Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

planting field shelterbelt by hand

Indian Head Shelterbelt Centre

From the beginning of farm settlement in Saskatchewan, there has been a demand for trees to shelter farmsteads and help settlers adjust to life on the open prairie. Later, field shelterbelts were promoted to prevent wind erosion and trap blowing snow away from roads. More recently, trees and shrubs have also been planted for wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and agroforestry initiatives.

The PFRA Shelterbelt Centre was established at Indian Head, Saskatchewan in 1901 to supply prairie hardy tree and shrub seedlings to meet these needs. By 2004, over 590,000,000 seedlings have been distributed to 645,615 applicants throughout the Prairies. If all those seedlings were planted at 1-metre spacings, they would circle the world 15 times!

If all those seedlings (590,000,000 from 1902-2004) were planted at 1-metre spacings, they would circle the world 15 times!

Selection and limited distribution of hardy trees first began in the late 1800s at the Agriculture Experimental Station in Indian Head. To meet growing demand, the Department of Interior established the Forest Nursery Station, which shipped 106,000 trees to 92 settlers in its first year (1902). The program became more popular every year and by 1906, 2 million trees were being shipped. A second nursery was established in 1913 at Sutherland, Saskatoon.

After installation of irrigation facilities at Indian Head in 1965, the Sutherland operation was discontinued and the productive capacity of the Indian Head nursery increased to 7 million trees annually. Today the Shelterbelt Centre is 640 acres (256 ha) in size, produces 29 hardy tree and shrub species, and distributes over 5 million trees and shrubs to as many as 10,000 prairie clients annually. In 2004, 288 miles (464 km) of field shelterbelts and about 1,000 miles (1,611 km) of farmstead shelterbelts were planted in Saskatchewan alone.

shelterbelts near Conquest Sk.

During the severe drought of the 1930s, Shelterbelt Centre staff worked with the newly formed PFRA to plant field shelterbelts and demonstrate their use for soil conservation. Major plantings were established at this time near Lyleton, Manitoba; Porter Lake, Alberta; and Aneroid and Conquest, Saskatchewan. Over 2,000 km of shelterbelts were planted, many of them still present today. In 1963, the Shelterbelt Centre at Indian Head Saskatchewan became part of PFRA.

Public promotion was an instrumental part of the nursery activities. In early years, displays in fairs, talks to farm groups and horticultural societies, and publications, bulletins and pamphlets were used. From 1920 -1973 a donated railway car operated by the prairies provinces Forestry Association traveled free on both CPR and CN lines. The 'tree train,' as school kids knew it, promoted both forestry and shelterbelts.

The benefits of shelterbelts are numerous. Shelterbelts reduce wind speed and thereby create a microclimate for yards, gardens, and crops. The wind is deflected up and over the shelterbelt, creating a well-protected zone in the lee of the belt. The zone of protection extends outward many times the height of the trees. Reducing wind speed can have a dramatic energy saving benefit. On average, a mature 5-row shelterbelt, with at least 2 rows of conifers, planted around a farmhouse will reduce its heat requirements by 25%. The trapped snow provides water for dugouts and soil reserves.

The snow trapping and wind reduction effect of field shelterbelts reduces wind erosion and can increase yields in dry years. Other benefits include habitat and travel corridors for wildlife and birds and offsetting carbon dioxide emissions. A recent independent study estimated the public good from shelterbelt trees provided through the Prairie Shelterbelt Program from 1981-2001 to be as much as $600 million and the value of private good to be as much as $340 million.

It is estimated that the some 4,747,000 trees and shrubs planted in shelterbelts in 2004 alone will sequester 1,790,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2054. To encourage plantings for this and other conservation goals a new program will supply equipment for laying down a 3-foot wide strip of plastic 'mulch' along field belts. This eliminates the need for cultivation and chemicals for weed control.

Wherever people build dwellings, one the first things they turn to is planting trees for shade, shelter and beauty. The longevity of the PFRA Shelterbelt Centre is a testament to these and the many other benefits of trees.