This article was written by Connor Oke, Marketing Intern at Ontario Parks, using information provided by Ed Morris, Northeast Zone Ecologist at Ontario Parks.
When Killarney Provincial Park was established in 1964, park managers faced a problem: what to do with old fields belonging to former farms within the park boundaries.
To prevent the spread of weed species, they decided to plant trees, including white spruce and red pine, and re-cultivate the forests.
More than 50 years later, these plantations are fully mature, but a new problem arises: these areas look nothing like natural forests.
The trees are all of the same type and are abnormally close together. This means that sunlight has difficulty reaching the forest floor, creating a difficult environment for many other plant species to survive.
Very few other wildlife species are present in a mature spruce plantation. It doesn’t look like a natural forest.
That’s why Ontario Parks and The Friends of Killarney Park have started a new experiment to improve the biodiversity of this area.
Making room for more species
The plan was simple: cut down a small area within the tree plantation.
Following the advice of environmentalists from Ontario Parks and the Friends, the Killarney team selected a 30m area of the Tyson spruce plantation, near the Granite Ridge Trail, that could be cleared to create an opening.
By doing this and managing the spread of invasive species, they hoped to encourage colonization of the opening by native plants and animals. After all, there’s nothing most plants love more than room to grow and access to sunlight.
In May 2016, experienced backcountry maintenance teams went to work, cutting and removing logs, before finally burning piles of logs in November the following year.
In November 2017, logging piles were burned, when there was no chance for the fire to escape and cause a forest fire.
To determine if this plan would work, the parks team set up four monitoring plots:
- one in the center of the opening
- two on its edges (to determine if native species would move to areas beyond the clearing)
- a reference plot at a certain distance from the gap without changes.
They marked each one in the center with a wooden post.
The location of the monitoring plots in the park. Plot “O” is the opening, “AW” and “AE” are the adjacent plots and “R” represents the plantation without any opening.
The team completed their initial studies in September 2018 and then a second study in 2019. At each monitoring plot, they recorded information about soil, ground cover, vegetation, and more.
So did it work? Did the plants and animals return to the clearing?
Comparing data from 2019 to 2018, the results are promising. Both native and introduced species rushed towards the opening, but fortunately, the native species seem to have the advantage.
Ontario Parks environmentalists saw evidence of this in several ways.
First, they looked at the forest floor. In the cleared area, the ground cover was a complex mosaic of materials, including leaves, wood, humus (the organic part of soil), and more.
In the intact reference plot, it was mainly limited to spruce needles and branches.
Next, they observed the vegetation present. In the cleared area, shrubs and woody species predominated. The team recorded 17 native species here, up from just eight in 2018.
More introduced species were also recorded in the area (10, compared to five in 2018). However, they were not abundant, covering only 4% of the plot.
And it turns out that humans weren’t the only ones paying attention to the changes.
In the cleared parcel they saw evidence of the return of migratory birds, deer, raccoons and black bears. The bumblebees especially appreciated the sudden appearance of wildflowers.
Brown-belted bumblebee feeding on an aster at a plantation opening in Restoule Provincial Park
In contrast, the team made no such observations in the reference plot.
Ontario Parks recently expanded the investigation to other locations, including Restoule Provincial Park. We will continue to monitor changes in vegetation for several years.
After that time, we will review the effectiveness of this restoration technique and consider whether the project warrants additional openings.
For now, however, things in Killarney and Restoule look hopeful.
Conservation and protection of biodiversity are key objectives in Ontario parks. But you may ask, why is biodiversity important in the first place?
Check out this post to see how biodiversity affects you and what you can do to help protect it.