Nova Scotian Old Growth on the Chopping Block

One of Nova Scotia’s oldest standing forests can be found down a logging road in Lunenburg County, on a steep slope tucked behind a wall of young spruce. What’s more, we almost cut it down.

Coolen Lake Old Growth, as its known, is a short drive from East River and very difficult to find, first identified as genuine old growth by Colin Gray of the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute during a several year cataloguing effort, 2015-2018. While there’s more to old growth forests than the age of their trees, Coolen Lake houses a hemlock 424 years old as of 2019, a rare distinction among Nova Scotian plantlife.

“When you walk into these old growth forests you really need to sit and reflect on where you are, and how old these trees are,” commented Gray of Coolen Lake, then among trees which predated European settlement. “It’s remarkable we can still do that.”

Old Growth
Nova Scotian old growth, Coolen Lake.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Old growth is believed to account for less than 0.01 per cent of Nova Scotia’s remaining forest cover, and to date is protected by no specific provincial legislation. While the Old Growth Policy upheld by the Department of Natural Resources says that it will, “conserve the remaining old growth forests on public land,” these forests are not always identified before harvesting begins, and as Coolen Lake demonstrates, no policy is without oversights.

Mike Lancaster, stewardship coordinator with the St Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, keeps a close eye on the natural features this organization has proposed for protection, including the not-yet-designated Ingram River Wilderness Area next door to Coolen Lake. While checking the Harvest Plans Map Viewer (maintained by the Department of Natural Resources) the evening of December 17th, 2018, he saw that Coolen Lake Old Growth was slated for a shelterwood cut, which Lancaster described as a “two-step clearcut.”

A phone call the next day with sitting minister of Lands and Forestry, Ian Rankin, was followed by a swell of public comments on social media. Lancaster’s detailed explanation of the situation garnered over 500 shares in 30 hours on Facebook, and resulted in a flood of communiques levelled at Rankin, pleading for the rescue of Coolen Lake. In a statement, Rankin said this stand of old growth should never have been cued for cutting. The proposed harvest was cancelled December 19th.

Old Growth
Nova Scotian old growth, Coolen Lake.
Zack Metcalfe photo

“I do honestly believe this proposal was a mistake on behalf of the Department of Lands and Forestry,” said Lancaster, “but that doesn’t put me at ease. How many other old growth stands slip through the cracks? This was a well-documented stand, and perhaps among the oldest in the Maritimes, let alone Nova Scotia.”

He made mention of the Loon Lake old growth stand harvested in 2017 in spite of department policy, and points to several proposed cuts in his own jurisdiction, just south of Big St Margaret’s Bay Lake. These forests almost certainly contain old growth, he said, but no surveys have confirmed or denied his suspicions and proposed cuts are proceeding apace. He intends to visit these parcels personally with a score sheet in hand, created by the provincial government for the identification of genuine old growth.

“The burden of finding, assessing, and protecting these rare, precious ecosystems on public land should not be shouldered by individuals and non-governmental organizations,” he said.

“I would like to see a longer consultation period, with longer-term projections, so both the community and industry have more time to prep and plan for what’s ahead. I believe this would also decrease the level of conflict associated with these decisions – more proactive, less reactive. If anyone is waiting to see concrete evidence that the systems on which we depend to manage our public forests need to change, this is it.”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

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