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The value of trees

On bitterly cold and blustery winter days on the farm, there wasn’t much by way of trees to block our view of those fiery red sunsets framed by sundogs over the drifting snow. It’s a view I am glad I experienced. But as beautiful as it was, it’s not a view I miss.

We grew up knowing the value of a tree. As kids, we heard more than once how every tree on the section of land my parents farmed had been planted and then individually watered by human hands. We lived in a part of the province where the pioneers joked you could say goodbye to someone in the morning and see their campfire on the horizon that night.

By the late 1950s, the maturing farmyard bluff fed out to several miles 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 flat-as-a-pancake prairie landscape seem warmer and more inviting.

Trees still exist out here on the prairie, surrounding remaining farmyards like little enclaves. But shelterbelts and free-standing tree bluffs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as they are razed in the insatiable drive for more cropland.

Smouldering piles of bulldozed trees are a common sight in rural Manitoba these days. No one seems to know how quickly the trees are disappearing. It’s one of those trends the governments of today don’t really want to quantify.

In that context, it’s no surprise that the federal government is washing its hands of the former PFRA shelterbelt nursery at Indian Head. It’s doing it in such a way that it appears the asset will be destroyed rather than transferred as a viable entity into private hands.

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, a tacit admission that the decision makers in our federal Agricultural 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 agricultural areas of the Prairies.

Reuters reports that deforestation in the Amazon increased by nearly a third over the past year, as illegal logging cleared 5,842 square km — an area bigger than the size of Prince Edward Island.

Although technically illegal, governments seem helpless, perhaps wilfully so, to stop it.

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. We have no argument with either, provided the technologies used don’t destroy our soil and water.

But the reality is, farmers get paid to produce, whether prices are high or whether they are low. Our hunch is the destruction of shelterbelts and forested areas on the Prairies accelerated when prices were high, partly because farmers had 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 they might influence our weather.

New research published by Princeton University researchers suggests that total deforestation of the Amazon may 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,” wrote 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 ’30s, adding trees to the landscape was considered development. These days, development means taking them out and pushing more land into production.

You have to wonder what historians will say about this era in world agriculture, and whether future generations will regret our disregard for the value of trees.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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