On a clear, crisp Sunday morning in March, Tim Bousquet and I drove about 30 minutes inland from Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia to Twin Lakes, an area slated to be clearcut by Northern Pulp.
As I reported in Part 1 of “Testing the Limits,” at the end of February the Abercrombie pulp giant posted several new crown forest blocks totalling 171 hectares (422 acres) on the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources’ Harvest Plans Map Viewer. But data collected by the Mersey Tobeatic Research Insititute (MTRI) indicate that the land is important habitat for the endangered boreal felt lichen. Indeed, 90 per cent of what remains of the species in this province is found on crown land and the planned cuts could hasten its demise.
We wanted to see what was going on.
Once on the logging road we weren’t far from the area slated to be cut. The landscape around Twin Lakes undulates with drumlins — elongated landforms caused by glaciers — and what are called hummocks, or small rounded hills. The forests in these parts are mostly red and black spruce stands, but there are also areas of tolerant hardwood, like red maple, sugar maple, and yellow birch.
How do I know this? I must admit, as we inched along at 25 km/ hour my mind was somewhat preoccupied with having to get in and out of the area before the logging road thawed and sucked the vehicle down to its axles. So this information doesn’t come from any keen sense of observation on my part. It comes courtesy of a mapping system developed by the DNR more than a decade ago called Ecological Land Classification (ELC), a project that was informed by earlier contributions, most notably the 1996 publication of the Nova Scotia Museum titled The Natural History of Nova Scotia.
The DNRs 2005 iteration purports to map the province from an “ecological perspective,” based on the area’s distinct geology, topography, soils, vegetation, climate, species, habitats, and water courses. It’s also touted to be one of the “major tools required for planning and managing sustainable forests,” and is supposed to help conserve the “various elements of biodiversity” including species, habitats, ecosystem structures, age class, and even genetics.
According to the ELC, Twin Lakes and the nearby Square Lake are part of an “Ecodistrict” called the Eastern Interior, which extends from the Bedford Basin to the town of Guysborough.
When I wasn’t worrying about the road, the question I couldn’t help wonder was whether this mapping was making any difference? Is the DNR now making decisions about harvesting that reflect an understanding about these diverse ecosystems?
Back in 1969, American environmentalist Paul Shepard edited a book titled The Subversive Science, referring to the science of ecology — the one that looks at the relationships of organisms with one another and with the processes that link them to a place. But why did he consider the science of ecology subversive? Shepard writes:
Ecology is sometimes characterized as the study of a natural ‘web of life’…But the image of a web is too meager and simple for the reality. A web is flat and finished and has the mortal frailty of the individual spider. Although elastic, it has insufficient depth…Ecology as such cannot be studied, only organisms, earth, air, and sea can be studied. It is not a discipline: there is no body of thought and technique which frames [it]…. It must be therefore a scope or a way of seeing.
Shepard goes on to say that this “perspective” is “very old” and has been part of “philosophy and art for thousands of years.” Indeed, it was part of ancient cultures as well as the current lived and adapting wisdom of indigenous peoples.
If humans are linked to nature’s circuitous web of interconnections, as are all animal species, then knowing this would be subversive in that it would force us to rethink our place in the natural world. It would also mean that a whole lot more would have to be factored into, what are often, extractive plans.
To get an idea of where other species, like the endangered boreal felt lichen, figured into the province’s harvest plans, I took a look at the 2008 Procedural Guide for Ecological Landscape Analysis — a document the DNR says it uses to make decisions on “landscape level planning.”
The guide says that in addition to the ELC, harvest plans should draw on other databases, like the “significant species habitats database,” to locate areas that “require special attention to conserve their uncommon characteristics.”
The significant species database identifies sites where:
- species at risk or other species of conservation concern can be found and/or;
- there are unusually large concentrations of wildlife occur and/or;
- there are habitats that are rare in the province.
Has the DNR identified the Twin Lakes or Square Lake area as special in any way?
I was unable to download the ArcView Shapefiles in order to look at the mapping of these sites in the province — a transparency and accessibility issue I wrote about extensively in the five-part series Biomass, Freedom of Information and the DNR Company Men — so I don’t know for sure. However, interviews with people in the field have revealed that there is a lot that’s special about the area. In addition to the boreal felt lichen and the vole’s ears lichen, the forests also provide significant habitat for other species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), including the mainland moose and birds such as the eastern wood-pewee, Canada warbler, and olive-sided flycatcher. Northern goshawk, a provincially listed species, has also been found to nest in the area.
Last year, Northern Pulp posted the forest blocks around Square Lake, not far from Twin Lakes, and subsequently clearcut them. The DNR says it protects species at risk with what it calls Special Management Practices, like requiring the forest company to leave the 100-metre buffer around boreal felt lichen, which was shown to be scientifically inadequate, or moose shelter patches — small uncut areas where moose are supposed to find some secure cover after their habitat has been razed to the ground.
Then there are the goshawk nests. According to the DNR wildlife branch, the monogamous and territorial birds are “extremely sensitive and will desert if bothered by nearby human activity, such as forest harvesting. 1” If the DNR finds a nest on public land slated to be clearcut, it will get the forest company to leave a 200-metre buffer around the nest, but this might not be enough. If the goshawk doesn’t desert its breeding territory altogether it will have to contend with a more exposed location, where its chicks are also at much higher risk of predation.
Are these Special Management Practices working? Last year Nova Scotia’s Auditor General cited the DNR for not meeting its legislated obligations for the conservation and recovery of species at risk. The report noted that 60 species were at risk in the province — 28 of which were in imminent danger of extinction, and the numbers keep going up. In 2013 an astounding 19 species were added to the list of provincial species at risk.
Something is undermining the DNRs ability to meet these legal obligations.
The buffers are better than nothing, but they are piecemeal and secondary to what the department sees as the central purpose of the forest — meeting the fibre requirements of the pulp and now biomass industries. The way it’s doing that is through clearcutting.
The National Forestry Database just released the most recent data on harvesting in the province, and the numbers show that 84 per cent of the crown land harvested in 2015 was clearcut. Overall, when we include cutting on private land, it’s closer to 90 per cent. The numbers also show that cutting on crown land increased by 21 per cent between 2014 and 2015. In fact, in 2015 more crown land was cut than in any other year since 1990.
This kind of intensive harvesting over decades — a result of the forest industry being dominated by three giant pulp mills (now only two) — resulted in degraded soils, and degraded forests. As it turns out, there’s still plenty of demand for degraded forests by, you guessed it, the pulp and biomass industries.
They don’t really need forests, they just need fibre.
Suzanne Simard is a forest scientist at the University of British Columbia. Her research has focused on how soil organisms, like fungi, help trees to establish and grow.
Two decades ago Simard and a team of researchers discovered that trees were connected to each other through an interconnected underground web of mycorrhizal fungi and it was through the transfer of carbon, nutrients, and water through this network that trees communicated. Simard also identified what she referred to as “mother” trees — the largest trees in the forest that acted as a “central hub for the vast below ground networks.” These mother trees “support young trees or seedlings by infecting them with fungi and ferrying them the nutrients they need to grow. 2” Her discoveries were published in the journal Nature in 1997 in an article called “The Wood Wide Web.”
Simard’s ground-breaking discoveries led to a raft of other studies and publications including Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 international best seller The Hidden Life of Trees, a book in which Simard also pens “Note from a Forest Scientist.” She writes:
We have learned that mother trees recognize and talk with their kin, shaping future generations… injured trees pass their legacies on to their neighbours, affecting gene regulation, defense chemistry, and resilience in the forest community. These discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system.
This forest science — one that is fully steeped in the revelations of an ecological perspective — isn’t the same forest science the DNR seem to be using.
We climbed over the ruts and the woody debris of one of the Square Lake clearcuts and entered the buffer area, not far from the balsam fir hosting the boreal felt lichen. From there we could hear the muffled rumbling of the ice on Square Lake as it shifted in the spring thaw. It sounded like underwater thunder.
Standing there, within the buffer of trees left around the lake and the beleaguered lichen, it felt desolate, cut off. How could it be that leaving this narrow strip of trees is considered to be somehow enough?
Northern Pulp is only required to leave a 20-metre buffer from the water’s edge, as part of the 2002 Wildlife Habitat and Watercourse Protection Regulations. In this case the buffer happens to be wider because of the presence of the lichen, but normally it’s a fraction of this width.
The DNR would say this legislated distance is based on science, but its own studies indicate otherwise. In 2008, one study sampled watercourse buffers bordered by clearcuts and found that “the highest concentration of blowdown and soil exposure occurred along the clearcut edge where the trees were most exposed.” The blown down trees were uprooted the vast majority of the time (89 per cent), exposing the soil and changing the structure of the forest floor by “producing mounds and pits” and increasing “the susceptibility to soil erosion.” Soil erosion and sedimentation degrade the quality of lakes and streams, destroy the habitat of aquatic organisms and cause declines in fish populations. The DNR scientists concluded that “to maintain the highest integrity of stream side forest after a harvest…the use of a 30 m [buffer] is favourable in these conditions.”
Similarly, in 2014 the boreal felt lichen recovery team recommended to the DNR that the buffer around the boreal felt lichen needed to be wider: they asked for a 500-metre Special Management Zone that would continue applying the 100-metre no cut buffer but would involve an additional radius of 400 metres where cuts are permitted but not to exceed 15 ha. The science indicates that the 100 metre buffer that is currently being applied isn’t working. The clearcuts are still changing the micro-climate of the sites and the lichen also seem to be getting eaten by invasive slugs. But the wider buffer would mean less wood for the forest industry.
Not surprisingly the DNR appears to be in no rush to change things.
What became of the forests at Square Lake, and will become of the forests at Twin Lakes?
Northern Pulp is the largest consumer of wood fibre in the province, producing 280,000 tonnes of kraft pulp for export every year. The public forests at Square Lake were cut, trucked to Pictou, chipped, and mixed with other chips purchased from sawmills and private wood suppliers. The chips were screened for size and quality, cooked in a digester, bleached, dried, and packaged for shipment.
The making of pulp into toilet and tissue paper, paper towel, and photocopy paper takes place somewhere else. Most of the profits are exported too. They always have been, but in 2011 the profits had further to go when the mill was sold to Paper Excellence Canada — a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), owned by the Indonesian billionaire Widjaja family.
But not everything is exported. The pollution stays local. Air and water pollution plague the Pictou area. Boat Harbour was at one time a pristine tidal estuary, referred to as “the other room” by the Mi’kmaq of Pictou Landing First Nation because it was another space in which they lived. But all this ended when it became an industrial waste lagoon.
If we were to count all the costs — the soil loss, habitat loss, and species loss — associated with the clearcutting, and add to this the environmental and health costs of making the pulp, including the severing of millennia-old ties between the Mi’kmaq and the surrounding lands, what would we have then?
Only an economic system pumped with delusion could ever count such a venture profitable.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist and Anishinabekwe scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes some of the rules that governed indigenous cultures. She says that while they were specific to cultures and ecosystems, they also had one thing in common: a fundamental principle of restraint that helped “rein in our tendency to consume.”
She tells the story of the legendary cannibal monster, Windigo, said to inhabit the cold northern forests of the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes Region of both the U.S. and Canada. As the legend goes, the emaciated giant, with bloody lips and the stench of decay and corruption, is insatiable — every time it eats it grows, and so it is always hungry. It can also transform its human victims into cannibals by consuming their flesh. Only those who have become overpowered by greed or overindulgence are its intended prey and should fear it.
Kimmerer says cautionary tales were designed to “build resistance against the insidious germ to take too much,” something she says all humans struggle with. “The dictum to take only what you need leaves a lot of room for interpretation when our needs get so tangled up with our wants,” she writes.
While stories like this one about Windigo are necessary in order to reign in the rogue tendencies of individuals, what happens when the whole society goes rogue? What do we do then?
Kimmerer says that today the “dishonourable harvest has become a way of life—we take what doesn’t belong to us and destroy it beyond repair … How can we distinguish between that which is given by the earth and that which is not? When does taking become outright theft?” She says it’s a matter of harm. When something is given we don’t need to inflict irreparable damage to get it. Trees can be cut down and used without destroying the forest. The other side to this is reciprocity, that we have a responsibility to restore the land where damage has been done. 3
If you were to give a name to the kind of forestry practices envisioned by those calling for a reduction in clearcutting, it would probably be ecoforestry. In ecoforestry, harvests are typically by the selection method, which only takes out single trees or groups of trees in a stand, in an attempt to mimic blow downs or tree falls — what many say are the natural disturbances that take place in an Acadian forest.
Advocates argue ecoforestry is the only harvesting system that will enable the volume and quality of standing trees to increase continually. Costs are also usually more manageable, and so the pressures to harvest intensively are not the same. It also makes sense from a long-term perspective because the protection of the forest soils and water, for instance, will benefit the forest of the future as well as the small rural communities that depend on them. From a strictly ecological perspective, ecoforestry is the only way, short of leaving the forest alone, to protect the full range of forest values.
But there is a catch. If clearcutting were to be reduced tomorrow — say by the 50 percent that the NDP government promised and then the Liberal government reneged on — while everything else stayed the same, it would increase the harvest footprint. In other words, if the enormous demand for timber by the pulp and biomass industries stayed the same, while clearcutting was cut in half, it would mean that more of the land base would need to be harvested, albeit only partially. For a shift to sustainable forestry practices to be meaningful it must also be accompanied by a reduction in demand. It would ultimately require a reciprocal relationship with nature.
The question we should be asking is this: What can the forests we have left sustainably offer, without compromising soils and water, habitat, biodiversity, wood quality, and carbon storage?
Then create a forest industry out of that.
Only then will the government be making decisions from an “ecological perspective.” What they’re doing now will only be measured in extinction and loss later.