So Teach the Redwoods

In 1968 the United States federal government saw fit to establish Redwood National Park, an outstanding slice of the only Coastal redwood habitat on Earth, stretched along California’s west coast. These trees would lose over 90 per cent of their historic 2 million acre range in time – two thirds of the park itself were logged before its protection – but within these 58,000 acres at least, they would be allowed to recover and persevere.

Coastal redwoods constitute the tallest trees on Earth, as well as some of the most massive. Hyperion, for example, discovered within Redwood National Park in 2006, measures a staggering 115 metres tall. Such trees take many thousands of years to grow, the relic of ages gone by, now cornered in their only remaining habitat.

Redwood National Park, while indispensable, was nevertheless a small enterprise, nearly out-sized by neighbouring redwood forests still under the saw. In the 1970s conservationists began pushing for an expansion of the park, the purchasing these lands away from the forestry industry in order to better this tree’s bid for survival.

This bottom-up approach worked, in the end, swaying state and federal government in favour of a 48,000 acre expansion, but something went very wrong. As politicians moved with their signature slowness to safeguard these lands, the logging companies which yet owned them stepped up their efforts, working through the evenings by flashlight to harvest everything they could from these ancient forests.

When the expansion began to take legal shape there arose a troubling provision – that foresters could, even after the new park borders were set, harvest any tree already on the ground. It’s been reported that, just in advance of Jimmy Carter’s establishing signature in 1978, several logging companies instructed their employees to knock down every tree they possible could; harvesting could wait.

In the end, a full 80 per cent of these additional 48,000 acres had been logged in advance of their protection, every acre of which would take millennia to recover its towering glory.

This, in a nutshell, is how I feel about modern forestry in Nova Scotia, an industry whose practices are largely unsustainable, the consequences of which will be with us for centuries. As it’s been described to me, we’re harvesting our forests with 20th century techniques in spite of our 21st century understanding of their repercussions. Clearcutting, for example, and tight harvesting rotations are wholly incommensurate with a healthy, diverse, even-aged forest or the survival of our provincial biodiversity, and we’ve known for a while.

So here we are, spending still more of our political capital to protect the few intact forests of Nova Scotia and here, as in California, political progress has been slow going. Even after we committed to science-based forestry reforms in 2011, those commitments were dropped in favour of yet another independent forestry review, underway as we speak.

The expertise and outcomes of this latest review aside, it represents yet another delay which our forests perhaps cannot tolerate. With each hesitation, in good faith or not, entire forests will fall, the damage to whom will be felt for centuries. If the history of Redwood National Park can teach us anything, it’s that slow progress breeds even slower recovery.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the South Shore Breaker.

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