Pitch and Timber: A History of Human Relationships with Trees in Alberta (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the history of human relationships with trees in Alberta. If you missed part one, read it now.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Development of Alberta’s Forestry Industry

From 1900 to 1910, population growth and steady local demand for lumber meant that most settlements had commercial sawmills. Because of the way that timber berths were leased to operators, most sawmills were small and portable. Some operators harvested in the summer and moved their timber using rivers, flumes (a series of wooden chutes that filled with water and carried logs), splash dams (a temporary wooden dam that held back water that would then be released in a surge to carry logs), and log drives along big rivers that brought wood to riverside mills or to rail yards in river valleys. But winter was generally the ideal time to log because wood could be moved by horses and sleds. Portable sawmills would move machinery on skis to temporary camps in western and northern Alberta. The seasonal nature was perfect for struggling families because farmers could work the fields in warm seasons and cut timber for mills in the winters.

A man poling down Athabasca River between 1937-39 (from the Chisholm Sawmill and Freeman River Lumber Camp). Log drivers floated along with the timbers to dislodge jams and notify the mills when shipments were arriving by water. Image A3790 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
A logging camp (the Jackpine Wood Camp on Little Slave River in 1909) with men and their tools. Image A2532 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Alberta’s forestry industry was younger than in British Columbia and neighbouring states to the south, many of which had various gold rushes that required commercial sawmills in the 1800s. It was fairly common for Alberta farmers to log in B.C. during winters in the early 1900s and many Alberta ranches provided B.C. logging operations with horses. A good-sized sawmill in B.C. or Alberta could employ several hundred men and up to 60 horses over the winter.

A two-man team generally used a five to six foot cross-saw to cut down trees. Then other workers cut off the limbs and bucked the timbers down to sizes that the horses could pull with chains to the sleds. The men lived in temporary camps in the bush or on floating barges that could move as needed. Alberta has an interesting archaeological record of early logging camps, splash dams, fire towers, warden cabins, and hacking camps (for railroad ties) that preserve a material record of life in the early days of Alberta’s forestry industry.

Harvesting trees didn’t change much from the 1800s to the 1930s but machinery steadily improved wood processing. Sawmills became more permanent when Alberta assumed control over its forest resources in 1930 and changed the way that timber berths were leased (which eventually led to the modern system of Forest Management Areas). Trucks had a big impact on forestry beginning around the 1930s and 40s because they freed operators from a reliance on rail to transport timber and lumber. The development of the pulp industry in Alberta in the 1950s and 60s led to large-scale growth of forestry operations as did a provincial program in the 1980s and 90s to fund the construction of large-scale mills to create jobs and diversify Alberta’s economy.

Trucks revolutionized the early logging industry and lead to the construction of thousands of kilometres of logging roads into Alberta’s forests. This photograph is from the Chisholm Sawmill and Freeman River Lumber Camp between 1937-39. Image A3780 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Modern Research and Industry

Our relationship with forests continues to change. Modern research is constantly refining how forests are harvested, replanted, and managed. One of the biggest modern challenges is an infestation of the mountain pine beetle from B.C., which is a complex story of changing forests. The pine beetle is a natural species in B.C. and probably has extended into Alberta in small numbers for thousands of years. However, a unique landscape and changing temperatures has witnessed the eastern migration of a massive outbreak of these rice-sized bugs that is devastating Alberta’s pine forests.

Scanning electron microscope photograph of mountain pine beetle. Image courtesy of Colorado Nanofabrication and Characterization Facility (COSINC), College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder.

The beetle burrows into the bark of lodgepole pine trees where it feeds on the inner layer of cambium and other tissues. It carries a parasite, called blue-stain fungus, that clogs pine tree water tubes (phloem) and chokes the tree if there are enough beetles. The tree quickly dries out and the needles turn red. Travelers to Jasper in the past few years have probably noticed the incredibly big swaths of dead red trees, which are a powder keg for fires. In a matter of four years, from the outbreak in 2005 to 2009, an estimated three million trees were killed by pine beetles. The wood must be harvested within a few years or it dries out and is not usable for lumber. Aside from the fire hazard, mountain pine beetles are costing millions of dollars in lost timber revenue.

Pines attempt to eject beetles by smothering them in a toxic resin. The image of an infested tree at left (5382164-LGPT)
is courtesy of Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University and Bugwood.org. The image at right is reproduced with permission from Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, 2019.

How did the beetle wreak such unprecedented havoc on Alberta’s forests? Fires from railways and European settlements in the late 1800s and early 1900s swept across Alberta, particularly the Eastern Slopes in western Alberta, and re-set the succession of pine trees. From that point on, fire suppression efforts disrupted the normal series of small-scale fires that once created mosaic forests across the province. The result is that Alberta’s pine forests near the Rocky Mountains ‘over-matured’. This term means that our forests grew much older than they normally would in a natural system. Huge tracts of over-mature pine were like a “holy grail of beetledom”, as described by the University of Alberta’s Janice Cooke who leads a collaborative team that is studying mountain pine beetles. To compound this, beetles are normally killed at high latitudes by severe winter temperatures, but warming conditions across Canada are favouring their spread. Governments continue to work with industry and researchers to slow and halt the eastern march of destructive pine beetles and their lethal fungus parasites.

Beetle kill forests turn red and quickly become fire hazards (photograph by Todd Kristensen).

The Ecology of the Past and the Heritage Art Series

The relationship of people and trees in Alberta is filled with stories of ingenious adaptations, hard work, and insightful research. Studies of Alberta’s past forests help us understand why our forests look the way they do. A look at historical ecology also reveals why modern trees and environmental variables are creating new challenges for people who harvest, live in, and visit our forests.

A series from ‘Lodgepole pine’ pictured below by Edmonton-area artist Elaine Funnell captures in detail and beauty the components of a tree that people have harvested, marveled at, and studied. The Heritage Art Series is a shared project of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum: each artwork tells an important story about the people of our province. We hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it.

More stories and colourful scenes from Alberta’s past from farms and fossils to mountains and oil sands, can be viewed here.

Further reading:

Alberta Forestry Association. 1986. Alberta Trees of Renown: An Honour Roll of Alberta Trees, 2nd edition. Alberta Forestry Association, Edmonton, Alberta.

Bleiker, K.P., S.E. Potter, C.R. Lauzon, and D.L. Six. 2009. Transport of fungal symbionts by mountain pine beetles. The Canadian Entomologist. 141(5):503-514.

Corns, I.G.W., and R.M. Annas. 1986. Field Guide to Forest Ecosystems of West-Central Alberta. Northern Forestry Centre, Canadian Forest Service, Edmonton, Alberta.

Cullingham, C.I., J.E.K. Cooke, S. Dang, C.S. Davis, B.J. Cooke, and D.W. Coltman. 2011. Mountain pine beetle host-range expansion threatens the boreal forest. Molecular Ecology 20:2157-2171.

DeWald, S., S. Josiah, and B. Erdkamp. 2005. Heating with Wood: Producing, Harvesting, and Processing Firewood. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Drushka, K. 1998. Tie Hackers and Timber Harvesters: The History of Logging in British Columbia’s Interior. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, British Columbia.

Government of Alberta. Mountain Pine Beetle in Alberta. https://www.alberta.ca/mountain-pine-beetle-in-alberta.aspx (Accessed in November, 2019.)

Huth, R. 2002. Guardians of the Forests: History of the Alberta Forest Service, the First Hundred Years. Wombat Press, Silverton, British Columbia.

Johnson, D., L. Kershaw, A. MacKinnon, and J. Pojar. 1995. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alberta.

Murphy, P.J., R.E. Stevenson, D. Quintilio, and S. Ferdinand. 2005. The Alberta Forest Service, 1930-2005: Protection and Management of Alberta’s Forests. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Government of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Wetherell, D.G., and I.R.A. Kmet. 2000. Alberta’s North: A History, 1890-1950. Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press, Edmonton, Alberta.

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