A guest article by James Steidle from Prince George, BC
I grew up in the forest industry in Prince George, BC. We lived out in the middle of the woods near Punchaw Lake, and my dad worked at Clear Lake sawmill, where I caught the school bus with all the mill kids who lived in a trailer park there. The smell of the fresh cut conifers was there when we went to school, and was there when we came home. It was the “smell of money” I was always told. As a teenager I worked in the mill during the summers and the weekends and after high school I worked full time for half a year before heading off to university. During the summers between university semesters I would plant trees. I did that for three summers.
During this time, aspen trees, or poplar as we called them, were never given much attention. As far as I knew, the timber was completely worthless. I imagined it falling apart in your hands. We never made anything out of it, planted it, or harvested it. We never even cut it for firewood, even though we burned lots of spruce, a wood that is actually inferior to aspen for that purpose. I don’t recall ever seeing a piece of aspen lumber anywhere, throughout all my years working in the sawmill and taking woodworking shop classes in high school. If I were asked to identify the wood, I would have said it was something exotic, as foreign as a tropical hardwood.
That isn’t to say I never appreciated the beauty of aspen trees or aspen forests. There was an aspen stand near the place I grew up, a place called Rosebud Mountain that is as beautiful a place as anywhere in the world. It was part of our range land for our cattle, and I knew the forest was as important for the cow’s summer forage as it was for wildlife and birds. That was something that was just an obvious fact of the natural world, a fact that was recognized by all our neighbours who called Rosebud the choicest range land in the whole area. Aspen, and the rich understory that occurred with it, made it so.
It was not until around 2010 after the Pine Beetle had decimated the mixed pine/spruce/aspen stands that I started to think about aspen as something more than just a pretty picture. At that time a herbicide spraying helicopter landed at our farm, and parked there for the night. ‘What were they spraying?’ I wondered. The aspen, we were told. I vaguely knew about this practice but had never seen it in action. It got me thinking. I watched the places they sprayed turn into pine monocultures. ‘Wouldn’t it make sense to leave different trees on the landscape?’ I thought. ‘What if the pine beetle returns?’ The only pine tree that I saw that survived on our property was surrounded by aspen. Sure, it was just an anecdote, but it made sense. Wouldn’t a mosaic of trees on the landscape likewise complicate things for pests like pine beetles?
I’d done some journalism and thought it would be an interesting story. I started researching the history of the practice, and found out about Suzanne Simard, a professor at UBC. I learned from people like her there was no real apparent benefit from eliminating these important trees from our forests. Short term increases in conifer growth seemed to be counteracted by increased risk of disease and other forest health issues. The Bobtail Fire would later demonstrate that naturally regrowing forests with lots of so called “weeds” like aspen actually stood up better to the fire. Aspen during leaf out are far less likely to burn. Then there were the numerous environmental risks of spraying, including harm to amphibians by the legal and common practice of spraying wetlands and seasonal creeks.
With a completed article, I shopped it around, but in the spring of 2011 there was apparently little interest in the subject. Neither the Tyee, BC Business, nor a few other publications returned my calls or emails. With a healthy amount of research and a belief that there was a true injustice being inflicted upon our forests, I felt the only thing left to do was to take the activist route. I started a website, www.stopthespraybc.com, filled it with scientific facts, and with the help of Dr. Suzanne Simard, put out a press release that turned into a big article in the Globe and Mail. From this we received a grant from West Coast Environmental Law and some wind in our sails. However, a legal objection to the practice didn’t pan out, as everything was fully legal. The government, and a mysterious group of unelected “experts” in Victoria, remains fully in support of spraying our forests to destroy biodiversity and make plantations of primarily pine, and they have taken great care to ensure the legislative framework to protect this practice is bulletproof. They have also taken great care to avoid any accountability for this practice. Who decides aspen is a pest and must be sprayed? All we have found out is that is is an agreement with industry, done in secret by unnamed officials, and is beyond reproach.
During this whole time I was slowly establishing a woodworking shop and business (www.steidlewoodworking.com). I had still not worked with aspen, as it was unavailable in any BC lumber store. But through my research I came to know one of the people who mills aspen and I was able to source aspen finally. I began making a number of projects out of aspen and was struck by how supple and elegant the wood grain was. I made a bunch of LP crates out of the wood, furniture, and mixed it with cedar for my cutting boards. Realizing aspen was actually a great wood, the reason it was eliminated from our forests, and why neither academics, foresters, nor environmentalists seemed to want to champion the tree, became even more mysterious.
As everyone else seemed to keep dismissing and ignoring aspen, I was delving deeper into the aspen rabbit hole. I bought a movie camera and began working on a documentary about it. I interviewed architects, sawmillers, woodworkers, forest scientists, students, and hunters and trappers. The documentary took me to Utah and Colorado where I investigated the largest and oldest known organism on the planet – an aspen forest near Fish Lake, Utah called Pando. I became immersed in all things aspen. Following BC aspen expert Dr. Mike Carlson’s recommendation I went to Fort Nelson and Fort Liard, where I saw the world’s largest known aspen, now a stump down a forgotten trail that should be a national landmark but which apparently only people like Mike and myself were excited about. I found out about the crooked aspen in Hafford, Saskatchewan from Dr. Ted Hogg, a federal scientist in Edmonton who studies aspen. I went to Hafford and did a short documentary called “The Mysteries of the Crooked Aspen” that was screened at the Yorkton Film Festival. The larger documentary about aspen is still in the works, waiting for time and money.
To get caught up in a tree, especially one as derided and dismissed as Aspen, is a strange thing that only happens to a few of us. Maybe it’s our character, to champion the underdog, and to find value in what nobody else does. Maybe it’s just a testament to the sway nature holds over us. In any case, the aspen is a majestic, amazing species, a tree that is the true tree of Canada, one of the few that gets bigger and stronger the further north it goes, that exists in quantity in all Canadian Provinces and Territories, one that the vast majority of wildlife, and especially moose, in our country depends on, and one that has the potential to address climate change and help us adapt to it. If there ever was a truly national tree of great environmental and cultural significance, it is the aspen.
The fight for aspen and a new approach to forestry in Canada that values all tree species is only just begun. In the past year Stop the Spray BC has moved onto social media where you can follow us @stopthespraybc on facebook and on twitter. I teamed up with another anti-spray activist, silviculture contractor Herb Martin, and we’ve been giving a presentation around the Central Interior on this topic, showing some of the documentary footage and making the case for how important aspen in to wildlife in our province and country, especially to moose, birds, insects, and a countless array of plants.
Yours in Conservation,
In my opinion, James’ Stop the Spray campaign aimed at getting the spraying of chemical herbicides in public forests banned in British Columbia is an excellent example of an individual citizen’s dedication to the protection of wildlife and habitat that belong to the people of BC. He is focused on a single issue and he consistently targets his messages anywhere and everywhere he has a chance to. The bigger lesson here is that he is getting involved. He is focused on 1 issue that means a lot to him and to many other conservationists in BC. He is relentless in hammering away on his key messages. Hunters and conservationists in BC should take inspiration from James’ focus on a single cause and his commitment and passion for protecting biodiversity in BC’s forests. I encourage you to follow Stop the Spray BC on Social Media and help James spread his messages. Consider having making a donation to help him cover the expenses of this important conservation campaign.
Please write the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNROD) and the Minister of Environment and demand this practice be stopped on your public forests.