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The Saskatchewan Woodlot Association is attempting to halt a deforestation trend in the province’s fringe zone.

By Tony Kryzanowski

In 1957, there were three million acres of timber on private land in the fringe area of Saskatchewan, a narrow slice of land between the prairie and the boreal forest. That has now dwindled to only 900,000 acres and the Farm Woodlot Association of Saskatchewan is working hard not only to stabilize, but to reverse the current trend toward deforestation. 

Woodlots in Saskatchewan may now have the business incentive to regenerate with the announcement that a new OSB plant will be built in the province.  The OSB plant will be dependant to some degree on fibre from private land.

Founded in 1989, the organization has about 200 members. One of its main objectives is to educate farmers on the options for management other than clearing land. Ultimately what the association hopes to achieve is an understanding among landowners of the value of maintaining or returning marginally productive farmland to its natural forested state. 

Besides the positive aesthetic value, it would contribute to maintaining a diverse environment and offer potential value down the road as a source of merchantable timber. The area they are concerned with runs from Saskatoon to north of Prince Albert, and laterally from the Manitoba border to the Alberta border. Bruce Lyle, Woodlot Extension Specialist with the Farm Woodlot Association of Saskatchewan, says the organization is concerned that, at the current rate of land clearing, the potential of the area as a forest resource is being reduced at an alarming rate both from an economic development and environmental health perspective. 

"If the timber resource continues to shrink, although it has slowed somewhat, the opportunities for economic development will diminish very quickly," he says. "Give it another decade or 15 years and anything that could happen will be on a much smaller scale and quite localized. So the importance of retaining some of this land is paramount to any long term economic development." 

The organization's biggest obstacle to encouraging the retention and proper management of private woodlots, however, is that trembling aspen is the most plentiful tree species throughout the fringe area. Unlike other provinces where pulp mills might pay good prices for aspen, trembling aspen has practically no value in Saskatchewan because it is in such overabundance. 

Lyle is encouraged that a new OSB plant announced recently for Meadow Lake will be dependant to some degree on fibre acquired from private land. However, he remains skeptical whether that demand will actually materialize. He adds that the OSB facility's plan to acquire a portion of its fibre from private woodlots will likely have both a positive and a negative impact on land management in the fringe area.

"It will have a negative impact in that this may encourage people who are still looking to clear land to do so sooner than later," says Lyle. "On the positive side, it potentially represents an excellent management tool because now there may be a way to regenerate private woodlots without having to burn them." 

Many woodlots in Saskatchewan's fringe area have another problem in that much of the fibre is mature to overmature because of poor demand and woodlot management techniques in the past. Harvesting mature fibre on private woodlots, in concert with a solid land management plan, would represent a fresh start for many existing stands that to date have been poorly managed. 

"As long as the background extension assistance is available to the landowner, the proposal has excellent potential to encourage management and to get more land under management in the Meadow Lake area," says Lyle. "Unfortunately to date, there has been no such assistance from industry." He adds that industry has generally given contractors free rein to acquire wood any way they can. "Unless that changes, I suspect that there will be more negative than positive effects," he says. 

A realistic net benefit from the woodlot association's standpoint -should the demand for fibre from private woodlots suddenly come to fruition-would be that for every 10 woodlots liquidated, even one owner decides to acquire a woodlot management plan and follow it. "I'm somewhat encouraged by the OSB announcement," says Lyle. "I would like to see a solid commitment come out for a certain amount of wood, and I would hope that they would include in the price some portion going towards management assistance for those who want it." 

Lyle says the two primary services the woodlot association offers is a "woodlot walk-through" to assess a woodlot's current condition and to set goals depending upon the landowner's plans. They also give members access to research pertaining to proper land management practices. "Most of our clients and members are people who tend to see inherent values in their woodlots other than just the money that their timber can be sold for," he says. 

"They want to preserve the health of their forest land for a variety of reasons including wildlife habitat, the aesthetics, clean water and the shelter it provides." The association typically works with landowners who have a portion of their property that has more potential as a woodlot than as pasture or farmland. The average woodlot size among association members is 44 acres. While it promotes the concept of keeping woodlots as natural as possible, association support staff encourage practices such as establishing mixed woods by planting a coniferous understorey.

"If the timber resource continues to shrink, although it has slowed somewhat, the opportunities for economic development will diminish very quickly"

This prescription turns a homogenous aspen or poplar stand into a mixed wood stand-and eventually a homogenous coniferous stand through natural succession. 

Ultimately, this yields a better financial return for the landowner because at the present time softwood is considerably more valuable than hardwood. Support staff can also offer advice on establishing plantations, which in most cases come in the form of a few acres of spruce, jackpine or lodgpole pine. 

Some landowners have even started experimenting with more exotic species or nonindigenous fibre-such as ash, oak, Siberian larch and silver maple-with limited success. "Our biggest thrust is the education of landowners about what they can do, and what would be beneficial for them and to the landscape," says Lyle. "Most rural landowners aren't well versed about things like forestry, so part of our thrust is to get some basic knowledge out to those people." 

Of the 70 percent of private land that has been cleared in the fringe area over the past 30 years, the association is most concerned about the reclamation of marginal land that is currently not under cultivation or being used as pastureland. "Quite often we're dealing with people who are trying to bring forests back on land that never should have been cleared," says Lyle. 

"Some of that land doesn't produce anything, and it hasn't for decades other than sparse weeds." Or the land might be too rocky to cultivate, but would likely react very favourably reverting back to its natural forested state. "It's really hard to give a really cut and dried definition of what those lands are," says Lyle, "but generally it's land people are not seeing benefits from anymore. 

"Our biggest thrust is the education of landowners about what they can do, and what would be beneficial for them and to the landscape"

A few individuals have actually spent thousands of dollars over the years planting and replanting some of these sites, mulching them, and trying to get something to grow on them again." Once trees do become re-established, he says they generally take care of themselves. It's the initial establishment period that can be quite difficult. 

The woodlot association also lobbies government at all levels to encourage better land management through such practices as establishing well managed private woodlots. "One of our big problems is getting both the federal and provincial governments as well as industry in the province to support what we are doing," says Lyle. "We may need to get thousands of members before that's possible." 

There is plenty of verbal support and some recent temporary funding through the province's Agrifood Innovation Fund to provide extension services. However, firm long-term financial support has not been offered yet.


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