Sustainable woodlot management: Can we cut it?

How do you feel about clearcutting? Do you think that wild creatures and their habitats require protection?

The question often prompts an immediate reaction. “Of course I care,” we tend to say, rather huffily.

Many of us are guilty of saying that we care — and that we care passionately — but how many of us have really done anything, anything at all to voice our concerns over habitat loss?

It’s one thing to sign a petition advocating habitat protection that is in Ontario, British Columnbia, Newfoundland, or somewhere in the US, Mexico or South America.

It’s entirely another thing to become involved in habitat protection close to home. Several of my readers have sent e-mails, telephoned else talked to me about habitat loss here in the Pontiac. What is particularly upsetting these people is the clear-cutting of trees.

No-one wants to be quoted, whether they are government representatives, farmers, landowners or business people, all callers have wanted anonymity. And there’s a good reason for this.

This issue gets folks riled up. Several readers say they’ve talked to people cutting the trees and many have had unpleasant altercations with them. Woodlot owners want to be left alone, to cut their trees as they see fit. Anyone questioning them is often seen as a threat. And the last thing some woodlot owners want is more legislation controlling what, how, when, where they cut.

Responsible “woodlot management” is all relative: what do we mean by “responsible”? What constitutes a “woodlot”? And, what is “management” in this context?

Ask three people, get three answers.

Readers contacting me are outraged over what they call the devastating and increasing clearcutting of Pontiac woodlands. I agree. For instance, new logging roads have penetrated into the hinterland near our cottage in the Black River area.

Sure, we get the benefit of safer, wider, all-season roads. But we also get dangerous traffic. We get to hear trucks, hear the chainsaws, and realize that penetration into the “wilderness” means more people will build cottages and, insodoing, increasingly deplete wildlife habitat.

Other areas are likewise affected. The Greermount Road, north of Shawville is another ravaged area; yet another is a half-cut hill visible north of Rutledge. This cut made a striking silhouette against the horizon when Eric and I guided a bus tour along the backroads enroute last summer. Visitors were intrigued that clearcutting was still permissible here… they had no idea what was going on in the woodlands of the National Capital Region.

After having just spent three weeks in Wales and England, Eric and I observe that what we’re doing here in North America with respect to logging seems unethical.

In Britain, there are no wilderness areas left. No wild forests exist. There is nothing at all “pristine” about England and Wales; instead the beautiful landscape is completely artificial, managed by people. Forests are plantations here. When one reflects that the land there has been farmed, logged, built-upon and drained since before Roman times, it is not difficult to understand why the countryside resembles a patchwork quilt of stone walls, hedgerows, farmers fields and rolling, barren-looking moors upon which sheep, rugged ponies and cattle graze.

In Wales, we were intrigued by coppicing, where a single tree would be allowed to grow to substantial girth over perhaps two or three generations of a family. With a single “generation” deemed to be 20 years, we’re talking forty to sixty years to manage a tree — or a forest. That’s something, isn’t it?

When a coppiced tree is felled, it is cut in a specific manner. In fact, the cut is more akin to pruning. Part of the main trunk is left standing, with “suckers” allowed to grow upwards from it. These are carefully tended and as they obtain a certain dimension and length they are harvested — for poles or fenceposts, for example. The trunk is left standing so it could re-grow limbs for future use.

In this way, one tree can be used by a Welsh family for several generations.

Today, trees accepted for lumber in the European Union must be certified: the woodlot from which the timber comes must have been sustainably managed, with new trees planted to replace those harvested.

Here in North America, including the Pontiac, we persist in believing the forest is ever-replaceable. We mistakenly think that we have an unalienable right to cut trees indiscriminantly because we own them and because we own “our” land

Why do we persist in this destructive way of viewing our natural world?

Because we look around us and think there are plenty of trees and that there is a limitless supply of them. Because we are more concerned about short-term jobs than long-term planning and notions of sustainability. Because we need to feed our families. Because we are too arrogant.

We human beings are abysmal students. Here in North America we are averse to looking back at Britain and Europe and learning from their ways. It would be prudent for us to recognize, however, that Europeans are not more environmentally aware than we are because they are “better people.”

No. They reluctantly embraced such notions as environmentally sustainable woodlot management years ago not through altruism, but because they had already destroyed their forests, years ago.

Can we learn from them? Or, will we simply destroy our woodlands, cut the trees for our wood stoves, for lumber, for pulpwood, and ignore the teaching?

Will we care when the wetlands are drained and we don’t hear the song of the frogs come spring? Will we care when the migrating songbirds’ voices are stilled, because their Pontiac nesting grounds are felled? Will we care when we see that the Pontiac’s watercourses are congested with the detritus of the clearcutter?

Give it some thought.

What can you do? Well, when you buy wood for your woodstove, ask how the hardwood was cut. When you buy that cedar for fencing, ask how it was harvested.

And think “harvesting,” not “cutting.” There’s a difference, and it’s none-too-subtle. The difference is, as all farmers know, that a harvest implies a next season of growth, nurturing and then, of harvesting all over again.

This is what the British know. This is what the European Union sanctions are all about.

Here in the Pontiac, it’s beyond time for us to manage our forests sustainably.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon.