by Diane Roddy, B.Sc.F., R.P.F
Coordinator, CBFA National Working Group 1 (Leading forestry practices)

I’ve witnessed at least a couple of evolutions in the thinking around the best approaches to forest management over the course of my career.  When I started as a young forester in the late 70’s, the focus was primarily on planning the timber harvests needed for forest products.  Over the years the thinking around forest management strategies shifted to integrating the needs of other users, including wildlife, into forestry plans.  Most recently “ecosystem-based management” has risen to the forefront. 

Ecosystem based management is about the forest industry taking its cue from nature.  That means understanding the types of forests nature would have created, and using that knowledge to guide how forests are harvested and regenerated. 

This is certainly a more humble approach, in that it respects that we do not know everything there is to know about forest ecosystems.  But if we use natural ecosystems – and the range of variation that occurs in their structure and composition over time –  to guide our activities and the forests that are created by harvesting, we should be minimizing the risk of losing an important biological function.  

So what is it that nature tells us?  When a natural forest fire occurs, the fire doesn’t sweep through burning everything.  It skips over some areas, and leaves patches of unburnt trees.  A new opening with an irregular edge is created, and a young forest springs up in that space.  So that is what can be done when areas are harvested for wood products.  Forest harvesting and renewal can be done in way that emulates the forest types, patterns and shapes that natural forest disturbances like fire, insects and diseases create, and leaves patches of green trees behind in the openings created. 

Have we found the ultimate strategy now, in ecosystem-based forest management?  Probably not, however it does reflect some of today’s best thinking. As things continue to evolve and as we keep learning, it is important that we continually incorporate that new knowledge, along with social and economic considerations, into what is done.  One conundrum we may face is that maintaining ecosystems within their past range of natural variation could be increasingly difficult to achieve in the context of a changing climate. 

None the less, ecosystem-based management is an important environmental initiative that Canada’s forest industry is now working towards, as a result of much discussion and collaboration, in order to sustain the boreal forest and safeguard communities.

Interested in knowing more?  A scan of the application of ecosystem-based management across Canada’s boreal forest was recently posted here by the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA).