At West Fraser, we aim to balance multiple values of the forest, including not only maintaining but improving the resilience of a forest. We do this through our harvesting methods, reforestation regimes, and forestry research.
Forest resilience is the measure of how well a forest can resist disturbance, rebound after disturbance, and adapt to future conditions. A less resilient forest is more likely to be severely impacted by disturbance such as wildfire or pests, with the functions of the forest more dramatically or permanently altered. A more resilient forest will tend to be less impacted by a disturbance, with a mosaic of values present on the landscape after the disturbance and a quicker recovery.
“What we’re trying to do is promote the health and resilience of the forest at the landscape level to a thrifty and more healthy forest,” explains Jeff Mycock, Chief Forester of B.C. Operations. “We want forests growing well that represent less of a threat to all of the forest resources through reduced vulnerability to catastrophic disturbance impacts.”
Towards the end of their life cycle, older trees are more likely to be affected by stressors such as a wildfire, insects, and climate events. An older forest is often less resilient to these happenings. Our forest management approach prioritizes harvesting of dead, diseased or damaged trees that can be made into lumber, panels and paper products.
“If we’re harvesting green trees and ignoring the older trees, we’re creating a weaker forest system,” adds Mycock.
Another way in which we’re creating healthier forests is in the harvest and silviculture systems we use. We aim to emulate natural disturbance patterns with our harvest approach. It could be partial cutting, where we leave 50 percent or more trees in a stand or varied removal with a mix of clear-cutting and reserving some trees. By doing this, we aim to mimic the size, frequency, and pattern of disturbance on the forest close to what would naturally happen in that particular ecosystem. This is how harvesting can be a tool to support forest resilience.
While small-scale fires and other kinds of clearing events can be beneficial to a forest, in recent years we have seen more frequent and intense large-scale fires. Large-scale and high intensity fire disturbance events can be as large as 500,000 hectares or more. In part, the increased risk is because of a changing climate and historical fire suppression measures.
“We have many unhealthy forests with dead trees, where open forests are becoming closed and high fuel loads exist. Now when those forests burn, there is a total loss event, and we lose the entire stand,” says Mycock.
Our hope for the future is to work with multi-disciplinary teams and other partners to come up with the best solutions for healthier future forests and support a sustainable forestry industry. We believe that by taking a holistic approach and managing the whole forest, we can improve forest resilience and reduce vulnerability to those total loss events.
“Anything we can do through our management to reduce those vulnerabilities is positive for all resource values and forest users,” adds Mycock.
Alberta’s forestry operations have similar goals to those in B.C., using different harvesting methods to emulate forest fires and other natural disturbances. Portions of Alberta are in the thick of a mountain pine beetle infestation and our teams are focusing harvesting on infested and dead trees, as well as those areas that are high beetle and fire risk areas, by prioritizing cutting older, more susceptible conifers first.
Forest Research Institute (fRI) is a non-profit corporation in Alberta that studies land management tools in Western Canada. It’s been working on the Healthy Landscapes Program to understand the breadth and nature of a natural disturbance.
“Rather than managing everything that may be at-risk in a forest, the research aims to understand what would happen if, for example, there was a forest fire in a pre-industrialized world,” explains Shane Sadoway, Planning Superintendent at Blue Ridge Lumber in Alberta. “It is looking at how big the fire might be and estimates what would the fire leave behind.”
The goal is that by better emulating these newly researched natural conditions and landscape patterns through harvesting, foresters can create more resilient and “natural” forests. West Fraser’s Alberta divisions are already in the works to use this information when designing our future harvest plans.
Stronger seedlings for tomorrow’s forests
At West Fraser, we plant two seedlings for every one we harvest. Historically, we’ve focused on planting trees that would grow faster and be larger, but in the last five to ten years, we’ve shifted to thinking more about trees that are resilient to climate change.
Typically, we would collect seeds from the near the stand where we harvested and plant those same seedlings in that area.
“But knowing the climate will be different in the future, we have an opportunity in our program to select trees better adapted for the changing climate conditions,” says Shane Sadoway.
There is a large-scale research project taking place with organizations such as the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, and Genome Canada/Alberta. The project is studying the genetic make-up of trees to find ones that are naturally better able to handle stresses such as droughts, diseases, and pests. Then, seedlings from those trees are produced that combine those ideal characteristics.
In a similar project, the province of Alberta and the forest industry recently did a new test series to see how well trees from different sources perform in areas of extreme climates, such as high elevation and drought-prone regions.
The purpose of both of these studies is to find ways to reforest using seedlings that can better handle the extreme conditions that will be more common in the future. In the end, it will mean a more resilient forest that can better respond to a variety of stressors.
By combining our evolving harvest methods, new forestry research, and reforestation strategies, our aim is to do our part in supporting the forest landscapes we manage to be healthier and more resilient. West Fraser’s goal is to sustainably manage the forest for multiple values, so that future generations can continue to enjoy and experience these areas, and we’re doing that each day in B.C. and Alberta.