Looking after Nova Scotia’s Crown land garden

The Minister’s analogy of sustainable forestry to sustainable production of crops in a garden overlooks the now well established principle that “sustainability” needs to embrace much more than just the annual allowable cut.

Two approaches to forestry in Nova Scotia. One produces high value wood as well as sequestering carbon, providing habitat for wildlife and peace of mind to visitors. Unfortunately, it is the exception, not the rule, for forestry on Crown land in Nova Scotia.

Something is definitely brewing as NSDNR Minister Lloyd Hines continues his rounds of Nova Scotia talking up ways to make more economic use of our forests. NGnews reports on the Minister’s presentation to the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce in New Glascow on Mar 2, 2017, noting that Hines views the five million acres of Crown-owned land in the province as a giant garden about which he says “Like any garden you have to look after it.” The NGnews report continues: “The difference, though, between a vegetable garden and the massive forest the DNR manages is that harvesting isn’t something that’s looked at over a period of a few months but rather on a 40- to 100-year cycle, he said.” View NGnews.

Hines assures us that the garden is being managed sustainability: “If you look at the regeneration and silviculture work going on, we’re satisfied we’re replanting and managing at a rate that is sustainable in terms of our total allowable cut.”

Forestry viewed as a vegetable garden is an unfortunate metaphor. Forestry at large moved away from the view of forestry as simple production systems in the 1990s when it was recognized that forests need to be managed for multiple values, and that “sustainability” has to embrace more than just the annual allowable cut. (View for example Changing Forest Values and Ecosystem Management by David Bengston, 1994; or Ch 5 Sustainable Forest Management in Canada’s forests: a history by Ken Druska, 2003).

NSDNR has embraced much of the language around this larger perspective and constantly reassures us that multiple values are being taken into account. Indeed some significant blocks of forested land have been set aside for protection. Now perhaps 10% of the forested landscape (a portion of the 12.3% of the the total land area in Parks and Protected Areas) is protected; forests cover ~79% of Nova Scotia according to stats cited in the NGnews item. The proportion protected is far from enough to conserve the ecosystem services and biodiversity over the longer term; experts estimate that a minimum of 50-60% of the landscape needs to be managed for biodiversity for long term conservation. In principle, NSDNR does this by prescribing harvest regimes that simulate natural disturbances, reassuring us that “We have now developed tools that ensure that all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands.” However, those pesky percentages that NSDNR feels are now irrelevant do not back up this claim (re: NSDNR’s nature-based forestry; How much forestry in Nova Scotia maintains mixed, multi-aged Acadian forest?). Public upset about the extent and intensity of clearcutting likewise reflects stress caused by the loss of social/psychological values from large expanses of our forests.

Even as simple production systems, there is good reason to be concerned about the long-term sustainability of forestry as presently practiced in Nova Scotia. The Dept of Agriculture advises gardeners to conduct soil tests; NSDNR has conducted its own testing and modelling of nutrient supply in forest soils but rarely talks about it and there is little indication to date that the results have been incorporated into in the longer term planning. In a long-awaited “report” on the Forest Nutrient Budget Model, Key’s et al. found that “1/4 to 1/2 of the assessed plantation sites have non-sustainable MMAI yield expectations…Plantations with non-sustainable MMAI values are mainly associated with low soil weathering classes (especially Class 1) and/or tree species with high nutrient demands (e.g., Norway spruce).” Nutrient-poor Gibralter soils cover much of SW Nova Scotia, very notably in SW Nova Scotia. The poor nutrient status results primarily from a combination of inherently low buffering capacity (fertility) and acid rain, but as Key’s et al. noted “harvest removals can exacerbate declines in base cation levels (especially Ca) in affected soils.” This “report” is in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in the scientific literature on Sep 29, 2016. To date the department has not commented on it otherwise on its website. View Calcium Depletion and an earlier post for more about the soil issue.

On a positive note, the Minister commented that the province is looking to to use Crown land to help “industrialize” the maple syrup industry in the province, following leads in the private sector. Better late than never, I guess…but let’s hope NSDNR gives more priority to selection management in lands with sugar maple potential. One attempt to have the clearcutting plan for a piece of Crown land revised in part because of the presence of a pocket of sugar maple was met with a request to mark the stand so that it could be incorporated into the area as a retention patch, those minimal patches in clearcuts subject to a lot of blowdown. (One might ask why had the stand not been recognized in the PTA.)

It is also pertinent that sugar maple has relatively high calcium requirements, a nutrient that is likely deficient or close to deficient for sugar maple over much of our landscapes (re: discussion of soil tests above) and that losses are exacerbated by acid rain and clearcutting. Softwoods have lower requirements, so sustainability of nutrient supply based on softwoods does not take into consideration a future potential for sugar maple and other hardwoods.

The article comments on blueberries: “In recent years, the province has tried to make Crown land available to blueberry producers to lease, but have had a hard sell. Hines explained that because blueberries take a long time to get established, producers prefer to own rather than lease land. The province is hesitant to put up any for sale signs on their property though.” That’s good, but please, NSDNR, do not allow any more forested land to go into blueberries, as that is pretty well non-reversible and replaces a self-sustaining system in most cases with one strongly dependent on use of pesticides ( organic blueberry production an exception). If for nothing else (there is a lot else, however), we need the forests – especially unmanaged forests – to sequester carbon.

Perhaps it is time as well that we begin to look at all forms of deforestation in Nova Scotia; forest cover was cited as 84% in the 1970s; today it’s 79% (75% according to ForestNS).

Nova Scotia’s forest garden needs some serious attention from all of us.

UPDATE Mar 7, 2017: More on the Minister’s rounds: Minister hopes to chop down negative perceptions of forestry industry Amherst News March 6, 2017. “We do have a responsibility to manage the Crown production in the province and we are sincerely using a science-based approach that is sustainable,” Hines said. “We don’t want to be the folks that killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
It’s OK, Mr Hinds, the Liberals and the Conservatives have been shooting at the goose for a long time, joined by the NDP 2009-2013 so you can all share the blame for the demise of our forests in the history books… but you do have the option to change direction… How about an unbiased, independent review of forestry in Nova Scotia for starters?


I am pretty critical of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (NSDNR) in these pages, however it is not universal and it is definitely not personal. There is a lot of good work done by this department, and I make a lot of use of resources provided by NSDNR.

My concerns relate overall to (i) the decisions that continue to support a form of industrial forestry that is highly destructive of forest and aquatic biodiversity in Nova Scotia, exploits small woodlot owners, and provides fewer and fewer benefits to the people of Nova Scotia at large; (ii) the science purported to support these decisions or at least the public presentation of the science; and (iii) the veil of secrecy or control of release of pertinent statistics compiled by NSDNR.

I am not the first, by a long shot, to express such concerns either within or outside of government. I do hope these pages will contribute constructively, however incrementally, to debates about such issues and, I would like to think, their resolution.

– Postscript (Aug 22, 2016) to About this site

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