Human history makes mark on forests
By Jenn Watt
Published April 27, 2017
Peter Hynard took the audience back into Haliburton’s past – way back – 1.1 billion years ago in order to create a picture of how the region’s forests developed up to today.
His talk, given on Earth Day at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, attracted a full house of curious minds who wanted to know more about how the local environment was shaped. Hynard is a professional forester with 40 years’ experience in forest management.
As you would expect, talk of the landscape started with rock. Most of the dark grey rock we see around Minden is called gneiss (which sounds like “nice”) with marble found farther east.
During the last Ice Age, where the Highlands is today was under about a mile of ice, Hynard told the group. As the ice melted between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the action of it receding created striations in the landscape that can be seen in satellite images. The drumlins found near Peterborough – those teardrop-shaped mounds – are a result of the ice dragging along the surface.
As the ice melted, it created what was called glacial Lake Algonquin, which flowed through this area to Lake Iroquois, the predecessor to Lake Ontario, and the soil moved with the water flow.
Hynard said that accounts for the lack of soil in many areas of Minden Hills and the county. Bald rock and boulders are indicators that dirt was once there and has been washed away.
As time passed, native populations travelled through what is now the Haliburton Highlands, but there are no known permanent settlements.
“Conditions were far better down in the Kawarthas than they are here,” Hynard explained. “The climate was better, the soils were better, the fishing and hunting was better and the Chippewas did come up the Gull for trapping and fur trade, which is how some of our lakes got their names.”
Kennisis, Boshkung, Kashagawigamog and Kushog are some examples.
When settlers came, that is when the forests of the region began to change. In 1865, land clearing began as Europeans began buying land and moving to the Highlands hoping to farm. By 1890, those farmers had figured out the conditions were better in the Prairies and many depopulated the region headed south to the United States or west. What’s left of those settlers’ labour is the piles of stones found deep in forests that were once fields.
Around the same time, white pine became the economic driver of the region.
“The pine was cut by hand with axe and cross-cut. It was cut in wintertime and sleighed out to lakes and rivers and piled on the ice and driven down the rivers in the spring,” he said.
Dams were built on the ends of the lakes and when pulled, the water would carry the logs through. Iron bars were drilled into the bedrock to hold log chutes in place, he said, which can still be found today. The logs then went to Bobcaygeon to the sawmill there.
“It’s a myth that our pine went to England … it went to New York City to build homes,” Hynard said.
“There was a lot of wealth at the time,” he said, putting up a photo of Kinmount, which looked like an early urban centre. Large brick buildings lined the streets and well-dressed travellers lined up to board the train. As a nexus where the Bobcaygeon Road and Monck Road met along with the two railway lines and the Burnt River, it was a “transportation hub.”
Three devastating fires in 1890, 1917 and 1942 burnt the town.
“The real problem was the economic engine was gone,” he said. “There was no reason to rebuild.”
By then, all the pine was gone.
“There was no thought of sustainability of any kind at that time. It’s just like fossil fuels today, really,” he said.
Stumps from that time are still around. Stilted trees that grew over these stumps can be found. Yellow birch and hemlock cannot germinate on leaf litter, he said.
“The only niche it had left is … stumps because the leaves blew off the stump,” he said.
While trees grew back following the logging economy, the forest was forever changed with poplar and birch growing where the towering white pines once were.
Forests were again called upon for local jobs when Standard Chemical was built in Donald in 1908. It ran until 1945.
“They took hardwood logs and distilled them to separate out charcoal acetate and wood alcohol,” he said.
“The hardwoods that fed that plant were clear cut along the rail line, both the Victoria railway and IB&O,” he explained.
The hills around rail lines were denuded of trees: Wilberforce, Tory Hill and Haliburton among them.
Following clearcuts, maples take off – as do the raspberry bushes.
“Some of the best hardwood forests are clearcut origin,” he said.
The next era of logging was similarly destructive with the best trees selectively removed from the forest, with the diseased and sickly trees left behind.
“You can find still living survivors [trees] of that,” he said.
The modern period is much easier on forests, Hynard said, pointing to logging using heavy machinery. Counterintuitively, using big machines to pick out trees selectively has less impact on the forest than a horse and sleigh, he said.
“They have a very high productivity and a very low labour rate,” he said. “They can profitably produce product from low-grade trees.”
Taking out the diseased trees allows the healthy ones the space to grow stronger, he said.
Following Hynard’s talk, audience members asked about invasive species such as the emerald ash borer. He said he hadn’t yet seen the insects, but knew they were already in Fenelon Falls. It takes several years to detect emerald ash borers because the damage they do is under the bark. In his view, they would eventually kill all of the black and white ash trees in the area, once they arrive.
Beech bark disease is similarly sweeping through the region, killing or disfiguring beech stands. Like the ash borer, this disease is unlikely to stop and will leave a much-changed forest in its wake.
He was also asked about climate change and how it might affect local forests. The biggest problem he foresaw was if precipitation dropped greatly. The soils won’t hold moisture as long in this region, he said, which puts additional stress on plants.