Old Growth - Our Ecological and Genetic Legacy

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Individual trees can live a long time. The dominant species in Ontario’s forests certainly can and some individuals do live for 4 or 5  centuries (much longer in exceptional situations like the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment). Eventually, however, they degrade and die due to disease, insect attack, extreme weather events or, in much of Ontario, catastrophic fire. How the forests that these trees form should be managed over the long-term, especially in the vast, publicly owned, Crown forests of Ontario, has been the subject of two conflicting world views for the last 50 years. Earthroots has always advocated the perspective of ecologists and wilderness proponents that stands dominated by very old trees attain the ecological characteristics of “old growth”. In contrast the commercial forestry industry has always argued that very old stands become “over mature”  and represent a major loss in economic value.

Loggers see trees as commercial units, a source of lumber, veneer, wood pulp, utility poles and other sources of “fibre.” In their world view forest stands start as young trees which grow fast and accumulate significant wood volume per hectare come to commercial maturity over a period of 8 to 10 decades. They want those mature trees to be even-aged and have straight trunks of solid wood to maximize their utility and ease of extraction. Then they cut or “harvest” the crop as they say and prep the site for a new crop of seeded or planted trees.

Any stands that escape cutting for longer periods become, in commercial loggers terminology, “over-mature.” “Over-mature” stands are not putting on additional wood volume per acre at a fast rate so they are a “waste” of timber land productivity. The trees in such stands may have developed hollow cores (due to fungal infection and subsequent insect attack) which substantially reduce their timber value. Many of the old trees in “over-mature” stands may have died and persist as dead standing stems logger's term “snags” because snags represent a serious safety hazard to those trying to fell and remove sound timber. An additional problem for the commercial forest industry is that these “over-mature” stands have accumulated large volumes of coarse woody debris like fallen logs and large branches which put them at risk of fire. The worst possible outcome for a logger is to have a stand burn before an perceived economic value can be extracted. The solution to these problems of “over-maturity” for the timber manager is to cut the stand down before the characteristics develop, prep the site for a new crop of young trees and restore what in their eyes is a new productive cycle of fast growing, even-aged healthy timber.

Oddly, many of the features that loggers abhor in old forests are indicative of what ecologists term “old growth.”  Old growth stands in the pine forest of Temagami for example are multi-aged but dominated by very large and very old trees. Within the stand some of these large trees have become  dead standing “snags” that have have shorn their bark but persisted erect for decades since they were living trees. The snags are perforated by woodpecker holes which have become aerial habitat for cavity nesting birds and a variety of small mammals. But snags do eventually fall and so do some of the living trees so the ground level is jumbled with downed logs in various states of decay from freshly fallen live trees to stems that are still visible but almost completely broken down and absorbed into the mossy forest floor. The root balls of past fallen giants mound the soil and with other coarse woody debris a disorderly complexity is created which provides a rich habitat for a vast array of living creatures on the surface and below it. Through the seasons orchids and mushrooms emerge from the organic forest soil. The mushrooms are indicative of the great mass of fungal hyphae that weave a vast network through the soil layer which integrate into the roots of the trees and ties the forest together into one interacting ecosystem.

Much of this structure, complexity and resulting habitat is missing from the timber managed forest and will take centuries to redevelop in a location that has incurred a stand destroying fire even if it is left to grow undisturbed. And, in that sense, old growth stands like those in the Temagami forest can only be lost, they are not recreated in timelines that our society can deal with. The oldest giant pines of that forest were young seedlings when Samual de Champlain first set eyes on Lake Nipissing.

Earthroots works to protect our remaining old growth legacy.

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