Damage from a decade of deforestation will take a generation to fix, says P.E.I. environment minister

P.E.I.’s Minister of Environment Steven Myers told the legislature Thursday it will take a generation to repair the environmental damage caused by the last decade of deforestation on the Island.

Steven Myers says forested land decreased 20% from 1990 to 2020 — with most of that loss in the past decade

P.E.I.'s environment minister says the province's next State of the Forest report, based on an aerial survey of the Island done once per decade, could show a drastic decrease in the amount of forested land on P.E.I.

P.E.I.'s Minister of Environment Steven Myers told the legislature Thursday it will take a generation to repair the environmental damage caused by the last decade of deforestation on the Island.

For the second day in a row, Myers was questioned in the legislature about the state of P.E.I.'s forests, in advance of a report outlining the results of a province-wide aerial survey conducted once a decade.

The survey has already been conducted and the province is awaiting analysis of the photographs.

But Myers said his department has advised him the drop in hectares of forested land in the province from this survey "looks somewhere around 20 per cent reduction, which I would consider very drastic."

Myers said the final tally could vary. His department clarified that the reduction is compared to results from the 1990 aerial survey.

Prior reports show the amount of forested land on P.E.I. decreased by six per cent from 1990-2000, and by 1.3 per cent from 2000-2010.

'A shocking statistic'

If Myers' figure proves correct it would signal a significant increase in the rate of deforestation, with more occurring in the past decade than over the previous 20 years.

"That truly is drastic and a shocking statistic," said Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker in response.

Minutes later, after another question-and-answer, he said he was "kind of still reeling from the first statistic the minister gave us."

Steven Myers says forests acting as carbon sinks will be a key component of P.E.I.'s plan to reach net zero emissions by 2040. (CBC)

The loss of that much forested land, Bevan-Baker told reporters afterwards, "has impacts on water conservation. It has impacts on soil health. It has impacts on erosion. It has impacts on micro-climates. It has an impact on the air quality that Islanders breath."

During question period Bevan-Baker talked about seeing entire acreages with woodlots that had been carefully managed for generations clear-cut when those properties changed hands.

"I'm very concerned" about that, Myers said in response.

Protect and penalize, minister says

"We have to look at protecting our forests, we have to look at better ways to encourage people to protect … and I think we have to look at what our options would be to penalize people for taking that away," he said.

In the late 1990s, responding to public concerns about deforestation, the government of Pat Binns introduced legislation to regulate the private harvesting of trees, then quickly toned down the law in response to opposition from the United Landowners of Prince Edward Island, who said the new law infringed on their property rights.

Nearly 90 per cent of land on P.E.I. is privately owned, meaning changing the practices of private woodlot operators will be key to turning around P.E.I.'s forestry fortunes. But Myers said he doesn't expect a fight with landowners this time around.

Myers says he's not gearing up for a fight with private woodlot owners like the one the Pat Binns government found itself in when it introduced legislation to regulate the forestry industry in the late 1990s. (P.E.I. Woodlot Owners Association)

"We want to show people what our goals are and why it's necessary for them to help us make change," he said. "So we're not gearing up for a fight here. We're just gearing up for a change in practice."

While the province hasn't yet released a plan outlining how it plans to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2040, Myers said trees acting as carbon sinks will be key.

Report will show what replaced forests

He said when the results of the survey are published it will provide details on what previously forested land has been turned into.

But Gary Schneider, who manages the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project, said he wasn't shocked by the reported decline and believes he knows what's responsible.

Schneider said he thinks clearing trees for agricultural land is one of the primary factors. So too, he said, clear-cutting to create wood chips for boilers the province has installed to heat public buildings.

Myers said he wants to see the province double the number of trees planted per year, from one million to two million.

"We definitely need more trees," Schneider said, but questioned recent practices of planting fields of all the same species, which he said are more prone to insects or disease, or of planting trees "meant to be cut down as soon as they reach a (small) merchantable size."

"If people are clear-cutting their woods now, why would we give them a bunch of taxpayers' money to put a plantation in place? They most likely will just clear-cut them again," he said.

Myers said the report showing just how much the province's forests have declined should be released within a year. His department said the report may not be complete until 2023.

But Myers said he doesn't plan to wait for confirmation of the figures before making changes.

The damage done, he said, will impact generations to come.

"The best we can do now is to mitigate them and start trying to reverse them. It will be well into my children's time, when they're my age before we can reverse it back to 2010, even. But I think we have to start the work today."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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