Before the CPR came, white pine was quite common south of Wabigoon and Eagle lakes, but rare north of them, this is the limit of its natural range. Red pine and especially Jack pine is the natural dominant species in the Wabigoon Valley .  Even so, white pine has played a role in our local history.

As noted in previous columns, white pine was once the dominant species over much of central North America. Its wood was highly prized in Europe for its milling and stability properties, and it was very valuable.  It was harvested vigorously without thought of regeneration, and it has all but disappeared.  Quetico Park is one last bastion, and logging was stopped there some 40 years ago to ‘preserve’ it.  Unfortunately, trees, like all living things, get old and die and cannot be ‘preserved’ beyond their usual lifespan.  I am told that Quetico is deteriorating; a lot of the old trees are dead and coming down, and the pine forest being replaced with the balsam/poplar/white spruce/brush mixture we get where there is no fire.  Valuable wood wasted, and beauty becomes the beast, but hey, we stopped those loggers.

I confess I know nothing about how white pine regenerates in nature – they all seem to be very old or very new, they seem to go in waves. We had a flush of new white pine seedlings appear naturally on our Eagle Lake property about twenty years ago, but not much for new ones since.  I tried transplanting some of those seedlings from where they were too thick, with much less success than transplanting say spruce or jackpine.  If regenerating them was easy, I expect we would see lots of plantations in such places as Minnesota and Michigan.  This means it is not a renewable resource, once harvested, it is gone.

The dominant species here is Jack Pine; it regenerates prolifically after a fire, and grows rapidly in our clay soil to a usable size before it is 50 years old. It is short-lived, few live to one hundred years old, and over-mature stands burn and the fire regenerates a new stand of jackpine.  When the first homesteaders arrived in 1896, there were thick stands of jack pine, already one quarter the way to maturity, regenerated from the 1882 fires.  So it is a renewable resource; one could even say a long-cycle crop.

Transfer of land to homesteaders was never absolute; there might be restrictions with regard to space for roads; navigable waters; ownership of any minerals which might be discovered, and, worst of all, ownership of the pine trees. These restrictions were not applied uniformly, it varied depending when and where the homestead was claimed.  Some of our local homesteads including most of those awarded to veterans returning from the first world war have that pine restriction on them, “we keep the trees, you get the stumps”, — some way of saying thanks.

It appears that the regulators were not aware there are different species of pine trees. The restriction reserving the pine to the crown might make sense in the case of white pine, a valuable, non-renewable resource, but makes no sense at all for Jack pine, a low-value growing crop. It has been rigorously enforced anyway, it is still ‘we get the trees, you get the stumps’, even though the trees are third generation since the land was in our hands.  This takes away from the value of the homestead, not only in putting restrictions on use of the land, but in providing an excuse for government to trespass on the land – to a homesteader, just as intrusive as policemen being allowed to march into your city bedroom at will.  No wonder we have a separatist movement.

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