“How many trees have you staked in your lifetime?”
Dave Polster sits in his kitchen, his wife Genevieve next to him. He takes a deep breath in, thinking back to all the years he has worked in reclaiming and restoring degraded lands.
“It would be thousands.”
Genevieve responds at his modest answer, “He had a lot of people work under him. So, millions. A well-known Alberta engineer stated to me that over half the trees in Northern Alberta that have been live staked and planted are directly due to Dave’s actions and work.”
“That’s a heck of a lot of trees.”
Genevieve and Dave both smile, knowing full well their lifetime of work will still be standing for many more lifetimes to come.
Healing the Land
Dave Polster is a plant ecologist with over 40 years of experience in vegetation studies, reclamation, and invasive species management. Before his retirement, he and Genevieve led a consulting firm in British Columbia that helps to restore degraded land to the way nature intended it to be.
“The work I have done in restoration is important to me because we’ve degraded the world in a large manner, and we need to repair that. Restoration is the best way to do it. Think of the mines and oil and gas wells that are often abandoned and un-reclaimed. They are compacted. They have nothing but weeds. They just need help. They are easy to reclaim, they are easy to restore, but you need to do it.”
Dave and Genevieve provided training to the Wetlands Workforce on Live Staking, a technique that will be used at several of our wetland sites this year.
In the simplest explanation, live staking is when you take the live cuttings of pioneering species, such as Cottonwood (Balsam poplar), Red-osier dogwood and Willow species. You make a very deep hole into the ground; you put the branch in, right way up; and you close the hole. The branches will root in the ground, if done at the right time of year and if conditions are correct, and start to grow.
Dave highlights that with live staking, you can see the sequential changes in the same site over many years.
“You watch it all grow up. It is wonderful because you’re live staking with Willows and Cottonwood because they are pioneering species, they encourage the natural successional sequence to occur. So, the conifers will grow in underneath, and eventually, you get a forest. Just because you put a couple of sticks in the ground.”
Dave notes that this is all dependent on water availability and protection from herbivory.
Our work-pod crew with Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) will be live staking at their site in Duncan, the Chase Woods Nature Preserve.
Live Staking at Chase Woods Nature Preserve
The Chase Woods Nature Preserve is a 40-hectare (100-acre) nature preserve located on Mt. Tzouhalem in the Cowichan Valley. The crew is working on a part of the preserve that is inundated with invasive Reed Canary grass.
Christine Brophy, Wetland Technician Field Crew Supervisor for NCC explains how they can naturally combat the Reed Canary grass through live staking, “[The live stakes will] grow into a full tree to create shade to cast over the Canary Reed grass, where it is actually shade intolerant for the most part. So, if we can create those natural conditions of a forest canopy, then we can start to use the successive natural forces in the riparian area to push back the Canary Reed grass.”
In just one hour, the crew was able to harvest 15 to 20 stakes from a Willow at the site and plant them. Dave’s statement rings true, “They are easy to reclaim, they are easy to restore, but you need to do it.”
Christine’s and the crew’s goal for the year is to live stake approximately three acres of the site. When you look at the towering Reed Canary grass, swaying in the breeze, the property line almost invisible in the distance, the task seems daunting. But the energy radiating off the crew, even after a long day working in the sun, is infectious.
Dave explains it best, “People have a lot of fun restoring sites. There is always a big smile on everybody’s face at the end of the day. Even though they have worked hard, swinging pickaxes, digging trenches, and everything else. They are happy because they are helping to restore the earth.”
The Rough and Loose of Restoration
In addition to being the leading force and inspiration behind the planting of millions of trees, Dave has been instrumental in providing restoration techniques that hone into natural processes.
Dave’s rough and loose technique has been used on countless restoration projects. In a nutshell, this technique reconfigures the site’s surface to make parts of it quite rough and other parts very loose. It has been found to be an effective way to control erosion, promote natural revegetation and provides an increase of diverse niche habitats.
“The rough and loose technique addresses a whole bunch of factors to create habitat for a wide diversity of species. I restored a dam site, the Heber Dam by Campbell River. We didn’t plant anything; we just made it rough and loose and scattered woody debris around. In 5 years, there were over 80 different species I found in the test spots that I did, including things like columbines. Do you know where to plant a columbine?”
Genevieve pipes up, “Neither do we, but nature knows.”
Dave smiles in amazement at the number of columbines he saw that day, “Nine different times. It’s those sorts of things that awaken the passion in me.”
The rough and loose technique is certainly not pretty to look at. In many cases, after the initial restoration, the site looks barren, with mounds of dirt and random debris scattered about. For the public, it can be disheartening to see, but with restoration, patience is key.
“If you do not know, of course a change looks worse. But if we had not mixed up that place and changed it all up from the way nature intended it, then we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Genevieve.
The rough and loose is a way to help put the land back to the way it was and let nature do the rest.
Dave reflects, “The most important lesson I’ve learned is to look at how nature is trying to restore the site that you are trying to restore. And to assist that process.”
As Genevieve said, nature is our teacher, and we are just there to help. To roughen and loosen the surface, to stake the tree cuttings and let nature do the rest.