Why we need a Precautionary Biodiversity Landscape Plan for Nova Scotia 16Mar2020

There is more to reversing losses of  forest and associated aquatic biodiversity in NS than simply reducing clearcutting

What we have now is a precautionary plan to protect wood supply in NS

UPDATE Also view: Need for Biodiversity Landscape Planning before finalizing HPF and Ecological Matrix components of the Triad, and for caution in selection of HPF sites in acid-stressed watersheds
A response to the High Production Forestry Phase 1 – Discussion Paper, from the Conservation Committee of the Halifax Field Naturalists
March 31, 2020

The major cause for loss of biodiversity worldwide and locally is habitat loss and fragmentation. We are probably only beginning to the see the most extreme effects of it in NS: the local extinction or “extirpation” of species. An example: the mainland moose population seems to have collapsed; there is strong enough evidence that mismanagement or lack of management of habitat by L&F is the major cause that a group of naturalists have taken the province  to court to force them to take action they were committed to take but didn’t.

But well before the total collapse of species, they become less abundant and less genetically diverse. Those of us of some age remember days when brook trout and salmon and insects and forest wildflowers and a wide range of forest birds were very much more abundant than they are today. (A smaller number of species actually benefit in some way from increased human interaction and have become more abundant, sometimes to the point they are  damaging to ecosystems, e.g. bald eagles in NS).

Stopping and reversing such declines is what Biodiversity Landscape Planning (and Biodiversity Landscape Plans), or BLP, is all about.* It involves identifying and protecting core natural habitats, ensuring connectivity between them and as necessary restoring human disturbed habitat to its natural state or as close to that as we can get in order to provide sufficient area and connectivity of natural habitats to stop and, as possible, reverse biodiversity loss.
*In the past I have used the more broadly applied term “landscape level planning” but it can be somewhat ambiguous; when I talked to a forest technician about “landscape level planning”, he said, ‘Oh,  L&F does lots of that’,  but when I questioned him about it, he was talking about it strictly from the perspective how harvests would be laid out on the landscape over the next few years in order to sustain the wood supply, not about protecting biodiversity.

The science of BLP is complex and multilayered. We are fortunate in Nova Scotia to have a recognized expert – Prof Karen Beazley in the School of Resource and Environmental Science at Dalhousie University – who has conducted a lot of relevant research pertaining to NS specifically. She wrote a very constructive submission for the Independent Review. A few extracts (bolding is mine):

Practices that aim to sustain a steady or growing volume of biomass or income would result in significantly different practices than those that aim to sustain sufficient forest habitat to support viable populations of native species, including allowing for spatially contiguous forest land cover to allow for adaptation, movement and dispersal in response to climate and other environmental changes over short and long terms. Such ecological sustainability would require ~ 60-65 percent of NS land base to be managed for biological diversity (biodiversity) conservation objectives (see Beazley et al. 2005; Reining et al. 2006).

Nearly continuous forests dominated by older-age classes is/was the predominant natural land cover in Nova Scotia as indeed in other regions of the Acadian Forest. Accordingly, forest management should consider the spatial context of the entire land base, and account for cumulative losses of forest cover, especially of older age classes, to date. Given the current state of the forest in NS, arguably the most ecologically responsible and highest objective for all public forests would be to manage them for older-age class recovery. Further, as forest is/was the predominant ecosystem, forest management should be synonymous with biodiversity conservation, not solely with timber or biomass harvesting. Native biodiversity in NS exists predominantly in forests

In general, forest management planning in NS needs to address serious issues of fragmentation of the forest by roads and harvest practices (Beazley et al. 2006; Fudge et al. 2007). Planning should take into account the bigger picture, beyond the stand level and even beyond the landscape level, to the broader region, including connections to New Brunswick and the rest of continental North America (Beazley et al. 2005).

Watercourse and bog buffers of 20 m are inadequate and not based in ecosystem science. Buffers of such narrow widths may in some cases serve to reduce erosion into streams, but that is only one function. Leaving trees in narrow strips in clearcut situations is likely to result in blow down. At a minimum, they should be wide enough to retain a buffer function after anticipated blow down and other edge effects accrue (e.g., 100 m). Beyond this minimal buffer function, buffers should also provide habitat and connectivity for riparian species. I

Harvesting should be done in a spatial pattern that retains well-connected, large patches of suitable habitat for a wide suite of forest species, sufficient to maintain viable populations and movements pathways over time. Current wildlife guidelines around patches and buffers do not achieve this.

The document deserves reading in full. Much of the focus is on the NSDNR/L&F’s flawed interpretation of NDRs (Natural Disturbance Regimes) in NS, which would otherwise provide a firm base for Biodiversity Landscape Planning.

Fortunately, much of what Prof Beazley recommended* found its way into the Report of the Independent Review (the “Lahey Report”), and some of points above are being pursued in some form or another by L&F. Thus
*Others made similar recommendations, e.g. related to the NDR; Prof Beazley’s comments were the most authoritative

  • A major objective of re-writing the FMG, to be followed in the Ecological Matrix component of the Triad, is to restore to some degree older age classes.
  • In regard to the L&F’s  interpretation of Natural Disturbance Regimes, the department committed “To establish and implement an approach for publication of a peer-reviewed scientific paper on Nova Scotia natural disturbance agents (fire, insects, wind), to subsequently inform a second peer-reviewed scientific paper on the methodology used to map Nova Scotia’s natural disturbance regimes” and apparently that paper has now been submitted for peer review;
  • the Old Forest Policy is being “reviewed and updated to facilitate more effective land use planning by accelerating assessments of potential old forest and the conservation of old growth”. (Italics is mine.)

Except in Old Forest Policy document, however, there is no reference to anything like “Biodiversity Landscape Planning”.

Prof Lahey made comments and  recommended a review of current regulations related to the protective zones around surface waters; it’s not clear if those are being pursued currently; evidently it is not a priority (it’s not listed amongst the Projects listed on L&F’s Ecological Forestry page).

Biodiversity Landscape Planning  at L&F

While NSNDR/L&F produced a highly flawed* interpretation of natural disturbance regimes in 2008 , the department has has produced many valid and high quality maps, reports etc. related to BLP. View Key NSDNR Docs on this website.
*It was criticized as flawed from early on, the criticisms finally being recognized as valid by the Independent Review.

Current activities within L&F related specifically to BLP are oulined on a  Landscape Planning page on the L&F website.   It cites a “Landscape Planning Group” at L&F which includes  Bruce Stewart as “Manager”; Peter Bush as the “Provincial Landscape Ecologist”; Bradley Butt, “Research and Planning Forester” and Morgan Rice, an Intern. ‘Can’t find anything out about Bradley Butt’s background and activities at L&F. Bruce Stewart is the head of the 7-person Research and Planning unit at L&F; he wrote the Old Forest Policy. Morgan Rice is a recent graduate from the School of Resource and Environmental Studies at Dal.

Peter Bush is well qualified in the area of BLP.  He was transferred to DNR from NS Dept of Environment  in 2016. He had been with the Protected Areas section of the Dept of Environment, before that he spent time with Prof Peter Duinker in the School of Resource and Environmental Studies at Dal; he received his PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 2006. (View his publications on resarchgate.net.)

Dr. Bush is  presumably  the person in charge of “a landscape planning pilot project to identify and develop options for linking prescriptions made at the stand level and broader landscape‐level forest management objectives, such as increasing the percentage of forest in old‐growth stands” cited in the Lahey report. That project was initiated “a few years ago [as of Aug 2019] in Eastern NS in collaboration with Port Hawkesbury Paper” (post Sep 26, 2019), but that’s about all that can be gleaned about it. It is not cited on the  Landscape Planning page on the L&F website.

Other players in Biodiversity Landscape Planning at L&F are members of the Forest Biodiversity Science Advisory Committee which produced a 28 page document,  A Strategic Research Plan for Forest Biodiversity Conservation in Nova Scotia  dated 2019-02-05.  From that document”

Action 2.5.1: Accelerate the completion of the landscape planning pilot project and bring its results out for peer review by a broad range of NS forest experts and stakeholders. Action 2.5.2: Undertake research to reduce the specific uncertainties revealed by the pilot project and aim to replicate improved versions of the approach across all Crown forests in the province.

Under 3.5 Collaborations and Partnerships they comment ” the Department needs to increase its research collaborations and partnerships with external organizations, including the Government of Canada (e.g., Canadian Forest Service, Canadian Wildlife Service), universities (with their substantial capacity to attract diverse research funds and exceptional research students), and nongovernment organizations (e.g., Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute). The Department needs to use its limited research funds more effectively to leverage external research funds for forest biodiversity conservation.

and from the Conclusion: We urge the Department of Lands and Forestry to take our recommendations and turn them into a detailed research plan to address key uncertainties related to the conservation of forest biodiversity.

It appears that a major focus of the Landscape Planning Group currently is their participation in the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers’ RESOLUTION 40-3 – RESOLUTION ON ECOLOGICAL CONNECTIVITY, ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE, AND BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION. In the spring of 2019,  L&F, with Dal’s Karen Beazley and intern Morgan Rice  took the lead   in organizing and hosting the Canadian Maritimes Ecological Connectivoty Forum (April 24-25 at Dalhousie University. The Purpose:  “To support the goals of Resolution 40-3 made by the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers that acknowledges the need to work across landscapes and borders to advance efforts to restore and maintain ecological connectivity.”

The Forum  was opened by Minister Rankin and included speakers from the U.S. as well as  Canada. There seem to be no reports on the proceedings, however,  the highly informative set of presentation slides are available on a website maintained by Peter Bush under the heading Ecological Connectivity. Also view: www.ecologicalconnectivity.com which provides some coordination of projects on ecological connectivity in Eastern Canada and New England.

All well and good but BLP is still lacking in the design and implementation of the Triad

L&F has to be given credit for it’s progress towards developing a Biodiversity Landscape Plan, as a described above. However the fact remains that it is still in the research stage and BLP is still lacking in the design and  implementation of the Triad, as described in the current set of Project Documents; in particular,  there is no reference to Biodiversity Landscape Planning – let alone a Plan-  in the recently released HPF document, nor was it cited in a meeting of stakeholders for the Forest Management Guide in Aug of 2019, except in response to questions I asked. As I wrote in a post on NSFN (Sep 26, 2019):

After an introduction  to it all [the developing revision of the Forest Management Guide] by the L&F Team Leader for the FMG Project and by the author of  the current FMG, I had two questions:

(1) How does the FMG relate to the Triad, in particular to the High Production Forestry component?

(2) The FMG is a guide to make decisions at the stand level. Where does Landscape Level Planning for Biodiversity Conservation come into the process.., i.e. into the decision on what stands are going to be cut whether in the Matrix or the High Production Forestry components? Surely that needs to come first.

The answer to the first question: The FMG will apply only to the the Matrix Component, the High Production Forestry group will be producing a separate guide for those decisions.

The second question caused more than a little unease. “The department is aware of that need..and a pilot project was instituted a few years ago in Eastern NS in collaboration with Port Hawkesbury Paper”, we were told, but they couldn’t provide any details.

These senior L&F foresters made no mention of the “the first Canadian Maritimes Ecological Connectivity Forum which was held in April 2019. That forum  was opened by L&F Minister Rankin and a landscape planner from L&F was a co-organizer. So it seems that Landscape Level Planning is in a separate box at L&F and is not a matter of active discussion outside of the box.

I remain in a state of shell shock over this response. The uproar about clearcutting in NS is not about a clearcut here and  but about the extent of clearcutting and its effects on wildlife habitat, and about the loss of old forest habitat in particular which has big negative consequences  for both carbon storage and biodiversity.

Following that revelation, I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed, by the absence of any reference to BLP in the recently released HPF Phase I – Discussion Paper.

In his public comments, Minister Rankin has highlighted the department’s commitment to reducing clearcutting, while also maintaining the wood supply (view NSFN post Mar 15, 2020). That is certainly physically possible, but there are negative impacts on the biodiversity side;   for example maintaining the same wood output, but with less clearcutting  would likely result in more roads, increasing fragmentation, and   more “holes in the forest”, increasing edge effects as occurred in Maine following the introduction of strong restrictions on clearcutting.

More importantly, protecting biodiversity involves much more than reducing clearcutting, and it cannot be taken as given that “protecting ecosystems and biodiversity”  is compatible with maintaining wood output at recent levels. 

William Lahey asked that we view protecting ecosystems and biodiversity as the prime objective of the management of Crown land forests.

“In other words, I have concluded that protecting ecosystems and biodiversity should not be balanced against other objectives and values as if they were of equal weight or importance to those other objectives or values. Instead, protecting and enhancing ecosystems should be the objective (the outcome) of how we balance environmental, social, and economic objectives and values in practising forestry in Nova Scotia.” – The Lahey Report

So, I ask, how can the detailed plans for the Forest Management Guide/Ecological Matrix and the High Production Forestry components of the Triad go ahead AND meet the fundamental objective of  the whole exercise as stated by Prof Lahey AND the wood supply be maintained, if the model that is used to predict wood supply does not take into account the restrictions on harvesting that would be identified in a Biodiversity Landscape Plan?

On the other hand, how can we move ahead when so much research is still required to come up with a workable BLP?

 Precautionary Biodiversity Landscape Planning

I suggest there are two approaches that should be considered:

(i) Farm it out to a reputable 3rd party, as Halifax did for its Green Network Plan.

(ii) Devise a Precautionary Biodiversity Landscape Plan that can be introduced quickly and  be modified later as the detailed research materializes. In accordance with the overall objective of the Lahey recommendations, such a plan would err on the side of protecting biodiversity, rather than protecting the wood supply.

Even if the job were farmed out, it would still take at least another 2 years before a formal plan could be completed. So even in that case, the situation calls for introduction of some precautionary Biodiversity Landscape Planning into the  design of the Triad.

What might a Precautionary BLP entail? An example:

(i) Increase the width of watercourse protection zones to fulfill buffer and connectivity functions as cited by Prof Beazley, ideally on all lands in NS, at a minimum on all Crown lands, those, for example could be 150 m where 20 m is now stated.

(ii) Prohibit logging on all Late Mature and Multi-aged/Old Forest stands* on Crown lands unless they exceed 30% of any 5×5 km square in a 5×5 km grid of NS.

*As originally posted the reference was to only Multi-aged/Old Forest; Late Mature was added (Nov, 2021) as it was pointed out stands classified as Late Mature frequently include legitimate Old Growth stands

Such provisions, or more appropriately designed precautionary Biodiversity Landscape Planning measures, would remain in place until a full blown BLP is produced. (I offer the above not as specific suggestions, but rather as examples of the approach.)

My concern is that if we wait for that plan to be produced, it could be ten or more years before we actually see it. The directives from the Biodiversity Advisory group are very open-ended, there is no mention of timelines, and practically speaking the detailed research they suggest is required takes years.

Such has been the case with development and application of a FNBM (Forest Nutrient Budget Model) – conceived circa 2008 in relation to impending plans for biomass harvesting and promised for 2010, it is still not being applied because, I have been told, “the Forest Nutrient Budget Model is simply not yet refined enough to apply it, and.. it would be irresponsible to apply it at this stage”. Says L&F’s soil scientist Kevin Keys:

It is recommended that nutrient budget assessments (such as provided by NBM-NS) become an integral component of sustainable forest management planning, especially when considering intensive management regimes or biomass harvesting for energy. Nutrient assessments are even more important in areas that have been impacted by long-term acid deposition since harvest removals can exacerbate declines in base cation levels (especially Ca) in affected soils. In doing so, it is important to ensure that model input is as accurate as possible, since budget estimates are directly related to soil/site conditions. From Keys et al., 2016

In the meantime we have continued to harvest with no consideration of nutrient depletion issues- even though we have been well aware of the magnitude of those issues and their broad geographical distribution since the mid 2000s.  No precautionary steps – such as restricting clearcuts on highly acid-stressed watersheds –  have been implemented in the meantime.  Further,  Kevin Key’s excellent peer-reviewed paper and other work on  FNBM and on the state of our forest soils was not even mentioned in the  recent State of the Forest Report; one can search far and wide on the NSDNR/L&F website without finding any mention of it.

I am concerned that the development of BLP at L&F  is following the same trajectory. We will wait indefinitely for L&F to produce a plan and L&F will not talk about it otherwise* – or not until they are  ready to do so on their own terms and that there will be no regular updates on progress. Biodiversity Landscape Planning needs to be inserted in the conversation now, not later!*
*For example, there is no discussion of landscape level impacts (e.g., loss of connectivity) on biodiversity is the otherwise excellent Field Guide to Forest Biodiversity Stewardship (NSDNR, 2017); nor is there any mention of biodiversity landscape-level principles, e.g. how they relate to landscape classification, in the exceptionally well presented and informative  Ecological Land Classification FOR NOVA SCOTIA (DNR 2017).

We hear little about the one project, the Old Forest Policy,  which explicitly or implicitly involves some Biodiversity Diversity Planning and, depending on how it is laid out, could impact the wood supply.  It is still, according to the L&F Landscape Ecology page, in a research phase, with revisions  to Old Forest Policy to be finalized by the end of 2020. That’s well after the envisaged completion of the High Production Forestry piece of the Triad (“Timeline: Finalize definition and determine criteria in early 2020”) and the Forest Management Guide, which applies to the Ecological Matrix (“Timeline: Final guide in Spring 2020”).  How is that supposed to work?

In the meantime, we  continue to err on the side of maintaining the wood supply.

That’s hardly achieving the balance that Prof Lahey has said is necessary.


Some related links and NSFN posts

The Precautionary principle in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management: An issues paper for policy-makers, researchers and practitioners
By Rosie Cooney, 2003. Technical Report of the IUCN Policy and Global Change Group. PDF available on ResearchGate

A simple landscape design framework for biodiversity conservation
Sara A.Gagné et al. 2014 Landscape and Urban Planning
Volume 136, April 2015, Pages 13-27
Our framework is organized into five steps, ordered by the
sequence in which they should be implemented:
1. Select land cover data and decide which land cover classes constitute unaltered or altered land covers.
2. List the constraints on land use planning (e.g., economic, social)
that exist for the landscape; and, within the constraints identified in Step 2.
3. Maximize the total amount and diversity of unaltered land cover,
especially near water.
4. Minimize human disturbance within altered land cover, especially near water; and
5. Aggregate altered land covers associated with high-intensity
land uses, especially away from water.

Forest Connectivity in the Developing Landscape: A Design Guide for Conservation Developments
By Karen Firehock Green Infrastructure Center Inc., 2019. View page 20 ff for a description of Key Components for conservation design

Moving Biodiversity Conservation to a Landscape Approach
On ontario.ca “The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry takes a landscape approach to strategic conservation of ecosystems and species. Moving Biodiversity Conservation to a Landscape Approach outlines how organizations applying to the Land Stewardship and Habitat Restoration Program should adopt this approach in their proposed projects and application for funds.”

Page, with subpages on NSFN

Biodiverse Southwest Nova Scotia at Risk
Post on NSFN, Oct 29, 2018

Why is the low base saturation/soil acidification/nutrient depletion/extreme surface water acidity in SW Nova Scotia still ignored in Crown land harvest decisions?
Post on NSFN Feb 3, 2019

Nova Scotia municipalities lead the way in addressing climate and biodiversity crises, L&F Please follow! 26Sep2019
Post on NSFN Sep 26, 2019

Moving Beyond Lahey: can Nova Scotia participate in a “Global Deal for Nature”? 14Dec2019
Post on NSFN Dec 14, 2019

References to Landscape Level Planning (BLP) in the Lahey Report
(Bolding is mine)

47. DNR’s system now also includes the Forest Management Guide, which identifies a long list of silvicultural treatments and provides a series of prescriptive decision trees (organized by major forest groups) that prescribing foresters working on Crown land are required to use to choose the treatments they will apply to particular stands. They do so by following a pre‐treatment assessment process that requires measurement of a range of variables, including overstory vegetation, regeneration, soil type, windthrow hazard, and special ecological features, if present. Soon to be completed is a landscape planning pilot project  to identify and develop options for linking prescriptions made at the stand level and broader landscape‐level forest management objectives, such as increasing the percentage of forest in old‐growth stands.

The importance of this pilot project, and of the objective of being able to link stand‐level prescriptions to  landscape‐level objectives, is recognized and emphasized both by the Review team (see Hunter and Wedeles, “Ecological Forestry,” in the Addendum) and by Nova Scotia’s Forest Biodiversity Science Advisory Committee (see Appendix F in the Addendum). Its importance (and urgency) is also implied by Hunter and Wedeles, “Ecological Considerations Related to Forestry,” in the Addendum.

Prof. Lahey also noted the relevance of private lands

94. The forests on private land are obviously important to the implementation of ecological forestry through adoption of the triad model of forestry at a provincial scale. Clearly, the ecosystems that ecological forestry seeks to protect and where possible to enhance cut across the boundary between public and private land. The forests on private land, just as much as those on Crown land, contribute to the ecological services that are critical to the overall health of the forests and that the forests provide to wider ecosystems that include but extend beyond the forests. Indeed, given the proportion of forested land that is privately owned and the limited amount of Crown land in significant parts of the province, decision making by private owners of forested land may be of greater importance to many ecosystems and overall biodiversity than the decision making that takes place on Crown land. This seems most likely in the central region, where Crown land is most limited and the proportion of timber production that happens on private land is higher than in the two other regions. There and elsewhere, management of private land seems highly important to landscape‐level ecological concerns, including for wildlife requiring geographically expansive habitats.

143. I have instead concluded that forestry on Crown lands should be governed by a forest
management planning process under which “FULA holders” will be required to develop a
forest management plan for the lands they are to manage through a Class II environmental
assessment…The requirement for such plans developed through a public process is a level of forest management on Crown lands – required in other jurisdictions – that is missing in Nova Scotia. It is a level that should be instituted however forestry is to be conducted on public lands, but it is especially important if Nova Scotia is serious about conducting ecosystem‐based forestry on a landscape basis.

From the Recommendations

13. DNR should work with interested parties, including representatives from the academic community, to assess the work that is underway for landscape‐level planning, including
a. the implications of changes to forest practices as a result of this Review on the
objectives and methodology for landscape‐level planning
b. to the extent that landscape‐level planning will rely on mapping of natural disturbance regimes, aligning it with its revised and peer‐reviewed mapping of Nova Scotia’s natural disturbance regimes
c. reviewing the methodology and basis for setting forest condition targets at the
landscape scale (e.g., what percentage of a landscape should have old forest)

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