“The question is not of saving the trees, for every tree must inevitably die, but of saving the forest by conservative ways of cutting the trees.” – Gifford Pinchot, A Primer of Forestry (1905)
When someone is unfamiliar and curious about forestry I typically start by talking about how forests change over time. People see the same tree in their front yard for 30 or 40 years and assume that all trees should live forever. People who have spent time in the woods know that this is not what happens in the natural world – change in the boreal forest can change in rapid and dramatic ways through natural processes such as fire, insect outbreak, disease, and windstorms.
In 2011, one of the worst fire seasons on record, there were 1,330 forest fires affecting 630,000 hectares in Ontario. In 1922 more than 800,000 hectares (8,000 km2) of forest burned. While some may see these fires as complete destruction, it is the start of a disturbance and renewal process that has been occurring on our landscape for thousands of years – long before European contact in North America. Plants and animals have adapted, through the process of natural selection, to these disturbance cycles. Some species prefer young hardwood forest and some prefer mature conifer-dominated forest.
In fact, ongoing fire suppression efforts have created in some areas of the province forest conditions that are artificially older than what is considered natural. However, forest managers, through the science of silviculture, can emulate these natural disturbances. Silvicultural foresters modify the structure of the forest in order to create, alter, and protect habitat for all wildlife species. In the boreal, this means the use of clear-cuts to emulate stand-replacing natural disturbances.
Change in our Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Forests happens in less visible ways. Fires in this region are not the large stand-replacing ones we see in the boreal, but smaller ones that creep through the understory that might kill the odd tree. Forest managers in these areas use selection and shelterwood harvesting methods in order to maintain an appropriate structure (age, height, and spacing) in the forest and improve the genetic stock. The McRae family has been operating in this area since 1922 and have often returned to log the same areas generations apart – if that isn’t the definition of sustainability, I don’t know what is.
While there is a difference in terms of visual appearance, each one of these silvicultural systems (clear- cut, shelterwood, and selection), when applied on the correct site conditions, is appropriate and improves the health of our forests and wildlife habitat. There is no mindless destruction of Crown forests in Ontario – forest operations compliance monitoring, independent forest audits, silviculture effectiveness monitoring and forest health monitoring can be used as evidence of this point.
A benefit to all this planning is a sustainable yield of timber. You know that good feeling you have after buying a field tomato from a local farmer at a market? That’s the way we should all feel when using forest products that come from Ontario.
If anyone has an interest in forest management I always encourage them to have a look at approved Forest Management Plans on the MNRF’s Electronic Forest Management Plan website. These plans are truly impressive pieces of work and deserve to be more widely read and referenced. Are you concerned with spruce grouse habitat on the Nagagami Forest? Or what about the forecasted area of pure jack pine stands on the Abitibi River Forest? Are you curious how heronries are protected with forest management? All of this information is available to you on the EFMP website.
Ontario has done a good job at planning for the long-term health of forests and wildlife habitat – not for the 30 to 40 years you see your street tree, but up to 160 years into the future. It is time we all look at the facts and realize what is actually happening on our landscape and finally stand-up for Ontario’s first and only truly renewable sector – forestry.