introduction_element_r5_c2 History of Eastern Ontario's Forests

Written by
Marianne Schoch, Student, Carleton University
Mark Rowsell, Geographer - Eastern Ontario Model Forest


Forests spread into southeastern Ontario soon after the glaciers and glacial lakes and seas retreated approximately 10,000 years ago. Through the analysis of pollen, vegetation associations can be determined (Terasmae,1981 and Anderson 1989) and thus the general vegetation history can be told post glaciation. The table below outlines the post glacial vegetation history of southeastern Ontario.

Time (BP)
Forest Characteristics
>10 600
Open spruce forest in dwarf-shrub tundra. Spruce (Picea) dominant, with willow (Salix) and pine (Pinus); weeds: wormwood and ragweed (Ambrosia)
10 600 - 7500
Climate changing from cold to cool and dry. Open pine forest. Pine dominant, declining spruce, modestly increasing oak (Quercus).
7500 - 4700
Climate changing from cool and dry to warm and wet. Mixed coniferous-deciduous forest. Moving towards Hemlock (Tsuga) dominance, with decreasing pine, rise of bassword (Tilia) and hickory (Carya)
4700 - 3000
Decline of hemlock and rise of birch (Betula)
3000 - 150
Recovery of hemlock. Hemlock dominance, increasing beech (Fagus), elm (Ulmus) and birch; declining pine and oak.
150 - present
Deforestation stage. Post-settlement vegetation. Increasing non-arboreal (not from trees) pollen, e.g., ragweed denoting time transgressive onset of impacts of lumbering, mining, and agriculture 1880 CE: Chestnut decline 1930 CE: Elm decline


The open spruce and open pine forests represent successional forests. They colonized the newly exposed glacial sediments, devoid of a soil mantle. As the climate changed from cold to cool and dry around 10,600 years BP, the cold-adapted species migrated northward as the glaciers retreated. At the same time, other species immigrated from the south. These initial forests colonized a rapidly changing environment and may not be the same as the spruce and pine forests that occur today further north (these have developed during thousands of years under relatively constant environmental conditions). A mixed coniferous-deciduous forest known as the Great Lakes Forest became established about 7500 BP in response to warmer conditions. A decline of hemlock pollen, between 4700 and 3000 years BP was caused by a disease that almost eradicated the species (similar to chesnut blight and Dutch elm disease).


Although there has been human habitation in the region almost since deglaciation (Ellis and Ferris 1990) it was not until the nineteenth century that European settlement greatly altered the environment (Warwick 1980). Widespread deforestation and the introduction of weed and cultivated plant species occurred during this time. The presence of these reflect changes in land use driven by political and economic forces.

The first settlers to eastern Ontario were given land grants. One condition of many land grants was that 12 acres of land had to be cleared within 5 years or the settler would lose title to the land. From this perspective, the forest was something to be conquered, something to be battled and removed. But the forest was also a lifeline for the early settlers, logs were used to build homes and barns, poles were used for fencing livestock, fuelwood was used to heat homes, and the forest was used for grazing livestock.

Forest management was not a priority in these days, trees were cut as needed for various uses, land was cleared for crops and pasture and eventually on many farms, only a small woodlot at the back of the farm was left. This small woodlot was often pastured well in the 20th century, limiting tree regeneration.

Canada’s lumber industry has a long history; it can be considered one of Canada’s first industry. At the time of Cartier’s voyage to Canada in 1635, there were dense forests, dominated by white pine. These dense forests were in great abundance on the Canadian Shield and the lowlands. These forests had a thick canopy, over 100 feet high, some as tall as 200 feet.

The density of the forest created a near darkness; however,.by the late 1700s, logging companies were very active in eastern Ontario and increased their activities during the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (OMNR, 1991). Canadian lumber was in great demand by the British Navy since England’s forests had already been depleted at the time. When Napoleon’s blockade prevented the British from acquiring lumber from the Baltic states, Canadian forests were the next best choice. It was the tall straight pines that were used for ship masts, and oak was used for the hulls (OMNR, 1991).

Fitzroy Harbour

Over the next 100 years, the forests in eastern Ontario were greatly depleted due to the mast-making industry. This was a very wasteful activity since only a third of the tree was used (the trunk was squared for the masts.). The massive amounts of wood chips that were left behind from making masts increased the number and intensity of forest fires at the time. Once the demand for masts subsided, other pine and other desirable species of trees were cleared for sawmills. Spruce and balsam fir were in high demand in the late 1800s for pulpwood or newsprint (OMNR 1991).

By 1845, the Ottawa River watershed saw 12 million cubic feet of squared pine timber made into large rafts to be floated to Montreal for export, and eastern Ontario contributed an additional one million trees at this time. Any trees that were not removed and floated to Montreal for export were used at saw mills. For example, in 1871, 490,000 pine logs were cut from the eastern Ontario region alone.

Forest Railway
Fitzroy Harbour

As the remaining trees were cleared, the reproductive potential of other trees such as red pine was greatly reduced. The probability of good seed years was reduced as the numbers of trees were reduced. Since the lumber trade only took the best trees, the poor trees were left reducing the quality of the seed supply. Also, the ability for seedlings to contribute to the seed supply was reduced since these seedlings need at least 25 years free of disturbance for any significant contribution to the seed supply. (Keddy 1994)

Prior to European settlement, the most common tree species found were the sugar maple , beech, elm, hemlock, and basswood. Sugar maple covered 87% of the limestone plain, elm covered 60% of limestone plains, beech was found most often on till plains (78%), hemlock was present in almost half of all lots except in the clay plains, and basswood was most common on clay and till plains. (Keddy 1994)

Logging Camp
Log Squaring

During European settlement, the forests were seen as an obstacle by the settlers, and it was often removed to make way for roads and fields for agriculture. Trees were simply felled and burned to make way. In fact, for early settlers, it was a requirement for land title ownership that they clear their property of trees within a certain number of years.

The lack of forests resulted in erosion, sandy desert areas, blow pits and abandoned farms. Further damage was caused by grazing livestock which further compacted the soil and damaged wood lots. The lack of forests reduced the watershed’s capacity to store water, and severe flooding in spring and droughts in summer occurred. Droughts brought on the closure of many riverside mills. In hilly regions, the rain created gullies causing topsoil to wash into streams and rivers. As a result of the silt deposition in rivers, fish-spawning habitat was destroyed (OMNR 1991).

By 1861, in the EOMF area, 17 townships had less than 30% forest cover, three townships had less than 10% coverage. Forest cover declined for another 20 years; by 1880 there were 32 townships with less than 30% cover. By 1900, wood was so scarce in Eastern Ontario , that houses were now primarily heated with coal.

At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the Algonquin's and Iroquois were the main indigenous groups living in eastern Ontario , mainly along the St. Lawrence River . Not much forest was cleared by the Algonquins. Only small fields were cleared of trees to grow vegetables. Their economy was based on hunting and gathering, then trapping and trading as demand grew in Europe . Diseases were also introduced to the Eastern Ontario forest region from Europe such as the Dutch Elm Disease and the blister rust affecting white pines.

Today, the most common tree species found in mature forest stands are the sugar maple, beech, basswood, red maple, yellow birch, hemlock, and white ash. The bedrock and post glacial deposits found at a site strongly influences the type of forest occurring.

Forest management took some large steps forward in the 1960’s and 70’s. Grazing of forested lands was largely stopped at this time, and government programs began promoting tree marking and silviculture on private woodlots.


  • Ontario Department of Agriculture, Report on the Reforestation of Waste Lands in Southern Ontario.,
    Toronto 1908.
  • Zavitz, E.J., Fifty Years of Reforestation in Ontario., Ontario Department of Lands and Forests
  • Armson, K.A., Ontario Forests - A Historical Perspective
  • Elliott, B., Shiels, B., The Application of Geographic Information Systems for The Interpretation of Historical Land Surveys (EOMF Information Report No. 8), April 1994.
  • Terasmae, J. 1980. Some problems of late Wisconsin history and geochronology in southeastern Ontario. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 17, 361-381.
  • Anderson, T. W. 1989. Vegetation changes over 12 000 years. Geos. 18(3), 39-47.
  • Ellis, C. J., and Ferris, N. 1991. The archaeology of southern Ontario to A.D. 1650. Ontario Archaeology Society, Occasional Publication 5, London. 570.
  • Warwick, W. F. 1980. Palaeolimnology of the Bay of Quinte, Lake Ontario: 2800 years of cultural influence. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Bulletin 206. p. 117.


Forest Cover of Canada 1906 - Atlas of Canada



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