he replied, particularly in the face of climate change. He explained:

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 — or as [climate change scientist] Katherine Hayhoe calls it, “global weirding,” not global warming — if you have 25 different tree species in your stand and all of them provide different benefits, and not all of them are slated to go for fibre to be turned into dollars, that forest has a much better chance of remaining.”

And, he added:

If we want to continue to have a healthy, vigorous forest in the forest heritage, both for commercial uses and recreation, and spiritual and non-timber forest products, then we really should attempt to recreate that forest.

JD Irving’s Jason Limongelli disagrees with Beckley’s conclusions about borealization. In his emailed statement to the Examiner about Noseworthy and Beckley’s study, he wrote:

Borealization is a concept that was introduced by Dr. Beckley in 2018 to describe a shift in forest composition to more northern species since European settlement. It is a simplification of a complex forest dynamics and is not a concept that is widely recognized in academia and is not taught in leading university forest management curriculum in the region, including UNB.

The Acadian forests of Northeastern US and Eastern Canada are known to be complex and unique. They are a blend of colder boreal forests to our North and warmer temperate forests to our South. As professional foresters, it is our responsibility to manage the complexity and uniqueness of our forests in an ecologically responsible way. Although forests are in continuous flux through natural and anthropogenic effects, New Brunswick’s forests have retained their unique forest composition over the last 50 years.

Forest composition in New Brunswick has not changed in recorded history and Dr. Beckley’s work offer [sic] no proof to the contrary. We would agree that land use patterns have changed but overall species composition is consistent.

Even if JDI is clear in its statement that borealization is not occurring in the temperate forests of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft believes it is real and affecting Acadian forests throughout the region. He says that the borealization study is “sound” and that Noseworthy and Beckley are “correct in their conclusions.”

Bob Bancroft. Photo: Alice Reed
Bob Bancroft. Photo: Alice Reed Credit: Alice Reed

In an email to the Halifax Examiner Bancroft wrote:

Borealized forests are ill-suited for the heat and droughts associated with recent climate change. The forest industry is, in this way, rendering our forests more vulnerable. There is increased stress, more diseases, insects and wind damage because of the shallow root structures associated with softwoods and their monoculture plantations. [All this] while the public pays for umpteen “treatments” [silviculture practices such as clearcutting, thinning, herbicide spraying] on Crown lands.  Add [to these] the biodiversity losses.

A “tree for every occasion”

The borealization of the temperate forests in the region is nothing new to Donna Crossland, a forest ecologist and member of the Healthy Forest Coalition in Nova Scotia. Although she didn’t use the term borealization at the time, in 2006 she documented the trend in her Master’s thesis in forestry, which detailed the increased frequency of boreal species in the forests of Kouchibouguac National Park and the adjacent landscape in eastern New Brunswick, and the loss of tall, large-diameter mature or old-growth trees, and the reduced number of species.

Donna Crossland (contributed)
Donna Crossland (contributed)

This matters, Crossland explained in an email, because the resilience of the Acadian forest comes from its extraordinary ecological diversity:

You have to travel to the Great Lakes/ St Lawrence forest type or perhaps the Carolinas to find forest types that are equally or more diverse. Certainly the western and boreal forests are far less interesting. The Acadian forest is among the most diverse of forest regions across Canada.

She continued:

Everyone has heard of “not putting all their eggs in one basket” (except for forest managers apparently, who have been steadfastly simplifying our forests for decades). There is a “tree for every occasion” in the Acadian forest.

Boreal forests — and landscapes dominated by boreal tree species — that are less diverse in composition and age structure than are Acadian forests, are more susceptible to large-scale natural disturbances such as insect infestation, hurricanes, and forest fires, says Crossland.

While these natural disturbances do affect Acadian forests, the extent of the damage they inflict is generally more limited and can actually create conditions for diversity renewal.

Crossland writes:

And so the forest goes on renewing itself, becoming multi-aged and featuring a variety of species. There is no natural disturbance agent that removes as much biomass as clearcuts do, producing growing conditions that suit only a limited number of species that must contend with lower nutrients, low soil moisture, and other conditions that reduce resiliency.

Also there are trees that grow best in dry conditions while others are suited for wet areas, some are adapted to shallow soils, while others to deep soil. Really, there is a tree available in the Acadian forest for all occasions. … or at least there was — until the invasive species came in droves.  I honestly don’t know how the forest will evolve with the very sudden loss of two foundation species (beech and hemlock) plus the ash species, too. It’s too much too fast.

Another incredible feature of our Acadian forest is the ability of some of its species to live for centuries and form the most incredible large trees with diverse shapes. It’s a truly magical place, our old growth — fun to explore on carpets of moss and dapples of sunlight. It is sad that we have lost touch with the incredible capacity of our Acadian forest to provide large dimension structures and hosts of species that we were just learning to name.

More resilient, and also more productive?

The 2018 Lahey review of forest practices in Nova Scotia report refers to submissions that it received that mention the “borealization” of the Acadian forest, and the fact that boreal tree species are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The report recommended that forest practices in the province be guided by the new “ecological forestry” paradigm that “treats forests first and foremost as ecosystems” and is primarily concerned with “the effects of forestry on ecological values such as water, soil, and habitat for all of the species that inhabit and constitute those ecosystems.”

Clearcut near Bass River, Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter
Clearcut near Bass River, Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter Credit: Joan Baxter

The report concluded that Nova Scotia should adopt a “triad model,” with some forests protected from all forestry, some dedicated to high-production forestry that could include clearcutting, with the rest managed for a combination of “ecological and production” objectives, meaning “forestry with a lighter touch and limited clearcutting.”

Greg Watson, manager of North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative, is an advocate of ecological forestry, which does not involve large-scale clearcutting or plantations. [2] In a telephone interview, he told the Examiner that in the long run, he believes ecological forestry practices that help restore or preserve the biodiversity and protect species at risk in remaining Acadian forests, would have not just environmental but also economic benefits:

I think if we did an economic comparison between ecological forestry and plantation forestry and we added all the risks and costs, and looked at the 10-year horizon, I think that ecological forestry is going to win out, even economically.

Watson also thinks Acadian forests are more productive than borealized ones that result from industrial forestry practices. He told the Examiner:

I would assume that over time, if you grow boreal species over and over and over, you’re going to get less productivity, unless you do liming and fertilizing.

On his woodlot Greg Watson practices ecological forestry to restore Acadian forest (Photo: Greg Watson)
On his woodlot Greg Watson practices ecological forestry to restore Acadian forest (Photos: Greg Watson)
Ecological forestry on Greg Watson's woodlot promotes restoration and diversity (Photo: Greg Watson)

Watson doesn’t think that some boreal forest in the mix is a bad thing, but with the climate changing, the biodiversity of the temperate forest can help it stay intact in the face of difficult conditions, such as the heat and drought the province experienced in June. Eventually, Watson believes, borealization of the forest and changes in soil composition could combine with climate change and lead to “small barrens” forming.

Will the forestry industry and governments listen?

The Halifax Examiner asked Tom Beckley what the reaction has been to the study, and if he thought governments and the forestry industry would be receptive to the findings about borealization.

He replied that he hopes there will be some “buzz” from the article, especially once Environmental Reviews publishes the final version in September.

He thinks that if the government of Nova Scotia implemented the Lahey Report as it promised to do, and designates the percentages of land allocated for high production or industrial forestry as the report recommends, those areas could be seen as “sacrifice zones.” This would also allow scientists to compare the environmental and economic impacts of the two different forestry regimes.

Beckley is particularly encouraged by a recent grant he has just secured from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to fund a research “partnership for Acadian Forest Restoration on Private Land in the Maritimes.”

As for possible professional repercussions for Beckley for his work on borealization of the Acadian forest in New Brunswick, given that his mere use of the term in a CBC interview in 2018 resulted in JDI calling his dean to challenge him on it, he replied, “That is why I love tenure and I love having the union.”

He said he and a colleague used to have a friendly competition about who would get the longest letter from a former JDI chief forester whenever they spoke publicly, and that he has gotten “blowback” over the years about things he said in the media. But, he added:

I feel pretty comfortable and safe given those two things — tenure and the union, even if I’m getting pressure within the university to shut my mouth. And then, being five or six years away from retirement, I think I have gotten braver as I’ve gotten older.

He says that the situation in New Brunswick is challenging, given the 2014 agreement that guaranteed JDI increased wood allocations from Crown land for 25 years. Still, Beckley said he is a “glass half-full” kind of guy:

I still think there’s a way out or a solution. So, no, I’m not giving up the fight anytime soon. But it is you know, that that government-industry nexus is pretty well integrated and it’s just extremely politically robust. But again, the reaction that I think we’re going to get from this partnership grant on the Acadian Forest thing is that there are a lot of people out there that are kind of hungry for something different.

Joan Baxter is an award-winning journalist and author of “The Mill – fifty years of pulp and protest.”

[1] A Nova Scotia Property Online search found that JDI owns 236 properties in 16 counties in Nova Scotia, the largest concentration of which are in Cumberland County (124 properties covering close to 36,800 acres), Colchester County (86 properties covering close to 8,900 acres), and Shelburne County (50 properties covering close to 3,100 acres). JDI land holdings are still relatively small compared with the 475,00 acres purchased in 2010 by Northern Timber Nova Scotia (part of the Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence conglomerate) with a provincial 30-year loan of $75 million. Northern Timber immediately sold 55,000 acres of that land to the province at 1.7 times the price it had paid per acre, leaving the company with 420,000 acres. More than $65 million is still owing, and Paper Excellence recently received creditor protection for all its affiliates in the BC Supreme Court. The land had been owned by Neenah Paper, and was part of the original 1 million acre land holdings in the province by the original owners of the Pictou County pulp mill, Scott Maritimes. The rest of that original holding – more than half a million acres or 3.7% of the province – were purchased from Neenah in 2006 by the New Hampshire corporation, Wagner Forest Management.

[2] Full disclosure: My husband is a member of North Nova Forest Owners Co-op, which manages his woodlot.

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. Thanks for filling in so many blanks on this story. “Borealization” was a term used in papers slides etc from the Fundy Model Forest Project which began in 1992, was very active up to about 2008 and has survived (https://www.fundymodelforest.net/) but seems less prominent now. The Irving folks were, I believe, amongst the sponsors at least in the early days and their foresters would have well aware of the concept & that it was considered applicable to areas in NB. DNR/L&F were not believers at least in 2017, see question 15 in this doc http://halifaxfieldnaturalists.ca/hfnWP/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DNR-Responses-to-Questions-from-Halifax-Field-Naturalist-2.pdf.. & have now revised their Natural Disturnace Paper and its been accepted (response to a question I asked), but they are not making it available pre-publication… so we wait as always for L&F to catch up.

  2. JDI is a great example of a company bullying the public to meet their ends. Pretty sure dropping “professional foresters” is meant to disarm any disagreement with their poor practices. How can the be proud of the work they do? We used to have massive trees here, but over the centuries we have removed the best stands and we are getting a scrubby forest which can’t provide the water and habitat required here. It’s not just about cutting fibre, it’s about maintaining a landscape that can provide fertility. It is not complicated to understand that cutting a stand too quickly will leave you with little over time. With fresh water becoming more scarce and the landscapes which allow for the slow absorption of water becoming more damaged, will we have a reckoning with ground water depletion?
    Isn’t this the same group of companies that took hundreds of millions from federal and provincial government to build made-in-China ships in Halifax? They are not the most honest group of companies. If they believed in these provinces, they wouldn’t hide their billions overseas.

  3. While the actual word borealization is new to me, I – a lay person and owner of forested land – have known for years about the destruction of the Acadian forest to favour fast-growing, marketable species. It should not be a surprise for people in the industry, whatever word is used to describe it.