Tree Planting in Southern Ontario – A Brief History

By Clarke Birchard with assistance from Mark Cressman

By the late 19th century, the government of Ontario became concerned that the settlers had cleared too many trees. The landscape had become barren, light soil was blowing away, orchards were suffering from the drying and freezing effects of winter winds, lanes and roads were blocked by drifting snow in winter. A number of government incentives were implemented to encourage tree planting.

The Forestry Branch of the Department of Lands and Forests was promoting the planting of trees on degraded farmland and areas of blow sand where pioneer farming had depleted the cover of fertile humus. Trees were supplied at no charge except for the shipping costs.

It is estimated that 100,000 acres in southern Ontario were planted. Trees were intentionally planted close together to promote tall, straight growth. The intention was that the plantations would be thinned after about 40 years by removing a third of trees (every 4th row plus some additional trees on either side). This would be repeated twice more at about 10-year intervals. In this way the landowner would receive income from the plantation and the area would gradually return to a forest of mixed hardwoods or other species that had existed prior to the clearing of the land. In other words, the conifer plantations would act as a nurse crop for the next, more indigenous generation of trees. Many of the plantations were never thinned and have become overcrowded and sometimes diseased.

Two of the largest areas planted by volunteers and the Department of Lands and Forests were the Ganaraska area in the Region of Durham and the Oro Sand Plain in Simcoe County. The Hendry Tract in Simcoe County, planted in 1922, was the first agreement forest in Ontario. In the Ganaraska area it was planned that 20,000 acres would be planted. In Bruce County trees were planted on County land at Sauble, the Brant Tract near Paisley, Miller Lake and other areas.

Private landowners planted smaller plots as well as roadsides, farm lanes, windbreaks and shelter belts. Most plantations were planted with pines or spruces and occasionally larch (tamarack). Unfortunately the evergreens supplied were sometimes Norway Spruce and Scots Pine rather than the native White or Red Pine and White Spruce.

Tree planting supported by Lands and Forests was done on private land and on land owned by municipalities (Agreement Forests).  Many of the Agreement Forests already had some existing woodlands, so the plantations just filled the properties with trees.

The agreement forests have become valuable for commercial forestry as well as habitat for wildlife. They are also highly valued for human recreation that could include active sports like walking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing or nature study.

While L&F / MNR has more or less moved out of this work the Conservation Authorities have moved in and are very active in tree planting and woodlot management on the land that they own.

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