Forest management in Nova Scotia is controversial. Forest-based resources have been an important part of our economy ever since the first humans set foot in Nova Scotia. In more recent decades, our extensive forest cover has attracted larger industries; related job creation and maintenance is a perennial priority.
Everything has its limits, though, including the extent to which forests can be sustainably exploited. Over the past twenty-five years, provincial governments have recognized that we have reached those limits. How to scale back to a more safely sustainable level has become an important topic for debate, and will remain so into the foreseeable future.
There are major challenges to scaling back. Some of those large industries require considerable volumes of wood to remain viable. The two paper mills and the biomass-burning power plant in the east of the province come to mind. It’s a bit like an addiction, and withdrawal could cause severe pain. We also have export markets to satisfy; where, for instance, does Europe get its wood for fuel pellets from? Another challenge is that most woodland in Nova Scotia is privately-owned, and the government has less control over harvesting on private land than on crown land.
However, what if we run out of wood to feed the mills and plants? What sort of problems might we encounter before that happens?
First of all, there are all those other life forms which get adversely affected by excessively enthusiastic harvesting. I heard one expert encourage us to look at the forests from the point of view of a typical salamander: Neither these little guys nor their prey can survive in harsh sunlight nor very dry conditions. They don’t have the mobility and need constant moisture.
Large clearcuts, particularly combined with the sort of hot, dry summers we have enjoyed the last couple of years, do them no good.
That applies to many other animals and plants, as well. Ethical questions aside, the benefits we get from these species are poorly-understood, and potential benefits even less so. How many potential medicines, for instance, are growing in our forests? First Nations traditional knowledge is a good place to start looking. Then there are commodities like maple syrup, some mushrooms and other living assets, which depend on healthy forests.
If we harvest our forests too frequently and too completely, we deplete the minerals forests need to maintain them. In Nova Scotia, acid rain has severely depleted the calcium and magnesium in our soils. Clearcutting exacerbates acid rain impacts, as soil calcium is no longer held by tree roots and soil humus, so it washes away after the cut. Depleted soil calcium levels result in increased acidity of streams and lakes. All this has, among other things, led to the near-extinction of Atlantic salmon and brook trout in some waters, especially south of the Digby-Canso line.
Replenishment of these nutrients will take centuries, and the problem is particularly severe in southwestern Nova Scotia, because our hard granites and slates break down slowly and can add to the acidity of the soils.
Long-term, the most widely effective way of replenishing soils is to let trees get big enough so that their roots reach deep enough to pump these nutrients back to the soil surface, where they are available for plant growth.
Mowing down large tracts of forest can lead to the establishment of very large single-species, single age stands. These are very vulnerable to outbreaks of pests and disease, which tend to target particular species at particular ages. In a diverse forest, disease travels more slowly, and if a few trees die, there are plenty of different others to provide the services we get from forests.
Forests are excellent stabilizers of surface and ground water. When you mow down a forest, much more rain water runs off. That leads to more flooding and more severe droughts. I think back to the November, 2010 floods which took out the old Tusket bridge. That bridge was 105 years old. We had very heavy rain before the bridge washed out, but we had had heavy rains before. I wonder about the extent to which increased clear cutting in the Tusket catchment played a role. Similarly, I am told that electricity generation at the Tusket dam has become much more irregular over the past forty-odd years. Previously, water levels and power generation rose and fell more gradually. That makes hydro-electricity generation more challenging, particularly under drought conditions.
All that additional runoff means increased erosion and sedimentation in water bodies as well as more nutrients going in. That can make water muddy and polluted. Not good for fishes and other aquatic life. Not good for property values and tax revenues. Not good for recreational uses. Most seriously, in some cases, it is not good for our water supplies, in terms of both quality and quantity, nor for our health.
The Department of Natural Resources has a web page, https://nsgi.novascotia.ca/hpmv/, which shows proposed and active clearcuts and partial harvests on crown land. It doesn’t include past cuts, not cuts on private land. And as hungry forest industries run out of resources to our east, their gaze is turning our way. A browse to the north-east shows what may be in store for us.
We respect the knowledge and expertise of private woodlot owners, but none of us knows everything. We encourage them to listen to the warnings from ecologists, to consider the impacts of clearcutting on soils and other forms of life, to keep in mind their responsibility to maintain the services that woodlands provide us all, and to manage with their grandchildren in mind.
The government, particularly the Department of Natural Resources and concerned politicians, has an unenviable balancing act between providing adequate jobs and maintaining the economy on one hand, and trying to assure sustainability on the other. Unsustainable forestry practices generate serious costs which all of us are forced to incur. We want to remind the government that there is no difference between environmental and long-term economic interests, and that governments have a basic responsibility to balance market pressures by giving priority to our long-term well-being.
We encourage both private woodlot owners and the government to err still more in favour of sustainability.