Acadian Forest: History, Species, and Biodiversity

I grew up surrounded by the Acadian Forest. My brother and I climbed tall maples and found hideaways under the boughs of spruce and balsam fir. I couldn’t name the trees or the wildflowers and mosses that decorated the forest floor, but I felt at home under the forest canopy.

The Acadian forest covers Canada’s maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) stretching down to the Northeastern United States (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York). It’s located between the Northern Hardwood Forest and the Boreal Forest and contains a mix of trees from both of those ecosystems.1

While it is possible to talk broadly about the Acadian Forest Region (AFR), the forest makeup changes depending on “topography, geology, and proximity to the ocean.”2 For example, acidic soils near bogs give rise to black spruce, tamarack, and black ash. Sugar maple, yellow birch, and red oak prefer fertile soils that are moist, but moderately drained.

Spruce found in the Acadian Forest Region

Colonization Leads to Changes in the Acadian Forest

The original inhabitants of the AFR are the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, and Passamaquoddy. Prior to European settlement, old growth “covered an estimated 50 percent of the land”3 and “pine, hemlock, cedar, spruce, fir, and a number of hardwood species” dominated.4 These trees “could reach 300 years of age” and “towered over the landscape forming an unbroken canopy” that stretched across the maritime provinces and the Northeastern United States.5

The Acadian Forest changed drastically with colonization. When settlers found the unbroken forests, they saw economic opportunity: “White pine and, later, red spruce and other species were harvested for European shipbuilding and lumber markets and for local construction and fuel. Hemlock bark provided tannins for the fur trade and leather industry, while the wood became timbers for railway ties.”6

Forests were also cleared for fields and pastures after settlers realized that the “most productive soils were found under the best strands of trees.”7 Clearing the land was seen as a way of taming it and creating livable spaces that resembled settlers’ homelands.8

Duchman's breeches is a common spring wildflower found in the Acadian Forest Region
Duchman’s breeches is a common spring wildflower found in the Acadian Forest Region.

A Young and Even Aged Forest

Today, the Acadian Forest contains only 1 percent old growth. The small amount that remains is often found in isolated strands that are inaccessible to harvesting.9 The average age of trees is “approximately 55 years in contrast to the pre-settlement forest” which is “estimated to have been over 200 years old.”10

So much of the Acadian Forest has been destroyed that the World Wildlife Fund lists it as endangered.11 Having destroyed the old growth, the young and even aged forest is less resilient to insects, fires, and windstorms than a forest with multi-generational trees. Additionally, the AFR now provides less habitat for wildlife. 12

If you visit the Acadian Forest, you’ll find lots of “balsam fir, red maple, white spruce, white birch, and trembling aspen.”13 Balsam fir and spruces “now comprise about 50% of the forest but 200 years ago, they accounted for only 25%.”14 Concurrently, cedar, red spruce, hemlock, and sugar maples have decreased in frequency.15

We also see an increase in the abundance of “tree species common in the Boreal Forest,” including poplar, white birch, black spruce, balsam fir, and jack pine.16 Scientists are calling this the ‘borealization’ of the Acadian forest and it further reduces its ecological resilience.17

Graph that shows the change in forest composition in the AFR. Spruce, fir, and poplar trees have increased in frequency. Whereas, birch, cedar, beech, ash, and hemlock have decreased in frequency.

Impacts of Climate Change

Scientists predict that climate change will impact the composition and growth of the Acadian Forest by 2100.18 Boreal species that are common to the Acadian Forest are expected to decline and be replaced with temperate species.19 Unfortunately, it is unlikely that temperate species will be able “to keep pace with the loss of cold-adapted boreal species, leading to the beginning of a deborealization of the Acadian Forest.”20

Wildlife in the Acadian Forest

Colonialism and the destruction of the forests also changed the wildlife makeup of the AFR. While Indigenous peoples in the AFR lived alongside animal predators for centuries, settlers destroyed the wolf, wolverine, and cougar through over hunting and habitat destruction. Moose and caribou were also heavily hunted and by 1801 were almost entirely destroyed.21

Along with the destruction of moose, caribou, and major predators, “land clearing and logging created…young forests and openings with herbaceous vegetation that provided perfect habitat for deer, and their populations exploded.”22 Meanwhile, the coyote “which prefers early successional forest” and “thrives in the human-altered landscape…greatly expanded its range.”23

Timeline of the disappearance of the wolverine, woodland caribou, cougar, and grey wolf in the AFR. Also, the introduction of white-tailed deer and coyote.

Today, “other species associated with old or late-successional forests are in decline” including the pine marten and fisher.23

Plants of the Acadian Forest

Below is a list of plants common to the Acadian Forest Region. This list is by no means exhaustive, but is meant to highlight some of the species that live in the area.

A list of common trees and herbaceous plants in the Acadian Forest. Including, balsam fir, red spruce, black ash, schreuber's moss, sphagnum moss, dutchman's breeches, toothwort, partridge berry, labrador tea, and
Sources: Jamie Simpson & J. Loo and N. Ives

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1 Jamie Simpson. 2008. Restoring the Acadian Forest: A Guide to Forest Stewardship for Woodlot Owners in Eastern Canada. Nimbus Publishing Limited.

2 J. Loo and N. Ives. 2003. “The Acadian Forest: Historical condition and human impacts.” The Forestry Chronicle.

3 Jamie Simpson. 2008.

4 J. Loo and N. Ives. 2003.

5 Jamie Simpson. 2008.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 David Weale. 1983. “The Gloomy Forest.” The Island Magazine.

10 A. Mosseler, J.A. Lynds, and J.E. Major. 2003. “Old-growth forests in the Acadian Forest Region.” Environmental Reviews.

11 J. Loo and N. Ives. 2003.

12 World Wildlife Fund. “New England-Acadian Forest.” Prepared by: M. Davis, L. Gratton, J. Adams, J. Goltz, C. Stewart, S. Buttrick, N. Zinger, K. Kavanagh, M. Sims, G. Mann.

13 Jamie Simpson. 2008.

14 J. Loo and N. Ives. 2003.

15 Ibid.

16 Jamie Simpson. 2008.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 A.R. Taylor, Y. Boulangerb, DT. Pricec, D. Cyrb, E. McGarrigled, W. Rammere, J.A. Kershaw. 2017. “Rapid 21st century climate change projected to shift composition and growth of Canada’s Acadian Forest Region.” Forest Ecology and Management.

20 Ibid.

21 J. Loo and N. Ives. 2003.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

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