Forest companies using herbicides and mechanical removal methods to eradicate aspen from the spruce and pine crops they want to harvest are depriving moose of a winter food source and making wildfires more likely in Alberta forests, the Edmonton Journal reports.
The clumps and colonies of aspen that grow around Edmonton and northern Alberta “are less likely to burn than spruce or pine and cool the forest so well that, when fully-leafed out, wildland firefighters flee to a stand of aspen if the fire unexpectedly shifts,” the Journal explains.
But “forestry companies consider aspen a weed when growing conifers, spruce or pine. So roughly 30,000 hectares a year of forest are sprayed with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. That’s roughly half the size of Edmonton, or 40% of the 80,000 hectares of forest harvested annually” across the province.
By killing off all the broad-leafed species, the companies create a monoculture, “making a coniferous tree plantation instead of a forest,” the paper adds.
For the last number of years, University of Alberta wildland fire specialist Jen Beverly has been studying wildfires’ protective effect on forests. The Journal says land burned in one year won’t likely burn again for another 25 to 45, with aspen reclaiming the earth and only slowing adding fuel to the landscape as they die and make way for spruce. “The forestry industry used to think harvesting had a similar effect because it removes fuel.” But “harvesting doesn’t take out all the dead grass, brush, and twigs, and the practice of trying to regrow conifers instead of the pioneering aspen is risky.”
Once the monoculture pattern has been set, “you have this planted conifer in a field of grass,” Beverly said. “A fire is going to move through that really well.”
British Columbia MLA Mike Morris (L, Prince George-Mackenzie), a trapper with 40 years’ experience, told the Journal that similar practices in his province have contributed to an 80% drop in moose populations, and harmed 89 other species that depend on aspen. He said he was planning a private member’s bill this fall to ban the spray program.
But in Alberta, where glyphosate spraying in forestry began in the 1990s, its use now outpaces B.C.’s, with companies permitted to spray twice to make sure the aspen don’t return. “Local trappers complain it devastates their lines,” the Journal states.
“Any time they plant conifers, most of the time they spray them,” said Victor Lieffers, a professor of silviculture and forest ecology at U of A. And now, “all you have to do is look at the level of disturbance. We ate smoke for five years every summer,” leading the Journal to comment that “forestry companies need to be willing to change, even just to protect their investment.
While the Alberta jobs that depend on good-quality timber complicate the picture, and the science of fire and forestry is complex, the Journal points to climate change as a significant factor.
“Researchers and industry experts have already seen warmer, drier conditions,” concludes reporter Elise Stolte. “There’s been a 20-year drought. Could it help to let more aspen grow? What about planting drought-resistant trees, sourcing seed from forests further south, and encouraging mixed forests to hedge our bets?”
Underlying all those options, she adds, “this is all part of a climate emergency. All parties need to act fast.”