There is an old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees, in essence that details can obscure the big picture.

In light of the debate that has swirled around forestry-related policies and practices for far too long in Nova Scotia, it might be useful to adapt this saying to emphasize the importance of first seeing, knowing and appreciating the tree as a basis for understanding the forest and for gaining insight into responsible and sustainable forest management.

Bob Bancroft’s March 5 opinion piece paints a rather vivid picture of our province’s forests as they would have greeted early European settlers and would have endured for centuries before their arrival: tall, vibrant, thick and strong, shaded and cool, stable and self-regenerating, integral elements of healthy and vigorous natural systems, typically comprised of stands of trees having reached hundreds of years in age.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, old growth that was once a distinguishing characteristic of the Acadian Forest is now rare in Nova Scotia. In fact, scattered, remnant old-growth stands are estimated to occupy less than one per cent of the province’s forests.

Clearly, Nova Scotia’s forests have been altered dramatically and significantly in just a few centuries. And not for the better.

In the 1700s and well into the 1800s, during the age of wood, wind and sail and before the age of steam, the province’s natural forest stock was the source of the masts and timbers that supported shipbuilding in coastal towns and villages. This, in turn, provided the vessels needed for fishing, coasting and international trade.

These forests continued as the resource of a thriving logging and sawmilling industry through to the 20th century.

By the mid-1900s, however, the winds of economic change had found their way to Nova Scotia. As with all resource-based industries, modernization and mechanization were taking hold. Whether fishing, farming or forestry, the mantra was becoming, “Go big, or at least go bigger, or go home.”

Viewed through a forestry lens, these changing times saw the pulp and paper industry emerge into a position of dominance. Forestry operations across the province increasingly revolved around efforts to feed three major mills and the conversation changed.

Romanticized stories of life in remote logging camps, of working with horses in the woods and of the excitement and perils of river drives were relegated to the stuff of history books and folklore.

The new vocabulary came to include wood fibre, insecticide and herbicide spraying, clear-cutting, feller-bunchers, whole tree harvesting, scarification, stand conversion, annual allowable cut, overharvesting and, most recently, biomass.

Through these years, the inherent value of Nova Scotia’s forests as a natural capital asset has continued to decline, while the debate has raged on, changing only to reflect the particular issues of the day.

The province’s denigrated forest asset continues to be reduced to pulp for production of paper and related products and now is being burned on an industrial scale to produce energy.

Fuels used in the burning of biomass include not only so-called wood waste, such as slash left following forestry operations in the woods and sawdust and bark from mill sites, but also reportedly, and disturbingly, whole trees taken from healthy forest stands.

Surely this is the ultimate race to the bottom. If this finish line is crossed, there will be no winners. Everyone will have lost.

When discussing biomass issues on News 95.7’s Rick Howe Show, Premier Stephen McNeil was challenged by the claim that some of our best forest is being burned for this purpose.

The premier’s surprisingly candid and illuminating response was, in part, “My common sense tells me that; the reports I’m getting (don’t) tell me that.”

This is both concerning and hopeful. Concerning because the implication is that government may not be getting objective and accurate information at the political level. Hopeful because it suggests the premier senses briefing materials may be filtered and massaged to reflect industry and departmental purposes and biases.

Sometimes complex and contentious issues can best be understood and appreciated by breaking underlying problems down to the basics.

In the case of a forest, consider a tree.

The trees of a forest are not just resources or commodities to be burned for energy, reduced to pulp for paper or sawn into lumber for building. They are parts of complex natural systems that have many functions.

Cradle to Cradle, a 2002 book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, makes the case for achieving sustainability through the design of industrial processes to emulate natural system. It rather clearly and succinctly describes the many functions of a tree:

“It provides food for animals, insects and microorganisms. It enriches the ecosystem, sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, cleaning air and water, and creating and stabilizing soil. Among its roots and branches and on its leaves, it harbours a diverse array of flora and fauna, all of which depend on it and on one another for the functions and flows that support life. And when the tree dies, it returns to the soil, releasing, as it decomposes, minerals that will fuel healthy new growth in the same place”.

The images evoked here contrast sharply with photographs of clear-cuts and of sites denuded of organic matter that have appeared recently in this newspaper and other media.

The 21st-century demands responsible land and resource stewardship, biodiversity conservation and integrated approaches to ecosystem-based planning and management, together with open and credible processes for public and stakeholder consultation and decision-making.

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia is not there yet.

It can only be hoped the premier’s apparent skepticism about the appropriateness and accuracy of advice his government is receiving in favour of current forestry policies and practices is in fact real — and that he and his government will be moved to ensure steps are taken to effect positive change toward a forest planning and management regime that is science-based, transparent and accountable.

It is long past time to push the reset button.