The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz

September 6, 2011

It’s hard to believe as one drives through the lush Ontario landscape that it was not always this way.  That’s why the photos in John Bacher’s Two Billion Trees and Counting:  The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz  (Dundurn, 2011) come as such a shock to the reader.

I looked in amazement at pine stumps standing on skeletal roots high above the drifting sand below.  In another photo a sand bank gradually engulfs an apple tree.  In 1885 a main road near Picton was buried under 30 metres of sand.  A brick factory had to be abandoned due to the sand invasion.

In other photos the Oak Ridges Moraine appears as a vast, sand wasteland, fissured with deeply eroded gullies.  The photos show the gritty reality of what happens to a rich landscape when it is plundered without care.

At the turn of the twentieth century, unfettered logging driven by the railroad led to the destruction of much of the forest which covered Ontario.  Slash from the timber cutters was left where it fell, turning to tinder in hot weather.  Sparks from steam locomotives caused fires of such frequency that the topsoil burned or blew away along the railway lines.  In the Canadian Shield the land was burned right down to the rock.  In Southern Ontario the underlying sand became a desert over large tracts.

But the loggers and the locomotives were not entirely to blame.  The myth of the Ontario pioneer shows the immigrant struggling with his axe to fell the tall trees, then burn them for potash to provide income prior to planting a first crop of wheat in the few acres of the homestead tract the family was able to clear each year.  According to Dr. Bacher, over vast tracts of Southern Ontario and on into the Canadian shield, the reality was one of reckless burns of the forest for the ashes left in the wake of the fires.  There was more money in supplying the soap factories with potash than in subsistence farming on marginal land, so the squatters would often move on to another patch of virgin forest and try again.

It was a war against the landscape.  Railroads, logging companies, prospectors and squatters raced to gobble it up.  Politicians looked upon the receding forest as an impediment to progress, and the market in its products as a patronage opportunity.

Catastrophic floods, droughts and fires followed.  The history of pre-1925 Ontario is one of devastation.

In his book Bacher traces how a single man, Professor Edmund Zavitz, convinced Ontario that there was a better way.  Zavitz was a bureaucrat who used the technology of the time to convince landowners and legislators alike that the future lay in controlling the waste caused by degradation of the environment.

His friend J.H. White’s photographs documented the “railside burning of forests down to bare rock (108)” which led to federal regulations on railways in 1912.  “In 1915 Zavitz’s inspectors found 36 fires which were caused by settlers starting fires in dangerous seasons and not controlling them… Such dangers, they believed, had to be accepted as the price for living in Northern Ontario (109).”

The Matheson Fire on 1916 burned twenty townships across Northern Ontario with 243 deaths.  Cochrane burned out for the third time.  89 died in a sudden firestorm in Matheson.  In all, 6% of Ontario burned. The Haileybury fire of October 4, 1922 caused 40 deaths and destroyed 6000 homes.

Through the use of air power, tougher laws, and changed public attitudes, Edmund Zavitz pioneered the control of loss from forest fire in the Canadian north.  Working with Premier Drury and later Premier Ferguson, he ended the threat of uncontrolled forest fires in the north.

Zavitz brought similar stability to Southern Ontario with reforestation programs which eventually ended the threats of drought, flooding and spreading deserts as the consequence of deforestation (144).

Fire protection and reforestation programs pioneered by Edmund Zavitz over his life have largely shaped Ontario’s landscape and climate.  Bacher’s book details the stages by which this Ontario Agricultural College professor and visionary public servant created and preserved this rich legacy of tree planting on private lands.

After it had been severed by the lack of understanding and subsequent cutbacks of the Rae and Harris governments, the link to Zavitz’s tradition was reestablished in 2007 by the McGuinty government.  With minimal funding and support from a wide variety of organizations and individuals, the 50 Million Trees Program has quietly restored the link to this proud tradition in Ontario. 

UPDATE: October 29, 2011, The Globe and Mail offered the following concise review by William Bryant Logan:

Two Billion Trees and Counting:  The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz

By John Bacher

Dundurn, 274 pages, $26.99

John Bacher, an environmentalist and historian living in St. Catharines, Ont., has rescued Edmund Zavitz (1875-1968) from undeserved obscurity. Zavitz was appointed Ontario’s chief forester in 1905, when vast stretches of Ontario were deforested to the point of desertification. Beginning with the Oak Ridges Moraine, which was rapidly becoming a dust bowl, he instituted reforestation projects all across to province, establishing tree nurseries and bylaws and educating politicians and the public about the dire consequences – flooding, erosion, sandstorms – of over-cutting. He went on to become Ontario’s deputy minister of forests and director of reforestation. One month before Zavitz’s death, Ontario premier John Robarts planted the billionth tree on Zavitz’s watch, and more than a billion have been planted since.

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5 Responses to “The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz”

  1. Jack Owen Says:

    Don’t think the “slash and burn” wallahs have got the message in the USA yet.
    Heard a snippet on NPR (public radio – budget SLASHED) recently where a South African, waaaay back when, suggested reverting to “natural selection” and ENCOURAGING reintroduction of predators, to aid in the recovery of grazing lands – from turning into deserts.
    Theory was, free-range herds ate and pooped and moved onto to other lush ground. The predators hastend them and dispursed them. The other members of the food chain, from dung-beetels to Jumbos, aided and abetted in the cycyle/distribution.
    In test-drive experiements the teary was put into practice and…guess what…
    The barbed-wire and Feed ‘n Grain lobby is furious ;^))
    Not holding my breat on any drastic changes – but hope to outlive the Solent Green survival snacks!

  2. John Bacher Says:

    I thank Rod Croskery for his eloquent commentary on Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz..” Regarding future challenges, I would point readers to the current annual report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. He says we need another billion trees to be planted in Southern Ontario. Zavitz’s task is only have completed.

  3. rodcros Says:

    Here’s the quotation Dr. Bacher refers to in his comment above:

    The ECO is generally pleased with the overall goals of MNR’s 50 Million Tree Program to enhance and diversify southern Ontario’s landscape, increase the capacity to withstand climate change, and increase wildlife habitat through afforestation. While the idea of planting 50 million trees over 13 years (an annual average of 3.8 million trees per year) may seem ambitious, it pales in comparison to previous efforts. Prior to the 1980s, an average of 20 to 30 million trees per year were planted in Ontario through afforestation programs. Today, on average, three million trees are planted annually. The ECO does not believe that the target of 50 million trees planted in Ontario by 2020 will provide Ontario with sufficient forest cover, mitigate woodland biodiversity loss from invasive species and mitigate the effects of climate change. Trees Ontario, the organization with which MNR is partnering to implement the program, believes that the province’s target of 50 million trees falls far short of the one billion trees that need to be planted in Ontario to achieve desirable forest cover.

  4. Les Stewart Says:

    Midhurst ON is just coming up on its 200th anniversary and I’ve just started putting some material together on the Midhurst Forest Station’s history.

    Any assistance would be welcomed.

    Les Stewart
    Midhurst ON


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