Today is the first day of National Forest Week.

Aug 2, 2023 | Canada’s Forest Trust

 

Today is the first day of National Forest Week and Canada’s Forest Trust Corporation is marking the occasion by engaging a number of our partners and experts on the topic of the Future of Forests in Canada. Keep an eye on our social posts featuring interviews with a variety of our advisors and sector leaders.  We also want to hear from you! What do you think Canada must do to safeguard the Future of Forests? 

CFT Interview with Science, Innovation and Policy Board member Dr. Warren Mabee: Transitioning to Intensive Forestry Management. 

 

Today is the first day of National Forest Week, and it would be challenging to address the significance of this week without speaking to the massive wildfire destruction that has taken place this year. Beginning in March 2023, Canada has been affected by an ongoing, record-setting series of wildfires. Tens of thousands of people have been driven out of their homes and not a single province or territory has been spared. Wildfires have been increasing annually, with this year’s blazes scorching at least 15.3 million hectares (37.8 million acres) of land, nearly 10 times more than in 2022. 

The question on many people’s minds is how do we make our forests more resilient to forest fires in the future? 

 

We put this question to Queen’s University Associate Dean and Director of the School of Policy Studies, and CFT Advisor, Dr. Warren Mabee, who suggests that while extensive forestry management has been the predominant approach to forestry in Canada for many decades, there needs to be a more cross-jurisdictional transition toward intensive forestry management approaches. “Moving towards more intensive forest management – meaning more active management on the land, and managing for many ecological goals rather than just timber harvest – is one way that we can ensure that forests are at lower risk of catastrophic fire,” says Dr. Mabee.

Extensive forestry management, which can be defined as “…[t]he practice of forestry on a basis of low operating and investment costs per acre”, has been practiced for many years but became entrenched in the 1980s out of an interest in keeping stumpage rates low to ensure Canada’s global competitiveness in the timber market. At that time, it was argued that “…one of our greatest assets for competing on the world forestry market has been the cheaper price of exploiting our inherited natural forests compared with the more expensive plantation forests of the Scandinavian countries and the United States”. Foresters advocating against extensive forestry management were viewed as relying too heavily on “emotional approaches.” In 1989, Associate Professor with Lakehead University’s School of Forestry, Lakehead, C.A. Benson declared: “As foresters, we should be objective and apply our business and scientific knowledge to management of our forests.” 

So began nearly 50 years of extensive forestry management in this country.  

 

Dr. Mabee explains that consolidation within the forestry industry further embedded the model as larger companies went for economies of scale, employing smaller teams of forest professionals over larger land areas. Larger companies could also better withstand the impacts of fire or insect outbreaks and diversify risk across a large portfolio of holdings. From a profit point of view, the company could afford it if some areas were doing poorly, as long as the total average remained profitable. However, when timber demand began to fall in the early 2000s – largely because of decreased demand for paper –  it ironically became less and less economical to manage forests. This has created a new set of problems – heavily stocked forests, prepared for a future harvest, offer fuel for wildfire and habitat for widespread insect infestations.   

In the face of climate change, however, the value forests deliver is slowly being considered more broadly and with it, the pendulum is swinging back toward intensive forest management. Water and air quality, carbon capture and societal benefits are being recognized as tangible assets that need to be factored into the forestry cost-benefit equation.

Intensive forestry management, despite its prominence in the modern solution-oriented discussion, has no generally accepted definition. While intensive forestry management can and is applied to a single value focus, such as increasing timber production, a more holistic approach to intensive forestry management encompasses multiple values – including biodiversity, water, and carbon. It tends toward smaller management areas higher ratios of forestry professionals to the area being managed, and it considers forest management from the ecosystem perspective. It is, therefore, very place-based and is inclusive of advanced planning, intensive silviculture, enhanced protection, and effects and effectiveness monitoring “to increase substantially the quantity, quality, and/or diversity of forest products in the shortest possible time, without sacrificing the ecological integrity of the site.” This is, in part, what Canada’s Forest Trust Corporation is referring to when we talk about “right tree, right place, right time”. It is what Indigenous Knowledge Keepers are undertaking when they regularly and strategically introduce controlled burns within a specific forest area at a specific time, clearing out the accumulated debris that becomes kindling under the right conditions. 

Despite its promise as a solution to managing healthy forest cover, there are several barriers to accelerating a comprehensive Intensive Forestry approach here in Canada. 

One of the challenges is that 89 percent of Canada’s land is public – with 41 percent administered by the federal government and another 48 percent administered by the provinces and territories. At present, the return on investment to taxpayers drives a focus on timber production. The creation of biodiversity or cultural heritage credits could potentially help diversify that return on investment by assigning a monetary value to non-timber products and services delivered by forests. Use of these credits could help to better illuminate the true trade-offs inherent in forest management decisions. 

Intensive forestry management tends to be more expensive and labour-intensive. Again, biodiversity credits or cultural heritage credits could help draw investment to intensive forestry management, but over the last 30 years, students’ interest in forestry and forestry-related programs has dropped substantially in Canada. Forestry has developed a reputation as a “sunset industry,” and career opportunities were limited too. There are only a handful of universities in Canada with dedicated forestry schools.  There are many professors, like Dr. Mabee, working on forest-related issues but not attached to forestry programs per se, so a renewed focus on post-secondary opportunities and green jobs could help to address gaps. Similarly, advances in technology are promising in that they reduce intensive labour requirements. 

Jurisdictional fragmentation is also a challenge. Intensive Forest management is not a one-size fits all approach and yet, ecosystems do not respect man-made boundaries. Public policy that helps shape desired values and regulations to guide behaviours is required. At the same time, locally, provincially, federally, and internationally, we still struggle toward common agreement on issues and solutions. This is what makes international forums such as the Conference of the Parties so critical to fighting climate change.  

The bottom line to all of this is that no matter how we humans may modify our policies and practices, we impact our forests. For example, Canada has two major forest transition zones: one representing the space between the Carolinas and Great Lake Forests and another between the Great Lakes Forest and the Boreal Forests. Those transition zones are moving. This largely reflects our interventions and decisions to maximize different values.  “It is intriguing to imagine what forests might do in the absence of human intervention,” said Dr. Mabee, “but the fact of the matter is that we co-exist and that the health and long-term sustainability of our forests is directly related to our own.” 

 

Dr. Warren Mabee (Ph.D. 2001, Toronto) is Associate Dean and Director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. A full Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, he holds the Stauffer Dunning Research Chair in Policy Studies. In addition, he is cross-appointed to the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s. His international research programme focuses on the interface between policy and technology in renewable energy and fuels, addressing issues that bridge the gap between researchers and decision-makers using tools such as life cycle assessment, geographic information systems and agent-based logistical models. 

 

Canada’s Forest Trust is fortunate to have Dr. Mabee as a member of its Science, Innovation and Policy Board.