Clearcutting forest does not sound like the way to make it healthier, but Barry Shellian is out to prove just that.
The wildfire ranger and information officer for Alberta Environment Sustainable Resource Development based out of Rocky Mountain House — in partnership with Frontier Lodge, Tourisim Parks and Recreation, Sundre Forest Products and Mountain Equipment Co-op — is helping create a FireSmart Ecology Trail.
The trail will run through 10 km of previously clearcut forest between Goldeye Lake and Shunda Lake, 12 km west of Nordegg on Hwy 11.
Clearcutting, or block cutting, has been developed into a useful tool for forest management. It is particularly critical in areas where a prescribed burn cannot be carried out due to proximity to a community and lack of a natural fire break, as is the case with the area the trail will run through.
For Shellian, who has spent the last 12 years at his post, this is one of the most important projects he has worked on.
“For myself, this is maybe an apex of both my personal and professional life here,” he said. “I get to work with the community and to illustrate community partnerships and illustrate how we can make a healthier forest.”
They have spent the last two winters harvesting the forest in the area and recently started preparing the land to run the winding trail through the heart of it.
The project is being funded through several sources and a lot of in-kind labour. FireSmart is putting $6,000 towards it, Mountain Equipment Co-op is supplying $15,000 in equipment rentals and Sundre Forest Products has donated wood for bridge and boardwalk construction.
When complete, the trail will be open to all non-motorized forms of travel. It’s perfect for hikers and mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers in the winter.
The primary start to the trail will be at Fish Lake Provincial Recreation Area and will run to Satellite Hill, adjacent to Goldeye Centre. It will also connect with other existing trails and will be lined with interpretive signs. The goal is to allow people to watch the forest grow back healthier and in a natural forest succession.
Shellian is hoping within the next month to have all boardwalks and bridges complete.
The trail will be unlike anything they have established in the past.
“Watching forest time is a very slow process, and sometimes what we think is healthy can actually just be old and decadent,” he said. “This trail is going to allow viewers watch a seasonal change … they’re going to watch a natural part of nature happen.”
Alberta is largely a fire dependant ecosystem where naturally occurring wildfires have helped the environment naturally cycle over the course of thousands of years.
Especially with the province’s winter climate, they are critical in returning nutrients into the ground and allowing for new trees and plants to sprout up, creating entirely new habitats and environments.
ESRD has been able to chart where and how often forest fires have burned through.
The area that had been clearcut was previously at a 2.5-3 fire departure rate (how many times a wildfire should have naturally gone through the area). Meaning, had a fire started in the area, it would have burned with a severe intensity and would have been difficult to control.
Clearcutting the area will allow aspen pines to naturally sprout up where the old trees previously were. This is an important stage that will potentially last for the next century. The aspens will help return nitrogen into the ground, and are also not very conducive to wildfire spread.
Also new grasses and plants will take hold, providing new habitat for local wildlife.
The trail will allow people to experience the regrowth over the course of the next several generations. Shellian says, there are three human generations for every one forest generation.
“We’ve done our best to mimic a natural event, the aspen will come back and it will be a step in an ongoing millennium long forest change,” he said.
The trail will play a central role in their presentation during an international FireSmart convention in Rocky Mountain House in June 2015, as they will host 200 delegates from across North America and the world and share how they are managing and developing healthier forests in Alberta’s West Country.