Forest renewal plays crucial role in paper industry

Chances are, the paper on which you are reading this was once a tree in Northwestern Ontario. That may not be surprising, but that tree didn’t just happen to be there.
This year, forestry giant Abitibi-Consolidated is in the process of planting four million trees in an area between Atikokan and Rainy River as part of an ongoing program of sustainable harvest that is a critical component of the pulp and paper industry.
And that’s where Dave Legg earns his money.
Legg is the renewal forester in charge of the area known as Crossroute East—a vast tract of largely Crown land that extends from Atikokan to Highway 502.
Within this area, he will supervise the planting of 1.5 million trees this summer. The remaining 2.5 million are going into the larger Crossroute West area that extends from Highway 502 west to Rainy River.
Legg oversees the work, which is done almost exclusively by outside contractors, as well as monitors safety conditions for both the crews and the forest.
He spends much of his time driving over the 800 km of access roads that wind through his area. But before he can begin, he checks to see if it is safe to proceed.
“Before we start work each day, the first thing we do is phone in to the MNR to get the fire code for that day,” Legg said.
Fire codes are based on a scale of one to four. They determine the risk level, which is based on the site condition and the kind of activity taking place.
Code 1 is the lowest and allows for all normal activities, subject, of course, to all fire-safety precautions. Code 4, on the other hand, indicates an extreme fire hazard and means all activity in the bush ceases.
Legg said last summer’s hot, dry conditions brought about extensive periods of Code 4 and shutdowns.
The other factor taken into account is the activity being proposed. For instance, tree planting is considered low-risk because it is largely manual whereas harvesting is considered high-risk because of the heavy machinery being used and the potential for a spark to ignite the forest.
Reforestation takes place in three ways. Roughly one-third of the trees harvested are re-planted at a rate of 1,500 per hectare. Another third is seeded aerially by helicopter while roughly the other one-third is allowed to regenerate naturally.
Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages.
“Aerial seeding works best in shallow, rocky soils like the Canadian Shield,” explained Legg. “Manual planting works best in deeper soils.”
Replanting is both time-consuming and labour-intensive. However, once done, the tract pretty much can be left alone to mature naturally with little additional maintenance needed.
Aerial seeding is quick and cost-effective, but sometimes requires extensive site preparation and follow-up pruning.
“If you’re spreading 50,000 seeds per hectare, you’re going to get clumps of trees,” noted Legg. “That means you’re going to have to go in there in a few years to thin them out and that means additional costs.”
Legg said the objective is to have each tree about six feet from its neighbour to maximize density while minimizing competition for resources.
Natural regeneration obviously is the cheapest way to go, but it takes longer for the forest to mature due, in part, to undesirable vegetation such as hazel, cherry, and Manitoba maple that compete for sunlight and nutrients.
Legg said these don’t really grow into trees in this climate and either are taken out with slash saws or sprayed with herbicides. Because most evergreens finish their growth period by late summer, according to Legg, herbicides don’t harm them when properly applied.
Each of the species used in the paper industry has a different maturation rate, Legg noted. Jackpine and spruce, for instance, require about 70 years to reach a harvestable state while red and white pine need nearly 100.
Poplar and birch reach maturity in less than 50 years.
Clearly, this is a long-term endeavour requiring long-range thinking. Legg said Abitibi-Consolidated must submit a plan to the MNR every 10 years and the plan is reviewed after five years.
Furthermore, the MNR regularly performs spot audits to make sure all regulations are being complied with. In order to meet approval, the harvesting is done according to strict guidelines.
“We use moose habitat as our template,” said Legg. “We have to leave the forest in a state that is conducive to moose. That means it’s good for everything.”
The company is required to leave at least six trees per hectare. These “snag” trees can be living or dead, but are selected for having wide branches. They provide roosting sites for hawks and eagles while the standing timber provides habitat for insects which, in turn, attract other birds.
Legg said under the new 2007 Forest Management Plan, the company will be required to leave 25 trees per hectare. In addition, the regulations require all crews and equipment to remain at least 300 metres from any active eagle, hawk, or heron nest.
Furthermore, large-scale clear-cutting also is prohibited. For example, the company must leave untouched areas between harvest areas. This formerly was done by cutting one tract, skipping the next, and cutting the third, and so on.
This left a checkerboard pattern that complied with the regulations but looked unnatural.
“One day, somebody realized that the biggest natural deforestation mechanism was fire, so we set about to duplicate that as much as possible,” said Legg.
Since then, the checkerboard pattern has been discarded in favour of irregular cuts—some large and some small. The patterns may appear to be haphazard, but Legg said they are based on extensive computer modelling and designed to imitate the path of deforestation that’s left by a forest fire.
When not on the road checking on contractors, Legg spends much of his time behind a desk working on forest management plans. Each plan takes up to 27 months to draft, he said.
Last Friday, however, Legg spent the day checking on the replanting being done on a tract of land near Bernadine Lake off Highway 622. The crew of 42 was hired by Haveman Brothers Forestry Services of Kakabeka Falls—one of Abitibi’s outside contractors.
Consisting mostly of post-secondary students from southern Ontario, the crew began planting in early May and by the time they are finished at the end of June, they will have planted 1.5 million trees.
The crew is paid by the tree, not by the hour. It’s hard work, but a good planter theoretically can make nearly $10,000 if he or she really hustles.
Next, Legg headed for Marr’s Perch Lake Lodge near Atikokan, where he met with representatives from another contractor—Outland Reforestation Inc. of Thunder Bay.
Outland landed the contract to prune an area that was aerial seeded about eight years ago. In turn, Outland sub-contracted much of that work to Seine River First Nation, which is located close to the site in question.
The Seine River crew are all qualified forest firefighters, which was one of the requirements for the job. Legg said that in the event of a fire breaking out in the district, they may be required to down put down their tools and head for the hot spot.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” he quipped.