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Old Posted Sep 22, 2019, 4:20 PM
thistleclub thistleclub is offline
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Majestic forest once covered much of Hamilton
(Hamilton Spectator, Tom Hogue, Sept 10 2019)

Pine trees the size of wind turbines towered over thick stands of oak and walnut in a rain forest setting that stretched from Dundas to Lake Erie.

A natural wonder from today's perspective, but this 18th century local landscape was an obstacle to settlers who needed to clear land for crops.

Hardwood forests were simply set fire after choice softwood pines were culled for British naval masts.

By the mid-19th century, over 100 sawmills operated along the Erie coast, Port Dover was a busy shipping hub for U.S. markets to the south and a new plank road fed the industrial boom in newly established Hamilton.

Wood had arrived as a profitable enterprise — but it was considered an infinite and therefore expendable resource.

Almost 90 per cent of the forest frontier to the south of Hamilton would be gone by the dawn of Confederation.

The most visible scar was the logged out Niagara Escarpment around Hamilton. Where 300-year old pine sentinels once towered over the city, only stumps and dirt remained along the shadeless ridge.

Not until dust-bowl conditions appeared in Norfolk among other new Ontario deserts in the early 20th century did the crisis take shape.

It was a McMaster student who pushed the panic button.

At Turkey Point, Long Point and other areas, sand blowed freely across 4,000 hectares, concluded a 1908 report prepared by Edmund Zavitz, whose forestry interests stirred at Mac (when it was located on Bloor Street in Toronto) and in post-grad studies at Yale and in Michigan.

"On a particular windy day, dark clouds of sand eerily covered the horizon, appearing like a threatening rain storm," John Bacher recounts of those early observations in his book Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz.

The "wasteland" report by Zavitz proved instrumental in establishing provincial funding for reseeding efforts and the creation of Ontario's first Forestry Station in St. Williams, Ont.

Bacher describes Hamilton as an early turning point in the slow creep toward acceptance of the tree as a resource in desperate need of management.

It was a 1878 gathering here of the Ontario Fruit Growers Association when Chief George Johnson of the Six Nations and others raised concerns about lost forest cover, Bacher said.

During the Hamilton visit, Fruit Growers' president Robert Burnet witnessed for himself the extent of deforestation along the Niagara Escarpment and expressed his shock in an 1879 report to members:

"Hamilton, which might have enjoyed a scene of beauty for generations yet to come, has allowed the face of her fair mountain to be barbarously shorn of the leafy covering, to the great detriment of the city and injury to the proprietors," Burnet wrote.

From that point forward, forestry would become one of the influential group's chief fields of study and concern, Burnet announced, prefacing his remarks with the statement: "The universal curse of an old civilization is the reckless destruction of the original forests."

"We can never estimate the valuable timber that has been sacrificed to a hungry greed to clear the land."

An unlikely critic of the runaway lumber trade was James Little, whose own timber and sawmill operations extended throughout southern Ontario from a centre in Caledonia.

Little had grown rich in the mad rush to cut Wentworth, Brant and Norfolk timber in the 1850s. When the supply of local pine was exhausted by 1870, he left for literally greener prospects in the Quebec lumber trade.

Fearing other regions might suffer a fate similar to the ravaged forests of the Hamilton area, Little's perspective softened in Montreal.

"He became an early conservationist because he had seen what happened to this part of the world and was afraid that the problem that forced him to leave Ontario would become a problem in Quebec," Bacher said.

But Little's message "was a voice in the wilderness," Bacher said. Not until 1911, when Zavitz's wasteland report gained the teeth of provincial legislation, did political will take seed.

For work that led to the establishment of forest reserves, parks and new lumber industry practices, Zavitz earned the handle "father of reforestation."


Read it in full here.
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