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June 2004

Guest Column

Tree plantation research in Saskatchewan making progress

By Ken Van Rees

The completion of the trans-continental railway in Canada in 1885 and the homestead provisions in Canada's Dominion Lands Act stimulated the sod breaking across the Prairies by farmer/settlers more than a century ago. In 1904, George Lang, who was nursery manager at the Experimental Farm at Indian Head, Saskatchewanópart of the Forestry Branch of the then-Department of the Interioróchallenged these new farmers with the idea of planting trees for shelterbelts and using tree plantations as a source of wood for shelter, fencing, fuel and other purposes. The tree species from the nursery that could be planted ranged from cottonwood and maple to pine, spruce and larch, and some grew to 30 feet in 12 years.

To think that an acre of 1,820 trees cost $14.50 for planting and maintenance and that one could possibly make $197 by selling them off as fence posts after 12 years of growth! But what has transpired in the last 100 years in terms of planting trees on the Prairies since George Lang gave his talk? Well, the Experimental Farm in Indian Head, now known as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association (PFRA) Shelterbelt Centre, has been producing trees since 1901 (58,800 that year) and currently produces about five million trees annually that are distributed across the Prairies. To date, they have surpassed a cumulative total of half a billion trees. Where have all these trees gone, and what was the outcome of George Lang's vision for trees?

One aspect of George's speech that has been carried on to this day is the establishment of shelterbelts. There are thousands of kilometres of shelterbelts on the Prairies, and the PFRA in 2001 set a goal of planting 8,000 kilometres of shelterbelts by 2006 to help reduce greenhouse gases as part of their Shelterbelt Enhancement Program (SEP). The SEP has also expanded to planting trees for the purpose of riparian buffer strips or planting mixed species in one-hectare blocks or quarter-mile strips for wildlife habitat. But what has happened to the tree plantations? During the last 100 years, tree plantations as a source for wood have not really taken off and flourished on the Prairies, as did the shelterbelts. There are some plantations of various species scattered across the Prairies either at old nurseries or provincial and municipal parks, but the concept of establishing tree plantations never received the momentum that shelterbelts did.

There may be several reasons for the lack of adopting plantations in the early 1900s: farmers were more concerned about removing trees from the landscape to farm crops; a lack of information regarding plantation establishment and maintenance; or a reduced demand for these plantation trees when a large expansive forest existed to the north. Today, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in the development of tree plantations on the prairie landscape. What has caused this renewed interest in tree plantations? What is needed to keep it going and what have we learned so far?

There are several factors as to why tree plantations are gaining interest from governments, the forest industry and farmers. One of those drivers is the potential interest in using tree plantations for a carbon sink (storing carbon in the trees and soils) as one strategy to help reduce global warming. Increasing fuel costs have again led to an interest in using short rotation woody crops as biomass for energy. Another is the move by government agencies to help diversify farm incomes by incorporating trees in the farming system, as well as the added benefits to the environment in terms of riparian management, wildlife and habitat. Lastly, some forest companies are interested in obtaining wood from areas other than the natural forests due to potential wood supply concerns, the pressure from environmental groups and large chain retailers to not cut old growth or intact areas, and the ability to harvest wood closer to their processing facilities, reducing costs.

I believe that the future of tree plantations will be driven by some or all of these factorsóbut we also have a lot to learn about tree plantation establishment and growth, management practices, wood quality, environmental impacts, biodiversity issues and the social-economic implications of planting trees on the Prairies. But we are making progress. For example, during the last few years the University of Saskatchewan has been partnering and collaborating with forest companies with Saskatchewan operations (such as Mistik, Tolko and Weyerhaeuser), the PFRA Shelterbelt Centre, tree nurseries (PRT), the Saskatchewan Forest Centre and the Canadian Forest Service to study plantation establishment and growth, and the cultural practices needed for best management using Walker poplar.

The potential to achieve rotations of 15-20 years for hybrid poplars or 30-50 years for softwoods such as pine and larch creates unlimited possibilities for the farmers and other user groups on the Prairies and would fulfill the vision George Lang had for trees on the Prairies.

Ken Van Rees is a professor of forest soils in the Soil Science Department of the University of Saskatchewan. He was recently appointed Agri-Food Innovation Fund (AFIF) Chair in Agroforestry and Afforestation at the university to develop a research initiative for growing trees in plantations and agroforestry systems in the prairies. He can be reached at vanrees@sask.usask.ca  or 306-966-6853.

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