From Desert to (Bio)Diversity

FSC Canada
Resurrected Community Forest Now a Shining Example of Sustainability
overhead shot of autumn Canadian forest
FSC Canada
December 11, 2023
Category : Stories

About 60 kilometres east of Ottawa sits a forest resurrected.

In the early 1900s, a canopy of hemlock and white pines was cleared to plant crops – an ill-guided plan, as the sandy soils proved unsuitable for agriculture. So sat a desert of abandoned farms near Bourget, Ontario until a local agronomist started planting conifers on the land in the late 1920s.

Since then, thanks to collaborative efforts, the landscape has regrown and, with 18 million trees planted, it has transformed into a thriving, biodiverse woodland. It is now called Larose Forest, one of the largest community forests in southern Ontario – a sanctuary for wildlife and an important place for people to connect with nature amidst Canada’s most populous region.

A small team at the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) planning and forestry department leads the responsible management of Larose – efforts that have earned FSC certification for nearly 20 years.

“FSC’s standard provided us with a strong framework to build our forest management plan and to guide the strategies we implemented in the forest,” says UCPR forester Steven Hunter. “With certification, we’ve also accessed experts with diverse backgrounds who help us continuously improve our efforts to preserve essential habitat.”

One of Larose’s most well-loved and emblematic species is the moose: an elusive yet charismatic mammal, one of the largest of any Canadian forest. Here in Larose, the animals  – who have significant cultural value for the local Mohawk and Algonquin Peoples – make up one of Canada’s southernmost moose populations.  

At the centre of Larose is a large wetland that is key to moose habitat. In spring it provides calving sites; in summer it provides open water to drink and keep cool; in fall it is host to breeding or the rut; in winter it provides a critical food source.

“We shield this area from forest management activities and recreation,” explains Steven. “Elsewhere we’ve maintained or enhanced critical habitat features, such as buffering wetlands that provide aquatic plants that moose eat and restricting when we harvest to reduce our impact during critical times of the year, such as breeding.” 

Such strategies also benefit other species that, among others, include the white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, cottontail rabbit, whip-poor-will, pileated woodpecker and pine imperial silk moth, a species considered vulnerable in Ontario.

Nearly 2,400 species of flora, fauna, lichen and fungi, 30 of which are endangered or at risk, now thrive in Larose. Here, rare wildflowers mingle with towering eastern white pine, yellow-spotted salamanders with western chorus frogs and forest-nesting birds like wood thrush with mammals like otters – and, of course, moose.

Steven says the forest is managed in such a way that creates diverse landscapes at various stages of development to provide a wide variety of habitats. “This includes protecting and enhancing critical habitat features like nests, cavities in trees, winter shelter and important food sources,” he says.

The team also performs inventories to evaluate wildlife habitat and determine the presence of species at risk. What were formerly two to three day “bio blitzes” are now ongoing efforts through the iNaturalist app where citizen scientists can confirm species and geo-target their locations.

Citizen scientists have, in fact, identified more than 800 species of insects, which are Larose’s broadest, most diverse and most important species, as they feed birds, pollinate plants and break down organic matter. The UCPR has worked with groups such as the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club to develop specific plans to significantly enhance insect habitat.

“Our relationships with a wide array of forest users are also a great way for us to meet many FSC certification principles, including the protection of rare and endangered species,” says Steven.

Meanwhile, Larose Forest – which sits like a green island amidst development and farmlands – is a popular spot for skiing, mountain biking, hiking and other activities, welcoming almost 50,000 recreational users each year. About 15 years ago, the UCPR assembled a team to study the best locations for trails that would limit any ill effects on the ecosystem. Today, more than 200 kms of well-kept roads and trails safely criss-cross the forest.

Steven says residents understand that their FSC-certified forest is being well-managed on their behalf – a “stamp of approval” so to speak. These efforts take on heightened importance for community forests that must persist despite growth in these heavily developed regions. 

Such is the case at Larose, rebuilt from the understory up by the passion and dedication of those who live, work and play nearby.