Into the Woods: The Acadian Forest

Image 1: A patch of wetland on the Fairmont Ridge Hiking Trail in June 2021, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. The trail information claims to have patches of old growth on it that were thankfully inaccessible to logging due to wetlands and steep terrain.

The Acadian Forest, also known as the Wabanaki Forest, is a biologically diverse intermediary located between the boreal forests that belt across Canada and the mainly deciduous forests that cover the northeast of the United States, in Canada’s Maritime provinces. However, since European colonization, the character of the forest has changed drastically. According to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, only 0.6% of Nova Scotia’s Forest is older than 100 years and according to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, less than 1% of Acadian Forest old-growth remains in the Maritimes.

The Wabanaki forest is an intricate ecosystem rich in biodiversity, consisting of a beautiful blend of trees. Among them is an impressive assortment of conifers and deciduous trees, including ancient eastern hemlock. Stands of balsam firs, white pine, and red spruce along with hardwoods like sugar maples, yellow birches, and white ash use to cover these rolling hills. Berry bushes, early blooming wildflowers, ferns, and trailing arbutus filled the gaps between the marvelous trees. White-tailed deer, red foxes, bobcats, masked shrews, red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and American robins are a few of the animals that called this forest home.

The Acadian Forest was more than a natural beauty and habitat for scurrying squirrels, it was a robust carbon sink. The forest was originally carbon dense and resistant to fires, making it ideal to store carbon. According to a study published by The National Science Academy of the United States of America, one third of global emissions reductions under the Paris Accord can be achieved by nature-based climate solutions. One of these nature-based solutions could be the revitalisation of the Wabanaki Forest.

Unfortunately, this forest is in poor health. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, less than 5% of forests in the Maritimes can currently be considered mature Acadian Forest. Selective and intensive cutting of species like white pine and hemlock in the hay-days of ship building and the fur trade knocked populations of once abundant species down considerably. Since the 20th century, clear cuts replaced with crop forests have left forests susceptible to disease and pests, and when pesticides were used to combat these, biodiversity suffered even more. Couple those practices with clearings for agriculture, infrastructure, and real estate, human caused forest fires, and now climate change, and the result leaves the Maritimes’ forests unrecognizable compared to what they once were, and vulnerable to threats like fire and invasive species.

A lone old Red Oak, left behind after a near clear-cut near Gaspereaux Lake in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. Stumps were left in the ground and some “mother trees” were left, this is one such “mother tree.” Wood from this area were sold to a mill, some to a pulp mill, and some were chipped and sold to a Biomass Power Plant. The forest was on farmland but was semi-mature and mature forest before it was cut.

Hope for future Acadian Forest rests in small pockets of old-growth and mature forest, the majority of which are in provincial or national parks, on steep slopes of hills and mountains, or wetland inaccessible to logging. These pockets of ecosystem are thankfully capable of being restored. While individual choices of woodlot owners can make a small difference, protection of woodland and public policy will be much more effective. Adoption, in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in forests on both Crown and private land , of recommendations made by the Lahey Report to reduce or cease current clear-cutting practice and instead selectively or partially harvesting is the surest way to keep and grow these forests. Deliberate acts by policy makers must be taken not only to protect what remains of the Acadian Forest, but also to regenerate it.

Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity should be paramount as our food chains, communities, and economy depend upon the health of our environment. As recommended in the Lahey Report, “Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity should not be balanced against other objectives and values as if they were equal weight or importance.” This is not to say forestry and use of our resources must stop, simply that it must be done in more thoughtful and deliberate ways. People must shift their mindset to appreciate the wealth in our Acadian Forests. Step out into the woods, explore, wonder, and learn to cherish its beauty, then appropriate actions will follow more naturally.

Angus Kennedy