Unit 2 - The History of Forest Use and Management

Lesson 4: The History of Canada's Forests

Commercial Use of Canada's Timber

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, historical events caused a profound shift in the way that Canada's forests were used. Up until this time, Britain's use of Canada's trees for shipbuilding had been minimal.

However, the occurrence of the American Revolution changed all that. Suddenly the trees of New England, previously Britain's main source of naval timbers, were no longer available.

In response, Britain turned to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to meet their needs for shipbuilding timber. Also around this period of time, New England lumbermen who were loyal to the British Crown, came flooding back into Canada. They brought their skills, capital, and market connections that were necessary to begin producing and exporting lumber on a commercial scale. Together, these events resulted in the development of a large forest industry which expanded rapidly during the first half of the nineteenth century as Britain became increasingly reliant on Canadian timber.       

New regulations came into effect allowing the public sale of timber that was deemed not fit and proper for Britain's Royal Navy. Although the British Crown retained ownership of Canada's forests, these regulations allowed forest industries to lease forest land for the purposes of harvesting timber. Revenues from these leases were used by colonial administrators to finance government operations. In contrast, across the border in the United States, large areas of forested land were being transferred into private ownership.

Industrialization and Canada's Forests

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, industrialization of Canada occurred — an event that had a huge impact on Canada's forest industry for the following reasons: 

  • Steam-powered machinery became widespread. Not only did this greatly accelerate the pace of logging and milling, but it also allowed loggers to operate in more remote areas of the country. 
  • Huge amounts of timber were used for constructing railways and bridges. The railway also increased the rate of settlement, which increased the domestic demand for timber. 
  • Fires started by sparks from steam engines destroyed vast amounts of forests.

International markets began to make increased demands on Canadian timber. In particular, the United States required huge amounts of wood. Having depleted their own northeastern forests, the U.S. now looked to Canadian forests to meet their demands for forest products. In 1873, the value of Canadian lumber shipments to the United States was 9.5 million dollars. By 1920, the Canadian lumber shipments were worth almost 150 million dollars.

Although the harvesting of the forest brought the country great economic benefits, great harm to the environment also resulted. Settlement of Canadian forests had seriously disturbed wildlife habitat and across the country huge fires had consumed vast areas of forest. However, at that time in our history it was still generally agreed that that forests were an obstacle to development/settlement and should be cleared. Fortunately, there were a few voices challenging the status quo.

In 1871, Prime Minister John A McDonald wrote these words:

"The sight of immense masses of lumber passing my windows every morning suggests to my mind the absolute necessity there is for looking into the future of this great trade. We are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it."

Logging and milling families also began to question the lack of forest management policies. After all, how could their industry survive if the forest received no protection? Surely the forest could not last forever.