Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shelterbelts go by wayside

Tree stands vanish in favour of ag use

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The view from the old farmhouse window on cold, blustery winter days was spectacular -- in a moonscape sort of way. There wasn't much by way of trees to block those fiery, red sunsets framed by sun dogs as the snow drifted across those flat-as-a-pancake fields.

It's a view I'm glad I experienced as a child. But it's not one I miss.

As kids, we heard more than once how every tree on that family farm had been planted and then individually watered by human hands. By the late 1950s, the farmyard bluff fed out to several kilometres of young shelterbelts separating the fields. They anchored the soil, they tamed the wind and they provided a haven for birds, wildlife and beneficial insects. Simply by being there, they made that Prairie landscape seem warmer.

Those shelterbelts and free-standing tree bluffs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past in farming areas. No one seems to know how much is being lost. It's one of those trends the governments of today don't really want to quantify.

Farmers are quick to point out that in some cases, the trees are coming out because they are dying and it is labour-intensive to prune them. But it is also about making it easier for large farm equipment.

In that context, it's no surprise the federal government is washing its hands of the former PFRA shelterbelt nursery at Indian Head, Sask. The 2012 federal budget announced operations at the tree nursery would be wound down -- despite more than 20,000 letters and petitions to save it.

A business plan submitted by a coalition of farm groups hoping to take over the 112-year-old agroforestry centre was rejected after it sought $1.6 million in bridge financing. Given the government's spending habits in other areas, it can't be about the money.

This is a political decision. The decision-makers in our federal Agriculture Department see no public value from trees on the agricultural landscape. On one hand, you can see government's point. Why subsidize, even in a small way, the cost of trees for one generation only to have the next generation come along and knock them over?

This open season on trees isn't limited to the Prairies.

Reuters recently reported deforestation in the Amazon increased by nearly a third over the past year, as illegal logging cleared 5,842 square kilometres -- an area bigger than Prince Edward Island.

Some argue the world's remaining undeveloped lands would be protected by introducing more technology to boost yields from existing farmland, and by ensuring farmers are adequately paid for what they currently produce.

But the reality is, farmers get paid to produce, so whether prices are high or low, the more they produce, the more they get paid. Anecdotal evidence suggests the destruction of shelterbelts and forested areas on the Prairies accelerates when prices are high, partly because farmers have more money to invest in tree-clearing.

The role of trees in our ecosystem is well understood. But we are only beginning to understand how their loss might influence our weather.

New research published by Princeton University suggests total deforestation of the Amazon could significantly reduce rain and snowfall in the western United States, resulting in water and food shortages and a greater risk of forest fires.

"The big point is that Amazon deforestation will not only affect the Amazon -- it will not be contained. It will hit the atmosphere and the atmosphere will carry those responses," David Medvigy, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton. "By this study, deforestation of the Amazon could have serious consequences for the food supply of the United States."

Of course, shelterbelts and mixed-prairie bluffs aren't the Amazon rainforest. But neither are they benign fixtures in our environment.

Government policy both intentionally and indirectly plays a key role in shaping a society's values. In the past, particularly after the dirty thirties, adding trees to the Prairie landscape was considered development. These days, development is about taking them out and pushing more land into production.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 B10

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