Tree vs Man: A brief history of the forests in Lanark County


by Theresa Peluso

Stories of how our environment is changing abound in the media. We regularly read about the imminent extinction of animals such as Siberian tigers, giant pandas, and leatherback sea turtles as a result of direct (e.g., hunting) or indirect (e.g., loss of habitat) human activity. The issues may seem vague and distant, and don’t seem to affect us directly. For this reason, I’d like to look at Lanark County, and how our environment has changed over time. I myself have only lived here for the last seven years, but I’ve lived in the Ottawa-Carleton-Gatineau area for most of my 59 years.

According to the Lanark County Community Forest Management Plan 2011-2030 (published by the MVCA), prior to European settlement about 200 years ago, the area now known as Lanark County was covered in forests. There were white and red pines, maple, ash, elm, beech, basswood, black oak, ironwood, birch, hemlock, and cedar. Almost immediately, the settlers started logging, felling the best white and red pine, as well as oak, ash and elm for lumber. Beech and maple, which were then considered worthless, were piled into heaps and burned. In addition, the settlers would set fires to clear land, and squatters would cut and burn timber for potash. Fires were also caused by the debris from logging operations, and by the sparks and coals that flew off the train engines as they rumbled through the countryside. By 1861, Lavant Township (in the area now known as Lanark Highlands) ended up with less than 10% forest cover. And this was before the era of chainsaws, logging trucks and bulldozers!

Fortunately, by the early 1900s, this destruction slowed down. The forests that remained were harder to access, and destructive fires, both natural and man-made, were much less frequent. The focus changed from felling and squaring timber for England to sawing and shipping lumber (both hardwood and softwood) to the United States, Instead of just cutting down trees, the loggers spent more time processing the lumber, which created more jobs locally, and, I presume, reduced the rate of tree removal. Furthermore, in 1921 Ontario passed the Reforestation Act, which enabled the provincial government to promote reforestation, development, and management of lands held by the counties. As a result, by 1991, forest cover in Lanark County had increased to 58.1%. This is why most of the forests in this area today are between 80 and 120 years old. Despite the increased mechanization and efficiency of the lumber industry, numerous factors have reduced the demand for lumber, such as the rise in the Canadian dollar, greater global competition, legal issues (the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute), and increasing energy and labour costs.

Despite greater appreciation and better management of forests, threats remain. Insects, disease and abiotic stresses (chemical and physical factors in the environment (e.g., climate change) which affect ecosystems) continue to change the species composition of the forest. White elm, once common, declined greatly in the 1950s owing to the introduction of Dutch elm disease. The butternut is now endangered as a result of the butternut canker. The 1998 ice storm and the droughts of 2001 and 2002 significantly affected many tree species, especially the American beech, poplar, and white birch. And now the emerald ash borer is attacking the white, green and black ash trees throughout the province, although it hasn’t yet reached our county.

To get an idea of what the forests in this area looked like 200 years ago, you have only to visit Gillies Grove in Arnprior, one of the last old-growth forests in Ontario. The stand of ancient white pines is awe-inspiring! There are other types of trees as well, and interesting birds (such as scarlet tanagers and eastern screech owls) and plants (hepaticas, trilliums, and spring beauties, to name a few) that thrive in this habitat.

What can we do to help the forests we have now? We can reduce our fuel consumption (thereby slowing down the rate of global warning which continues apace), plant trees, and buy lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which means that the lumber did not contribute to habitat destruction or displace indigenous peoples. Some of this wood is produced locally. When biking, ATVing, boating, etc., in other parts of the province or continent, we need to wash off our equipment before returning home to ensure we’re not bringing in invasive species. We can support funding for our scientists and forest wardens, who identify threats to our flora and fauna, and promote maintaining species and genetic diversity, as well as sustainable forest management practices. We need to persuade our members of parliament to push for provincial initiatives to protect our environment. Finally we can participate in nature walks and lectures, such as those organized by the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN), and encourage our children to do so too, to appreciate the beauty and inspiration of our natural environment.

If you are a long-time resident of Lanark County (30 years or more), I’d welcome your anecdotes about changes you’ve observed in the natural environment since that time, and your thoughts on why these changes have occurred. For example, I can remember as a child, that in late summer there were monarch butterflies everywhere, yet in the last few years I’m lucky if I can count 30 of them. I attribute this to loss of habitat in Mexico, where the monarch butterflies spend the winter, to more roads (and cars) along their migration paths (which contribute to roadkill), and to more large-scale farms and housing developments in their summer breeding grounds, which have reduced the number of milkweed plants on which the larvae feed. I look forward to hearing from you!