The maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick are part of the unceded and traditional territories of the Mi’kmaw, Wəlastəkwiyik, and Peskotomuhkati peoples. The Wabanaki forest, a transitional forest between the northern boreal and southern deciduous forests, also extends through these three provinces. While Nova Scotia and New Brunswick’s forests cover approximately 80 per cent and 85 per cent of their total land, respectively, over the last two centuries, P.E.I.’s forests have been heavily reduced, covering only 43.9 per cent of the total land in 2010. Challenges from climate change, such as post-tropical storms Dorian (2019) and Fiona (2022), have further impacted and altered P.E.I.’s forests. However, efforts are underway across the province to replant and enhance the resiliency of its forests.
History of P.E.I.’s Forests
Although P.E.I.’s terrestrial landscape is currently known for its patchwork quilt of fields, the province was almost completely forested prior to colonization. Early written accounts of the Island’s forests described expansive woods with large trees. However, over the 19th century, much of the province’s forests were cleared for settlement, farmland, and/or the shipbuilding industry. By 1900, P.E.I.’s forests had been reduced to only 30 percent of the total land area.
As many agricultural fields were abandoned during the early 20th century, the Island’s forests began to recover. However, much of the regrowth on abandoned, grassy fields was white spruce, an early successional tree species with a lifespan of only 50-70 years. In comparison, many late successional trees in the Wabanaki forest live over 200 years old, and species such as sugar maple and eastern hemlock have lived to 400 and almost 1,000 years old, respectively.
These white spruce monocultures are often even-aged, and now many are nearing the end of their lifespan. As a result of this regrowth, less than five percent of forests on P.E.I. are over 100 years old, and a large portion are early-successional trees under 60 years old. In addition, the forests that remain are highly fragmented, which can lead to a variety of issues such as biodiversity loss, increases in invasive species, and reduced water quality.
New Challenges Facing P.E.I.’s Forests
Although P.E.I.’s forests began to recover over the 20th century, climate change is presenting new challenges. In September 2022, post-tropical storm Fiona caused widespread damage across the Island. Based on satellite imagery, approximately 13 per cent of forests had 70 per cent, or more, of their trees blown down. Just three years before, post-tropical storm Dorian caused significant damage in the Cavendish area of P.E.I. National Park, where approximately 80 per cent of trees were lost. Many trees lost in the National Park were mature white spruce, highlighting the vulnerability of even-aged forest stands and monocultures, to extreme weather.
A changing climate also brings an increased risk of diseases and pests. Rising temperatures and droughts weaken the health of trees, making them more susceptible to diseases. Although P.E.I.’s isolation as an island offers some protection from invasive pests, species such as emerald ash borer and hemlock woolly adelgid, have been detected in nearby provinces and could easily be transported to P.E.I.
Across P.E.I., there are now a variety of tree planting initiatives underway. The 2 Billion Tree Program, a federal government initiative, has been expanded in the province, with goals to plant 1.3 million trees each year. In P.E.I.’s National Park, staff have already planted 20,000 trees since 2019. Their replanting efforts are focused on species and age diversity to increase forest resiliency, a strategy also being used in France to adapt to a changing climate.
Replanting strategies can also vary depending on the area being planted. In areas with existing trees, strip-cuts or patch-cuts are created by cutting existing trees in a small area. These cuts mimic small-scale natural disturbances and create canopy gaps, then desired tree species are planted in the newly created space. In urban areas, groups are experimenting with a newer tree planting method, the Miyawaki method, where trees are densely planted, encouraging faster growth and competition with invasive species.
Other replanting efforts have included community engagement, such as local students helping to replenish populations of the rare black ash tree, a tree species with cultural significance to Mi’kmaq people, or volunteer planting days with local environmental organizations.
Despite the challenges P.E.I.’s forests have faced, there has been widespread interest in replanting P.E.I. While forest disturbances, such as post-tropical storm Fiona, have altered the Island’s forests dramatically, they also present opportunities to plant more diverse and climate-adapted trees and enhance forests’ resilience to the changing climate.
Sobey, D. (2006). Early descriptions of the forests of Prince Edward Island Part II: The British and Post-Confederation Periods – 1758 – c. 1900. Part A: The Analyses. Prince Edward Island Department of Environment, Energy, and Forestry.