Let Dead Trees Stand

Let the dead trees stand in Point Pleasant Park!
May 23rd 1991, Chronicle Herald, Op-ed piece by Martin Willison

Point Pleasant Park is a great place for a stroll on a sunny afternoon. The bustle of the city recedes as one follows the winding paths. It is a place for letting the cares of the world slip away.

The article as it appeared in the Chronicle Herald, May 23, 1991
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The park is a domain of nature, where squirrels loudly shout that we are invaders in their space, where seedlings, saplings and grown trees stand side by side, reminding us of the natural origin of life. It is a place where a grandmother can push her grand-daughter in a stroller, to enjoy a touch of nature’s grandeur without discomfort.

It might be hard to imagine that there can be controversy amidst this tranquility, but recently a 12-member advisory committee to the Point Pleasant Park Commission resigned. I was a member of that committee. We quit because our advice was not being heeded and because we were unhappy about the way the park is being managed.

The basis for this difference in views about park management is quite deep. It is part of a fundamental debate about the place of humanity in nature and our responsibility in an impending environmental crisis.

In a natural forest, each mature tree produces millions of seeds. From these, only a few seedlings grow. Still fewer saplings survive to struggle upwards. Only the most fortunate make it to be mature trees and join the great canopy which meets the sunshine. As any tree gets bigger and older, it becomes a home for more and more other beings. Fungi take up residence in the wood and beetles in the bark. A large tree is a community of interacting beings – a natural city.

When a tree dies, it continues to provide life. It remains the basis for a complex community. The beetles in the peeling bark attract birds and new fungi colonize the wood. The great trunk may stand for many years, continuing to contribute to the richness of the forest by providing homes for living beings. But even when it finally crumbles away, its “life” is not over. New seedlings prefer the richness of this pile of organic rubble as a place to grow. In this way, the nutrients which the old tree had accumulated are conserved for reuse by the new trees. The quality of the soil is maintained by this natural composting.

In Point Pleasant Park, trees which have recently died are routinely being cut down and the logs removed from the park. Even some live trees have met the same fate. The logs are stored in a holding area in the centre of the park and many are shipped out by truck. Some wood is chopped up to be burned. Many of the logs trucked out are red spruce.

Red spruce trees are in trouble throughout their range in eastern North America. It is widely believed by scientists that acid rain is the main cause for red spruce mortality. The species is particularly sensitive to acid rain. Weakened by the acidity in the rain and fog, they are easily attacked by bark beetles. Wood-rotting fungi invade through holes left by the bark beetles. There is little we can do about this other than to reduce the primary cause of the problem – acid rain.

While it is sad to see the decline of red spruce trees, the cycle of life and death makes the delightful diversity of the forest possible. If we interfere with it by removing part of the cycle, then we will reduce the vitality of the forest as a whole. Dead trees are part of the vitality of the forest and we must keep them in natural parks. We should not risk the long-term health of the ecosystem of the park by removing dead wood in the interest of “tidiness”.

Some scientists predict that we are standing on the threshold of one of the greatest extinction events in Earth’s history – mostly due to our aggressive conversion of ecosystems for our own use. To halt this devastating process, we must learn to respect nature in all its magnificent diversity. There is no better place to do this than in our city wildland parks.

It is time for the Point Pleasant Park Commission to learn that dead trees, bark beetles and rotted wood are lovely – and that a park should not be managed like a woodlot.
*Martin Willison is professor of biology at Dalhousie University and was a member of the Technical Advisory Committee to the Point Pleasant Park Commission.

Comment added by MW in December 2023: In 2008, HRM funded the creation of a plan by Ekistics titled Point Pleasant Park Comprehensive Plan and published October 2008. It is available on the HRM website. [See a page on this website about the Plan with links.] Given the high cost of this plan, it is presumably being followed.
Comment by David P: I remember when this opinion piece was published in the Chronicle Herald and how I was struck by it at the time. Thanks Martin for not losing the files and for allowing us to share them.

The article was, to my knowledge, the first time that a theme of ‘Keep it Natural’ was expressed publicly and so coherently in relation to Point Pleasant Park.

From Halifax Field Naturalists Newsletter #62, 1991
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I believe that article and Martin’s input to the Technical Advisory Committee for PPP, together with that of other naturalists such as Stephanie Robertson and Colin Stewart, changed the fundamental thinking about how we view and manage Point Pleasant Park; that thinking  was later reflected in the 2008 Ekistics document cited by Martin. View the   HALIFAX FIELD NATURALISTS’ NEWSLETTER #62 (June to Aug 1991) p5, for a description of some of the goings on in 1991 (also reproduced at right)

Martin’s opinion piece focussed on the fate of old trees. In 2023, the ecological significance of old trees, and of “standing dead” trees and “fallen dead” trees (or in foresters’ language, Coarse Woody Debris) is broadly appreciated, but it wasn’t in 1991 – see that same issue of the HFN Newsletter for an article titled “NECESSITY FOR A HEALTHY FOREST — DEAD TREES!”. Reads the introductory paragraph:

For years, foresters and forest workers have been dismissing dead and dying trees within a forest as “decadent”, “culls”, or “snags”. They were viewed as dangerous nuisances that had to be cleared away in order to make room for a new, vigorous and productive forest. Forest companies which rely on a steady supply of old-growth timber still talk that way. But in recent years forest ecologists and holistic foresters have come to recognize that large dead trees, both standing and fallen, are one of the most important components of a forest ecosystem.