He went for a walk in the woods but the woods were gone

It’s time to pass an Environmental Bill of Rights for Nova Scotia, as already proposed by Denise Peterson-Rafuse in a Private Member’s Bill, Oct 14, 2016

Spring wild flora enthusiasts return to a favourite site at Higgins Mt to find a sloppy clearcut. View A little of what Nova Scotians see and feel; such sights and feelings are universal.

A line in SURETTE: A Silver Donald lining for global green struggle by Ralph Surette in the Chronicle Herald, June 1, 2018, jumped out at me:

He went for a walk in the woods but the woods were gone

Surette’s op-ed describes the notable role that Silver Donald Cameron (from where else but Cape Breton?) has played in promoting Green Rights around the world though a film called GreenRights: The Human Right to a Healthy World (view Trailer) , a book entitled Warrior Lawyers, and his ongoing Green Interview series.

Silver Donald is not an “academic tourist” as I have heard some academics who concern themselves with global but not local issues described, but is well grounded in a wide range Nova Scotian environmental issues, including forestry (view for example The Forests of the Crown and The Forest and the Trees written in Oct 2010 to see how little we have progressed).

Surette pointedly notes that Canada did NOT sign on to the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972).

Some 180 of the 193 countries in the United Nations signed a declaration of environmental rights in Stockholm which has, and is, being used by courageous lawyers, their lives often at risk, to score notable environmental victories in various countries against mighty forces. (Need I tell you who didn’t sign? The three biggest per capita producers of carbon emissions — the U.S., Canada and Australia — plus China, to name a few.)

Surette comments that the most notable Environmental Lawyer of all, highlighted by SDC in his interviews, Warrior Lawyers and other writing (e.g. in an article posted on constitution,ca), is Antonio Oposa:

But the most notable environmental lawyer of all is one Antonio (“Tony”) Oposa from the Philippines. In 1990, he went for a walk in the woods and the woods were gone. (I know the feeling. I’ve had it a half dozen times in Nova Scotia.) To his horror, he found that only four percent of the original Filipino forest was still standing, and that was slated for destruction.

He sued, but not in the conventional way. He sued on behalf of 43 children, including his own, and “all children yet unborn.” One of his associates was killed and for a time he had a million-peso price on his head. Ultimately, remarkably, he won. In international legal circles, this is now known as the “Oposa Doctrine” — the idea that we have a legal environmental responsibility to future generations.

May this spirit get here fast, where we continue to implicitly proclaim that our national priority is environmental destruction.

The line “he went for a walk in the woods and the woods were gone” jumped out at me. How often have we heard that story in the last 10+ years in Nova Scotia? Probably most of us of some age have had the experience of driving by or walking through a place where we recall the presence of a healthy forest that is no more and the sad feelings it evokes. We remember its air and smell and sounds and the simple pleasures of being in its midst.

I am happy to say that a few days ago, I had close to the opposite experience. A friend, Mike C, told me of how in his youth, perhaps about 35 years ago,  he frequented a forest in the Sackville-Bedford area where there were huge healthy beech trees; such trees were unusual even then because of the prevalence of trees heavily damaged by beech bark disease.

Massive yellow birch, left and a smaller hemlock on a mound, typical of the “Acadian Forest Love Affair
June 1 was a 29 degree day, but it was a pleasant 20 or so in these woods.

The forest had been on my list as a place I wanted to check out; Mike’s comment prompted me to do it sooner rather than later. What I and a friend accompanying me found was an incredibly healthy, mixed, multi-aged, multi-layered Acadian forest on a drumlin with large red spruce, yellow birch, red oak, red and sugar maples, hemlock and, yes, beech.

There was plentiful dead wood still upright (“snags”) and peppered with woodpecker holes as well as on the ground (“coarse woody debris”) in all stages of decomposition. There were now well decomposed stumps, but not many to be found, and none recent. A pit and mound topography revealed a long history of big trees and wind disturbance.

The beech snag (left), and old, barely hanging on beech (right)

I am pretty sure I found the tree Mike had in mind, close to the apex of the drumlin. It remains as a snag 27 inches (70 cm) diameter at breast height. Close by was another beech approximately 20 inches (51 cm) dbh, still living but barely. Elsewhere, otherwise reasonably healthy beech trees (i.e. with relatively little beech canker) were already attacked by the latest beech pest to arrive in North America via the port of Halifax, a leaf minor. (View Post Mar 12, 2018 for more about the two exotic pests of beech brought in via Halifax.)

So the difference from what Mike had observed, i.e. the absence in 2018 of any large, still very healthy beech trees is the “close to” part. The good part is the overall healthy state of the forest with big trees (20″/0.5 m and larger dbh) of a half dozen species, many likely well over 100 years old. I think it pretty likely that much of the area would meet NSDNR’s criteria for Old Growth Status.

I can only be thankful that the Jack Lake lands in which the forest is situated were never developed, and that the forest was harvested selectively without, apparently, highgrading*. (While adjacent forest is largely intact, a lot of it had been highgraded, some of it clearcut in the past.) Today the Jack Lake lands are on a trajectory to become a Regional Park (the Jack Lake Regional Park).
*High grading: A partial harvest removing only the most valuable species, or trees of desirable size and quality, without regard for the condition of the residual stand – NRC Glossary

So the legacy of the forestry that was practiced in that forest and of the Sackville Rivers Association folks who pushed for the Jack Lake lands not to be developed (as had been planned one point) is a forest that continues to benefit wildlife and provide for the human need to find peace in nature; not only that, it is barely a few tens of minutes away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

The forest is evidence that we do not have to choose between forestry and healthy forests, but that if we don’t (& we don’t in Nova Scotia), we need to rely heavily on regulations and enforcement to protect the interests of other species and of all citizens, as so well espoused by one Silver Donald Cameron.


An Environmental Bill of Rights has been proposed for Nova Scotia (Private Member’s Bill: Environmental Bill of Rights. The Honourable Denise Peterson-Rafuse Chester–St. Margaret’s. First Reading October 14, 2016).

Isn’t it time?


A comment from RL: In 2009, Brewster Kneen wrote, “The Tyranny of Rights“. I feel this 168 pg. document is well worth a read at this time where the “rights’ discourse has assumed a strong position in how we understand and articulate ecological ethics and acts of justice.

Why should trees have legal rights? It’s second nature

Postscript (Jun 7, 2018): I wasn’t aware that “On April 21st, 2017, on the eve of Earth Day, citizens packed into the Wooden Monkey in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the public release of a proposed non-partisan Environmental Bill of Rights for Nova Scotia.”

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