Five hundred forest scientists are trying to turn Canada's 1.71 million square miles of timber into one tame crop, like wheat. They're incubating seedlings under 24-hour light, shipping deep-frozen pollen hundreds of miles, breeding radically “improved" fast-growing hybrid trees, and sowing fields of forests from airplanes. And, for the trees' own good they sometimes set the woods on fine

FRANKLIN RUSSELL February 24 1962


Five hundred forest scientists are trying to turn Canada's 1.71 million square miles of timber into one tame crop, like wheat. They're incubating seedlings under 24-hour light, shipping deep-frozen pollen hundreds of miles, breeding radically “improved" fast-growing hybrid trees, and sowing fields of forests from airplanes. And, for the trees' own good they sometimes set the woods on fine

FRANKLIN RUSSELL February 24 1962


Five hundred forest scientists are trying to turn Canada's 1.71 million square miles of timber into one tame crop, like wheat. They're incubating seedlings under 24-hour light, shipping deep-frozen pollen hundreds of miles, breeding radically “improved" fast-growing hybrid trees, and sowing fields of forests from airplanes. And, for the trees' own good they sometimes set the woods on fine


IN THE SPRING OF 1960, a group of Canadian foresters roamed through the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U. S. collecting a harvest of pollen from the male flowers of red spruce trees. Mark Holst, a tree breeder at the Petawawa federal forest research station at Chalk River, Ontario, supervised the work. When it was completed, he put the pollen into deep freeze and during the following months sent batches of frozen pollen to northern Ontario and some areas of northern Manitoba. There, foresters blew it into peculiar-looking tents fitted to the tops of black spruce trees, fertilizing thousands of female flowers.

Holst was ingeniously attempting to crossbreed two types of tree, from different regions, to produce a third type for Canadian forests, a tree "with real hybrid vigor," as Holst puts it. His work is typical of the largely untold and spectacular revolution that is going on in our forests today. The nation’s 500-odd forest scientists — federal and provincial plant pathologists, physiologists, ecologists, entomologists, tree breeders and others — are trying to turn our 1.71 million square miles of trees into one vast, controllable and exploitable crop, many times more productive than present forests.

Their methods are incredibly diverse. When the sun goes down at Petawawa Forest Experiment Station, the federal forestry department’s largest station, powerful lights flick on to illuminate long rows of birch, spruce and fir seedlings. The result of this twenty-four-hour-aday light is to double and triple the trees' rate

of early growth. In some experiments, scientists have grown birches six feet tall in twelve months, instead of the normal six inches. Dr. Peter Rennie, a federal soil scientist, is cutting up and analysing entire trees to find out what they are withdrawing from the soil.

Entomologists are using viruses to choke insect pests and are talking of breeding new viruses which will deal specifically with one type of pest, wipe it out, then disappear. Dr. Don Fraser, a tree physiologist at Petawawa, is using radioisotopes to check exactly what happens to the minerals trees suck from the ground. He also uses an instrument for measuring the hourly growth of trees.

Tree cuttings from the Himalayas, Japan, Hungary, Greece, Russia and India are frequently flown by jet to Canada where they are quickly grafted to domestic trees by tree breeders.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of all this work is that some scientists are deliberately setting fire to our forests to help growth, rather than destroy it. Canada spends about $4 million a year fighting forest fires, yet most foresters know' that fires are essential to the development of healthy forests. Fire alone can completely remove the thick mat of trash that builds up on a forest floor, and through which seeds can’t sprout.

One small plot of unburned forest on an island in Singoosh Lake, Manitoba, has given scientists graphic proof of this. Unburned for more than 100 years, and under constant scientific surveillance since 1921, the island trees are degenerating alarmingly. Since 1921,

the number of trees has dropped by about sixty percent and most of the seedlings today are sickly and weak.

Yet the scientists know equally well that to sweep the island with fire — nature's solution to the problem — is economically absurd. Instead, Don Burton of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests is experimenting with a system of burning in northern Ontario; it gets rid of the trash but doesn't destroy the forest.

He uses portable air blowers to blast paths through thick leaves in the late fall. Then on windless, damp days he sets controlled fires to burn the leaves between the paths. The results have been spectacular. The fires clean the ground, can kill up to 60,000 young maples per acre, and leave the ground clear for birch seeds, which fall from adult trees in autumn or early the next year.

Furthermore, Burton found that if he burned two years consecutively, he began killing unwanted trees up to an inch in trunk diameter. A third burning killed trees two or three inches in diameter. Says Burton, “After five years of burning, you can clear out nearly all the unwanted trees in a forest. This leaves conditions ideal for the establishment of a completely new forest type.”


But burning is still considered a radical step and certainly it is highly risky if not done expertly. Another Ontario researcher, Dave Fayle, has tried recently to encourage foresters to examine the chances of helping worms and other small creatures to eat more rapidly the ground trash that strangles a forest. Elsewhere in Ontario, and in British Columbia and Alberta, local foresters arc using bulldozers to root up forest trash to give the seeds a chance to germinate.

All this is part of a sometimes frantic, sometimes fumbling attempt by science to amass quickly a great fund of tree knowledge. “Tree science,” says Dr. Jim Reid, an Ontario forest scientist, "has lagged badly, mainly because trees grow so slowly.” Now this is being remedied. In one CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

project, n federal forestry department ecologist, Ken Logan, has worked for sever;;! years to find out how little light is needed by seedling trees to thrive. He found that white pines need only fifty-five percent of normal daylight to grow healthily. Meanwhile, an entomologist at the federal research station at Sault Ste. Marie, C'. R. Sullivan, found that fifty-five percent light discouraged a destructive weevil from breeding on young white pines. This could result in control of the weevil, merely by keeping forests thinned to provide exactly the right amount of ground light.

Upon such seemingly unrelated scraps of information may hinge the survival of whole forests. Dr. Walter Slankis, a plant physiologist with the federal Department of Forestry at Maple, Ont., is working on symbiosis — the strange relationship between fungi and trees. Some fungi grow' on tree roots, and greatly accelerate the capacity of the tree to absorb food. Without the fungi the trees may become sickly and even die. Says Slankis, "One day we may be able to improve the w'ork of these fungi. Certainly, w'c will use them to grow trees where none grew before. We may even find a specially cold-resistant fungus which would let us establish vast new' forests in the treeless north." Though present knowledge of tree symbiosis is pathetically meagre, the Austrians hope to use a cold-resistant fungus to establish spruce forests on high mountain slopes to stop avalanches.

One of the biggest problems facing foresters is regeneration. All forests grow' in cycles, some so immense as to be presently beyond human comprehension. Hut the forest is always changing with one type of tree replacing another. The baffling thing about this regeneration is that it nearly always does precisely the opposite of what the forester wants. When valuable yellow birch forests are cut in central Ontario, the ensuing forest isn't yellow birch any more; it's a hardwood forest of maple, and usually a pretty poor one. It may take 150 years for the yellow birch to reassert itself “and nobody wants to wait that long,” says one government tree scientist.

To get the sort of forest he wants, the forester must know every detail in the trees' lives. The huge jack pine forests of northern Ontario simply won't regenerate jack pine unless they are burned, because the cones won't open without heat. Phis gives the forester a chance to use fire judiciously. Hut fire often brings forth the wrong sort of


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First, they bum off a mountain range and kill all seed-eaters. Then, they plant a new forest

tree. The Ontario Department of Lands and Forests has tried to beat this by burning degenerate forest areas, then sowing desirable tree seeds from low-flying airplanes. “But,” says a provincial forester, “this brings in a fantastic influx of seedeaters — birds, chipmunks, squirrels, mice and many others. Results have been poor.”

Faced with such difficulties, foresters are steeling themselves for really radical countermeasures. In the western U. S., foresters have burned off mountain ranges, then poisoned, trapped or shot every seedeating creature in the area, then aerially planted Douglas fir seeds “with good residís.”

Vastly more expensive is Ontario’s harvesting of great crops of spruce and pine seeds from the far north, sprouting them in the warm south and then flying them back north and dropping them in bundles to planting crews. This saves at least a year in the early grow'th of the tree.

A year saved is a triumph in forestry today but scientists are looking forward to the time when they may save scores, perhaps hundreds of years, in the frustratingly slow life cycles of the forest. Says Dr. Carl Heimburger. a brilliant tree breeder with the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, "To breed superior trees quickly, you must have a rapid succession of generations.” But many trees take thirty years just to flower. Heimburger beats this by raising flowering seedlings from the tops of old trees. To these, he grafts scions of desirable trees, and from the new seeds of the grafts he has thus created, he raises thousands of young flowering trees. Then, he’s freeto crossbreed on a grand scale. When he gets a batch of improved seedlings, he gradually “reshuffles” the genes to eliminate undesirable characteristics.

Heimburger is using tree breeding to fight blister rust, a disease which just about wiped out white pines in Europe and has since spread here. He scours the world for trees that might be resistant to the disease and matches their resistance with the good grow'th of local pines. He foresees many radically different trees in tomorrow’s forests. He’s got a plantation of hybrid poplars growing at the government research station at Maple: some of the poplars so far have shot up eighteen feet in three years and “may offer great possibilities for veneer, matches and pulp,” says Heimburger.

The tree breeder is a central figure in the forest revolution but he can easily have a lifetime’s work smashed by one insect pest. Scotch pines, which were imported from the United States and were the beginning of Canada’s huge Christmas-tree business, somehow became infested with a European sawfly. Its larvae were destroying millions of young trees after World War II and the whole industry was threatened.

But then federal forestry scientists located a virus in Sweden that attacked sawfly larvae. They propagated the virus in government laboratories at Sault Ste. Marie and from 1950 on, spread it by hand and plane through Christmas-tree plantations in Ontario and Quebec. Within four years, the sawfly was under control.

“Such biotic control,” says Dr. M. L. Prebble. chief of the Forest Biology Division, Ottawa, “has the great advantage that it doesn’t affect any other living thing.” Another type of sawfly was destroying jack pine forests in Quebec a few years ago till Dr. W. A. Smirnoff of the Forest Biology Laboratory, Quebec, found a way

to check it. He painstakingly collected thousands of larvae that were suffering badly from a nonkilling virus, and eventually bred a lethal virus that could be sprayed over wide areas. Such brilliant scientific work may presage the end for the terribly destructive spruce budworm in

New Brunswick forests, although as yet no one has developed a virus that will kill it.

This sort of work is essential if the “man-controlled” forest is ever to be achieved. Ecologists say that once man tampers with natural forces, he must seek complete control or else face terrible con-

sequences from his mistakes. “There are many critical times in the life cycle of an acre of forest,” says federal ecologist Ken Logan, “and we know only a fraction of them. But we must know them all." Critical conditions may be a light fall of rain, a certain temperature, a damp wind, a hur-

ricane; these, individually or together, may determine the type of tree in an area for the next two or three hundred years.

Canadian foresters have a keen awareness of past blunders. A pulp and paper company planted thousands of acres of trees twenty-live years ago around its mill near Grand’Mère, Quebec, without first checking whether the seedlings were exactly suited to the area. Result: a forest of threeto four-foot trees. New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and Australia have planted millions of acres of fast-growing Monterey pines with little research or knowledge of the possible long-term effects of such vast forests of one type of tree. Today, these countries face the prospect of an insect pest or a fungus wiping out everything.

Europe has come closest to the idea of man-controlled forests by cultivating, for hundreds of years, great forests of profitable trees, usually to the absolute exclusion of all other trees. The result: exhausted soil, stunted and weak trees that aren’t much good for anything.

By avoiding such mistakes, Canada could have the beginnings of real new timber crops within fifty years. Dr. Erik Jorgensen, of the University of Toronto (who is trying to find checks for forest fungus diseases), foresees new timber crops springing up in our far northlands within that time. Many of these trees will produce better quality timber, will grow faster and may be free of knots and stains that mar commercial values today.

They will be the precursors of trees that will be domesticated, like field crops. They may even be aerially fertilized to replace the minerals and nutrients the timber crop is withdrawing from the soil. This crop will be highly efficient. As much as ninetyfive percent of the 1,000-odd trees planted

per acre might be harvested. This factor alone could increase the yearly value of Canada’s forest industries’ output — today worth about $2.2 billion a year—to six or seven times as much.

Dr. Erhard Rostlund, the great Swedish tree breeder, had a clear vision of all this shortly before his death in 1960. He foresaw, perhaps 500 years from now, the complete man-controlled forest. ". . . The trees will be tall and straight with cylindrical limbs and small branches and foliage,” he said. “Like prize cattle, they will be highly efficient organisms converting the flow of energy and nutrients into a maximum of cellulose and a minimum of material not useful to man.”

His picture of the future forest was gloomy because he predicted the exclusion of all animals, insects and birds, none of them being essential to the controlled forest. But today’s ecologists don’t believe in this dreary prospect. They see the forest as such a complex interrelationship of living things—birds, insects, micro-organisms, moisture, sunlight, trees, shrubs, soils—that man will never fully control it.

But if the plant and tree scientists can’t achieve total control over the forest, they can achieve some control, and they’re beginning to get recognition for the importance of their efforts. This is a big step from. say. 1943, when McGill University tore down some campus greenhouses, containing years of research work to make room for a cyclotron. In the midst of the bitterness and anguish that this caused, one of the tree scientists wrote a letter to the principal of McGill. In it. the scientist made a remark that may yet prove prophetic. “We know so little about plant and tree life that the time will come when they will be tearing down cyclotrons to make room for more greenhouses.” ★