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Feds must better support forestry research collaboration, industry and experts say

By Jolson Lim      

The Canadian Forest Service is mandated to focus on forest science research, but critics say it needs to be a better team player.

A wildfire tears through Fort McMurray, Alta., in May 2016. Wildfires and forest pests are likely to become bigger risks for Canada's forests as the impact of climate change increases. Photograph courtesy of the Alberta government
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The federal government needs to act as a better co-ordinator for scientific research and information sharing on wildfires and forest pests, industry stakeholders and experts agree, especially as the threats become more urgent from the growing impacts of climate change.

While the management of Canada’s forests mainly lies with the provinces and territories (almost 90 per cent of forest land is owned by them), the federal government has a key role in conducting research, sharing the latest evidence and updates with partners including provincial governments that fight fires and manage pests.

Allan Carroll, a professor at the University of British Columbia and a former researcher with the Canadian Forest Service (CFS)—the main federal organization dealing with forestry science and expertise housed within Natural Resources Canada—said the federal government isn’t doing all it can to work with different forestry agencies and outside experts.

On Sept. 27, he spoke to the House Natural Resources Committee for its study of forest pests in Canada.

“Where the short-term differences can be made is by bringing together agencies and allowing them to pool resources,” he told The Hill Times. “That will deliver the capacity to answer bigger questions more rapidly.”

The CFS conducts research such as climate change impact assessments on forests as well as national forest fire monitoring and insect and disease identification. It has five regional research centres, three fewer than there had been a generation ago.

Prof. Carroll, who specializes in the impact of forest insects, said the CFS has, over the years, become reluctant to work with outside research agencies and academics. He said the organization has moved from a focus on basic research to a “science policy” organization, something he believes has led to less collaboration with academics.

The mountain pine beetle has had a visible impact on E.C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia commons

“There’s been a bunch of times… in these larger opportunities for a research network establishment, we’d invite the CFS to be involved and they’ve just walked away from it and as a consequence, it’s actually limited our capacity to deliver our research results back to rational policy-making,” he said.

Étienne Bélanger, director of forestry at the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), said “there’s a lot of important research that can’t be done by provinces alone or without some good help between each other.”

“And even more important is trying to figure out what adaptation strategies will be more effective going forward, so that co-ordination effort is key.”

He said information sharing has to be improved, but a positive development has been the CFS’ Forest Change program, which forecasts the state of Canada’s forests in the next 40, 60, and 100 years given the impact of climate change. Such information could help inform future forest management practices for provincial governments and other stakeholders.

“That’s really helping the players to work from more precise information about their region, what’s going to be the challenge here, and how are we going to start adapting,” he said.

Kate Lindsay, vice-president of sustainability and environmental partnerships at FPAC, added that the CFS is now working with partners such as the provinces, industry, Indigenous groups, and other research organizations such as the Saskatchewan Research Council to do regional assessments.

She said the work has been “very helpful,” but the CFS needs to get that information into the “hands of those making decisions” so it can be applied on the ground.

Climate threats are growing

While forestry management is primarily a provincial responsibility, the federal government manages lands such as national parks and plays a role in emergency response through the Government Operations Centre and preparing local authorities with wildfire strategies prior to the start of the season. It can also provide funding for provinces for disaster relief and for initiatives to fight the spread of forest pests where circumstances become extreme.

After the 2017 wildfire season, the federal government provided the B.C. government a $175-million advance payment through a disaster financial assistance arrangement. In the last budget, it also earmarked $75-million to fight the spread of the spruce budworm in Atlantic Canada, which disturbed about five million hectares of forests in 2016.

Ottawa’s role may have to increase given the growing likeliness of harsher wildfire seasons and spreading insects. Global warming will create warmer and dryer conditions for forest fires to start up. Fewer periods of cooler temperatures, the most effective way to control pestalant insects, will also make it more difficult to contain.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured meeting with wildfire first responders in Prince George, B.C., in August. Prime Minister’s Office photograph by Adam Scotti

The 2018 wildfire season in B.C. was the most devastating in its history, claiming 1.3 million hectares of forests. The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., resulted in 2,400 structures being lost and tens of thousands of people evacuated. This year also saw devastating fires in California that left 103 people dead.

Natural Resources Canada’s 2018 state of forests report found wildfires affected 3.4 million hectares of forest in 2017, the third year in a row where devastation was above the annual average.

Meanwhile, insects impacted 15.5 million hectares of forest in 2016, about 4.5 per cent of all Canadian forest area, according to the report, which however noted a 1.5 per cent decrease in the area disturbed by insects. It did warn that the mountain pine beetle continues to spread eastward into Saskatchewan while Atlantic Canada is at risk of the eastern spruce budworm spreading into the region from Quebec.

In October, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Mr. Sohi urging the federal government to provide $100-million for efforts to stop the spread of the mountain pine beetle, which has devastated forestry stocks in western Canada for the last 20 years. The letter notes Alberta has spent $500-million and is largely left to fund efforts to stop its eastward spread. The province had also requested $95-million of federal support.  

Wildfires in British Columbia are pictured in a photograph taken from space on Aug. 8. Photograph courtesy of NASA

There is also a Canadian Council of Forest Ministers that includes Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton-Mill Woods, Alta.). The intergovernmental group met in Halifax in September, reiterating their commitment to “collaboratively accelerating implementation” of a Canadian wildland fire strategy first developed in 2005.

The strategy was never fully implemented or properly funded, a review of the strategy in 2016 found. The council also has a national forest pest strategy to harmonize and share knowledge and expertise in the complex world of forest pest management.

Ms. Lindsay said it was an “important opportunity to re-commit to implementing the national strategy” on wildfires in Halifax, but that it’s key for the ministers and their respective departments to “move past a re-commitment” and follow through with action. 

Mr. Bélanger said discussion about forest risks have to increase at the national level. More attention has to go towards adaptation and mitigation of climate change and leveraging the “huge potential” forests have with storing carbon dioxide.  

Prof. Carroll said the federal government has a “wonderful opportunity to get out front and lead the issue.” It can be done by bringing together various research and forest management agencies to work on how to best collect and share information and apply them on the ground.

“Their role as co-ordinators and synthesizers—that’s absolutely what the federal government needs to be doing.”

jlim@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Canada’s forests and forest risks by the numbers

347-million hectares of forest are found in Canada (35% of total land)

766,659 hectares of forest was harvested in 2016 (0.2% of Canada’s total forest area)

395,000 hectares of land was replanted and reseeded in 2016

49% of Canada’s forests were certified to third-party standards of sustainable forest management in 2016

3.4-million hectares of forest was burned by fire in 2017 (1% of Canada’s total forest area)

5,611 forest fires were recorded in Canada in 2017

1.3-million hectares were burned in B.C.’s record-breaking 2018 wildfire season

15.5-million hectares of forest were disturbed by insects in 2016 (4.5% of Canada’s total forest area)

41% of all forest fires are caused by humans but account for 4% of all area burned

Eastern spruce budworm contributed to 5 million hectares of defoliated forest in 2016

Forest tent caterpillar contributed to 4 million hectares of disturbed forests in 2016

Mountain pine beetle disturbed 10 million hectares of forests in 2007

Alberta and Saskatchewan are at risk of major mountain pine beetle-related disturbances

Atlantic Canada faces a threat from the eastern spruce budworm

—Natural Resources Canada, B.C. Wildfire Service

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