GENERAL ARTICLES

Trees for the Bald Prairie

During the last thirty years, 60,000 prairie farms have been “treed”

J. B. McGEACHY April 15 1932
GENERAL ARTICLES

Trees for the Bald Prairie

During the last thirty years, 60,000 prairie farms have been “treed”

J. B. McGEACHY April 15 1932

Trees for the Bald Prairie

J. B. McGEACHY

During the last thirty years, 60,000 prairie farms have been “treed”

IN THE last thirty years 60,000 farmers living on the Canadian prairie have planted groves of trees on their land. It is since 1900 that the West has built its cities, become a grain-exporting country and otherwise astonished the world. Tree-planting has been a minor incident in the story and the rest of the country has not heard much about it. But the farmer tree-growers would rather lose the family plate, if they have any, than their plantations.

Picture life on a treeless farm on the wind-swept western plain. Buffeted by blizzards in winter and exix>sed to scorching heat and blinding dust storms in summer, it is not the ideal environment for rural bliss. In fact, anyone who can sing “Home Sweet Home” with such a place in mind is cast in the heroic mold.

But prairie life loses some of its terrors, and most of its monotony, on a farm adorned with spruce or maple. It is even possible to become sentimental alxnit such a farm. The trees bring shelter and beauty. They are worth something in dollars and cents.

The prairie forestation, was begun three decades ago and is still going on, until quite recently, under the aegis of the "tree-planting division” of the Dominion Department of the Interior. Latterly it has been one of the multifarious tasks of the Department of Agriculture. Making up his 1931 estimates and searching for chances to economize, Premier Bennett thought the tree service was something that could be dispensed with, and he struck out the appropriation for it. But such a howl of protest arose from the West that the decision had to lx* reversed. The minister of agriculture had to take tree-planting under his wing and lind the money somehow.

The field of ojx-rations for the tree-planting branch is the vast triangle known as the bald prairie. The triangle's base is the international border. Its western limit is the Alberta foothills range east of the Rocky Mountains. The third side is an irregular line running roughly from Winnipeg

to Edmonton. Within the triangle lie the prairie steppes. In many parts of this rolling plain, when the first white pioneers saw it. trees were as rare as on the Sahara.

The bald prairie was not always so. Beneath the soil of Alberta and Saskatchewan are billions of tons of coal, and there is no coal without trees. Millenniums ago, before the glacial cap covered Canada, the plains bore a luxuriant crop of forest primeval.

To confirm geology, there is modem evidence of natural tree growth on the plains. In Cooking Lake, thirty miles west of Edmonton, is an island known as Brown’s Island. Though the shores of the lake bear no vegetation except young shrubs of moderate height, there are spruce trees on Brown’s Island 100 to 120 feet high and probably a century old. Old trees flourish also on Yorath Island in the South Saskatchewan River near Saskatoon.

The explanation is that the islands are shielded from fire. Before the era of settlement, the whole prairie was burned over nearly every summer. Lightning, the heat of the sun or the camp fire of a careless Indian band would start a blaze which nothing could stop but a river or a rainstorm. The old-time prairie fire was a grand spectacle and a terror to settlers. From tip to tip of its wing spread it might measure ten to twenty miles, and its advance was commonly faster than the speed of a horse. In dry summers hardly a square mile of the plains was untouched by flame, and a traveller on the trail might drive all day through black fields ornamented only by bleached skulls and bones of buffaloes.

Prairie fires killed tree growth. Native pines and poplars could flourish only where Nature had provided a permanent fireguard such as a body of water too broad for sparks to leap.

A treeless country is no place for people of European stock whose ancestors looked to the forests for shelter, fuel and aesthetic satisfaction. Most of the early comers to the Canadian prairie quickly set about adorning their grounds with trees. They had little success. They planted cuttings brought from Ontario without preparation of the soil, and the saplings which sprang up died of malnutrition and weather in a season or two. It became the common opinion that trees would not grow on prairie soil. They were classified with pineapples as exotic plants, and the few who persisted in experiments were laughed at as cranks.

Not all the pioneers wanted trees. Some had grown up to think of trees as a nuisance. Coming from the bush country of Ontario where their fathers had to cut down trees to make clearings, they imagined that the treeless state of the prairie was a blessing.

They quickly discovered their error. In the best of circumstances life on a prairie homestead in the first years was no paradise. The want of trees added to the settler’s tribulations. In summer his garden and crops were often wrecked by windstorms. In a winter blizzard he might lose himself and freeze to death twenty yards from home. More than one met that fate. Others died when their houses burned in winter and they could find no fuel to keep warm till help came. Incidents of that kind were convincing.

A New' Scheme Is Evolved

LEFT to experiment for themselves, the settlers made a poor job of forestation, but toward 1900 the experimental farm at Brandon, Manitoba, began to send out seedlings to farmers and in 1901 a systematic scheme was evolved. In the Dominion estimates submitted to parliament in that year appeared this modest item: “Tree

culture, N.W.T.—$5.000.” Saskatchewan and Alberta were still the North-West Territories.

A new idea always has a rough road. It is instructive in the value of an open mind to read the record of the debate on the $5,000 item. A Mr. Clancy was especially scornful. Anyone knew how to plant trees, said Mr. Clancy, showing that he had never tried it on the sun-baked and frost-bitten plains. No doubt, interjected another member, the

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government would send a man round with a watering can to refresh the trees. This, exclaimed Mr. Clancy, would be as sensible as the scheme actually presented. In short, “Tree Culture, N.W.T.” did not strike all members as a heaven-sent idea. Many suspected that someone had a bee in his bonnet.

The man chosen by the government to make the farmers tree-conscious was Norman M. Ross, then twenty-three years old. Mr. Ross, like many others who gave leadership to western agriculture, had acquired scientific degrees at the Guelph Agricultural College. Thereafter he labored for a time at the experimental farm at Indian Head, Saskatchewan. In the west he was struck by the want of trees, and his mind turned to forestry. He studied trees in North Carolina and in Europe, and returning to Canada in 1901 became “chief of tree planting” in the department of the interior. He still holds that post, and the success of the experiment is in great part due to his zeal and expert knowledge of forestry.

At the outset there was no enthusiasm for tree culture among the farmers. Only forty-seven applied for trees in 1901. They were given 58,000 seedlings. In 1902 the number rose to 466,000 and soon millions of young trees were being sent out annually. In thirty years the tree-planting division has given away 125,000,000 seedlings to farmers in the three prairie provinces. The figures are large but there is no mistake. At one hundred to the acre, 125,000,000 trees would make a forest of 2,000 square miles. With ten feet between each, they would form a row stretching to the moon. Not all of the 125,000,000 trees are still alive, but probably 75,000,000 are flourishing today and making glad the hearts of farmers, by no means an easy thing to do.

The procedure of the tree-planting division is simple. When a farmer applies for trees, he is visited by an inspector who advises him on planting. Provided he agrees to abide by the instructions, he gets his supply of cuttings or seedlings, usually about 1,000 to begin with. He pays the express but the trees are free. For a few dollars and a little muscular exertion he may have his hedge or grove. Ordinarily he has a respectable plantation within five years.

Experimental Plantations

'T'HE seedlings come from two forestry

stations, both in Saskatchewan. The Indian Head nursery, established in 1904, is the older and larger. It covers 480 acres and is in the care of Norman Ross. The other station is at Sutherland, five miles from Saskatoon. It was established in 1912 to meet a demand for trees from the central and northern prairie. James MacLean, another product of Guelph, has been superintendent of the Sutherland farm since its beginning.

Both forestry farms were placed on the bare prairie and both are show places today. The Sutherland station resembles an Old World country estate, with broad lawns, clipped hedges, shade trees, flower beds and a dahlia patch. A vegetable garden and a fruit orchard supply victuals. The marvel is that the site was dun prairie twenty years ago without a tree or a flower in sight. The change has been effected without watering can or garden hose, for the object is to show the dry farmer what he may do on his own 200 acres, given a taste for gardening.

At the forestry farms many species of trees are grown and subjected to the rigors of the western climate. There are long rows of Manitoba maple, green ash, northwest poplar, cottonwood and elm—all natives of the prairie. Tamarack, white spruce, jack pine and lodgepole pine, familiar to observ-

ant visitors to the Rocky Mountains, are also produced. Most of the imported varieties come from Russia. The Russian steppes resemble the prairie and yielded seed which went into the making of the famous Canadian wheats. To Russia also the wrest has looked for trees. Siberian larch, caragana, Russian poplar and acuteleaf willow are some of the Russian trees grown at the nurseries. The Pyrenees contribute the Scotch pine. Other kinds of pine have been brought from Austria and Switzerland.

In the early years of the forestry farms the demand w'as for a quick-growing tree. Such a one is the Russian poplar, known to botany as the populus petrovski. It is hardy and beautiful and shoots up at mushroom speed. The first tree-planters, not wishing to w'ait till old age to enjoy the shade, plumped for the Russian poplar. Experience showed its weak points. It has no staying pow'er and commonly dies young. Today the farmers are encouraged to choose trees which grow slowly and live long. The spruce may survive two centuries, the elm 100 years and the ash seventy-five.

There are 250,000 farmers in the prairie provinces. Perhaps 25,000 live in naturally wooded country. Of the others 60,000 have enlisted the aid of the forestry stations. Thus a farm without a grove is in older districts the exception. A traveller crossing the plains for the first time in twenty years notices trees before anything else.

A Profitable Investment

f pHE dividends from tree-planting are A direct and substantial.

A plantation shelters crops, buildings and animals. Dr. William Saunders, of the celebrated Marquis wheat family, found that a shelter belt shields fifty feet for every foot of its height. He studied a barley field flanked by trees fifteen feet high. After a windstorm the grain was fresh and upstanding for 750 feet from the shelter. Beyond that it was cut down. Trees are one reason for the gain in western wheat production.

Behind the shelter of a tree belt, a farmer can try his hand at fruit growing. Many have small orchards which yield enough crab-apples, sand cherries, plums and berries to supply the family.

Trees keep moisture in the soil by breaking the force of hot summer winds. In winter they collect and hold the snow. They provide fuel and fence posts. They are a bulwark against icy winds.

There is a court judgment on the value of a farmer’s plantation. An Alberta landlord sued a tenant who had damaged his trees. The defendant contended that if new trees were planted thé shelter belt w’ould be as good as ever in a few years. The judge agreed but noted that the benefit of the trees would be lost in the meantime and awarded the plaintiff one thousand dollars!

At $1,000 apiece, the 60,000 plantations are worth $60,000,000. The two forestry farms now cost under $100,000 a year. Since 1901 their total cost to the public has been $1,250,000 or roughly twenty dollars for every farm supplied. It is clear that “Tree Culture, N.W.T.” has proved to be a profitable investment after all.

The returns in the way of contentment are very real, though not measurable. The farmer who watches a straggling row of saplings grow up, acquires an affection for his patch of land which hailstorms and rust cannot destroy. Like his trees, he becomes firmly rooted to the soil. What with sawflies, frost and the machinations of the grain trade his bank account may be slim, but he has created a beautiful place which inspires pride. With his own hands he has made the desert blossom like the rose.