Ontario Forestry
by Jamie Swift, Borealis Magazine, 1992

Jamie Swift has been following the changes in Canadian forestry for ten years. He is the author of "Cut & Run: The Assault on Canada's Forests" (Between The Lines, 1983).

It all resembles modern warfare. First they send in the mechanized brigades. Then come the foot-soldiers. Aierial bombardment even has a role. The entire operation is dependent on some of the latest technologies.

But the action isn't taking place in a dusty Persian Gulf desert. This campaign is being waged in Ontario's boreal forest, where the pine-scented stillness is usually disturbed only by the strident cry of the blue jay and the loon's gentle call.

The mechanized attack is led by diesel-powered machines called feller-forwarders that look like huge praying mantises. They rumble through dense stands of jack pine, their hydraulic cutting heads shearing off spindly trees and depositing them onto their backs. When fully loaded with tons of pulpwood, the machines groan back to the roadside landing where the trees are limbed and dumped onto waiting trucks for the long voyage to the mill. Every year the trip gets longer as the forest frontier recedes.

The infantry of industrial forestry consists of hundreds of little platoons of tree-planters deployed in the wake of the logging machines. Every spring this small army -- mostly college students from the south along with a few local natives and whites -- fans out across the north, packs stuffed with the tiny seedlings that, it is hoped, will transform the massive clear cuts into productive forests.

Later, small planes will fly over the new plantations, their specially-fitted nozzles releasing a fog of chemical herbicide that, it is hoped, will kill off unwanted hardwood competition and allow the cutover land to support a crop of the spruce and pine whose long, strong fibres have always been the basis for the success of Canada's single most important industry. One of the most popular herbicides among foresters is the old standby 2,4-D, a compound first developed when the US military was looking for more effective chemical weapons during World War II.

Of course, such military images are hardly popular with the forest industry. Joe Bird, executive director of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, prefers the agriculture metaphor. He calls forestry a "cropping" exercise. Logging, which Mr. Bird describes as "an ugly word", is most always referred to as "harvesting" these days.

The industrial assumption is that yields can be boosted through judicious applications of the high-tech know-how. Intensive forest management is seen as both a source of future fibre and a way of turning the growing political heat over wildlife and wilderness preservation.If in fifty years we can double the yield per hectare," speculates Bud Bird (no relation to Joe) a former New Brunswick forest minister who chaired a recent Commons committee on forestry, "we can not only increase the industrial exploitation, but we could make more forest land available for other purposes ™- deer yards or whatever."

Such optimistic hopes are based on an industrial conception of forests and forestry. Indeed, the intensive nature of silviculture has increased almost as dramatically as the amount of forest land that has been logged over.

More and more wood is being extracted from Ontario's limited boreal forest than ever before. The authorities have been attempting to replace it with plantations of commercially valuable species.

In the decade that ended in the mid-eighties, there was a 39 per cent increase in the amount of Ontario forest logged over. Virtually all of this logging was and still is done by the clear cut method. Meanwhile, employment created by Ontario's forest products industry rose by 3.4 per cent.

A massive artificial regeneration programme was getting underway in the period between 1980 and 1986, with three species (jack pine, black spruce and white spruce) accounting for 80 per cent of all the trees planted. During the same period the use of chemical herbicides for stand tending went from just under 20 per cent of all such treatments to 93 per cent.

However, not everyone agrees that Canada's forests should be turned into huge fibre farms. Simplifying complex ecosystems by attempting to turn them into plantations could be a risky business. Some argue that when forestry doffs its hat to modern agriculture, it is mimicking a system that has lead to the impoverishment of soils and a fatal dependence on an expensive inputs of chemicals.

"This will end up leading to a biological holocaust," says David Peerla, forest campaigner for Greenpeace. "Monocultures simplify the biological diversity of the natural forest, thereby eliminating various plant, insect and animal habitats. We don't know how many of these species are being eradicated."

Disputes over the way we treat our forests are not new, but they have been growing more impassioned. A few short years ago most Canadians had never heard of South Moresby or Temagami, wilderness areas whose names now evoke images all their own -- blockaded roads, angry loggers and coffee table books featuring spectacular photos of majestic forests threatened by‹f��‹

Behind the headlines and the confrontations, the debate over forestry has changed. Until very recently, government forest landlords and their industrial tenants were struggling to convince the public that they were not mining the forests; that they were finally getting down to the tough, expensive job of setting in place a system of modern silviculture; that the forest was finally being treated like any other crop.

Now, however, critics of Canada's forest practices are no longer content to simply argue for the preservation of this or that spot of remaining wildland or to point to the huge backlog of unregenerated cutover. Notions of biological diversity and ecosystem integrity have begun to appear. Something called "new forestry" has taken root and is spreading like ragweed.

"Nature designed a forest to be a self-sustaining, self-repairing entity; we're designing a regulated, economic plantation to require increasing external subsidies -- herbicides, pesticides and in many places fertilizers," American zoologist Chris Maser told Ontario's Environmental Assessment (EA) Board. The Board is conducting a detailed probe of that province's forestry practices.

Maser, who has become something of a guru to the new forestry movement, has a passionate, almost messianic approach to forestry. The former US Bureau of Land Management scientist's testimony was the first that Ontario's EA board had heard that explicitly spelled out the new philosophy of forestry. He refers to nature with the same reverence -- and punctuation -- that a cleric might bring to a discussion of the deity.

"We have created the intellectual extinction of Nature's diversity through humanity's planning system, which invariably leads to biological extinction of species and their functions within the ecosystem."

Maser came to Ontario earlier this year to testify on behalf of Forests For Tomorrow, a coalition of environmental groups. FFT is challenging Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and its industrial clients, whose message to the EA board is quite simple: 'All's well in the woods'. (italics)

The quasi-judicial hearings, which got underway three years ago and proceeded quietly in an old railway hotel in Thunder Bay before shifting to Toronto, will be crucial in determining the direction of forestry in Canada. Michelle Swenarchuk, the lawyer representing FFT at the hearings, says that their importance lies in the fact that, unlike a common garden royal commission, the two-person EA board will not be making recommendations. They will be making a decision, in effect rewriting Ontario's forestry rule‹f��‹

But the hearings have heard sharply different views on how the forest should be treated.

"I would say that there's a been complete failure on the part of industry and government to acknowledge the need for any change of practices," says Swenarchuk, who has learned a lot about the crucial importance of forest ecology since she started work on the case back in 1986.

The former labour lawyer sits in her small office in a converted factory and warehouse building not far from the edge of Toronto's declining garment district. The impressive beams, at least sixteen inches square, are cut from white pine, a species that was the backbone of the eastern forest industry in the days when industrial promoters were confident that the forest was inexhaustible. In 1991 the forest industry seems equally confident that its clear-cut-and-plant strategy is the way to sustain its mills.

"In the two years it took for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the industry to present their cases, we heard scarcely a word about concerns over full tree harvest and nutrient depletion," recalls Swenarchuk, her voice rising. "There was no reflection of American thinking about new forestry or the views of German scientists worried about plantation management, artificial regeneration techniques and our ability to even grow a future forest that way. In fact, we were treated with 'utter contempt' for raising these concerns until the volume of the evidence we presented and the strength of the literature indicated that this is not an aberrant approach."

The question of full tree logging and nutrient depletion provides a glimpse at the chasm that separates advocates of industrial forestry and those promoting the new forestry.

Full tree logging is a highly-mechanized technique that involves extracting the entire tree -- branches, top and all -- from the site and hauling it to a roadside landing where it is limbed and topped. This "waste" is left to rot in large piles. This technique differs from older, tree length logging systems in which the tree's branches and top are removed where it is felled.

Until very recently, tree length logging systems that leave the nutrient-rich foliage on site accounted for 70 per cent of the cut in Ontario. But Ministry of Natural Resources officials told the EA Board that tree length logging has declined to about 30 per cent and that the dominant system is now full tree, the shift being attributable to corporate concerns over the cost of wood: MNR admitted that "the way logging methods have developed in Ontario...has been largely influenced by economic considerations."

Slash (the tree tops, small branches and foliage left after logging) plays an important role, serving as an environment where decomposers immobilize large quantities of nitrogen, thereby reducing losses, and as a nutrient sink available for the new growth. Industrial forestry's concern with removing the wood as cheaply as has led to the dominance of full tree logging systems and the removal valuable nutrients from the soil.

Michelle Swenarchuk is alarmed at this approach: "It's obvious even if you don't know any science that when you take the whole tree off the site you're removing not only the wood but a great deal of material that, if left, would decay to help form a nutrient base for the next generation."

The contrast between commercially-driven forestry and the new forestry is striking.

The dominant regime, based on artificial regeneration and intensive silviculture, concentrates its research efforts on clonal forestry to produced new versions of the tree species most in demand by pulp mills. Joe Bird of the Ontario Forest Industries Association is optimistic about all the new seed orchards that will soon be producing genetically-manipulated stock.

"Forests managers in industry and government see it as a great opportunity," he says. "The tree improvement thing is quite a success story."

The official voices of industrial forestry focus on numbers, quantifying the increased areas under intensive management. Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Noranda Forest and the most outspoken defender of current practices, bemoans his industry's poor environmental reputation.

"Clear cutting isn't pretty," says Zimmerman. "But modern clear cuts are of modest size and are usually scattered.....The fact is that Canada's forest is being cared for better than ever before."

For Adam Zimmerman, a well cared for forest is a managed forest.

"But what does the managed forest mean? It means that when a forest is harvested, seedlings have to be planted -- and cared for -- on lands that have been prepared for plantation."

The head of Canada's largest forest firm points to the 900 million seedlings planted annually, more than triple the number planted in 1980. ‹f��‹å"Industry will adamantly point to the billions of trees they've planted," says Michelle Swenarchuk. "And I'm sure they have.The issue is that we should not be relying on large area clear cutting and planting 'at all'. The emphasis should shift very substantially away from clear cutting and planting to cutting small areas to enhance natural regeneration."

Such thinking is very much in line with the prescriptions of the new forestry. And while mainstream foresters exhibit an can-do mentality, confidently predicting success in their new plantations, the new forestry has a more modest expectations. Not the least of these is the need to come to an understanding of how forest ecosystems work before attempting to either manipulate them or replace them with fibre farms.

This is Chris Maser's perspective. It is radical not only because it is such a significant departure from conventional forestry. It also quite literally entails getting at the root of the matter.

This is why Maser has spent so long studying squirrel turds.

When small mammals eat sporocarps (fungus fruiting bodies) they nourish themselves and also help to build the links in the chain of ecological relationships that allow the forest to thrive. Each "fecal pellet" emitted by such foragers is what Maser calls a "pill of symbiosis" containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria, yeast and the spores of hypogeous mycorrhizal fungi.

The mycorrhizal fungi are important to forest function because they form sheaths around the fine roots of trees in a symbiotic relationship, taking energy from the trees but helping them to process the nutrients from the soil. Some mycorrhizae also prevent pathogens from contacting the root system of the trees.

"If all this sounds incredibly complicated," Maser told the Ontario EA board, "that's because it is. And it is only one tiny glimpse of a forest's total complexity."

To what extent can massive clearcuts such as the 200,000 hectare abomination that Forests For Tomorrow discovered outside Kapuskasing 'ever' support a viable forest? How do small mammals react to habitat changes in the 20,000 hectare clear cuts that are not uncommon in northern Ontario? Which species will become extinct and what is their role in the natural functioning of the forest? What will be the effects of the plantation strategy on the biodiversity of the boreal region? What 'is' the extent of that diversity?

Since no one really has a complete knowledge of the dynamics of boreal ecosystem function, and since massive plantations have never been tried before in northern Ontario, it becomes difficult‹f��‹
to confidently claim that these forests are being managed in a sustainable fashion.

Ontario's four year environmental assessment of forestry will provide some clues about what sustainable forestry might mean in Canada. When it finishes its deliberations the EA board will have conducted the most detailed and wide-ranging study of forestry ever undertaken in Canada. And all the participants -- industry, government, native groups, environmentalists, hunters and anglers -- know that the board has the power to issue a "finding" that could well alter the way in which forestry will be carried out.

Last September an unexpected factor was added to a political equation nearly as complex as the forest itself. Ontario's New Democrats surprised everyone, including themselves, by forming a majority government.

This was a party that had for years been highly critical of the Ontario's forestry practices. But the NDP position was not taken too seriously by those in control of the forests: on Michelle Swenarchuk's cork bulletin board is pinned the a copy of the cover of "The Last Stand", an NDP study of Ontario forestry published in 1983. She got it from the Ministry of Natural Resources library. The acquisition date, rubber-stamped beside a line drawing of a conifer, is September 7, 1991. The NDP was elected on September 6.

A key element of NDP forestry policy has always been a shift in control of the forest, with more power transferred those closest to the resource (the NDP has a strong northern caucus) and away from southern-based bureaucracies: "The forest looks far different up close than it does from the Whitney Block or the Corner of King and Bay."

Sitting in his spacious corner office on the top floor of the Whitney Block is one of the people who put together "The Last Stand." Bud Wildman is Ontario's new minister of Natural Resources.

Asked if Ontario's dwindling reserves of natural forest can sustain the ever-increasing cut levels to which it is being subjected by the big paper companies that run the mills, Wildman replies bluntly, "No, it can't. Not if we continue going the way we're going."

The member for Algoma, a huge riding north of Sault Ste Marie, is quite conscious of the debates over new forestry and a growing realization among many European foresters that their centuries™old faith in plantation forestry has resulted in the creation of biological deserts where both diversity and productivity are‹f��‹

"In Scandinavia and in places like the Black Forest of Germany, where they've been far more successful that we have in the past in terms of 'farming' the forest, they have found that after a long period of time single crop monocultures do not even provide quality fibre. They're now moving to look at questions related to biodiversity."

Under the NDP, Ontario has taken a few tentative steps in the direction of changing its approach to forestry. Aerial spraying of herbicides has been cut by 20 per cent. The ministry of Natural Resources has published a formal document that includes the principles underpinning that its version of that slippery concept, "sustainable development." Among them are:

All life is connected, from the fungi in the soil to the birds in the sky. Human activity that affects one part of the natural world should never be considered in isolation from its effects on others.....Our understanding of the way the natural world works -- and how our actions affect it -- is often incomplete. This means we must exercise caution, and a special concern for natural values in the face of such uncertainty..."H

But how will this translate into real, on-the-ground changes in the way the forest is treated? Crucial issues such as clearcutting, full tree logging and the province's whole plantation strategy in the boreal forest are unresolved. The NDP is adopting a wait-and-see attitude, having commissioned an audit of the state of the forest, an old growth study and a look at pilot projects in community-based forestry.

"There is a tremendous lack of information and data," Wildman says. "We don't even have much information about what's out there in the boreal forest."

In spite of the fact that little changed so far, the new regime has high-sounding hopes. The minister in charge of Canada's number three forest jurisdiction, with 80 million hectares of forest land, seems hopeful that he can engineer a turnaround in the formula forestry of clear-cut-and-plant that one investigator dubbed "Betty Crocker forestry."

"We now have what we call timber management plans," says Wildman, rolling his eyes. "I hope we'll be moving to 'forest' management plans. All of the timber management units are completely arbitrary; they should be on a watershed basis. We're talking about integrated management in which you're going to have wildlife biologists have as much say as the forester in the development of the management plan."‹f�‹åThis sort of talk has Ontario's big pulp companies a bit edgy, with Joe Bird of the Ontario Forest Industries Association worrying out loud about "the politicization of silviculture."

There are powerful interests with large investments of financial and intellectual capital in the present way of treating the forests. Indeed, the major corporations can be expected to resist any changes that will raise the cost of public timber or their access to assured supplies in the short term. Within Wildman's own ministry -- traditionally a very conservative organization -™there are many foresters who regard any move to the new forestry with profound suspicion. The "Yes, Minister" syndrome can always come into play.

Then there is the state of the forest business; balance sheets have been ravaged by the downturn in the business cycle. The pulp industry has historically failed to keep up with its more innovative competitors in Scandinavia and the U.S. Ontario's traditional newsprint market south of the border is threatened by new regulations demanding a higher content of recycled fibre than the northern mills can now easily supply. And demand for newsprint is stagnating in comparison to demand for specialty papers.

These factors, coupled with the threatened closure by Spruce Falls Power and Paper -- the only major employer in the clay belt town of Kapuskasing -- and shutdowns by Abitibi-Price in Thunder Bay, mean that the private sector is well positioned to resist moves that it regards as unjustifiable interference with the way it treats the public forest. The job blackmail card is difficult to trump. And the forest industry will react negatively to moves to reduce clear cutting because that could raise the cost of wood delivered to the mill gate.

Ontario's two-pronged reassessment of its forestry practice -- the Environmental Assessment and the new government's stated intention to do things differently -- is being played out against this background.

Michelle Swenarchuk sees the NDP's initial moves on rethinking boreal forest practices as "very positive." Yet she is still wary.

"The question is: What are they going to mean in practice. How much will be implemented? How will they take on the key issue of harvest method and regeneration policy?"

Only time will tell if the future of Ontario forestry will simply mirror its unhappy past or whether some real changes will emerge as a result of the current reevaluations. But it is clear that in Ontario -- and in other Canadian jurisdictions -- it is not yet too late to learn from the mistakes of others by adopting ecologically-sustainable methods of treating the forest.

"Canada should skip the intensive forest management stage that has been tried and found wanting in Europe," says David Peerla of Greenpeace. "We should move to preserve as many remnant biotopes as possible, reduce production and consumption of one-use paper products and modify our forest practices so that they are as soft as possible. There are huge uncertainties about the consequences of our current practices."